Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 23, 2009

Sermon for the Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord (2009)

THE THREE “M’s” OF THE ASCENSION

  1. Its message
  2. Its ministry
  3. Its majesty

Text: Luke 24:44-53

Introduction

Last week Thursday was a national holiday in Germany.  Last week Thursday was just another work day in America.  Last week Thursday was Ascension Day – exactly 40 days after Easter Sunday, and the day that Jesus returned to heaven in triumph after completing the work of salvation.  The ancient church considered Ascension one of the three big festivals for Christ, along with Christmas and Easter.  In Germany, the land of the Lutheran Reformation, it is still an observed holiday, even though most people probably don’t observe it properly by actually going to church.  Here in America, it is pretty much a forgotten festival.

Scripture doesn’t treat Jesus’ ascension as something we should forget.  Ascension is certainly worth our attention!  Saint Luke thought so.  He recorded the ascension story in two places in Scripture: in the last chapter of his Gospel, and in the first chapter of Acts.  This morning we are going to consider the first Ascension account Luke wrote, which we heard in today’s Gospel.  That account also includes comments Jesus addressed to his disciples during the time between his resurrection and ascension.  As we work through this reading, I hope that you will recognize some of the important truths we can draw from the Ascension.  We’ll call these truths, “The Three ‘M’s’ of Ascension.”  The three truths we will consider are the message of ascension, its ministry, and its majesty.

I.

The message about ascension from the first three verses of our reading are actually words that Jesus spoke well before his ascension – on Easter evening, to be exact.  However, the words Jesus spoke before his ascension contain the very same message the disciples would proclaim after the ascension.

New Testament Illustrations 048The message of the ascension is really the same message written throughout the Scriptures.  Jesus told his disciples, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”  When Jesus used those three terms, “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms,” he was referring to the three traditional divisions of the Old Testament.  Jesus pointed out that the Old Testament Scriptures previewed and predicted his saving work.  Isaiah pointed ahead to Jesus’ sufferings in chapter 53 of his book: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds, we are healed.”  King David predicted Jesus’ resurrection in Psalm 16: “Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices … because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”  Even the Psalm for Ascension, Psalm 47, foretold of Christ’s return to heaven: “God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.”  No, the message of Ascension is nothing new at all; it’s the same message found throughout the Old Testament.  Unfortunately, even after his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples still didn’t seem to fully understand the significance of his death and resurrection.

Perhaps you have heard the suggestion that, just before someone dies, the events of their life mentally pass before them.  In a sense, that’s what Ascension’s message presents us regarding Jesus’ life.  As we remember his physical departure from the world and his ascension into heaven, we look back on his life and his ministry.  We have a chance to review everything that Scripture says about him and how that applies to our faith and our lives.

Remember that helpless little infant, the firstborn son of a poor peasant girl, whose first cradle was feeding trough, and whose first visitors were lowly sheep farmers.  Remember the stories of his ministry: the powerful miracles he performed, and the even more powerful messages he proclaimed.  Remember the events of the week we call “Holy” and the Friday we call “Good” as Jesus trades places with us: He endures hell for our sins and gives us his holiness as a free gift.  And then remember and rejoice as we, by faith, see the empty tomb and the angel who proclaimed, “He is not here – He has risen!”

But we do not recall Jesus’ life and ministry for sentimental reasons today.  We recall these events because our faith needs to know them and grow through them.  We dare not substitute the message of sin and grace with a political speech or a call to social action.  No, we need to hear the message of Ascension.  We need God to bring us to our knees in repentance for our many sins that caused him to send his Son to seek and to save us who were lost.  We need to remember that the message of Jesus’ life and ministry is a message we need to hear and consider daily – not just on Ascension – because Christ’s death on Calvary’s cross and his resurrection from the dead proclaims our forgiveness.  The message of Ascension reminds us that we need to be daily pointed back to our Savior and his love for lost sinners like us.

II.

Jesus did not give his disciples this message without also telling them what they were to do with that message.  The middle verses of our reading tell us about the ministry that flowed from the message Jesus had given them.  Jesus said, “Repentance and forgiveness will be preached to all nations.”  Repentance and forgiveness – those are our good old Lutheran categories of law and gospel, aren’t they?  Christ told his disciples that they would take that law-and-gospel message to all nations.  The specific term Jesus used emphasized that the disciples would take his message to people of other nations.  They would declare the gospel to people who were certainly not ethnic Jews and probably not Jewish religious converts, either.

Jesus told the Eleven, “You are witnesses of these things.  I am going to send you what my Father promised, but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  That same bunch of disciples, who a few days earlier had been so cowardly when they deserted their Lord in Gethsemane, would soon be bold proclaimers and witnesses of Jesus.  Jesus promised to assist them by “clothing them with power from on high.”  As we look ahead to Acts 2, we see that Jesus was referring to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, just ten days after Jesus’ ascension.  The message they would proclaim was a message from Jesus, and the ministry they would perform would be inaugurated by Jesus on the day he sent the Holy Spirit.

Just under ten years ago, our Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod was in the midst of its sesquicentennial celebration.  The motto for that celebration was, “Forward in Christ.”  In fact, our official magazine, The Northwestern Lutheran, was renamed Forward in Christ at the time of the synod’s one hundred fiftieth anniversary celebration.  That motto helped us remember what we are to do with this message Jesus has entrusted to us.  We are to go forward with it and proclaim it around the world!

