Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 31, 2017

Sermon for Ascension and Graduation (2017)

AN ASCENSION-GRADUATION LESSON

  1. Christ guides our lives
  2. We proclaim Christ’s life

Based on Mark 16:19-20

Introduction

Who is excited that the school year is finally over? Students! Teachers! No explanation needed. Who is not so excited that the school year is over? Parents! Some explanation is helpful. You knew what your kids were doing the past nine months, but now you have to figure out what they should be doing the next three months. Maybe you have to figure out what your children’s schedule is going to look like over the summer, who will take care of them, or how to keep them from burning the house down while you’re at work!

Today is not just the end of another school year; it is also Ascension Day. Forty Days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven now that his work of redeeming the world from sin was complete. But in many ways, Ascension is also like graduation. For the remaining 11 apostles of Jesus, Ascension must have seemed like graduation. Just as our eighth grade graduates are moving on to a new phase of life, Jesus’ apostles were also moving on to a new phase of life. Just as our eighth grade graduates have completed this phase of their education, so Jesus’ apostles had just completed several years in what might best be called, “Jesus Seminary.”

As we celebrate both of these events tonight, Ascension and graduation, we’ll draw a couple of parallel lessons that apply to both. To learn those lessons, we are going to turn to the last two verses of Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Ascension-graduation lessons shows us that Christ guides our lives and encourages us so that we proclaim Christ’s life. 

I.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed in Sunday worship, we use these two phrases: “[Jesus] ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” We recite those phrases side by side because they naturally go together. In the second-to-last verse of Mark’s Gospel, he says the same thing: “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

I suppose we should ask the good Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” Jesus returned to heaven and is God’s right hand. What is that all about? What exactly are we celebrating today? Perhaps you caught the answer earlier in the service. In one of our Ascension Bible readings, the apostle Paul defined what it means that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. “[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:20-22). Jesus did not ascend to heaven only to sit on the sofa watching ESPN and filling out crossword puzzles till he returns. He ascended at heaven to sit at God’s right hand—an expression that is similar to our English expression, calling someone our “right hand man.” At God’s right hand, Jesus now rules over everything in this world, he guides all that happens in history and all that happens in our lives in order to bless his church and do what is spiritually and eternally best for his church.

Maybe we need to ask another question: Who is the church? Jesus is ruling over all things for the benefit of the church. So who gets the benefit? You don’t have to be a recent confirmand who just studied for their examination to know the answer to that question. The church is all believers in Jesus around the world. But don’t stop there. Keep going. If the church is all believers everywhere, then that means the church is you. You are the church! You are part of the church! And so if Jesus’ Ascension means that he now rules over this world to bless his church, that means he’s blessing you. He is guiding history and even using the disappointments and failures of our lives and in this world to teach us, to discipline us, and to guide our lives in ways that we may never fully comprehend until we are ascended with Jesus in heaven someday.

That should be a tremendous comfort. But is it? Do we recognize that to be true? Do I really believe that an ascended and invisible God-man called Jesus rules over everything in this world? And even if I grant that point, how is he making everything in my life and in this world to be a blessing for me? Do I too easily forget the direct guidance he gives me in his Word, perhaps because there is a part of me that has “graduated” from the Scriptures?

It isn’t only school graduates that are tempted to graduate from God’s Word. Experienced adults “graduate” from the Word far too often, even when our own history and life story has taught us that God really is guiding us in ways we don’t understand at the time. How foolish we are to ignore God’s Word or to downplay the guidance he gives us in his Word and throughout our lives! God would not be unfair or unreasonable if he would choose to stop guiding our lives and withdraw his Word from us and let us wander far away from his kingdom forever.

But Jesus could not do that! He did not do that! He did not descend to earth, die on the cross, rise from death and return to his throne so that you would wander from him! Take an Ascension look back through Jesus’ life. He traded places with you on the cross so that, forgiven by his blood, you could take your place with him in heaven. He rose from the dead to preview and promise the future day when you will rise from the dead. He ascended to heaven to prepare the place to which you will ascend. He rules with a master plan that we cannot fully understand, but a plan that guides and directs our lives in unseen ways from eighth grade graduation through high school, college, marriage and family, work and retirement, and finally to eternal life.

That’s lesson number one for Ascension and graduation: Christ guides our lives!

