Acts 1.1-14, Matthew 28.16-20
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ unto his throne in Heaven where he now resides and leads a victory over his nemesis Satan until one day the victory is completed. But let me say… don’t be mistaken! He is King now. Jesus rises from this earth within full view of his disciples. The angel immediately commands their attention, draws them away from their “navel gazing” (excessive self-contemplation) and sends them on their way. To be sure their eyes were filled with amazement at the moment Christ left their side. Jesus departs this earth for the very last time until the consummation of his final victory.
When Jesus said good-bye, he blessed them,
“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” (Luke 24.50-53).
Jesus offered some basic instructions before leaving earth. When Jesus said good-bye, he instructed them as to what they will be doing in his absence. Jesus instructed the disciples, even when some doubted he still gave these instructions,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28.18-20).
Although Jesus was about to step away for over two millennia, he gave them instructions and he expected his disciples to follow those instructions even when some doubted the validity of Jesus’ resurrection. Mark’s Gospel reports Jesus’ last words this way,
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16.15-20).
The disciples would soon go out and preach everywhere. The Spirit of Jesus would travel with them and confirm the good news of the Gospel with signs and wonders. The only way that the disciples could accomplish the spread of the Gospel of Christ Jesus is in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ departure at the Ascension was a critical moment not only for the disciples’ spiritual journey, but for our spiritual lives as well.
No doubt they experienced what Henry Blackaby calls a crisis of belief. The disciples had no idea what lie ahead of them but God promised that he would be with them. Trusting God became a dynamic challenge for these fledgling disciples. Remember they had all fled from the cross just days before this good-bye event.
In the midst of their everyday walking around lives they must have wondered how they would survive to tell the story they were bound to share by their faith in God. It wasn’t a person who called them to make disciples – you see it was God himself who extended that invitation to go into the world. The same challenge remains for us today but we cannot disciple others lest we wait upon the Holy Spirit for empowerment. The disciples waited for their helper to support them in their new endeavor.
The Christian calendar provides a way for all of us to remember together the many good things that Christ has provided for us, the promises fulfilled. The Christian holiday of Ascension marks time for us. The disciples said good-bye to Jesus then a period of waiting for the Holy Spirit began (Acts 16.7, Phil. 1.9). During the interim period between the Ascension and Pentecost, the early church prayed.
When we read the Old Testament, it is easy to discern that God loves to mark time. God himself devises and outlines how to celebrate festivals throughout the year. When the Ascension of Jesus came, the disciples were called to become faithful followers in the midst of great change and adversity.
When the day of Pentecost came for the disciples, a new community of faith would begin to emerge. In Acts the people formed a new community out of the disappointment of saying good-bye to Jesus and the challenges of saying hello to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2.42 the church emerges, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.” This early church was grounded in two realities: good-bye and hello.
The “good” good-bye comes with a string of promises from the Old Testament, a sure foundation. Jesus was not saying an empty good-bye. No, he was expressing the faith of all the promises that God had made to his people. Jesus knew he was not leaving his disciples without the means of grace to sustain them. Jesus presumed that they would flourish after his departure. Jesus knew because he had read the law and the prophets and he believed that the Father would do what he said he would do! Because God’s promises stand forever!
Let’s review some of those promises. I have preached on two Old Testament prophets this year: Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Ezekiel (622-571 B.C.) was a contemporary of the young Prophet Jeremiah. Today I want to focus on the promises found in Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was captured and taken to Babylon about the age of 25 and there he would discover a call to the ministry about the age 30 (Ezek. 1-3). To be sure Ezekiel was in the place of prayer at the riverside when he heard from God. You can read his calling in the first three chapters of his writings. His calling got off to a rather difficult start with radical visions and a hard word from God that the people he would be sent to would be so hard-hearted that he might as well had his mouth duck-taped from the get-go.
Prayer became the great catalyst for Ezekiel to experience a move of God. God deals Ezekiel a tough hand when he asks him to carry the word to hard-hearted and deaf-eared people. Can you imagine with me how Ezekiel’s life was a prototype of Jesus’ prophetic ministry? When we look at the promises of God in Ezekiel’s message, we can see how Jesus would have rested in the blessed assurance that something wonderful was about to happen at his departure.
Ezekiel would behold the vision at the potter’s house when the clay would be reshaped into just what the potter desired for the clay to become (Ezek. 18). No doubt about it, we would prefer that Ezekiel not have had that vision. Who wants to be man-handled by God himself until we are conformed into a new design chosen by God? The ideal of that kind of reshaping does not fit easily in the western cultural mind-set that we live within.
