The Lord Reigns: A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension

A sermon preached at the Round Rock Church of Christ, Sunday, 6 May 2018.

Opening reading

Hear this word from the book of Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-12:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “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.” Then they returned to Jerusalem…

Prayer

Almighty God,
whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above the heavens
that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that,
according to his promise,
he abides with his Church on earth,
even to the end of the ages;
and now, by your grace,
pour through me the gift of preaching,
that what is heard this day through human lips
might be the word of God for the people of God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Introduction

I’m not sure if you know this, but in four days there is a special day on the Christian calendar.

It isn’t Easter, which was only last month. It isn’t Christmas, which is still a long ways away. It isn’t one of those days or seasons you might have heard about but never celebrated, like Advent or Lent or Ash Wednesday, or for the especially church-nerdy, the Feast of the Annunciation.

No, this Thursday is Ascension Day. It is the day on the church calendar when, for millennia, Christians have remembered and celebrated the ascension of the risen Jesus to heaven. You may have already put together why it is celebrated on a Thursday: because, as Acts tells us, Jesus appeared to the apostles over a 40-day period, at the end of which Jesus was taken from their sight. And this Thursday marks 40 days since Easter Sunday. In the same way, Pentecost Sunday is two weeks from today, since Pentecost is a Jewish festival of 50 days following Passover—and Pentecost is the time when Jesus, having ascended to heaven, poured out the Holy Spirit on his disciples.

So when I was asked to preach this Sunday, I looked at the calendar and realized I had to preach about the Ascension. Not only because of the timing, between Passover, Easter, and Pentecost, but also because—when was the last time you heard a sermon on the Ascension

Now the Ascension doesn’t always play the most prominent role in our retellings of the work of Christ. When we summarize the gospel, we say, “Jesus is risen,” not “Jesus is ascended.” Or when we stretch it out, we say, “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” Or we say that Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, not that he ascended to heaven for our salvation. And that’s perfectly fine: the New Testament certainly emphasizes the cross and the resurrection as the fundamental focal points for understanding the significance of what Jesus has done for us.

But what I want to talk about this morning is how pivotal, in fact, the Ascension is to the gospel story. If you leave it out, the story remains incomplete. And not only does the New Testament not leave it out; once you’re on the lookout for it, you realize it’s everywhere. Just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians that, if Christ is not raised from the dead, we are still in our sins, and our faith is in vain—the same applies here: if Christ did not ascend to heaven, the gospel is no good news at all, and we of all people are to be pitied. Why is that?

Well, here’s a question to ask yourself. Where is Jesus, and why is he there? Hold that thought.

Where Jesus is

As many of y’all know, I have two boys. And when you have a theologian for a dad, conversations about God can get really interesting, really fast.

Now Sam and Rowan have a very strict three-tiered understanding of reality. First, there is our world. Second, there is God’s world. Third, there is Pretend World. Pretend World is where they assign anything and everything that isn’t real, or doesn’t really happen in our world. So they regularly ask me, “Is that in our world? Or Pretend World?” Unfortunately for all of us, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and Scooby-Doo are all part of Pretend World. Pretty much anything we read about in a book or watch in a movie is a part of Pretend World, even if it’s real people acting as if something Pretend is real.

So one day we were reading a children’s Bible together, a story about David. And Sam casually referred to David as belonging to Pretend World. I looked at him, and said, “Sam, David isn’t in Pretend World.” He looked back at me as only an all-knowing five-year old can, and said, “Dad, he’s in the Bible. That’s Pretend World.”

At which point I questioned everything I’d ever said or taught about God and the Bible.

And I said, “Sam, everything in the Bible is in our world. It’s not Pretend World, it’s real!” His and Rowan’s eyes got bigger and bigger as I explained to them that, not only were David and Elijah and Jesus and Peter all not pretend, but I’ve been to where they lived. Israel is a place just like Austin and Abilene are places. Now, David died a long time ago, but he lived in the very same world that we live in. The same for everyone else in the Bible.

Having blown their minds, and corrected for all my fatherly shortcomings, I thought my work was done. But then Sam said, “Okay, but since they died, they’re in heaven with God, so now they’re not in our world, they’re in God’s world.” Yes, correct. “Then where is Jesus?” Remember, Sam, he went to heaven after he rose from the dead, so he’s in heaven with God, too. “But Dad, didn’t you also tell us that, just like God, Jesus is everywhere—even in this room with us? But if Jesus is in heaven with God, how can he be here with us too? Is Jesus in God’s world, or is he in our world?”

