Sermon for May 29th

First Reading       Acts 1:1-14

Second Reading  Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel Reading John 17:20-26

Sermon: “Now What?”

Today, we are celebrating Ascension Day. We’re actually a little late, since it comes 40 days after Easter, it always falls on a Thursday. But it is too important an event to let it slip by unnoticed. So today, a week before Pentecost, we are remembering and celebrating the Ascension of Jesus from this earth back to his Heavenly Father. It is a pivotal moment of transition; A transition between the earthly ministry of Jesus and the ongoing ministry of his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke chooses this event as both the marker and the bridge between his two books.

“There are three movements found in todays scripture” as Michael Brown wrote in his commentary on this passage. “Looking back. Looking forward. Looking up.” Looking back, because that’s how Luke begins the book of Acts – Acts 1:1-5 NIV

[1] In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach [2] until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. [3] After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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.”

That’s what the Gospel of Luke presents to us the life of Jesus – how he came into this world, ministered, taught, healed, suffered, died and rose again. His Gospel closes with Jesus physically departing this earth, the same way that Acts opens. Listen to those final words of the Gospel of Luke 24:50-53 NIV “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 worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”

There at the closing of the gospel is the same movement as in the first of Acts. Now the emphasis shifts to what is to come – to Looking forward.You see? Something important has changed. The wonder of Easter had still left the disciples indecisive, at times huddled in a room, at other times, even gone back to fishing. Now the disciples are no longer withdrawn, they are out in public, worshipping and praising God. Now they are ready to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go to fulfill the Great Commission. Jesus had spent 40 precious days with them after the resurrection, explaining and reassuring them. But even here, at the very end, there are still missteps as Acts 1:6-8 shows us:

[6] Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” [7] He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. [8] 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 made an understandable mistake. Jesus was victorious over death, he was present right there with them – was this the time then that God would come and reign in power on the earth as the Old Testament prophets had promised? Jesus’ answer is both rebuke and redirection. Perhaps an analogy might help us understand the true transition that is taking place. Most all of us have had the experience of going an a trip with young kids. They are often excited and impatient with the process of getting there. The repeated question – “are we there yet?” comes again and again. “How much longer?” A bit later in comes the taxi driver stage – “Mom, Dad, I need to go to ball practice, or Piano lessons.” Or Jane is having a party at her house tonight, can you take me?” Then, eventually comes Drivers Ed, and a learners permit – still the parent is there riding along giving advice and occasionally nervously stomping on an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side of the car. I wonder if Jesus ever felt that way when he was with his disciples? Finally comes the day when the keys are handed over, and now its time to see if the lessons were enough.

The ascension is that kind of a moment. No, now is not the time when God is going to blow the trumpet and set everything to its originally created perfection. This is rather the moment when the keys of the kingdom here on earth are passed along to the disciples and through them on down to us. Oh yes, as I have often reminded you, God most definitely will renew creation, God will absolutely send Jesus to reign in power and glory on this earth. But we still wait, if a bit impatiently – “When will it happen?” How long do we have to wait?” “Are we there yet?” Wrong questions Jesus says – that’s not your business he said. Your business is this: Acts 1:8 NIV “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.”

You see, the disciples were thinking too small. It was not just the kingdom of Israel that Jesus was sent to save. It was all the kingdoms and nations of the entire world. That’s where they were to go. That’s the story that the Book of Acts begins to tell. It tells of those first few steps and ventures out into the world, beyond the borders of Israel, into Samaria, and into Syria and Turkey, Greece and Italy. It tells us of the disciples, of Stephan, of Barnabas, Silas and Paul, of Lydia and Pricilla and Aquila. Interestingly, the book of Acts doesn’t really end. It leaves the story unfinished, because the story continues to this very day. Jesus disciples are still witnessing all over the world. Yes, they will need more help and God will provide that in abundance as we will celebrate next week at Pentecost. But here is where it starts, outside Bethany on the backside of the mount of Olives as Jesus passes the baton and tells them its your turn now.

That brings us to the third movement of the passage – Looking up. First it happens literally as Luke tells us: Acts 1:9-11 NIV [9] After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. [10] They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. [11] “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.” Its almost as if the angel were saying “don’t just stand there with your mouths hanging open, You’ve already been told what to do!”

It’s one of those moments when it takes a body a while to come back to earth. Some of the disciples had been with Jesus on a different mountain when he was transfigured into a gloriously shinning vision of his heavenly majesty. But that was temporary, a brief vision and then back to normal. The ascension however meant this was the new normal and so their minds likely raced back and forth in all three directions – remembering what Jesus had told them about what was to come, thinking about the mission he had laid out for them in the future and still looking heavenwards and pondering what Jesus return would mean.

When they thought back, no doubt, they remembered Jesus’ words in the upper room on the night of his arrest. We read a later part of that in our gospel reading this morning. Now that Jesus had ascended, it no doubt sounded different than when they first heard it in confusion and fear. Now it comforts and encourages as Jesus is with the Heavenly Father. It’s his ongoing intercession for them and for us – listen to it again and visualize if you will, not the upper room in Jerusalem, rather the courts of Heaven!

John 17:1-11 NIV [1] After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. [2] For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. [3] Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. [4] I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. [5] And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. [6] “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. [7] Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. [8] For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. [9] I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. [10] All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. [11] I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.

In the section we read today, Jesus has prayed these words for his disciples (check that, Apostles now, since they are being sent out) then he too looks forward, praying for all those would come to faith from the teaching of the Apostles, and the ones that they would teach – generation to generation – right on down to us in this present day. We are called to pass on the baton that we have received to others. To encourage them, and urge them to prepare the next generation as well.

Looking back to see what God has done, Looking forward to see where God is leading and Looking up to receive help and direction from the Holy Spirit – there is work to be done and God has called us to the task. So let’s do as those first disciples did. Let us sing and worship and pray, be filled with the Holy Spirit and go out into the world to be witnesses and ministers in his name.