On the Rise – a Sermon on the Ascension

Prepared for First Presbyterian Church, Apopka. Primary Text: Acts 1:1-11

In the first segment of our New Testament reading, Luke is reminding Theophilus about the last few verses of his gospel account. I’d like us to take a quick look, starting at verse 45:

Then he (Jesus) opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Luke picks up the thread again, writing this new book, it is like what those of us who are old enough would compare to Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.”  For the rest of you, think more like a sequel – The Gospel of Luke Part II: The Rise of the Apostles.

The first paragraph sets us up… In Luke Part I, he wrote the story of what Jesus did from the very beginning until he was carried up into heaven. Luke reminds us that there was a forty-day period after his suffering and death when Jesus made appearances to and among his followers. They saw him on the beach, on the road to Emmaus, in the upper room while Thomas was away and again when Thomas touched Jesus’ scars. In each of these appearances, Jesus continued to speak and teach about the Kingdom of God.

There’s a good chance that these men, these closest followers of Jesus still held out hope that Jesus was talking about a kingdom with powers like that of the Roman empire, like that of David. Perhaps Jesus had returned from the dead to step into his Kingly role, and was simply biding his time until he could make the next move. Maybe that was why they were told to stay put in Jerusalem, a place where they would be able to rally many Jews to their cause. It was a seat of power, after all.

Jesus said they were to wait for the promise of the Father – they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

So they asked the next logical question – “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Is it finally time when God will restore the chosen people to their place of honor – with a King like David?

Jesus reminds them that they cannot and will not know God’s timing or plans, only trust that God is faithful and has the power and authority to do all things. That God is faithful and has the power to keep covenant make good on promises, even for a people who were unable to do neither.

It will happen.  Trust.  Wait.

In the meantime, Jesus says, the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. God – the one who reigns over all other gods and sent Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth – was preparing to send his Spirit.

Jesus said they would receive power – what sort of power?

This is where the pattern of the conversation becomes a little familiar for me.  Maybe you’ve experienced something similar.  Someone under someone else’s authority is hoping for something… really wants it. So they ask that person who has the power to say yes or no. Kind of like when a child wants something… maybe say, a new phone. Or an XBox.  They really really want it.

So they ask for it.  The answer seems crystal clear.  Of course you can get an XBox.
Yes!  Awesome!

What they didn’t hear, because they were so set on heating the yes, was the “not yet” part of the answer.  The “when you’ve saved up more of your allowance and done some extra chores and raised that low grade” part of the answer.

That’s what I feel like is happening here with Jesus.

With their hearts eager to hear from a tyrant-toppling God, they likely heard a promise to receive the power of armies and empires. The power to rule. The power to transform a people into a strong nation. Yes!

And they would be witnesses to the whole thing, as God’s Kingdom spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the edges of the known world.  Awesome!  Come on Jesus, let’s get this going!

There must have been a heady moment or two as they considered the possibilities. And then, as they watched, he disappeared.
Ascended into heaven.

And then there were 11.
Again.
Watching.  Eyes gazing upward at that cloud.
Waiting for one more glimpse.

Maybe it felt different this time. Not quite as scary as those days  between Jesus’ crucifixion and his return. After all, they had seen him several times in recent weeks. And no one had come to arrest them…. maybe he would pop in while they were in Jerusalem?

I mean, how was he going to reign over God’s Kingdom here on Earth if he wasn’t here….
on earth?

That’s really what the Ascension is about: establishing where Jesus during this era before his ultimate return, and establishing what that means to us, down here, staring up at the sky while we wait. It is important for us not to run past this part of Jesus’ story on our way to Pentecost, in the same way we can zip past the phrase in our creeds – that he ascended into heaven.

 

One thing we need to recall – even after his ascension Jesus continues to work. His followers weren’t his body guards or his entourage, they were his disciples. As disciples, they learned from Jesus what it meant to follow God in the way of Jesus, the disciplines of love, compassion, mercy and justice. Following his commands, telling his story, they would bear witness to God’s love for the world extending his ministry and life in the world.

Luke described his account of the early church as “The Acts of the Apostles”. But it might be more accurately titled something like The Acts of the Risen Jesus, Accomplished Through His People by the Power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is indeed the power Jesus promised – God’s power to transform, to inspire, to comfort; the power of the resurrection mediated to humanity through the risen Christ. And while Pentecost marks the coming of that power, the ascension makes way for the fulfillment of this promise.

At his ascension, Jesus is installed as the true king of the world. Luke tells us Jesus is taken up to heaven behind a cloud. Later in Acts, we read about Stephen as he declares that he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Together, these accounts suggest that Jesus’s ascension fulfills an important prophecy of Daniel. Listen…

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

As the fulfillment of this prophecy, Jesus’ dominion – his kingdom – is never-ending and indestructible. In Revelation, the writer describes for us how Jesus conquers all and sits with his Father on his throne, where he receives unending praise from representatives of every tribe, tongue and nation.  Jesus will continue to reign at God’s right hand until all enemies are subdued. Until all of creation is under his feet.  Thus we sing of Jesus as our King of Kings, enthroned at his ascension and reigning from heaven until his return.

Are you hanging with me ok?  Because this feels like a lot of theological and doctrinal stuff.  And if you’re like me, there’s probably at least a little part of your brain saying, “Yeah all that’s good and important, but what I really want to know is ‘where did he go’?”  And the truth is I don’t have a literal answer to that. It’s one of the mysteries of faith.

But I do believe that from his place in heaven, the work of Jesus is no longer place-bound. All of time and space, all the earth are always within reach of the risen Lord. As mediator between God and man, his death and resurrection secure our forgiveness and justification, reconciling us to God. He continues to pray for us, sympathizes with our struggles, intercedes and advocates for us.

Meanwhile, the apostles stand, staring up at the sky.
Wondering. Waiting.
Unsure how high they should allow their hope to rise.

Not unlike the generations who prayed for deliverance as they worked under Pharaoh. Telling and retelling of the promised deliverer. Wondering if they dared allow hope to rise too high.

Not unlike the generations who waited in exile, telling and retelling the stories of God’s faithfulness, leading them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the promised land. The watched and waited

Not unlike the prophets who longed for the day when God would send the promised one. Not unlike Isaiah, who reminded the people of Israel that they were not forgotten, that God had more for them, that God gave power to the faint, that in God’s timing, they too would rise up…

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Even knowing the stories of Pentecost and beyond, even knowing the ways that God has worked in our own lives and the lives of others, we feel keenly the ache of waiting and watching.

We believe in the power of God to bring the dead to life, just perhaps not in this time and this place.
So we wait.

If we believe in the Book, in the truth of the gospels, we believe in the power of God to turn fishermen and tax collectors into preachers and church planters…  but perhaps not here, not now, not us.
So we watch

If we believe what we confess, and if we really trust the scriptures as true, then we believe in the power of God to transform lives and families and entire communities…
but maybe only centuries ago and oceans away.

And thus we wait…
We watch…
We mourn…
We pray…
We believe….  Lord, help us in our unbelief…

But you will receive power…
You WILL receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
You will rise up with wings like eagles
Old and young will dream dreams, run, walk, and rise above…
And when you do, when you rise up in that power, you will be my witnesses,
You will bear witness to all you have seen and known and experienced,  not only where you are now, but wherever I send you.

That’s what Jesus was saying.
Is saying

To them.
To us.

Come Lord Jesus.
Come Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

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