High and Lofty

Christ Covenant Church
Rev. Marq Toombs
11 November 2018
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost / Ordinary Time

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Our sermon text for today comes from the Gospel of Luke 24:50-53.

Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

As you might have gathered by now, the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, from earth into heaven, is the focal point of this service and sermon.

I must confess that, like many professing Christians in our time, the Ascension was not always important to me. Outside of a few cavalier remarks about Jesus still being in charge and still sitting on his throne – usually made in the aftermath of an election gone wrong – the tradition I came from did not pay much attention to the Ascension.

All that began to change when my family and I were doing mission work in south Mexico. A family from the church invited us to spend an afternoon with them at their house. It was a make-shift shelter that sat on a rocky hill at the edge of the city. The family was dirt poor. The husband was crippled in both legs due to a terrible work-related accident. Their children were well-mannered and helped out around the house. The wife worked odd jobs here and there to keep a few eggs, a little cheese, and some beans and tortillas on the table. Her name was Asuncion.

This was a new name to my ears, so I asked her what it meant. She told me, “Los Catolicos say it refers to the story of the Virgin Mary being taken up into heaven. But I don’t believe that story, so I prefer to say it refers to the story of Jesus rising up in las nubes – the clouds.”

Moved by her faith-perspective, I started taking more interest in the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ from that day on.

I hope this sermon will help you do the same.

Today, I want us to look at the Ascension from three perspectives: the historical, the theological, and the existential. In other words, I want us to see what happened; what it means; and why it matters.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: WHAT HAPPENED

As we heard in the scripture reading before the sermon, Jesus led his disciples away from the city of Jerusalem, over the Mount of Olives, towards the town of Bethany. This was forty days after his resurrection from the dead.

For forty days Jesus had been eating with his disciples, walking with them, and teaching them the truth of the kingdom of God.

When the time came for Jesus to go, he lifted up his hands and blessed his disciples. This might have been the ancient priestly benediction by which God put his name on his people.

But Acts 1:8-9 seems to point in another direction. The benediction included a prophetic message about their mission: Wait and the Holy Spirit will come upon you in a few days, then go the ends of the earth as my witnesses.

This was a missional benediction — like the one you receive at the end of our service.

When Jesus had given them his missional benediction, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

He was lifted up means he was lifted up in the same body that was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. The same body that was beaten and scourged, crucified and buried. The same body that was resurrected.

Jesus ascended into heaven with his nail-scarred, spear-pierced, resurrected body. Not as a ghost or spirit. Not as a god in a human costume, but as the God-man.

These things happened at real geographic location in real space-time history. But what do these things mean?

Thankfully, we do not have to speculate or imagine. For the Spirit of Christ revealed the meaning and significance to the apostles and prophets just as Jesus promised. 

THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: WHAT IT MEANS

In the historical narratives of the Ascension, we see the risen Lord Jesus Christ exercising his three-fold office of priest, prophet, and king.

As Priest, because he lifted his hands and blessed his disciples.

As Prophet, because he spoke the word of God to them.

As King, because he sent them on mission to the ends of the earth then entered into his glory.

Many things could be said about these three offices and their relation to the meaning of the Ascension. But we must narrow our focus and focus mainly on Jesus’ office as King.

Jesus ascended into heaven, on a cloud, and sat down at the right hand of God. Why? For what purpose or reason?

  • To receive the kingdom, the power, and the glory as both Lord and Christ
  • To receive the promise of the Holy and pour him out on both Jews and Gentiles
  • To rule from his throne at the right hand of the Father (until the Father puts all his enemies under his feet)
  • To reveal his glorious radiance and to inherit his majestic name above all names
  • To reign over all creatures in heaven and on earth and under the earth

Again, much more could be added.

Suffice it to say that Jesus Christ ascended as the triumphant King of Glory and the Victorious Lord of heaven and earth.

The Ascension shows us that Jesus is the Son of Man who went up to the Ancient of Days on a cloud in power and glory.

Jesus is the Son of God who was set on mount Zion and enthroned above the nations.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ makes all the difference.

In his delightful book Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, Nate Wilson says the story of the Bible can be summarized in this way: Kill the dragon. Get the girl.

We get his point, and it’s good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.

From what we have seen today, there’s more to the story than Kill the dragon. Get the girl.

In fact, it is not enough for the shepherd to kill the dragon or deal his enemies a crushing blow; he must also take captivity captive, proclaim his victory, and lead the triumphal procession.

This why the Ascension is so essential.

Without the Ascension, Jesus slays the dragon, but does not get the girl.

With the Ascension, Jesus crushes the serpent, and receives his bride.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ changes everything.

As Michael Horton explains in his Pilgrim Theology:

The ascension of Christ actually created a new set of affairs in the world…The kingdom of heaven descends to earth in the person of its King, and returns through the triumphal arch of heaven with our flesh and our history raised to his eschatological glory. Like his humanity, history is not left behind, but is fundamentally altered in its destiny.

