Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 5, 2016

Sermon for the Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord (2016)

Ascension Day – Thursday, May 5, 2016 – Sermon starts at 29:00.

ASCENSION TELLS THE REST OF THE STORY…

  1. …about the Church’s earthly mission
  2. …about the Church’s heavenly future

 Text: Acts 1:1-11 (emphasis on verses 6-11)

 Introduction

Wouldn’t you like to know what the future holds? Wouldn’t life be a little easier if we could get a glimpse into some of the major events and circumstances that will affect your future? Wouldn’t it help the high school teen to know what college she’s going to attend, and what career path lies ahead in her future, and when she will meet Mr. Semi-perfect? Wouldn’t it be helpful for an adult husband to know which job promotional opportunity will be the one he should take, or how many kids God will ultimately bless his wife and him with, or how much of his income he’s going to need to save to help the kids through college and achieve his investment goals? Wouldn’t it be nice for seniors to know exactly how they could most effectively stretch out their retirement dollars and how their health and well-being will be over the years to come? Wouldn’t it be nice to know the future?

Of course, if we knew our full future, we would also know the hardships that will happen and the heartaches that will come our way. So maybe it would be better if we stayed in the dark! Maybe we can just find out about the “good stuff” in our future and let the rest just happen!

In a sense, we do know the future. No, we don’t know the future about everything. But we do know some of the best and most important aspects of our future in the Christian Church. Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which we celebrate today, teaches us about our future as members of his Church. Our Ascension celebration today will tell us the rest of the story about the Church’s earthly mission, and about the Church’s heavenly future.

I.

Question: How do you make God laugh? Answer: Tell him your plans!

If all good humor has an element of truth, then that little joke is a pithy commentary on the human condition. We think we know what should happen in the future, but more often than not, God has something quite different in mind! 

Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, his disciples expressed their plans or thoughts for the future of Jesus’ kingdom. But those plans were quite different from what Jesus had in mind. “When they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” The disciples had their own set of future plans. They hoped for the nation of Israel to be restored to its former glory. And if their confusion weren’t so sad, perhaps it would have made Jesus laugh. Our First Lesson said that over the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he taught them about the “kingdom of God,” the rule of God in people’s hearts that is spread through the gospel message. And while it’s doubtful that the disciples completely disregarded everything Jesus had taught them up till that point, it’s a little discouraging that they still were clinging to that old Jewish notion that the Messiah was going to be more about national politics and less about eternal souls.

If I were Jesus, I would have been tempted to “lose it” at that moment. But Jesus took the time to reveal the true mission of the church while we are here on earth. “[Jesus] said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” Jesus patiently corrects them: The overall future and specific events to come were not theirs to know. Jesus wisely ignores their idea: Notice that he doesn’t even respond to their idea about an earthly kingdom. And then he carefully reminds them: He had told them before, and now he says it again, that the Holy Spirit of God was going to come upon them in just a few days—ten, to be exact, on Pentecost Day. That’s when they would jump start the church’s mission on earth to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and confessors of his gospel to all nations.

We have talked quite a bit lately about our mission at St. Mark’s. We have a mission statement imprinted on our back wall in large letters. Our Sunday service booklet covers now include our mission statement. In church council meetings, the thought has been expressed that everything we do at St. Mark’s must fit under one of those three mission statement phrases. It’s beneficial for us to think about what our mission really is as a congregation, because just as the disciples did, so it is also easy for us to reshape the church’s mission to fit our own expectations or desires.

It is a great blessing to cherish the friendships and connections we have with others at St. Mark’s. But then there comes a point where our comfortableness with our friends gets in the way of us making ourselves a bit uncomfortable and reaching out to our community or welcoming a new soul into our midst who might be a little different than I am.

It is absolutely vital that we gather here regularly to be fed in worship by the Word of God and to glorify him in thankful response to his grace. But then there comes a point where we can say to ourselves that we have done our weekly duty by putting our time in and our faith and knowledge are sufficient so that more study and more growth aren’t all that important.