Our bootstrap mentality kicks God’s interventions in our lives to the curb as disposable garbage. Our western mentality holds in high esteem the person who can outwit, outfox and otherwise beat any opponent – even God. This model of accomplishment serves us poorly as Christians.
Never the less the promise from God in Ezekiel 18 is that God himself will shape us into something useful of his own making. This idea of the potter shaping the clay highlights God’s approach at healing our misshapen fallen identity and our distorted sense of individuality.
Ezekiel would have fantastic visions of a glorious future once Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezek. 33-48). Who can fathom why a community must be destroyed before it can find new life in God, but Israel is always finding herself in this predicament! And, God would find ways to renew Israel and bring her home.
Ezekiel would speak to the nation and call its attention to the sins of its heart and life because the promises hinged on a right relationship with God. This difficult event set the stage for the most glorious promises from God. God reminds us through his prophets that we have been commissioned to keep our eyes upon God’s Word and our ears open to the fulfillment of his declarations. We know as Christians…
the promised land will be restored, the people will receive a new heart, the dead will rise to new life, and the healing flow of water will trickle down from the throne room of heaven for the healing of God’s people. And, all will be made right again.
God is the one who will make the future flourish for the community. It is not the prophet Ezekiel nor the people of Israel who will ensure the promises are fulfilled for a brighter future. To be sure humans do not initiate the future, it is God himself who invites us to participate in his plans.
The western model of ministry would suggest it is our humanistic decisions – our pride – that would lead ministerial activities. As God’s people we are called to relinquish the notion that we are self-sustaining. What makes us “good and faithful” servants is that we first know God. It is not by taking our own initiative that we are considered “good and faithful” servants.
Jesus knew when he left this earth that the helper was coming. He had done everything that the Father had asked of him. He was secure in his relationship with his Heavenly Father that he had peace. What seemed like a life cut short was truly the perfect will of the Father.
Jesus’ departure was on time, in time and in the perfect fullness of time. Every decision of the Father was precise, lacking nothing in its timing. What we might imagine as a less than perfect conclusion to his time upon this earth – just 33 years – the Father had designed before the beginning of time itself.
Jesus knew that the Father’s timing was baffling, leaving his followers with questions of uncertainty and distrust issues. We might ask: why would Jesus leave his friends like that? He could have stayed longer. John’s Gospel illuminates the reason: Pentecost was coming. On the last night Jesus lived on this earth prior to his resurrection, Jesus prayed that the Father would send the disciples a helper – the Holy Spirit (John 17).
I love how Jesus prayed for those he left behind in John 17. Jesus knew they were going to struggle. In fact all the disciples would fail in their friendship with him – betrayal, abandonment. But Jesus would pray and trust his Heavenly Father to care for those he left behind.
Jesus knew the Holy Spirit was the key to the discipleship of the world. Jesus couldn’t reach the world with the Good News in his flesh – he became a martyr – but the Holy Spirit of Jesus could! The Holy Spirit came to provide gifts for ministry particularly the proclamation of the prophetic fulfillment of the Messiah and the creative opportunity for a people to become a new community of faith.
We are lead into a deeper understanding of what it means to practice the presence of God in our lives. We ought not think too highly of ourselves. Love should be shown without pretending about it. Love others, even strangers among you, like your very own family and honor one another. Be happy in service, hopeful in faithfulness, and stand your ground in times of trouble so that you will not fall away.
Pray always, contribute to the needs of others with a happy heart and welcome strangers in your own homes. Be nice to mean people and cry with those who are sad. Treat everyone as your equal. Jesus was a man with no reputation, associate with those who have no status.
To be sure all the laws are summed up in one new command – love… love your God (more than yourself) then your neighbor as yourself. Spend your gifts and talents for God’s purposes – not to build your own kingdom. Participate in life’s indulgences of food and rest with reservation so that you do not offend the weak-minded with your choices.
As this season of ministry together draws to a close I invite you to enter into a season of prayer. I invite you to use the prayer booklets from our “Stained Glass Windows Sermon Series” with texts from 1 Peter and prayer from those Scriptures for yourself, your church and your community. I invite you to read together the little brown book entitled “Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living” as well. These resources are available to you to encourage your heart during this season of change. God bless you, and God bless this community.