Faithlife Sermons

Ascension Sunday 2020

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In our present crisis, we long for the power and presence of God.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Life is as bright as a diamond and as brittle as a window pane.” Three months ago, many of us could only relate to his words in theory; but today, the bright and brittle nature of life is very real.
The truth, of course, is that our world has always been this fragile; but we’ve largely bought into the idea that we’ve conquered and subdued all of life’s danger; that we’re in control. But now, we’re all thrust into a reality in which we are without defenses. We’re forced to deal with our vulnerability.
We’re also dealing with a profound sense of powerlessness. In many ways, if we are not medical professionals, we can only watch and wait. We’ve heard a lot about entering into a “new normal,” and we can’t help but wonder if the new normal is a life of powerless vulnerability?
We’ve seen how many have responded to this crisis. Do you remember when you couldn’t find toilet paper anywhere? Or hand soap? Or disinfectant? Do you remember the panic and the hoarding that swept across the country as our vulnerability became more apparent? What mindset brought that on? People felt vulnerable, and they felt that they were on their own.
You see, if you’re vulnerable and on your own, very quickly your response will devolve into a hunker down mentality. You’ll act out in fear. You’ll seek to protect your little world. You’ll hoard resources. You’ll lash out in anger and judgement because you’re fighting this crisis on your own. These responses make perfect sense if you feel vulnerable and alone.
But something else happened in those early days. Alongside the hoarding, people, many of them Christians, began to reach out via text, phone, or Facebook, asking if anyone needed help buying groceries or finding toilet paper or disinfectant. Almost immediately, as our vulnerability became more and more apparent, people began seeking out ways to help those in need or disadvantaged. What mindset brought that on?
This morning, we are talking about the Ascension of Jesus, which is a part of the Jesus story that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but in reality it is right up there with his death and resurrection with regards to its impact on our daily life. And in this age of vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, we desperately need to be reminded that Jesus has ascended.
Because in the Ascension we see that Christ’s power and presence is magnified for the benefit of the Church, and through the Church his power and presence is applied to the world. So this morning I want to explore the nature of the Ascension, the benefit of the Ascension for the church, and the benefit for world.
But before we can talk about benefit or application, we’ve got to understand what the Ascension of Jesus means.

The Nature of the Ascension: Jesus ascends to the throne.

We heard in Luke’s gospel and in his other writing, the Book of Acts, that Jesus blesses his disciples and then is lifted up and carried up into heaven. Now, we don’t know what this looked like, though we tend to imagine a bright light shining from the clouds, a choir of angels singing or maybe something composed by Howard Shore, and Jesus is slowly rises up and out of sight. We tend to think of the Ascension in terms of a spacial Ascension. Where does Jesus go? He goes up! But then, when did he stop? When did he stop going up? Like, once he hit the stratosphere did he keep going? Did he go to space? Past the moon?
Now, you’re probably thinking, that’s ridiculous, and you’re right. But many of us think of the Ascension primarily as a spacial Ascension, but that’s not what this is about. This isn’t about a levitating Jesus. This isn’t about a change of altitude, it’s a change of power.
Think of any movie that you’ve seen that involved a king or queen. There’s always a scene where they are in their palace or castle or whatever, sitting on the throne. The throne is the symbolic place of power and authority, it’s where the king or queen executes their authority and will. And how do we describe someone who begins their governance? They ascend to the throne. It’s an ascension of power.
Now, the biblical authors had their own phrase to describe this ascension of power, and we hear it in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul talks about the power that God worked in Jesus when we raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places. Much like our understanding of the throne, the right hand was for them the place of power and authority and governance. And this is where Jesus ascends. To the right hand of God.
Throughout the gospels there is a phrase that is repeatedly on the lips of Jesus. Again and again, he spoke about the Kingdom of God. In every town that he visited, he would tell all who would listen about the good news of the Kingdom of God - the good news that God was going to take the throne of his Creation, defeat evil and injustice and sin, and he on his throne would create a new world out of the old, a new world characterized by love, life, and peace. Jesus came announcing that kingdom, and in the Ascension, it is revealed to us that he is not just the messenger he is the King.
What is the nature of the Ascension? It is Jesus taking the throne of Creation, taking the seat of power and authority, and beginning his reign as King. Jesus is now enthroned, he is now exercising his authority over the world as its King. And with this comes immense benefit for us who have pledged our allegiance to this King. So let’s talk about how an enthroned Jesus is for our benefit as the Church.

The Benefit of the Ascension for the Church: Jesus fills the church with his presence and power.

