Sermon for the Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord. Based on Acts 1:1-11.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on May 21 & 24, 2020.
(First public services after Wisconsin “safer at home” orders were lifted.)
Ascension Resets Our Lives
- so that we listen to Jesus carefully
- so that we proclaim Jesus powerfully
It’s about time! It has been ten Sundays since our last public service at Crown of Life. We have been worshiping with simple online videos and small-group communion services with eight people or less for over two months. It has felt like we are living in a strange time warp. Every day of the week has been Blursday. We were living our own version of the movie, Groundhog Day. While we still need to be wise about the Coronavirus outbreak and careful to protect the health of the vulnerable, there have also been many people—employers and economists, educators and psychologists—have been calling for us to reset our lives and begin the process of returning to normal.
I suspect Jesus’ disciples also felt like they were in somewhat of a surreal time warp. After following Jesus through his multi-year ministry, suddenly they come face-to-face with the horrors of his crucifixion and death. And then, before they have fully processed what has all taken place, they experience the joyful shock of his physical resurrection from the dead. Then forty days later, Jesus visibly ascends from their sight at his Ascension. If you think you’ve been on an emotional roller coaster for these ten weeks, just imagine what Jesus disciples must have experienced over those forty days from Easter to Ascension.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples final instructions about their mission going forward. He gave them a truly “new normal” that helped them to reset their minds and attitudes. The words of Jesus that reset the disciples’ lives in their unique situation just before the Ascension will also help us to reset our lives in our own unique situations today. Ascension resets our lives so that we listen to Jesus carefully, and so that we proclaim Jesus powerfully.
Luke wrote the book of Acts as a sequel to his Gospel, and he begins Acts in the very same place where his Gospel ends—with Jesus’ Ascension. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek word used here for “proofs” appears. The idea is that Jesus gave them clear and evident proof that he was alive. There was no doubt or question that his resurrection was real. And it is obvious that the apostles felt that way, since they all were persecuted for preaching the resurrection and all but one of them were martyred because they preached the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection was no myth to them. Their thinking from Good Friday to now was reset from an apparent defeat to Jesus’ definitive victory over death.
Luke tells us what the frequent focus was when Jesus and the disciples interacted after his resurrection: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” If we distill everything Jesus said about his kingdom during his ministry, we realize that he is not talking about a place or nation in this world, but the way he rules with his grace in our hearts. When God’s Word is taught and proclaimed, when people learn about Jesus’ work to win forgiveness and salvation for us by his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit is at work planting and growing faith in Christ within us. That is Jesus’ kingdom at work. The disciples would be ministers and messengers of his kingdom, and they needed to understand their task after his Ascension.
I suppose we could say that their role in Jesus’ kingdom work would officially begin shortly after Ascension. “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Ten days after Ascension, one week from Sunday, is the day of Pentecost. Jesus told them about a specific promise that God the Father would fulfill to them on that day—a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit who would enable and empower them to proclaim Christ’s gospel boldly. Jesus reset their lives to be confessors of his truth and evangelists of his grace.
There is tremendous promise and insight in Jesus’ words to his disciples during these 40 days. So their question to Jesus shortly before his Ascension is disappointing at best, and maddening at worst! “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” If I were Jesus, I think I would have blurted out, “You have got to be kidding me!” They still expected him to “restore” Israel as a great, powerhouse nation? On the heels of Jesus physically leaving this world, they still had hopes that he had some kind of nationalistic agenda? The disciples aren’t thinking about the kingdom of God in people’s hearts, but the reign of an earthly nation being restored to its greatness from the past! Their question reveals that they really hadn’t listened carefully and grasped fully what Jesus had been saying during these 40 days.
Ask any teacher: Educating has been a challenging experience during this quarantine. Students have a difficult time listening in regular circumstances. Now put the teachers in a different place, put the students in front of a computer screen, add the distractions that naturally happen around the house, and—voila!—you have a formula that all but guarantees that students aren’t going to hear and learn everything they are supposed to hear and learn.
There is a far more important student-teacher relationship that we are a part of. We are the modern-day disciples of Jesus. And just like students taking a class over a Zoom meeting, we have plenty of things distracting us from the lessons Jesus teaches us. Cable news shows bombard us with chaos and uncertainty as they report the death count from Coronavirus as if they are returns from election results. We become distracted from the words of Jesus to the statements of politicians and the analysis that follows from the media. The hamster wheels in our minds begin to turn and churn and lead us to see everything that would and could and should happen today, tomorrow, and the next.