II.

So what are you eighth graders going to do with this education you have received? At this phase of life, you keep building on it. You move on from grade school math to high school algebra, from grade school reading to high school courses in British literature.

What about the apostles? What were they going to do with the education they received from “Jesus Seminary”? The answer isn’t quite the same as the answer our eighth grade graduates would give tonight, but they did have a very real assignment to build on what they had learned from Jesus. Here’s how they’d build on that education; the last verse of Mark’s Gospel says, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”

DSCN3907They would build on their education and carry out their new assignment in one word: Preach! Maybe that assignment sounds strange, even distasteful, to our modern ears. If you don’t like what someone is saying to you, especially if they are correcting you, you tell them, “Don’t preach at me!” But the original term really means to make an official statement as a herald, an official representative for the king or some other position of authority. The herald, the preacher, does not speak on his own. His job is always to relay someone else’s official message.

So what was the apostle’s official message to herald after Jesus’ ascension? Saint Paul sums it up with this simple little statement elsewhere in the New Testament: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22). The official message they proclaimed was that Jesus Christ laid down his perfect life into death for the world. They preached the life of Jesus; they proclaimed his perfect innocence and obedience to God’s commands. They preached the death of Jesus; they proclaimed the stark reality that mankind’s sin led the Son of God to endure hell’s punishment for the sins of the world. They preached the resurrection of Jesus; they proclaimed how Jesus took back his life in glory at his resurrection which proved he had accomplished everything he set out to do to win our forgiveness before God in heaven. The whole picture of Jesus’ life became the message they preached with life-and-death urgency, because eternal life was at stake!

In fact, this message was so important that God confirmed it in the early church through miracles. “The Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” Before the Bible was in written form and able to be disseminated more easily, God knew that the message need to be validated, and so God enabled the apostles of Jesus to perform miracles. These miracles weren’t “magic tricks,” but signs that verified the message they proclaimed. Today we have the entire Bible at our fingertips, for us in multiple English translations, and the way that it has been preserved and passed down to us through 2,000 years of history is in a sense miraculous, for no other ancient document has the concrete evidence or reliable transmission down to us today that the Bible has. That’s how God has guided his Scriptures so that we are able to proclaim the life of Christ.

Jesus’ Seminary graduated 11 apostles who went out into the world, proclaiming the life of Christ for salvation. Crown of Life graduates four eighth graders tonight—even fewer than the bunch that “graduated” when Jesus ascended. While we make plans for our school’s future growth, we also recognize that a school of our size offers unique blessings and opportunities. One of the strengths of a school our size is the fact that you can get very personalized attention throughout your education. But the greatest strength of our school comes from the daily message we proclaim about the life of Christ.

This gospel message about Jesus is not merely information for students to impress their friends with when they’re watching Jeopardy and the category is “Bible.” This gospel message about Jesus’ life is not something we “sit on,” or leave to the professional preachers to proclaim. You may not be graduating from our Seminary, but you are Christian young people moving to a new phase of life. You can open doors to witness Christ’s life by the way you live your life. When you, with God’s gracious guidance, choose to not go along with the crowd in some particular situation, your life shows how Christ’s life affects you. Some might ridicule you, but some others will sit up and notice, and those times become great opportunities to answer honest and interested questions about your Christian faith.

And that’s equally true of adults in the workplace, or parents interacting at their children’s sporting events, or a spontaneous Saturday afternoon chat with your neighbor in his driveway. The Lord, who used his Son’s life to rescue your life, now uses your life to proclaim the life and love of our Savior Jesus to others. Sometimes this happens in ways you don’t expect or anticipate, but it always happens in ways that are meant to win another soul that needs the forgiveness Christ won.

That’s lesson number two for Ascension and graduation: We proclaim Christ’s life.

Conclusion

There is a fair amount of overlap in the themes of Ascension and graduation. It has been a useful coincidence that we are celebrating both together this evening. But as we observe the “graduation” of Jesus’ apostles and the graduation of our school students, make sure that you are not graduating from God’s Word. For Christ doesn’t want to graduate you; he wants to guide you. He who has forgiven you fully now guides your life daily. So enter into your new phase of life or just the next day of life with his guidance for your life, and with joy for the blessings of proclaiming his life to the others he has placed in your life. Amen.

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