SERVICE VIDEO (link)
TEXT: Acts 1:4-11
Today we recognize a very important event that happened only a few weeks after the resurrection of Jesus; actually, 40 days to be precise. Did you guess Pentecost?? No…. that’s 10 days later – we’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost next Sunday. It’s the Ascension. When Jesus appeared to Mary on Easter morning (John 20:17) he said, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Well this is it – Jesus ascends… he goes up into Heaven to be with God the Father.
So what’s important about the Ascension of Jesus? It’s not as big a deal as the “biggies” is it?
- Incarnation: Jesus’ birth and God’s putting-on of human flesh to live among us
- Crucifixion: Jesus’ death, which atoned for our sin and “made right with God” all who believe
- Resurrection: Jesus’ victory over death, which we now share through faith in him
I’ll admit that for most of my life I’ve just thought the Ascension was Jesus’ “trip back to Heaven” – that’s it, end of story. But there’s so much more! And this isn’t just a random excursion into an obscure theological area: it has everything to do with God’s power and purpose that we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks.
The Ascension Narrative (Acts 1)
So let’s start with the narrative – the account of Jesus’ Ascension. It’s short and sweet and it’s there in Acts 1, and the actual Ascension is only one verse long. After speaking to his followers, Jesus “was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (v. 9) That’s about it. As you can imagine, they just stood and stared, “gazing intently into the sky while He was going.” (v. 10) But what else can we get from the context here?
We have two main pieces of information: what Jesus said before he left and what the angel messengers said after he left.
Before leaving, Jesus final words had to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit, which would come to empower his followers to be witnesses far and near. This was in contrast to their question of “restoring the kingdom to Israel.” Instead, Jesus taught (as he had always taught), God’s Kingdom was not of this world. He had frequently made that point through miraculous and supernatural signs and he was about to demonstrate that with one last miraculous sign: his Ascension into the heavens. I will also simply note for now the very close connection between the promise and work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ Ascension. More on that later!
After he left, two “men in white clothing” appeared and the basic content of their message signaled that Jesus would one day return in the same manner as his leaving. (v. 11) But what does it all mean?!
The Meaning of the Ascension
Let me mention several benefits of Jesus’ Ascension to the believer, and you will see these outlined in the confession of faith we’ll use later in the service. You can also see the scripture referenced there on the back of the bulletin. There are at least four benefits of the Ascension for those who believe.
1. A Heavenly Advocate
One of the important realities of Jesus being at the right hand of the Father is that Jesus took our humanity with him. He is our advocate, and our righteous one at that. Romans 8:34 tells us that Jesus is not only the one who died, but is the one who was raised and is at the right hand of God, and is the one “who also intercedes for us.” That is why we pray “in Jesus’ name,” because he is our representative, our advocate, our intercessor. It is as if Jesus tacks on to our every prayer, “…and this prayer is from Sarah, the one I love, the one I died for, the one who I have made a place for with us; listen to her!” Can you imagine having such an advocate, because you do!
But that verse from Romans goes even beyond that. As one who intercedes for us, Jesus prays and presents our needs to the Father even when we can’t! Have you ever felt like your prayers go nowhere or that you simply don’t have the words to pray? Jesus is praying on your behalf. That is one of the real benefits to the Ascension, because Jesus took our human experience with him. He didn’t shed it on earth, but took a real humanity back into the presence of God. Jesus prays for you!
2. A Heavenly Humanity
Building on that idea of Jesus taking our humanity with him back into the presence of God, is the assurance – a “sure pledge” as the confession says – that he will take us with him. Jesus didn’t come for a visit, heal a few people, and then return back to the bliss of Heaven. Rather, he came and PUT ON humanity, becoming one of us – living, suffering, and dying as one of us. Even in the defeat of death he didn’t leave humanity behind. He went out of his way after Easter to demonstrate that he still had an eating, drinking, touchable, human body. And he took it with him into Heaven. Romans 6:5 tells us that we shall certainly be united with him in “the likeness of His resurrection.” I’d also point you to John 14:2, Jesus’ words to his disciples right before his crucifixion. He told them that he was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house.
