Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Day

Ascension Day Sunday sermon--preached at Covenant CRC in Appleton, WI in 2010.

The Ascended King
Acts 1:1-11

Turn with me in your Bibles to the first chapter of Acts. Acts is the first book after the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In just a few moments, I’ll be reading from verses 1 through 11. You may wish to keep your Bibles open to that passage as we work through it.

I. Introduction

Ascension Day was this past Thursday. Did you notice?

It seems like Ascension Day isn’t a very big deal any more in our church communities. When I was a kid, every church in my small Iowa hometown had Ascension Day services on Thursday evening. My junior high teachers didn’t give us homework, since they figured we’d be in church that night. I don’t remember those services being all that well attended, though. Ascension Day took a back seat to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. And nowadays, Ascension Day seems to take a back seat even to things like the National Day of Prayer, Memorial Day, and preparations for the end of the school year.

I heard a story recently about an Ascension Day service to remember—it took place at an Episcopal seminary. The plan was to have a very solemn ceremony for Ascension Day, with deans, faculty, and seminarians all suitably dressed in robes and clouds of incense.

At the end of the service, the entire group of worshipers filed outside of the church to sing an ascension hymn. Unknown to the worshipers, an enterprising student had prepared a surprise ending. He had taken a large, nearly life-sized Christmas figure—the hollow, plastic, painted kind that some churches and people place in manger scenes—and he had stuffed it with fireworks and some kind of rocket.

As the procession of solemn clergy in their majestic robes marched into the courtyard, the student lit the fuse. This sent the statue shooting into the sky through a cloud of smoke and sparks. Unfortunately, the rocket wasn’t meant to carry a payload like this, so it quickly ended up out of control, buzzing the panicking worshippers, and then doing a nose dive onto the roof of a nearby dorm. There, the “Ascension Rocket” sputtered and died.

The dean of the seminary wasn’t impressed with the student's defense that he was simply trying to dramatize the reality of the ascension. In fact, by turning the ascension into a humorous demonstration with rockets and fireworks, the student was in some ways doing the same thing modern Christians have been doing for years by ignoring or minimizing Ascension Day. He was turning the ascension into a kind of humorous story from a pre-modern society that couldn’t conceive of people moving through the air.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the early church Ascension Day was just as important as Easter and far more important that Christmas. Just 200 years ago, Ascension Day was still almost as big as Christmas. You got the day off and everyone went to church.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ascension Day has almost disappeared while Christmas has gotten so important. During the last several centuries, we have been narrowing the role of religion to something small and private and small, relevant only in certain parts of our lives.

At Christmas, God gets very small. On Ascension Day, Jesus gets very big. At Christmas, a great God in heaven comes down to earth and enters humanity. On Ascension Day a frail human being goes up to heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

But that's why we should celebrate the ascension. Christ is now ruling with power from heaven over the whole Kingdom of God. The power of the Kingdom has been given to a King who once lived on earth as a human. And God’s rule and his daily care and providing for us are focused in the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

This isn’t something you’ll always hear, even in Christian churches. For too many Christians, Jesus is more like a friend. He is a personal Savior whose throne is on your heart. Jesus is kept down here and remains quite small.

For other Christians, Jesus is just a teacher, and the Kingdom of God is just the good things we do—our good deeds and our Christian institutions.

In both cases Jesus is domesticated, like some old, toothless lion lying around in a cage in a zoo. And Christians who serve this domesticated Jesus don’t feel much need to celebrate the ascension.

But Ascension Day should have powerful meaning for us. Christ’s ascension means he is now ruling with power over the whole Kingdom of God. It means that the power and authority of God throughout all time and space has now been invested in the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is here, now. Jesus is in charge. And we are accountable to him. And we know what he expects of us as his Kingdom servants.

So let’s read together the account of Christ’s ascension from Acts 1, verses 1 through 11.

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 showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 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."

So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

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."

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

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."

II. He…spoke about the Kingdom of God

You probably know that the book of Acts was written by Luke, the gentile doctor who also wrote the gospel of Luke. He begins this book by telling us about his previous book, saying “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” And, if we read further, we see that Acts is a really a continuation of Luke. Luke is about what Jesus began to do; Acts is about what Jesus continues to do through the Holy Spirit.

