Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascension Sunday

Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s a day to remember a key event in Jesus’ life, His ascension into heaven. Luke reported what happened.
And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1.9
The Church has included this event in its creeds. So, the Apostles’ Creed states, ‘He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty’.

As you know, He’s not going to stay there forever. One day He will descend from heaven. So, again from Acts.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1.10-11
And, again, the Apostles’ Creed includes this. ‘From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’

Jesus has ascended from earth into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand, and He will, one day, descend from heaven to earth to evaluate every life.

Now, in light of all of that I have a question. It’s been about two thousand years since Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. So, what’s He been doing all this time?

Let me add a little side thought here. Asking questions of the text is a key part of what it means to meditate on the Scriptures. Asking and then answering such questions is really helpful. This is how the Gospel becomes real. This is one way that you get to know God better. Learn to ask questions of the text.

So, back to our question. What’s the answer? What has Jesus been doing for the past two thousand years or so? Luke, again, comes through.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach …  Acts 1.1
The first book that Luke wrote is what we call ‘The Gospel of Luke’. The Acts of the Apostles is the sequel, his second book. And in this opening verse Luke gives a quick summary of what his two books are about. He describes the first as dealing with ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach’. That means that his second book can be summarized as ‘all that Jesus continued to do and teach’. So, having ascended to the right hand of the Father, what is Jesus doing now while He awaits the day to descend to the earth? He’s doing and teaching. That’s what He did during the time covered by Luke’s Gospel. That’s what He did during the time covered by the book of Acts. And that’s what He is still doing today. Jesus is doing and teaching.

Now, for this to be helpful we’ll need to have more detail about this ‘doing and teaching’. And we can get that detail by looking at what Jesus began to do and teach. What was Jesus doing and teaching during His earthly ministry?

Well, He did a lot of healing and casting out of demons. Is He still doing that? Of course, He is! But if you’re going to understand the significance of that healing and demon tossing you need to see them in the larger context of Jesus’ mission when He was here.

We tend to summarize the Gospel in terms of forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness is important, but it’s actually not the main point of the Gospel. Forgiveness is a means to something more important. Listen to how Jesus describes the Gospel that He preached.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14-15
What’s the Gospel of God that Jesus was preaching? It was about more than just forgiveness. It was about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry was about re-establishing God’s rule, His kingdom, among men. And that will make a lot of sense when you remember what Genesis 3 tells us. The Bible is all about the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Adam lost the kingdom back in the Garden. Jesus has come to regain it, to re-establish it. And to do that He has to defeat Satan.

This means that those healings and exorcisms had a bigger point than the health and well-being of those people affected. Think about it. All those healings were only temporary. Every single person whom Jesus healed still died. But the healings were a picture of something greater. They were a picture of the authority that Jesus had to destroy whatever stood in His way as He worked to re-establish the kingdom. They were a picture of His conquest of sin and its evil consequences in people’s lives. And that also explains His casting out demons. Jesus has come to establish the kingdom. And try as they might to retain their hold on people, even Satan and his hordes can’t stop Him.

Listen to how Paul summarized what the Father does to those who have come to Jesus.
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1.13,14
The Gospel is about the defeat of Satan. It’s about the destruction of his ‘domain of darkness’. It’s about this new kingdom, this new rule of God, that has ties to that ancient perfect one back in the Garden. The forgiveness of our sins is simply a means to that end so that we can enjoy that new kingdom.

All of that explains what Jesus is doing now. He’s still busy re-establishing that kingdom. He’s still busy redeeming people, forgiving their sins. And He’s doing that by transferring them from Satan’s domain of darkness to the new kingdom, God’s kingdom.