To which I said, with rich paternal wisdom and years of deep theological training: Time for bed.

Where is Jesus?

Let me back up and situate the Ascension in the broader context of the gospel story.

In his great love, God sends his Son into the world, to become a human being. Jesus proclaims the good news of God’s kingdom in Israel, teaching and healing and caring for those overlooked by society. He is a prophet mighty in word and deed, bringing judgment and repentance and promise of healing to God’s people. He is a king, the son of David, anointed by the Spirit as the long-awaited Messiah. He is a priest, who through the offering of himself on the cross, makes atonement for sins, and through his resurrection triumphs over the power of death once and for all.

He appears to his disciples, and once they realize they don’t have anything to fear from him—they did abandon him after all—they finally, finally realize who he is and what he has done. So naturally, they ask him if what’s next is what they imagined all along: Kick out the pagan occupiers, mop up the godless nations, and restore the glory to Israel, God’s chosen people of old.

And it is at this point that there is a second twist in the story.

The first twist was that Israel’s Messiah would be a suffering servant, yielding to the sword rather than wielding it. The second twist is that, after his victory over sin and death, he still doesn’t take up the sword to decimate the evil powers of the world—not least Rome, which crucified him. Instead, the risen Jesus says to his disciples: “It is not for you to know when the final victory will come. But wait for the Holy Spirit, who will make you witnesses about me to the ends of the earth.” And he was taken from them.

So the Ascension continues this pattern, so common in Scripture, of an unexpected turn in the narrative, yet one that, in retrospect, is perfectly fitting. It’s true that the Ascension answers a question: Where is Jesus? Sam was right about that. But that’s the least significant part of it. And even then, teaching about Jesus being in heaven can come to signify something entirely negative, or passive: the Ascension explains Jesus’s absence; his invisibility; his silence; even, perhaps, his impotence. It can make it sound as if God left us alone after saving us, and we’re stuck here, helpless, until he decides to show up again.

But that is not what Jesus says here, nor is it what the rest of the New Testament says. So why did Jesus go to heaven? What is the meaning of the Ascension? And why is it good news? I want to focus on six aspects of the Ascension that help to answer these questions, and most of all why it is central to the gospel story.

1-2: Spirit & Presence

Back to Acts 1.

Jesus directs our attention to two consequences of the Ascension: the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the mission of the church. These are intertwined; you don’t get one without the other. The ascended Christ will pour out the Spirit of God on the disciples, and filled with that Spirit, they will be Christ’s witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, not only in Samaria, but in every direction: south to Africa, east to India and China, north to Turkey and Russia, west to Greece and Rome—and, centuries later, the Americas.

So why does Jesus return to heaven?

First, so that the Holy Spirit might be poured out on all flesh. This is the promised gift of God, long prophesied in the Old Testament. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the apostles, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (16:7)

Why is it better for Jesus to go than to stay? Because for Jesus to go means the coming of the Spirit. And what does that mean? It means God himself abiding in us, both together as a community and in each and every one of the baptized. Once God took up residence in a temple, a house made by human hands; now God takes up residence in the hearts of the faithful, temples made of flesh and bone, created in the image of God himself. The Spirit of God convicts, gives life, and liberates; where the Spirit is, there is life and power: life from the dead and power to live free from sin. The Spirit directs us in the way we should go; the Spirit holds us in the mercy and grace of God; the Spirit gives us words to pray and makes the Father of Jesus our Father—through the Spirit we are sisters and brothers of Jesus and therefore sisters and brothers of one another. The Spirit is the power of God for salvation, the unconquerable divine love who puts fire in our bones to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. The Spirit makes us holy as God is holy.

The Spirit, in short, is the very presence of the living God—and though he is a consuming fire, he does not burn us to a crisp, but like the leaves of the burning bush, like the flesh of Jesus on whom the Spirit descended like a dove—the Spirit’s presence purifies and remakes us, but does not undo us.

This is the second aspect of the Ascension. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was embodied; Christians confess the resurrection of the body, including the body of Jesus. The thing about bodies is that they are located in one place. Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee, Emmaus, and Jerusalem. He didn’t appear in Rome or Nairobi or Moscow. What Luke reveals to us in Acts is that Jesus’s Ascension, far from initiating Jesus’s absence from the world, is the beginning of a far more radical and intimate presence to the world. When I teach Acts to students, I do a kind of call-and-response about this to drill this into their heads. The Ascension is not about Jesus’s absence, but rather another mode of his presence. The Ascension is not about Jesus’s absence, but rather another mode of his presence.