Now, some of you might object to this phrasing. “Wait a minute,” you might say. “Christ’s work is complete! In fact, didn’t Jesus himself, just before his dying breath on the cross, say ‘It is finished’?”

This is a valid question. How do we reconcile, “It is finished” with Luke’s statement in verse one about, “all that Jesus began to do and teach”? Is there a contradiction here?

Of course, there’s no contradiction. Luke was a doctor, so perhaps a good way to show the relationship between these two phrases is to use an illustration from medicine. It is one thing to create a medicine, to put together the ingredients needed to give it its power to heal. It is a whole other thing to administer that medicine.

Christ’s work was completed on the cross in that what he did was enough—it was sufficient. By dying, he paid the penalty for our sin. He didn’t need to do anything more to make us right before God, to restore our relationship with God, to bring God’s creation back to the way things ought to be.

But the work of administering the medicine of Christ’s work—that work was not, and is not, yet fully complete. The sinless life of Jesus, and His atoning death, formed a perfect and complete medicine for a sin-soaked world. There was no need to add to it. But it still needed to be given. And so after the resurrection, the work of administering this medicine begins.

And we see in verse three of our text how this medicine is administered—through the over-arching rule of the Kingdom of God.

Now, Christ’s teaching about the Kingdom was nothing new. The Kingdom of God is the central theme of all Scripture. Genesis begins with the creation of the Kingdom and human rebellion against it. The rest of the Bible tells how God restores the kingdom, and through Christ defeats Satan and reconstructs His kingdom, restoring His original purpose for the creation.

The good news Christ preached here on earth was the gospel of the kingdom of God. Hear what Matthew said in chapter 4 of his book: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”

And the theme of the Kingdom of God continues all through the book of Acts. At the end of Acts we see Paul preaching the message of the kingdom: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Even later, the last book in the Bible celebrates the everlasting establishment of the Kingdom: “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’”

Christ, through his work, has ushered in the kingdom of God, fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament, and accomplished everything God intended for humankind in the original creation. Now, the medicine of redemption created by Jesus through his death and resurrection is ready to be administered to the entire world through the work of the Kingdom of God. And before he ascends into heaven, symbolizing his ascension to the throne of the Kingdom of God, Christ takes the time to, once again, speak about the Kingdom of God.

III. Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?

Unfortunately, even at this late date, Jesus’s disciples don’t seem to understand what he was talking about. In verse six the disciples ask him “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

These words show that the disciples were still clinging to the hope of some kind of earthly kingdom, maybe the restoration of an earthly theocratic kingdom like that led by David and Solomon a thousand years before. In some ways, the disciples’ cluelessness is stunning. Just looking back at the gospel of Luke, Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God in his teachings forty times. John Calvin, in his Institutes, joked that “there are as many errors in this question as words.”

Even in Christ’s final days on earth, spent reinforcing his teachings about the kingdom of God, the disciples don’t get it. Even having experienced Christ’s death and resurrection, the disciples misunderstand not only Christ’s mission and work, but the nature of their own mission. They were looking for something political, something visible. They wanted something they could taste, see, and touch.

To be fair to the disciples, this same misunderstanding, this same cluelessness, has been shared by Christians over the 20 centuries since the ascension. Gregory Boyd, in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, says that “the history of the church has been…a history of believers refusing to trust the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptation he resisted.” The church’s history, he says, “is a history of people who too often identified the Kingdom of God with a ‘Christian’ version of the kingdom of the world.”

Christ doesn’t criticize the disciples for the misunderstanding so obvious in their question. Instead, in his gracious teaching manner, he directly answers the question, but does so in a way they couldn’t have expected. The disciples are thinking about a piece of land on the Mediterranean, but Christ has a view far beyond what could be seen, felt, or tasted. The scope of Christ’s Kingdom is the entire universe.

Look how Jesus responds in verses 7 and 8 to the disciples’ question. He first tells them that it is not for them to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. Then, he answers their question more directly.