What I’m describing are not major crimes that rail against the church’s mission. But what I’m describing shows how our sinful nature can very subtly get us to think that this or that aspect of the church’s mission on earth is no big deal. But can that really be? Is it no big deal if we no longer hunger and thirst for the Word? Is it no big deal if we fail to see that the lost are truly lost and condemned without faith in Christ? Is it no big deal if we don’t realize that the church’s earthly mission to make disciples of all nations is a big deal? And aren’t those misguided assumptions really playing with hellfire if we don’t see the need of the gospel message for ourselves and for others?

II.

Forty days is not a lot of time. We have fewer than forty days left in our school year, and although our students might think that the last month of school will take “forever,” the short time that’s left will whiz past us quickly.

Forty days is not a lot of time. Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of just forty days from his resurrection to his ascension. Then he was taken up before their eyes. This was more than just the end of an era. Luke says that Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes.” Luke’s language indicates that someone else is acting on Jesus. That someone else was God the Father. Tonight’s Second Lesson (Ephesians 1:15-23) says that it was the Father “who raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:20). God the Father raised his Son from the dead as a statement of his completed work, and now the Father directed Jesus’ ascension as a further statement that Jesus completed his mission to redeem the world from sin.

You can understand why the disciples would have gazed at this sight. You can understand why they would have strained their eyes to see Jesus until they could see him no more. But this would not be the last time they saw Jesus! “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” This was Jesus’ departure out of this world, but this wasn’t the last time they would see him. The two angels who appeared to Jesus’ disciples said that they would see Jesus return to earth one day with the same glory and splendor that they had witnessed while he ascended into heaven.

The apostle Paul once write, “Since…you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2). The problem is that there are so many things to distract our attention in this world that we often forget to focus our thoughts on the glories of heaven and the promise of God that one day that will be our eternal home! News stories about national security, concerns about my own job and income, the next presidential election that gets closer every day—all of this and so many more things keep our eyes fixed on this world and not on things above. And while it is certainly not wrong to be concerned for what is happening in our world, a total focus on the world can lead us to fix our eyes exclusively on earthly things and not at all on heavenly things.

But look for a moment with Jesus’ disciples as they gaze into the sky and witness his ascension. What does Jesus’ ascension say? The Father is giving his public approval over all of Jesus’ work! No longer do we face an angry God who will judge you for failing to get everything right in your life or in the church’s mission. No, we have a gracious God whose Son kept every command and fulfilled every task in his mission to rescue us from sin. As we gaze with the disciples at Jesus ascending into heaven, and we see the nail wounds still in his hands and feet, what do those scars tell us? No longer do we face a future of suffering for sin and guilt and moral failures. No, we have a loving and forgiving God who sent his Son Jesus to wash away all your imperfections in his blood. And now God has given his seal of approval on Jesus’ redeeming work for us by raising him from the grave and then by raising him to his right hand in heaven.

Doesn’t this miraculous day put some drive and excitement back into the church’s earthly mission? Doesn’t this miraculous event make our mission a thrilling honor, as God uses you and your words of witness and your offerings of gratitude to be his instruments that enable the gospel to be proclaimed to the souls in our lives and throughout our community and world? And doesn’t this miraculous occasion help us keep the reality of heaven and all its future glory before us? After all, we didn’t show up here tonight to carry out our annual “religious tradition” for the fortieth day of Easter. No, rather, we are here to celebrate the Ascension gospel that proclaims to us what the hymn writer proclaimed: “On Christ’s Ascension I now build the hope of my ascension.”

Conclusion

The late Paul Harvey was a long-time radio broadcaster who presented the popular segment, “The Rest of the Story.” Harvey would tell frequently unknown or untold anecdotes from the lives of significant people in history, and then he would surprise you by finally identifying who that person was or what unique thing they had accomplished. Only then did you know “the rest of the story.”

When God tells us the future, he’s not like a prophetic Paul Harvey, telling us the rest of our personal story. But through the Ascension of Jesus, God has told us the rest of the Church’s story. The story of the Holy Christian Church ends with heavenly glory. Inspired by that fact, let’s get to work here on earth! Amen.

 

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