Do not misunderstand. There is nothing wrong following the news and seeking the latest information in a time like this. But how is it that we can become so incredibly concerned about this virus, but not nearly as concerned with the deadly venom of sin? Oh, yes, for a moment we returned our attention to God’s Word when this all began. But statistics of online church attendance followed the exact same trends as regular church attendance any other year. After a few weeks, our attention faded away after Easter. We spend so much time absorbed into the news that we seem to forget that Jesus’ kingdom is not found in political conversations and activity, but rather in his Word. We forget that the most important thing that should draw our attention, especially in a pandemic, is not the message from CNN or Fox News, but the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified. And if Jesus responded to our lack of attention to his Word and promises the way we deserve, he would do more than blurt out, “You have got to be kidding me!” His justice should ignore us eternally for all the times we have failed to listen to him carefully.
Jesus did not condemn the disciples in the verses that follow, and he does not condemn you either. Instead, he draws our attention by what he says to us and does for us. Ascension resets our lives so that we listen more carefully to what he says—and what he says is such good news for us! He spoke about the kingdom of God to his disciples, and he speaks to us in his Word of peace and forgiveness so that his kingdom is found in our hearts. He appeared to the disciples to assure them of his resurrection, and he gives us many convincing proofs of his resurrection in his carefully preserved and Spirit-inspired Word. He ascended in glory before his disciples on Ascension, and with them we see his nail-scarred hands and feet that were pierced for our sins—even our sins of failing to listen to him carefully. As we view Jesus ascend with our eyes of faith, we see the One who has won our forgiveness, defeated our grave, and assures us of our own ascension to eternal life.
Jesus did not “slam” his disciples for their misguided question. Instead, he redirected their thinking. “He 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.’” The disciples didn’t need to be concerned with earthly kingdoms and events. They didn’t need access to God’s master Google calendar with its list of upcoming events. They needed to be directed to something quite different. They needed to be directed to the future day, just ten days later, when the Holy Spirit would come on them powerfully. Their post-Ascension task would be to be Jesus’ witnesses, starting in Jerusalem, working out to the surrounding regions, and finally extending to all nations.
Jesus redirected their thinking. Then he redirected their vision—literally! “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” With their minds directed to their forgiveness-proclaiming mission, Jesus returns to heaven visibly now that his forgiveness-obtaining mission is complete. The way the New Testament’s original language describes this event emphasizes that the Ascension was something that happened to Jesus. This was God the Father’s statement of approval on the completed work of his Son, as he now raises his Son to heavenly glory at his right hand.
Have you felt frustrated or useless during this quarantine? For some, your job was reduced or eliminated. For others, you became teachers without education degrees and felt the frustration of doing something you’re not trained to do. For teachers, the thing they were trained to do was taken right out of their classrooms and they had no choice but to resort to an impersonal computer screen. Family can’t visit their older relatives in care homes. You can’t even watch a new baseball game! There were a few times I got in the car and drove around the area, just so I could get out of the house and the office.
If you have felt frustrated or useless over the past few weeks, Jesus ascension will help you to have new purpose in the days ahead. You may not end up traveling to nations around the world to proclaim the gospel like some of the apostles did, but Jesus’ ascension resets our lives so that we proclaim his gospel powerfully, carrying out his old mission in new ways.
Think of friends and family who may be experiencing a lack of direction in their lives during this crisis, and that lack of direction is only made worse by lack of faith in Christ. Can you show them how the promises of God to bless us even in difficult circumstances and to forgive us of all guilt though Jesus give you a peace that isn’t found elsewhere? Do they see the different mindset and state you have right now, and wonder what it is you have?
Is this a good time to invite them to come with you to a Bible Information Class, or to forward a sermon in an email and say, “This message about Jesus really gives me peace, and I think it will give you peace too”? If politicians try to use a crisis like this to push their ideas and agenda forward, why don’t God’s people use this situation for something positive and godly? What the world needs most right now is much more than a stimulus check, but the message of Christ crucified and risen which stimulates faith and confidence in God’s grace and mercy for today and forever. Ascension encourages us to fill the role of the angels and proclaim Jesus powerfully, to point others to the same nail-scarred hands and feet that proclaim your forgiveness and theirs, your hope of heaven and theirs.
When the initial quarantines were first issued, I really hoped that we would just be shut down for a week or two and still be able to celebrate Easter here at church. That didn’t work out, but I couldn’t think of a better first service to celebrate together after all this time than Jesus’ Ascension. A careful look at Jesus’ Ascension really does help us to reset our lives. Listen to him carefully. Proclaim him powerfully. Celebrate his ascension joyfully. Amen.