The word eschatological does not refer to singing jazz or using foul language; it refers to the final goal or destiny of someone or something.

In this case, it refers to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ changes everything.

Not as an escape from reality, but as an exodus to the true and better reality of the new heavens and new earth.

That is good news and here’s why it matters for you, me, and everyone in the world.

EXISTENTIAL PERSPECTIVE: WHY IT MATTERS TO US

The Ascension was not the consummation of Jesus’ ministry, but the continuation of it.

The missionary who came from heaven to seek and save the lost on earth has become the mediator between God and men in heaven.

Jesus’ earthly ministry started with forty days of fasting and prayer; but his heavenly ministry started with forty of feasting and preaching.

On the fortieth day he ascended into heaven.

Not to abandon us on earth, but to abide with us by his Spirit; not to avoid messing with us, but to advocate for us messy people in heaven.

Paraphrasing Chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, he  ministers to them from his throne at the right hand of the Father as Priest, Prophet, and King.

As Priest he ever lives to intercede for us. He prays for you even now. If you could hear him praying for you in the throne-room, you would hear him asking the Father to let you know God, to sanctify you by the truth, to protect you from the evil one, to unite you God and each other.

As Prophet he ever lives to speak to us in his word and by his Spirit. He preaches the gospel of grace and glory to you even now.

As King he ever lives to shepherd the nations and rule the affairs of this world. He protects you and provides for you even now.

So, you see that the Ascension of Jesus matters for historical and theological reasons. But it also matters for personal and existential reasons.

How does it matter? What difference does it make for you?

As one who grew up in the Bible Belt, my inner moralistic evangelical wants me to say, “Jesus ascended into heaven, now go and do likewise.”

On the one hand, we know that would be utterly ridiculous, for no one can ascend to heaven on their own no matter how much they wish to imitate Jesus, no matter how high the jump.

On the other hand, we know that uttering such a statement would be totally glorious, for all of us were baptized into Christ are united to Christ and seated with him in heavenly places.

We have already ascended with him by his Spirit, but we have not yet ascended with him in our body.

Now that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, and now that we are seated with him by the Spirit, we enjoy certain privileges and advantages.

+ We may call on the Sovereign Lord in prayer any time – day or night.

[Pastoral / Congregational]

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? (Acts 4; Psalm 2) Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:26)

+ We may draw near to his throne of grace by faith and find help in our time of need. (Whether the need is big or small.)

Our world and your life are full of troubles of many shapes and sizes. But God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we shall not fear though all hell breaks loose against us and the earth gives way around us.

Now that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, and we are seated with him,

+ We may come up on the mountain, sit under the cloud of glory, and eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, in the Presence of the Lord. (Exodus 24)

Finally,

+ We may draw near to worship Christ. For example, Psalm 2 calls us to worship Jesus:

As the Father commands –

Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling
.

As the Father warns –

Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

As the Father promises –

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Circling back around to our sermon text in Luke 24:52-53, notice the apostles’ first response to the Ascension.

They did not complain, despair, or grieve that Jesus left them behind.

No! When they saw the Lord high and lifted up,

“They worshiped him [kissed him] and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

[Note: They blessed God because the God-man first blessed them. The word for blessed is eulogizo. Our English word eulogy comes from this Greek word. Unlike us, Jesus and the apostles did not wait until death and a funeral to speak good words to each other, for each other, about each other. They eulogized each other in this life.]

By faith, the knowledge of the truth of the gospel of the Ascension moved them to bow their knees and confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts, Jesus is Lord.

In conclusion,

I want to take you back to that make-shift house on top of a hill at the edge of the city in south Mexico.

What you might not know is that in Spanish, Asuncion and Ascension are similar words with slightly different meanings. (In English, we would say Assumption and Ascension.)

Our sister switched the meaning of her name because she wanted to identify with Jesus Christ not the virgin Mary. His ascension reminded her to keep looking up, and waiting on, and hoping for the Lord — in the midst of her serious poverty and dire straits.

Asuncion was the glue that held her family together; the Ascension is glue that holds our faith-family together as well.

Without the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, on a cloud, to the right hand of God, the story of redemption would be an unfinished tale and unresolved melody.

The whole world would be helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd; and the Church catholic would not exist at all. The center would not hold, things would fall apart. The gospel would not be good news at all.

So, brothers and sisters, let us not overlook the power of the truth of the good news of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, rather let us look over it again and again with fresh eyes and faithful hearts.

As baptized Christians who have been raised with Christ,

Let us seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Let us set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ.” (The Message / Eugene Peterson)

For we have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God in heavenly places.

When Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, by his Spirit, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP, Collect for Ascensiontide)