There’s one thing that Melanie has never understood about me, well, there’s many things, but one of them is how I’ll bring a rain jacket with me in the car if it looks like rain, but when we actually get to the store, nine times out of ten, I leave the jacket in the car unless it’s monsooning outside. She just doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t put it on. What good is it if you don’t put it on? I’m not reaping any benefit from having it stored away in the car. I need to take it out and put it on.
This is what the Ascension does, is it clothes the Church with all of the works of Christ. By ascending to the throne of power and authority, all of the benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are applied to those who put their trust in him and follow him as King. Paul uses the metaphor of a cup being filled to the brim with Jesus to describe what Christ’s ascension does for the Church. In Ephesians he writes, “And the Father put all things under Christ’s feet and gave him as head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” As a result of the Ascension, the Church is the fullness of Christ, meaning it is filled to the brim with the power and presence of Jesus, because he is enthroned over all things.
Think of what Jesus did while he walked the earth. He healed sickness, defeated evil spirits, and forgave sins. He met with the poor and the humble and exalted them to positions of honor in his presence. Jesus showed his power by bringing the life of the Kingdom of God to the people that he met as he taught from city to city. But that power was limited. When Jesus was in Capernaum, that restorative power was not in Jerusalem. When Jesus was in Jerusalem, that powerful presence was not working in Bethany. But now, enthroned at the right hand of God, the life changing power and presence of Jesus is infinitely available to all who seek it. The Ascension is not the loss of Christ’s power, it is the magnification of his power. It’s not the loss of his presence, it is the magnification of his presence.
What does it mean for you and me that Jesus is now reigning on the throne as the Ascended King? It means that, like with any King here on Earth, his vision for his realm is being put into action, his will is being applied to his people. What is the will of Jesus that is being applied to his people? That our sin and brokenness be conquered by his death and that we’d be filled with his life and love. This is Christ’s will for the Church, and because he has taken the throne, he is making that happen all over the world, filling communities like our own with his life changing power and presence. This is the benefit of the Ascension for the Church.
But the Ascension doesn’t just benefit the Church, it benefits the world. And this has been made even more relevant and important for me as I’ve watched the systems of governance bend and break all over the world during this pandemic. It is good news for the Church, yes of course, but it is good news for the whole world that Jesus has ascended to the throne of Creation. And let’s talk about why.

The Benefit of the Ascension for the World: The Church brings the presence and power of Christ to the World.

The prophet Isaiah writes this beautiful poem in chapter 52 depicting the city of Jerusalem lying in ruins after being destroyed by the armies of Babylon. Most of the city had been carted off into exile, but there were some who had remained in the rubble of what was once Jerusalem. And they are confused and afraid because this wasn’t how thing were supposed to go. Had God abandoned them? But just then, a watchmen spots a messenger running towards the city from the surrounding hills, and this messenger is shouting “Good News! Good News!” And Isaiah says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Because this messenger had brought the city good news that despite the destruction all around them, God still reigns as King, and that he would one day return to take up his throne and bring peace and restoration. Isaiah writes, “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
Fast forward a few centuries and is it any wonder that the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Of course they are thinking about this promise, how could they not? And maybe in their question we see a hint of them still not quite grasping the universal nature of Christ’s mission, but the gist of their question hits the nail on the head, “Jesus, is it time for God to take the throne and bring the promised peace and restoration of his Kingdom to the the world?”
And Jesus doesn’t say no! He can’t say no! Why? Because in just a few moments he’s going to ascend to the throne. So the answer is obviously yes, it is time for God to take the throne and bring his Kingdom, but with his last words to them, he shows how that Kingdom would be come to the world. And so he says in response, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria and (just like Isaiah said) to the end of the earth.” How will the Kingdom come to the world? How will God’s peace and restoration come? How will the violence and oppression and injustice and evil be defeated? How will the Kingdom come? Through those who have witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, who have been filled with his power and presence, and who like Isaiah’s messenger, go and share the message of good news to the broken places and people of the world.
Chesterton is right, the world is as beautiful as a diamond and as brittle as a window pane, and right now it feels like it has shattered and is in pieces in the midst of this pandemic. Almost a hundred thousand have died in this country, millions have lost their jobs, many business will never recover, social and racial injustices are being highlighted as the poor and communities of color are disproportionately being affected, people are at each other’s throats over how to respond. Yes, it feels like the window pane has shattered. It feels like a city that has been destroyed, and is ripe for good news. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.”
How does the authority and power of the ascended Christ get exercised in the world? How is his will and vision of restoration brought to bear here, in the midst of this pandemic? Through his people, the messengers of the good news. But here’s the crazy thing: as the church, we don’t just bring the message of Christ’s power and presence, we bring its reality. We don’t just bring a message of words, we bring the true and abiding presence of King Jesus with us when we serve and love our community. Jesus is present in the world through his people and he makes his power and presence known through his people and he chooses to spread his kindness, compassion, healing, provision, and love through his people.
Because of the Ascension, his love flows to you and through you. His power is applied to you, and it is applied through you. And in this season of pandemic, we need to take this seriously. Our community is hurting. Your city is hurting. It’s afraid, and confused, and anxious. It’s experienced great loss - loss of life, loss of security, loss of relationships. It’s feeling raw and exposed and vulnerable and it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn. Our city needs the Church, it needs this church, it needs you, because it needs the Lord, and we individually and together bring his power and presence when we choose to love and serve our neighbors sacrificially, when we put the needs of others ahead of our own, when we love our neighbor as ourselves.
The benefit of the Ascension for the world is that the Church can now bring the presence and power of Jesus to every broken and hurting place on earth. "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.”

Conclusion

It is good for us and for our society to come to grips with our fragility and our vulnerability. Our absolute control over life is and has always been an illusion of our own making. The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Many of us will come out of this crisis with a greater wisdom as we gain an increased awareness of our need for the Lord. We are vulnerable, but we are not alone.
But you are not powerless in this crisis. The Ascension says that you have been filled with the power and presence of Jesus, and this isn’t only for your benefit and comfort, but to empower you to go into dark and broken places, to wade into the suffering, and to share not yours but his healing, his compassion, his love, his hope with those in need. To be his witness to the vulnerable all around us.
Jesus has ascended to his throne. He is reigning as King over all creation. He is enacting his will over his world. And he’s primarily doing it through you, his people, his church. If there is ever a time to live into this identity, it is now.
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