The word “but” at the beginning of verse 8 is important. It points to the contrast between Christ’s answer and the disciples’ expectations. The disciples were still thinking way too small. They asked a question that showed their thinking was limited to a single nation on a small piece of land. Christ answers them with a kingdom that, even though it starts in Jerusalem, expands to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

Imagine how the disciples must have responded as they heard Jesus’ answer. A kingdom beginning in Jerusalem? Sure, that was to be expected, given what the prophets had said about the Messiah’s kingdom. You can almost hear the disciples nod approvingly. Then, Christ adds “all Judea” and then “Samaria.” Maybe now some of the disciples are beginning to see the truth. Christ, who is still acting as the good Shepherd right up to his last minutes on earth, is helping them see a kingdom that is not of this world.

But the disciples could probably still see the kingdom reaching Judea and Samaria since these regions were nearby. They were within the boundaries of earthly kingdom ruled by David and Solomon.

But then Christ blows away any expectations the disciples could have had about the nature and scope of Christ’s kingdom by setting down his final kingdom boundary marker: “to the ends of the earth.” By doing so, Jesus is hearkening all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham. Remember the promise to Abraham that through him all the nations would be blessed? Welcome to Christ’s Kingdom, the fulfillment of that promise.

Luke describes the last teachings of Christ to his disciples in Luke 24. There he quotes Jesus as teaching that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” And here in verse 8 of our text, Christ speaks not just of every nation, but of the very “ends of the earth.”

In doing this, Jesus reaches back even further, to Genesis—to God’s command to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to fill the entire earth with bearers of the image of God. When we Christians together, as the church, are witnesses of Christ’s Kingdom to the ends of the earth, we fulfill that mandate to fill the earth.

In many ways, Acts 1:8 is the key to the rest of the book of Acts. The rest of the book follows this path from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, and then “to the ends of the earth.” In Acts 2, ten days after the Ascension, on Pentecost, the church is born in Jerusalem. Before the book of Acts ends, Paul is in Rome, perhaps not quite the end of the earth. And eventually he may have preached in Spain, the western edge of the known world.

But don’t miss the fact that this path, from Jerusalem to the end of the earth, is not just the path of some of Jesus’s followers in bringing news about the resurrection to people who didn’t know about it yet. No, this path is the path of kingdom expansion. Throughout Acts, Luke interjects notes about the spread of the word and the constant addition of numbers of believers to the church. These notes demonstrate for us the expansion of Christ’s kingdom from Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth.

Of course, when Jesus refers to the ends of the earth, he is not just setting down a geographical limit to the Kingdom of God. He is saying that the Kingdom is meant to be expanded to every square inch of God’s creation.

And creation doesn’t just mean physical reality. Every structure and pattern of society, all the possibilities of culture, all the relationships of our personal lives, are a part of Christ’s kingdom. Sports, art, manufacturing, government, the family, business and commerce, friendship—all of these are as much part of creation as lakes and plants and stars.

Unfortunately, just as some limit the Kingdom of God by equating it with a particular place, others limit the Kingdom of God by trying to say it only impacts what they call the “spiritual” or the “sacred.”

Just moments ago, I mentioned Greg Boyd’s book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. It is a good book, and he makes excellent points about what the Kingdom of God ought to look like. Like I mentioned, Boyd recognizes that some Christians limit God’s kingdom to a particular time and place. Unfortunately, though his theology of the Kingdom of God is also far too limited.

Boyd’s view, based on the teachings of Martin Luther, is often called “two-kingdom theology.” This view is unfortunately becoming more popular in certain segments of the Reformed world. In this view, there are two kingdoms of God. One, the kingdom of God’s left hand, is a secular kingdom in which God rules only by law. The other, the kingdom of his right hand, is sacred and God rules it by his word and Spirit. The sacred kingdom focuses only on sacred things like the sacraments and preaching the Word. In this view, the two kingdoms cannot mix.

John Calvin had a very different view. He recognized a special role for the sacred—the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, which are the only things that can point us to the truth of salvation. But Calvin also understood that the rest of creation, what some see as secular, is inseparably wrapped together with the sacred in the Kingdom of God. To Calvin, all of creation falls under the Kingdom of God. There is no left-hand kingdom. There is only the ever-expanding Kingdom of God, led by Christ, and its opponent—the Kingdom of this world, led by the devil. This view takes seriously verse 8—nothing is to be given up to the devil’s kingdom. Rather, Christ is extending his kingly reign and banishing the devil from every part of Creation.