That’s what Jesus is doing today. And it gets us to what Jesus is teaching today. This teaching of His is a major tool in His work of domain destruction and kingdom building. Listen to how Paul describes the experience of the Ephesian Christians when they were converted.
And he [Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far off…  Ephesians 2.17
That’s how those Ephesians were converted. Jesus preached peace to them. Paul appeals, again, to this preaching of Jesus later in his letter. He warns those saints away from some sinful ways of life by saying,
But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him… Ephesians 4.20,21 
Now, think about it. Was Jesus ever in Ephesus? No. But Paul is quite clear that those saints heard Jesus preach. They were taught by Him. How is that possible? As Paul explains elsewhere, this is what happens when the Gospel is faithfully preached. It’s Jesus who is preaching. It’s His preaching that results in people being rescued from Satan’s domain of darkness and then placed into God’s kingdom. Then, it’s Jesus’ teaching that explains to these who have been rescued what it means to live in God’s kingdom. It’s Jesus who is teaching when the Gospel is preached.

Now we have an answer to that first question. About two thousand years ago, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, and one day in the future He will descend from heaven. But in the meantime, He is quite busy. He doing and teaching just like He did when He walked the earth. As the ascended Lord, Jesus is still very busy.

Now, for the ‘so what’ question. What difference does all of this make? I have two thoughts I’d like you to consider. And these two thoughts are the reason I’ve been led to preach this sermon.

Here’s my first thought. If Jesus is still busy doing and teaching, it should affect our expectations. If Jesus is still doing and teaching, we can expect Him to do and teach among us. One very deadly problem that churches can fall into is to have low expectations. And that’s just another way of talking about no expectations, no expectations of Jesus. This attitude says, ‘It’s the same old, same old. Nothing is going to change.’ That deadly attitude will take a church where supernatural things were happening and transform it into something that is not really very different from, say, the YMCA, spiritually alive in the past but not much more than a club in the present.

There may still be some in that church who want to try to create some change. But their hope for change has been poisoned. Their attitude is, ‘Change will happen but only if we make it happen.’ It’s a this point that a church that was once a heavenly group of people where Jesus was busy becomes an institution that is very earthbound, something that depends on organizational skill, trendy programs and empty traditions to keep going. This kind of thing happens all too frequently.

But what if Jesus is still busy? What if He is still doing and teaching? If that’s true, it changes what we can expect to happen in our midst. If Jesus is still busy, we can expect Him to act here in our church. We can expect Him to bring about the change that He wants. We can expect Him to grow His kingdom here.

And that leads to my second thought. Lively expectations of Jesus are the fuel for lively prayers to Jesus. Think about the people who came to Jesus to be healed. The man with leprosy. The father of that dying twelve-year-old girl. The woman with the flow of blood. Those four who lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof. Blind Bartimaeus. They all had something in common. What was it? It was their expectations of Jesus. They were all moved to action by this thought. ‘Jesus can do something about my situation.’ They had lively expectations of Him which motivated them to make bold requests of Him. And in each case, their expectations were met. And quite beyond the healing effected, in each case the rule of Satan was attacked and defeated a little more. Lively expectations are the fuel for lively prayers which results in kingdom growth.

What do you expect of Jesus? Are we as a church limited to what we can dream up and make happen all on our own? Or is Jesus still busy? Expect Him to act. Pray and ask Him to act.

When you do that don’t be surprised if He responds by calling you to act. He told the man born blind to go and wash in the pool so that he could see. He told the man with the withered hand, a hand that would not work, to stretch it out, something that was clearly impossible for him to do. These people had a choice to make. They could obey Jesus because they believed He could do what He claimed. Or they could refuse. After all, to be healed of a blindness from birth, or to move a hand that hadn’t moved for who knows how long - to do such things just isn’t possible. But what does Jesus say about that?
All things are possible for him who believes. Mark 9.23
Do we believe that Jesus can do what He claims He can do?

Expect Jesus to act. Ask Him to act. But also expect Him to call you to some action. How you respond will show whether you actually believe that He still can do and teach and thus bless.

Scripture is clear. Jesus is still doing and teaching. He’s still busy - at least among those who know that He is still doing and teaching. Be among them. And if you’re not among them, He can change that. Just ask Him.

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