That is the essential thing. The Holy Spirit is the means by which Jesus Christ, risen in glory in heaven with God the Father, is present in grace and power at all times, in all places, to everyone who believes. Where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, there he is with them—because of the Ascension. Because of the Ascension, through Jesus’s own Spirit, he is present to you and to me, to each and every one of us: speaking, guiding, convicting, calling, justifying, sanctifying, glorifying. Sam asked me how Jesus could be in heaven with God and everywhere else at the same time, including here with us now. The answer is Pentecost. The answer is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, who has been shed abroad in our hearts, through faith. The answer is the Ascension.

3: Mission

The risen Jesus tells the disciples in Acts 1 that they will be his witnesses to and among the nations. The third aspect of the Ascension, therefore, is mission. For what does the outpouring of the Spirit create? The church of Jesus Christ. What is the church’s primary purpose? To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune name and teaching them all that Christ commanded.

Had Jesus restored the kingdom at a moment’s notice, only days after the resurrection, guess who wouldn’t be included? You and me. As the apostles slowly came to understand, partly through the ascended Jesus’s special calling of Paul to be the apostle to the gentiles, Jesus goes away not only to become near to all who believe through the Spirit; more specifically, it creates a new time in the world’s history—the time of mission, of witness, of the church. And that time is, as Paul puts it in Romans 11, the time for the gentiles to come into the people of God.

It turns out the good news of Israel’s Messiah wasn’t meant exclusively for Israel. It was meant for the whole world.

The Ascension of Jesus creates the time necessary for the gospel to be proclaimed in every tongue and in every nation on this planet. The Ascension of Jesus is an act of extraordinary generosity on God’s part: it wasn’t time to wrap up the world’s history; it was time to get the news to every corner of the globe, and as time unfolded, to spread the word to each new generation as it arose.

If you aren’t a Jew, and if you weren’t born in the land of Israel in the first century—which means everyone in this room—then the Ascension of Jesus means that God wanted to include you in his story. Let me say that again: The Ascension of Jesus means that God wanted to include you in his story. God wanted to wait for all of us to have a share in the kingdom of his Son.

As 2 Peter 3 says, God isn’t delaying. What seems like Jesus taking a long time to return is actually a matter of divine patience. God has all the time in the world for us. He’s not going anywhere.

4-5: Exaltation & Reign

In the second chapter of Acts, after the Spirit has been poured out, Peter stands up and preaches to the crowd. Here is what he says at the end of his sermon: “God raised up [Jesus from the dead], and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies a stool for your feet.’” (2:32-35)

Just a few chapters later, Peter preaches again in Acts 5: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (5:30-32)

In Philippians 2, Paul writes: “And being found in human form [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (2:9-11)

Finally in Hebrews, we read this: “When [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… For a little while [he] was made lower than the angels, [but] now [is] crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death…[and he is] exalted above the heavens…” (1:3; 2:9; 7:26)

Here is the fourth, and perhaps central, aspect of the Ascension: It is the exaltation of Jesus.

Above every name, above every power, far superior to angels, far more excellent than all the fathers and mothers and heroes in the faith who preceded him—far surpassing every measure of excellence and standard of beauty and seat of power we can imagine—above the heaven of heavens, there stands Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the slain Lamb, the author and perfecter of our faith, the Messiah of Israel, the eternal Word of God, the One with the keys of death and Hades in his hands—Jesus, son of Mary, son of David, son of Abraham, son of Adam, Son of God—there he stands, enthroned in heaven, bearing the name that is above every name, victor and vanquisher of sin and death, of the devil and all his works—the Holy One, Emmanuel, the Crucified, the Creator himself, our brother, Incarnate, the Alpha and Omega, the One who was and is and is to come, God blessed forever—him, that one, Jesus, he is exalted, raised not just from death to life but from earth to heaven, to the right hand of the Father, to reign forever and ever, world without end, amen.

That is what the Ascension means. That is why Jesus returned to his Father and ours. Because when death could not hold him, this universe itself could not hold him. He returned in glory to the Father’s side, now in the body he assumed for our sake, there to rule not just as God’s Son and Word, but as the Crucified and Risen One, the Messiah and Savior of the world.

To reign, to rule: that is the fifth aspect of his Ascension. Who reigns, who rules? Who is enthroned? Who stands at the head of a glorious procession of victory?

