Thursday was Ascension Day, the day when Christians remember and celebrate the day when Jesus who had risen from the dead, ascended to heaven.
Today I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch on the theme of Ascension Day.
Luke 24:44 – 53
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
I am told that there is an ancient Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”
If you had been one of Jesus’ disciples, you certainly would have lived in interesting times.
In less than two months you would have experienced:
▸ The triumphal into Jerusalem when hundreds of thousands cheered for Jesus and wanted him to be their King
▸ The betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot and then the sham trial by the Jewish authorities who with the evidence before them could not bring themselves to see that Jesus was the Messiah, the one for whom they had been waiting.
▸ The failure for political reasons of Pilate, the roman Governor, to release an innocent man.
▸ Jesus being crucified and then laid in a borrowed tomb
▸ That amazing Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many people.
And now here on what was called Ascension Day we find Jesus with his disciples in the vicinity of Bethany and he is leaving them.
You may think that the disciples would be upset that just when they’ve got Jesus back from the dead, he is leaving them again. But this is what we find in our reading:
Luke 24:50 – 53 “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
What was it that had filled these people full of joy?
These early believers had come to understand so much about Jesus’ mission after the resurrection, as we heard in our passage where it says that Jesus opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. I suspect that this was very much like the discussion that Jesus had with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus as recorded earlier in Luke 24:13 – 35 .
And now they are relying on his promises.
Firstly when Jesus ascended to heaven God was able to send the Holy Spirit. Luke 24 – 49 “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples ” But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.“
Not only is the Holy Spirit called the Counsellor but also he is the Comforter.
Some people think of a comforter as someone who will wrap you up and look after you when you are feeling down. Sometimes we refer to a blanket or a quilt as a comforter. Yet the word comforter has another, older meaning. In a panel of the Bayeux tapestry William the Conqueror is shown brandishing his sword around his somewhat reluctant soldiers to encourage them to get on with the battle. The panel is entitled “William comforts his soldiers”!
So the Holy Spirit is sent to each and every believer to be an encourager as well as to reveal the truth of God to us. He gives us good counsel as well as spiritual gifts to help us and other Christians grow in faith both individually and corporately.
I am sure that many of you can testify to how the Holy Spirit directs us to a passage of scripture that suddenly comes alive as we read it, or how he prompts us to visit someone or phone them just at the moment they need someone to talk to or to pray with.
Without the Holy Spirit how could we fulfil the great commandment in Matthew 28:19 & 20: ” Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We could never do it on our own.
Also without the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us and indeed remind us that we are God’s children, we could end up lost and forlorn rather like Paddington Bear with a label round our neck saying “please look after this Christian”.
It is good for a moment to consider what Jesus is doing back in heaven.
On fulfilling his mission of sacrificing himself on the cross and dying for our sins, Jesus returned to heaven and had his glory reinstated and more so. Paul says this in Philippians 2:6 – 11 “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that 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.”
At present not everyone acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord. Not everyone gives him the glory due to his name. But there will be a time when every man, woman and child will do so, some willingly and joyfully and others because they on judgement day are faced with the overwhelming evidence of Jesus the son of God. Even atheists and the devoted followers of ISIS will be on their knees before Jesus.
Of course now many people who follow other beliefs and philosophies make passing reference to Jesus as a good man or a miracle worker or a prophet. But they do not acknowledge the truth of Jesus the son of God. Jesus says in John 5:23 “He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.” Its as simple as that. If you do not give Jesus the son of God the recognition he deserves, you are not honouring God.
The American theologian RC Sproul put it this way: “In the ascension, Jesus went up to His coronation. He did not go up simply to enter into His rest. He went up for His investiture service. He ascended to the throne, to the right hand of God, where He was given dominion, power, and authority over the whole earth. The Lamb who was slain became the Lion of Judah, who now reigns over the earth.”
Jesus himself says in Matthew 28:18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Some folk think that Jesus just sits on a throne next to God accepting the worship that’s rightly due to him. He has earnt his rest by what he did on earth. However the Bible tells us that Jesus is not taking it easy.
Yes we do have that prophecy in Psalm 110:1 which says ” The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
But later in that psalm we read in v4 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
Melchizedek is mentioned in Genesis 14 as a priest of the most high God and King of Salem. He was clearly an important man as we read in Genesis that Abraham gives him an offering. In those times the least important man gave the more important man an offering.
Jesus is our great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. He has given the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind which has been accepted by God. So no further sacrifices are ever needed, hence why the Jewish line of high Priests ended when the temple was destroyed.
In addition to the sacrifice of himself that Jesus offered, he fulfils another priestly function – he intercedes for us. Jesus prays to God the Father for us. Being human he knows our weaknesses and he knows what it is to be tempted. He like us faced trials and temptations. He knows how it is.
This is what we read in Hebrews 4:14 -16 “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
So Jesus, having been restored to all his glory is occupied in heaven ruling over creation and sustaining it and also he is busy interceding with our heavenly Father on our behalf.
And now we come to our second promise that Jesus will return. It is not actually in our reading for this morning but is in the first chapter of Acts which was also written by Luke and continues from his gospel. In Acts 1:10 – 11” They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
And I am sure that Jesus’ followers will recall his words in John 14:1 – 3:”Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.“
They know that Jesus going back to heaven isn’t the last they will see of him. Its farewell not goodbye.
They will be with him again. That is a promise for all who put their faith in Jesus. He has conquered death and broken the power of sin in our lives. So we can be certain that if we put our faith in him, we shall be with him in eternity in Heaven, his Father’s house.
On Thursday night Gaynor and I were at the Albert Hall to see Eric Clapton in concert. One of the songs he played was called “Can’t find my way home”. As I listened to the song I realised that it is a song a Christian cannot truthfully sing as we don’t have to find our way because Jesus is our way home, our way to God our Heavenly Father.
In early 1942 General Douglas MacArthur was forced to leave his beloved Philippines as the Japanese forces over run the country. In his broadcast to the Filipinos he used this famous phrase ” I shall return”. Indeed he did return after a great deal of fighting and bloodshed.
The difference between General MacArthur and Jesus is that Jesus left the earth as a conqueror. He had defeated death and the devil and broke the power of sin. He was victorious and his eventual return is a certainty whereas to be honest MacArthur’s “I shall return” was a hope.
Many of the promises that God has made have been fulfilled, and some are yet to be fulfilled. But we know that God keeps his word. In the Old Testament these are the words given to Moses :Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?“
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.“
Jesus will return in great glory as we are promised in the bible. Matthew 24: 30 & 31 “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Whilst on this earth even Jesus didn’t know the answer to when he is coming back. He told his disciples that only God knew and he’s not telling. Matthew 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
So Jesus will return but until that day we all have a job to do, and he has given us the Holy Spirit to enable and empower us to do that job which is to spread the good news to the four corners of the world and make disciples of all nations. Amen.