Sermon: The Ascension

If you are joining us for the first time this morning, or the first time in a while, this fall we are exploring the core teachings of the Christian faith. We are using an ancient formula called the Apostles’ Creed as our guide. The last few weeks, we have listened to God’s word on the significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ. This morning we will hear of his resurrection and ascension.

At the risk of angering the elders, we will be focusing this morning on Jesus’ ascension, not his resurrection. Do not hear this as downplaying the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul rightly says that If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential for the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, Christianity is worse than foolish. Jesus rising from the dead is both proof of his victory over sin and death and the reason we should take every word Jesus spoke as truth. If he did not rise, he is a loon, but if he did then we should listen to every word he says.

The resurrection is essential for Christian faith, but so is the ascension. However, the ascension – when Jesus was taken up into heaven before the eyes of the disciples forty days after his resurrection – is an under-appreciated, but essential part of our Christian faith. There have been and will be many other times to dwell on the resurrection, but this morning we will be listening to Jesus speak about his ascension into heaven. That brings us to John, chapter 14, beginning in verse 1. John 14, beginning in verse 1. Please feel free to turn there with me – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. John 14, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me:

Father may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms, if that were not so, would I have told you that 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. You know the way to the place where I am going.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who sees me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned, I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day, you will realized that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father and I too will love them and show myself to them.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The disciples were troubled. Jesus had just told them he would be leaving them. Three years together, sharing food, sharing shelter, sharing hardship. Three years sitting at his feet listening to him teach, three years standing a few feet away watching while he cast our demons and healed the sick, three years following every step he took and every word he spoke. Three years and he said he would soon be leaving. With the hindsight of knowing the whole story, we can know what leaving Jesus is talking about. A short time after this conversation, Jesus will be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, suffer, be crucified, die, and be buried in a borrowed tomb. The supreme miracle will happen: three days later he will rise from the dead, appear to his disciples and continue to reveal the power and kingdom of God to them. But not for long. Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus will ascend from this earth, be taken up in the clouds, and they will see him no longer. Jesus said, Before long, the world will not see me any longer. Jesus would go to sit at the right hand of the Father.

The disciples were troubled. Even if they could not fathom all that would soon happen, they were troubled to know that Jesus would soon leave them. Had they failed? How would they continue without him? Why was he leaving them?

Jesus said to them, Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms, if that were not so, would I have told you that 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. You know the way to the place where I am going.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Jesus was going to prepare a place for them. He compares heaven to a great house, filled with rooms. Jesus, our mighty host, goes on ahead of us to prepare the room where we will be staying. He goes ahead of us to make all things ready for us to be with him. He says, “you stay here, I will go and make sure everything is ready for you and then I will come back, take you inside, and show you your room.” Jesus goes to prepare a place for us.

Where Jesus goes, we will follow. 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. Jesus brings our redeemed human nature into the very presence of God so that we can be assured that we will one day follow him there. Even more than that, we can know that one day he will come and bring us there himself. This is why I love the verse in Christopher Wordsworth’s, “See the Conqueror”:

Thou hast raised our human nature,

in the clouds to God’s right hand.

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with thee in glory stand.

Jesus reigns, adored by angels,

man with God is on the throne.

Mighty Lord in thine ascension,

we by faith, behold our own.

In the ascension of Jesus Christ, we behold our own. In Jesus entering fully into heaven, we have a promise that we will enter heaven as well. That is why Wordsworth could say that in Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, “there we sit in heavenly places.” Because Jesus goes there, we know we will follow. 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. Jesus’ entrance into heaven in the ascension is a pledge and promise that we who have faith in Christ will enter into heaven as well. As the catechism says, “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.”

Jesus goes to prepare a place for us in heaven and he goes to be our way into heaven. After Jesus tells his disciples that he will leave to make ready the house of God for them to join him, Thomas admits he does not understand.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one can come to the Father except through me.”

We cannot find our way into heaven. The way must find us. Every person on the planet is either seeking God or trying not to. Even the most successful and seemingly content of us, if we are honest in the quiet moments of the night, can still sing with Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Every religion promises a pathway to some sort of god or some sort of heaven. Every self-help book, every Oprah special, and every car commercial is promising peace and fulfillment. The audacious claim of Christianity, the claim of Jesus himself, is that all this honest striving will not get us where we want to go. All roads do not lead to Rome. All paths do not lead to God. We cannot find our way into heaven. The way must find us.