The king. Jesus is the king. The son of David is David’s Lord. Israel’s king reigns, now, over all the earth. He is king of Israel, king of the cosmos, king of heaven. Not for nothing did Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica in Acts 17 accuse Christians before the authorities of “all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (17:7) There is another king, and his name is Jesus!

The Roman Empire called Caesar “lord” and “savior” and “son of god.” So what titles did the early Christians confess of Jesus? Lord! Savior! Son of God! Why were believers persecuted so often? Because they constituted a threat to the powers that be. Why were believers so willing to suffer and die for the faith? Because they knew who was in charge—they knew the name of the one true King, and his name wasn’t Caesar.

The Ascension means that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is King, and he reigns on high over the affairs of earth. Does that mean that life on earth, for believers or nonbelievers, is easy or painless? Not at all. What it means is this. At all times, in all circumstances, no matter how bad things are or how bad they appear to be—the Lord reigns; Jesus is in charge. The Lord Jesus reigns: He will be with you, because he is with us now, by his Spirit. No power or authority on this earth compares with his power and authority. Nor will any power that stands against him triumph. We know with whom, on whose side, heaven stands, because we know those with whom heaven’s king stood during his time on earth. He stood with the poor, the needy, the sick, the overlooked, the beaten-down, the downtrodden, the meek, the tax collectors and prostitutes and little ones whose weaknesses the powerful exploited. That’s where the king of the universe stands: with the least of these, the sisters and brothers of Jesus.

Which means that’s where we must stand, if we want to be where Jesus is.

6: Intercession

So—summing up so far: The exalted Jesus, reigning from God’s right hand, powerfully present by the Holy Spirit in and to his body, the church, as it continues its mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth—that, so far, is what the Ascension means, what it enables.

Remember that Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. We have seen how he rules as king and speaks as prophet, through the Spirit. The sixth and final aspect of the Ascension is Jesus’s intercession for us before God, as priest.

The book of Hebrews teaches us that Jesus is both priest and offering; the offering he made was himself, his own body and blood, a once-for-all sacrifice for sins. In chapter 7 we read this: “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” (7:26)

Hebrews goes on to say that, as the one, final, permanent priest, Jesus “appears in the presence of God on our behalf,” for “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (9:24; 7:25)

Similarly Paul writes in Romans 8 that “it is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (8:34)

Finally 1 John 2 says that, “if anyone sins, we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (2:1-2)

What does this mean?

It does not mean that the Father is against us and the Son is for us, the one angry and the other merciful, as if one Person of the Trinity were divided against another. What it means is that Jesus, our mediator, at once both God and man, fully divine and fully human—Jesus is, now and forever, on our side. He is for us. He is for you. He is Immanuel, God with us. Only now he is human-with-God. On earth, God-with-humans. In heaven, human-with-God.

Our brother, the Galilean, he is in the highest of heavens, the unapproachable, ineffable sphere of beauty and blessedness—he is there, he has as it were taken us with him there, and from everlasting to everlasting he has our best interests at heart.

What sins we commit in the meantime, though we should repent of them swiftly and sincerely, they should not trouble or grieve us, they need not weigh us down: for we have an infinitely patient, infinitely merciful, infinitely willing advocate and priest at God’s side, one who, as Hebrews puts it, “became like his sisters and brothers in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. And because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (2:17-18)

Jesus ascended to the right hand of God in order to serve, eternally, as our advocate, priest, and intercessor. Your brother Jesus is not just there with you in the dock; he has the ear of the judge. Now and forever, the verdict is Not Guilty.

Conclusion

After the Ascension, Acts tells us that two angels appear, who say, “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.” In other words: Jesus will return as he left, coming on the clouds of heaven. So long as the earth and the church’s mission on it endure, we wait for our royal priest, Israel’s Messiah and heaven’s King, to appear, once and for all. The Ascension inaugurates the time of hope, of faith’s patient waiting for the final fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom to come at last, for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven like a bride adorned for her groom.

Until then, I can do no better than to conclude by quoting Paul in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 1:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)

“[This is] the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:15-23)

The church’s head is the risen Jesus, and the risen Jesus is Lord, and the Lord reigns from heaven. Thanks be to God.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:
You reign from heaven
With your Father and Spirit.
We beg you, by your grace,
To strengthen us in faith, hope, and love,
That you would raise the eyes of our hearts
To you, glorious in power and love,
Ruling on high with mercy and justice.
Rule us, too, as your body,
As we proclaim your kingdom here on earth,
Awaiting with patience your heavenly appearing,
When the will of your Father will at last be done
Here, in the new creation of your marvelous work,
Where peace will dwell forever.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.

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