3. A Heavenly Heart
One interesting aspect of the Ascension is that it draws our attention to “heavenly things.” While there is an apt cliché about Christians sometimes “being so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good,” in this day and age the opposite is probably more often the problem. We are so rational and science-minded and sense-oriented that we’ve lost all appreciation of what the ancients called “mystery.” We spend so much time with TV, computers, smart phones, traffic, and 1000 other things that we rarely take time out to contemplate the character of God or the deeper questions of faith.
If we say we are Christian, there are earthly and heavenly implications. Followers of Christ do need a re-set on earthly matters as we grow in what it means to love our neighbor, speaking and demonstrating the love of God in the community and world around us. But we also are to fix our minds on Christ, and if he is seated with the Father in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), then we should, from time to time, find our mind and hearts pondering those mysteries. What does it mean to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength – particularly if that informs and shapes our love of neighbor? What and why do we gather to WORSHIP God in spirit and truth? That seeking of heavenly things is what makes this time together more than some good music, hanging out with friends, and an instructive message.
4. A Heavenly Gift
Jesus also said more than once that the Holy Spirit would not come until he went away. Though God’s Spirit has always been existent and active in the world (just look through the Old Testament for many examples), there was a certain “outpouring” that had been promised and linked to the coming of God’s Kingdom and Jesus indicated that the Spirit would come in this way after he had gone. (John 16:7) Next week we will celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit in this promised way.
The benefits I have previously mentioned are anchored and secured in Heaven because Jesus has carried our resurrected and redeemed humanity there with him. But the gift of the Holy Spirit is that we are connected with him now! Those heavenly realities have earthly implications because of the “Holy Spirit glue” of being connected to the Ascended Christ. I often remind you that God is present and active here in the world; what is also true is that the Christian is spiritually present with God through the Ascended Christ and the work of the Spirit! This is one reason we can experience the power and presence of God as we’ve been talking about in recent weeks.
The Ascension Applied
Does all that seem to theological and remote?
Here’s a way to understand all this that I have used before: If the Incarnation is Jesus coming to find us as we are drowning in the middle of the lake, the Crucifixion and Resurrection are Jesus throwing us a life preserver that we might be rescued and live. But the Ascension is Jesus reeling us back in – to safety and to home. And of course the reality is so much more vivid – God didn’t just toss us a life preserver, He swam out to save us. In His Ascension, Jesus carries us BACK HOME with him. That’s good news in the long run and there are life-changing benefits of that reality in the here and now. We have an Advocate; we have a “sure pledge” of home; we have a focal point for our worship and service; and we have an outpouring of spiritual gifts and God’s power.
Or consider this comparison: imagine yourself as a child, playing with friends a few doors from home. Of course you would be focused on the friends and play before you. But doesn’t it matter what is back home? Doesn’t knowing that a mom or dad or grandparent is back in the house give you security, freedom, and confidence in what you are doing, knowing that if you get hurt you have a comforter and advocate who will take care of you or take you to the doctor? It’s also your HOME – what a difference that makes to know you have food and shelter and a bed waiting for you… a sure thing because it’s held for you. And as parents, don’t we trust that our love and teaching of our children remains with them when they are far from home, guiding their choices and drawing their hearts and minds back with us? And even if you did not know that security as a child, have you seen it? Can you imagine it? So it is all the more with Jesus, who has taken our humanity home to be with his Father and our Father. It makes all the difference in the world!
Perhaps the key significance of the Ascension is that Jesus takes us with him. In John 14:3, Jesus tells his disciples that he will go and prepare a place for them – a home with God. The Ascension is Jesus making good on that promise. He has gone to the Heavenly Father, purchased access for us, provided for our adoption into the family of God, and makes ready a place “that where he is we might also be.” In Romans 10:6, Paul asks “Who will ascend into Heaven.. that is, to bring Christ down?” The answer is, “No one.” We can’t go get God or salvation – God had to come all the way down to us to get us. And He has done that in Jesus Christ, who has not only come for us, but has gone back home to Heaven so we can have a spiritual home with him now and join him at the last. Good news, indeed. Amen!