It is like we are each lost in a dense forest. Everyone is trying to find their way out of the woods, but we only get more lost than when we began. Cut by brambles and exhausted, we easily take false trails that lead us nowhere. It is only when the owner of the house on the far side of the forest comes, cuts a path through the forest, finds us, and then leads through the woods to his house,  only then, can we find a way to safety. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with you that you also may be where I am.

Jesus not only prepares the house for our arrival, but he brings us there himself. Jesus is the only way to God, the only way to the Father’s house. I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me. Jesus entered heaven because we could not get there ourselves. He went to heaven in order to be our way into the presence of God.

Jesus is our way to the Father. He is the way through his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. Every part matters. It is like the most beautiful tapestry woven together by the eternal plan of God for our salvation. We cannot pull threads out without the whole thing unravelling. This is why we cannot use what Pastor Andrew Wilson calls the ‘Jesus tea-strainer approach.’ We cannot take the parts of the story we like and strain out the rest. It is either the whole thing – “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, he descended into hell, the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven and it seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” – either the whole thing or the whole thing falls apart. We need Jesus Christ to enter heaven for us. We need the ascension for our salvation.

A couple weeks ago, our catechism class was discussing whether human beings, which good created good and in his own image, were still basically good. The students said ‘No,’ but I wanted to push them to give me a reason for their answer. I knew they were right about human nature, but I wanted to see how they were thinking this through. Jane Eilderts looked at me with an expression of utter disbelief and said, “Do you even watch the news?”

We have all seen the news. We have heard of the horrendous violence that the people of Las Vegas experienced this past week. After so many tragedies, the numbers can easily become a set of data. We become numb in order to keep from being overwhelmed. Las Vegas was this week’s tragedy. But there was last week and the week before and the week before. By the time of the Las Vegas shooting, there had been 273 shootings of 4 or more people in this country this year alone. When the news shifts to the next big thing, the damage is still there. Our digital attention span may be short, but the wounds of violence and destruction run deep and heal slowly. Trayvon Martin is still dead, even if we have forgotten his name.

In a world of so much depravity, where we see ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ run as a constant ticker on the bottom of our TV screen, what does the ascension matter? Are we foolish in a world like this to sit in here and talk about how Jesus went up to heaven? Are we, in hearing that Jesus prepares a place for us, training ourselves to disengage a hurting world and hunker down and wait for heaven?

No. It is precisely in these moments, in this trying times, that we need the true full teaching of the gospel. It is precisely when the world seems to be spiraling out of control that we need to know that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and it seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. It is precisely in these moments that we need to know that there is someone seated on the throne.

Jesus’ ascension gives us hope and courage to live faithfully in these trying times. First, it gives us hope beyond what we can see right in front of us. We see violence across the country and across the globe and we see pain and loss much closer to home. Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms, if that were not so, would I have told you that 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. You know the way to the place where I am going. Tragedy narrows our vision to right now, right here, but Jesus lifts up our eyes to something bigger and greater. No matter what happens in this life, we belong to Jesus Christ and he has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us. No matter what takes place in this world, death, violence, and chaos do not rule, they do not get the last word. Jesus Christ is seated on the throne. He is King and so we pray, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus gives us hope that whether life gets better tomorrow or not, he will redeem this world. The King is sitting on his throne and he has prepared a place for us in his house. Jesus’ ascension gives us hope in a troubled world.

He also gives us courage to live for the kingdom. If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world will not accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. We have work to do. Jesus has called us to be peacemakers, to be merciful, and even to be willing to be  persecuted for righteousness’ sake. He has called us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and love each other. We are called to forgive, to seek justice, and to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. We are called to leave behind lying lips, fornication, envy, and malice, but to walk in the way of holiness.

We have a huge calling, but it is one we should not expect the world to understand. Those who belong to Christ have the Spirit of God dwelling within them, but the world does not. In a world equally enamored and repulsed by violence, we bear witness to the king on the throne who will redeem the world. In a world that cares little about life in the womb or out of it, we bear consistent witness to the King who gives us life and gave his life so that we might live again. In a world that honors those who peddle perversity, we witness to the sanctifying power of our king by striving to live holy lives. In a world hungry for a scapegoat for every scandal or sin, we witness to our King by forgiving our debtors and loving our enemies.

We have a huge calling in a troubled and chaotic world. It is a calling we receive because Jesus has taken his seat and the right hand of the throne of God and has sent his Spirit upon us. Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.

Jesus has cut his way into the thick, dense woods of our world and has opened the way for us into the Father’s house. He will come again and bring all his own to be with him in the presence of the Father forever. While we wait in hope for that day, he has sent his Spirit upon us to give us courage to live for the kingdom and its King in this troubled world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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