Think of how silly it would have sounded if the synod’s anniversary motto had been, “Stationary in Christ.”  It’s so ridiculous that it’s almost humorous.  Yet, just under a decade later, is that what has become of us?  Lowered offerings and gifts have become so severe that we are on the verge of making absolutely gut-wrenching decisions – decisions like either closing one of our ministry preparatory schools, or recalling missionaries from foreign fields where their work has been blessed with astounding results!  Surely the economy has played a partial factor in this.  But surely the economy is not the only factor.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves: While the souls of men are dying, how is it that we are sipping our $4.00 lattes while driving our newly leased vehicles or sitting in our nicely furnished living rooms talking on our cell phones or watching one of the hundreds of channels we have on the dish through our wall-mounted plasma screen televisions with surround sound?  And the economy surely cannot keep us from opening our mouths and confessing Christ to others.  Yet we feel like Moses; we think we’ll get tongue-tied if we start to talk about our faith.  Has our personal mission and our mission support gone from “Forward in Christ” to “Stationary in Christ” to “Reverse in Christ”?

Friends, there is solution.  The solution comes to us through Christ, and Christ alone.  Through his sufferings and death, Jesus took our sins upon himself and made us pure and holy in his Father’s sight.  That same Jesus, who was once taken from you into heaven, now invites you to pray for his Holy Spirit so that you may be better confessors of his love and supporters of his mission.  A prayer for the Holy Spirit is a prayer our Lord wants to answer with an emphatic, “Yes!”  As we remain rooted in God’s Word and partakers of his Supper, the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts, strengthening faith and turning us into his bold and confident witnesses.

As we pray for the Spirit’s guidance in our own lives, let’s also remember to pray for the Spirit’s guidance in the lives of others who serve as Christ’s witnesses throughout the world.  Remember our missionaries, home and abroad, especially those who have sacrificed the comforts of American culture to be God’s instruments in foreign lands.  Remember the churches of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, the 21 church bodies throughout the world (of which our Wisconsin Synod is one) that share a common faith and strive to take the gospel to their respective corners of the world.  Some of those church bodies have only a handful of pastors; some only have one pastor!  Pray for them, that the Holy Spirit inspire them to be bold proclaimers and faithful witnesses to the people and regions in which they serve.

III.

Jesus gave his disciples the message and ministry of ascension.  Now we see our Lord’s majesty revealed in his ascension.  Forty days after Easter (as Luke mentioned in Acts 1), Christ ascended in majestic triumph back to his heavenly home.  His ascension was further evidence that God that Father approved of his Son’s work.  Our reading says, “Jesus was taken up.”  He didn’t “take himself up.”  This was another statement of approval from the Father to the Son.  And as Jesus was taken up, he left blessings upon the disciples left behind.

New Testament Illustrations 029The disciples also, in a sense, shared in the majesty of the ascension.  Ten days later, the Holy Spirit would miraculously be given to them as they proclaimed the message and carried out the ministry Jesus had given.  Even on Ascension Day itself, Luke tells us that the disciples were filled with joy.  Doesn’t that seem a little strange?  Leaving someone we love behind, or being the one who is left behind is no fun.  Watching a loved one get on an airplane with the knowledge that you’re not going to see them for months or years is a very difficult moment.  It brings tears, not joy.  But the disciples were filled with joy as their Lord departed.  Why?  They could take comfort in Jesus’ promise to them earlier, recorded in the “Verse of the Day” for today (Matthew 28:20).  There Jesus promised that he would be with them always, even to the end of the world.

The Bible attaches other majestic significance to ascension.  In Ephesians 1:22-23, part of today’s Second Lesson, St. Paul says that Jesus’ ascension means he is now ruling over all things for the benefit of the church.  On Maundy Thursday, Jesus told his disciples in John 14 that he was going to heaven to prepare a place for them – a new home which would be their eternal dwelling after this life.  The angel’s words recorded at the end of the Acts ascension account remind Christians that Jesus is going to return to earth one day with the same glory and majesty with which he ascended into heaven.

When you were enrolled in Catechism class or Bible Information Class, you learned about the two “states” of Jesus while he was on earth: His state of humiliation (during which he set aside full and frequent use of his divine powers), and his state of exaltation (the time after his humiliation when he took back complete use of his heavenly power).  Jesus’ ascension, of course, is part of his exaltation.  During the first 33 years of his life, our humbled Savior chose not to use his full power as true God.  He set those powers aside so that he could make the journey to the cross and pay the punishment for the world’s sins.  Now that his work was complete, he returned to heaven in the majestic triumph that we call the ascension.

While we are in this world, we need to remember that we will not share in Christ’s glory on this side of heaven.  We experience what Lutherans call the “theology of the cross.”  The church is not always going to look so majestic and glorious.  The gospel isn’t always going to enjoy outward success and popularity.  The big numbers aren’t always going to be there.  Effortless success will never be the norm for the church.

That reality might lead us to want to find other ways to bring about success.  Pastors may be tempted to entertain with gimmicks instead of educate and enlighten through the Word.  We may want to downplay certain teachings of Scripture to be a more popular and attractive church in the eyes of the world.  Be careful that you are not willing to make that compromise, because it is a compromise that will lead the church away from the gospel and from our real message and ministry.  Instead, according to our Lord’s promise, we patiently wait for the day of our Lord’s return.  On that day we will become real partakers of our Lord’s majesty.

Conclusion

If someone wants to start a campaign to make Ascension a national holiday, I won’t stop you – but I also don’t think you will get very far!  Besides, the real way to celebrate this day is not to put it on a national calendar.  Christmas is on the calendar, but the secular celebration of Christmas hardly focuses on the Christ child.  The real way to celebrate Christmas is to focus on the newborn Christ, and the real way to celebrate Ascension is to focus on the ascended Christ.  So remember the message he has given us.  And fulfill the mission he has assigned to his church.  And celebrate the majesty he displayed at his Ascension, majesty that his disciples could see because of this equally important majestic truth:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Amen.

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Responses

  1. AMEN!!

    I mentioned this sermon, with a link, on my blog. Thank you for doing this and putting it on your blog. Very helpful for me.


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