The Kingdom is not limited, either by geography or by dividing the sacred and the secular. The Kingdom of God isn’t just about the salvation of a few people or just the reign of God in the hearts of his people. As theologian Anthony Hoekema, writes, “It means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe.”

The story begun in Acts 1 is of Christ’s expansion of his kingdom from heaven by His witnesses, the church, through the Holy Spirit. Christ’s answer to his clueless disciples was a rebuke. It was a rejection not only of the physical land notion held by his disciples, but a rejection of any limitation to the scope of the Kingdom

IV. Why do you stand here looking into the sky?

Now, let’s turn to the end of our text this morning. In verse 9 we see Jesus “taken up before their very eyes” and a cloud hiding him from the sight of the disciples. Shocked, the disciples stand there gawking. Then two men dressed all in white—maybe angels or other heavenly messengers—appear. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” they ask. “This same Jesus...will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

What the heavenly messengers are saying is clear. “Why are you still here? Jesus is coming back. You know that. He told you that. But you’ve got work to do. Work that the Lord gave you. Kingdom work. Get your heads out of the clouds and get to work!”

The messengers direct the disciples back to present earthly reality. They know who Jesus is. They know what the Kingdom is. They even know who they are—eleven people “with a very bad track record…eleven very human beings.” These 11 people, who failed Jesus in Gethsemane, who were clueless about the Kingdom of God, now know that they are Kingdom citizens. Their calling is to be standing up for and spreading the news of the kingdom in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then on to the very ends of the earth.

This is an unbelievable calling! A calling well beyond the capacity of these eleven guys without much of a record of stepping up. And it is a calling to each one of us as well. But it’s not some sadistic challenge at which we are destined to fail. No, this calling is linked to a promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit.

The promise of the Holy Spirit was for the disciples, and it was for us. It means that the Spirit will give us the power we need for the tasks that lie ahead of us in proclaiming and expanding the Kingdom. It’s not some physical power, like the disciples must have dreamed of before they fully understood the Kingdom. Rather, the power of the Holy Spirit is the power given to otherwise useless people to step up, to fulfill our responsibilities as Kingdom citizens. We have been given the power to work toward the final coming of Christ’s kingdom.

Of course there are still mysteries about just what the Ascension means for us. We know that while the Kingdom of God is here, it is yet to be revealed in its full glory. That won’t happen until Christ returns. And somehow, the things we do on this earth will have an impact even then. We can be tempted to gaze up into heaven like the disciples, trying to figure things out, trying to make sense of heaven from the perspective of the earth, trying to make sense of eternity from inside the boundaries of time. But the messengers warn us to get on with it.

This means that we must live content with the knowledge and hope that there is more going on than we are privy to. That even when things seem to be going badly, when the Kingdom of the world crashes in on us, when hope seems beyond our grasp; it’s all right, because Christ is in charge, he is reigning over the entire universe, and we know he is good and he loves us.

There is much beyond our view, but nothing is beyond the view of the King of Heaven. And we know enough to be secure and comforted. And because of that, there is no need to stand staring at the sky. Instead, we can move forward in hope and faith, as Christ’s hands, announcing and ushering in the expanding Kingdom of God.

V. Conclusion

Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s a big day—the day when we celebrate Jesus, who made himself very small at Christmas, getting very big. Christ, who humbled himself by putting on the flesh of a human, is now ruling with power over the whole Kingdom of God.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of Jesus is like a little mustard seed. It starts out small and weak, just as newborn Jesus was small and weak on Christmas. But the Kingdom is powerful now, and will be even more powerful someday. The ascension proclaimed the Lordship of Christ over the universe and promised the final consummation of the Kingdom of God, when sin will be put away for good and death will be no more.

In the Ascension, we see Jesus set free from the limits of flesh, limitations he took on for our sake. We see Christ rising in power to rule over the entire universe, not just certain times and places, not just certain aspects of the world.

And through the Ascension we see that Christ has arisen so that the story of redemption and the expansion of the Kingdom of God may continue. Because of the ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that followed, the story of redemption and the Kingdom can continue through people like you and me as we are helped by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s ascension means he is now ruling with power over the whole Kingdom of God.


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