Ascension Sunday series A 5-21-23
Majesty and Ministry
The story is told about the Ascension Day celebrations at a particular seminary. A special Ascension Day service was held, and the whole seminary in robes and regalia gathered for the big celebration. It was quite an event. The service ended and amidst clouds of incense, the assembly emerged from the chapel singing some great ascension hymn. Unknown to the worshippers, a somewhat creative student had found one a near life-size Christmas crèche figure - the hollow, plastic-painted kind - and stuffed it with skyrockets. As the procession marched into the courtyard, the student lit the fuse, sending the statue soaring up out of the shrubbery through a cloud of smoke and sparks. It buzzed over the scattering members of the procession, finally taking a nosedive onto the roof of a nearby building. There the ascension rocket sputtered and died. The head of the seminary was not impressed with the student's explanation that he was trying to dramatize his faith in the Ascension of Jesus.
While everyone certainly remembers that particular Ascension Day, the actual Ascension Day is hardly remembered. There is no memorable holiday to mark the occasion. There is no money to be made. For most of us, it was just another Thursday. We don't even talk about Jesus ascending to heaven very much because, as some have said, "Nothing in our world goes up except rockets, the cost of living, and taxes."
Believe it or not, Christ's Ascension to Heaven greatly influences our understanding of the Christian faith. St Augustine expressed his opinion about Ascension Day like this: "This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together … For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing ... and his suffering and death would have born no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless." In other words, Christ's Ascension is essential to the gospel message. Today I want to look at the Ascension from two points of view – the majesty and then the ministry of the ascended Jesus.
We read in Acts 1:9, "After saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight." The cloud that hid Jesus from their sight had nothing to do with that day's atmospheric conditions. This was no ordinary cloud; it signified the divine presence of God, for it was the same cloud that led the people of Israel in the wilderness, the same cloud that covered Mt Sinai, the same cloud that settled on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Jesus being lifted up into this cloud represents his exaltation to the highest place again as the eternal, transcendent God, one with the Trinity. He who "humbled himself and became obedient unto death" is now the exalted Lord of all." The Apostle Paul put it like this in Philippians 2:9-11: God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. So in the name of Jesus, everyone will bow down, those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And to the glory of God the Father, everyone will openly agree, "Jesus Christ is Lord!"
The early Christians confessed, "Jesus is Lord." The Ascension points to his lordship, not only over suffering and death, but also over the nations, the principalities and powers that threaten both the present and the future and that includes the power of Satan. The Book of Revelation gives us a picture of the majesty of the Son of God. The image is of the Son of God, who is high and lifted, sitting on a throne with angels bowing before him in constant Praise. We read: "Then I heard all beings in heaven and on the earth, under the earth, and in the sea offer praise. Together, all of them were saying, "Praise, honor, glory, and strength forever and ever to the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!"
Jesus has all power and authority, just as we confess in the Apostles' Creed, "He ascended to heaven and sits the right hand of God the Father almighty"? Saint Paul talks about Christ sitting at God's right hand when he says in Ephesians 1:21-23, "Christ rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers. He rules over all beings in this world and will also rule in the future. God has put all things under the power of Christ, and for the good of the church, he has made him the head of everything. The Christia church is Christ's body and is filled with Christ, who completely fills everything."
Jesus Christ has no rival to his power in this world or the spirit world. He is eternally triumphant, and he will reign forever more! His power far exceeds that of Satan or death. No matter what problems we face, Jesus rules with power. When our prayers contain the seeming impossibility, nothing is beyond his power.
That leads me to my second point – the ministry of Jesus. There is little point in having a holy and majestic God if he doesn't touch our lives in some way. As Jesus was ascending to heaven, we are told by Luke that "he raised his hands and blessed the disciples. I don't think we hear of Jesus raising his arms in blessing at any other time, so this is a very significant action. He had just told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses of the things they had seen and heard. He was telling them and us how important it is to reach out to those who do not yet know about the Saviour of the world. I'm sure he knew just how difficult this task was going to be. Matthew records the last words of Jesus, and perhaps this was the blessing that Luke is referring to – "I will be with you always, to the end of the age."
We may not be able to see him with our eyes, but his presence is still with us. When it seems that life has caved in around us – failing finances, the fear of world disasters, the threat of disease and death, guilt that never seems to go away, relationships with others that don't get any better – the presence of Jesus is never far away. When it seems that we will never overcome our temptations, that sin is always getting the upper hand in our life, Jesus is never far away with his grace and forgiveness and grace.
When it seems that all there is in the future is gloom, hopelessness, worry, and death, Jesus reminds us – I am with you always.
He is ready to help when we turn to him with sighs and cries of hopelessness. He is ready to use his power to answer our prayers. He even prays for us before the throne of God. It's great to know when people are praying for us, but when we are told that Jesus is praying for us, that's entirely something else. The Ascension assures us that our future is secure in the hands of the Lord of all, for Jesus raises his hands of blessing over us.
When the disciples gazed up into the sky to catch a final glimpse of Jesus, two angels told them, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." There is an important lesson for us in those words. We are not to live focusing on Jesus' return. We, like the disciples are to be active in our Christian life, for Jesus Jesus doesn't just minister to us – he ministers to others through us.
How will others get to know of God's saving grace and the power and the love of Christ available to them if not through us? Through us, his disciples Jesus brings comfort to the sick and the dying; he gives friendship to the lonely and the stranger. Through us, he comes into the hearts of others when we grasp opportunities that arise in our daily dealings with others to share what it means to know Christ and the comfort that comes from knowing that he is near and ready to help in times of need.
We live in the time between the Ascension and Jesus' return. As we wait for God's Kingdom to come when Christ returns, we have been tasked with carrying on Christ's ministry right here in Emporia, for he has promised his help and presence as we live in this age before his Second Coming. Let's get on with it and live for Jesus carrying out the task, the ministry, he has given us to do. Amen.
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Rev. Dennis Rhoads
Vacancy pastor. LCMS