Sermon notes 05-24-20          Ascension and Access              Pastor David King

 Acts 1:4  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But 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 to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 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.”

 1 Peter 4:12-14; 1 Peter 5:6-11  Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever.  Amen.

Today is the day on the church calendar know as Ascension Sunday.  The church always commemorates our Lord’s Ascension on the seventh and last Sunday of the Easter season.  The word “ascension” of course means to go up.  Donna read for us from the book of Acts the account of the Lord being lifted up and taken by a cloud out of the sight of those followers of his who were watching.

We can only imagine what it must have been like for his followers to watch Jesus being taken away into heaven.  They had to have been amazed and astonished and, I think, sad, to see the Lord lifted up away from them.

You know, one of the saddest things in life to me is when we have to leave someone we love, or they have to leave us.  Even when we believe it will be just a temporary separation, it is often terribly sad when we have to leave a loved one.  I was thinking about how many sad songs there are about being separated from a loved one: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  “If you Leave Me Now.” “Can’t live if Living is Without You.” “Tears in Heaven.”   These all express the sadness of separation.

As we think about the sadness the followers of Jesus must have been feeling as he disappeared in that cloud, we might be inclined to wonder why our Lord ascended to heaven anyway.  Wouldn’t it would have been a whole lot better for us if the risen Lord had remained on earth after Easter to walk among us in person?  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Yet it was the Lord’s intention all along, and a necessary component in God’s plan for salvation, for Jesus to return to his Father in heaven after his resurrection.

So I want to talk with you today about why it was necessary for our Lord to ascend to heaven, and why his ascension 2000 years ago should bring us, not sadness, but comfort and hope.  But before we get to that I want us to consider just for a moment why we are talking about the Ascension of our Lord specifically on this day.

On the Church calendar the actual Day of Ascension was this past Thursday, but since we are not usually in church on Thursdays, we always commemorate the Ascension of the Lord in the church on the Sunday following the actual day of the Ascension.

Which should lead us to ask, how did the church determine that this Thursday was the Day of Ascension?  And the answer is found in the book of Acts, chapter 1, verse 3, just one verse prior to the place where Donna began reading today.  Luke, who is the author of the Book of Acts, writes in verse 3, “(Jesus) presented himself alive to (his followers) after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”

So there it is.  After his resurrection, Jesus appeared alive to his followers during 40 days.  He ascended to heaven on the 40th day from the day of his resurrection.  If you go back and count Easter Sunday as the first day, which is how the Jews counted days, Thursday of this week would have been 40 days from Easter, the day of the Ascension.

That explains how we identify the day on which our Lord ascended, but it doesn’t help us understand why he ascended, and what his ascension means for us.

So I want to take us back to something that Jesus said to his disciples on the night before his crucifixion.  It’s in John chapter 16, verse 6.  This was on another occasion when the disciples were sad because Jesus had just informed them that he was about to leave them.  Jesus said to them, “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.  Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.”  This is a mystery we can barely begin to understand, but because Jesus said it, we believe that one of the main reasons he ascended into Heaven is so that he could send the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to live as Christ’s followers here on earth.

This is the power Jesus spoke of in the very last words he said to the disciples before he was lifted up.  Jesus said to them, 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 to the end of the earth.

We know that Jesus’ followers received that promised power when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles on Pentecost, the event we will commemorate next Sunday.  The Holy Spirit gave birth to the church on Pentecost and has continued to empower the church ever since.  We would not be able to live as followers of Jesus Christ apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.

But that is not the only reason why Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after Easter.  When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we state our belief that Jesus ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Christians believe that in his position at God’s right hand, Jesus is interceding on our behalf.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes in chapter 7, verse 25 that because our Lord sits at the right hand of the Father, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.  Friends, it should be a great comfort for all of us to know that Jesus never ceases to pray for us at the right hand of God the Father.

And that’s not all.  There is another really important reason why Jesus ascended into heaven.  When you think about it, it makes perfect sense for the season of Easter to conclude with the commemoration of our Lord’s Ascension, because the Ascension can be seen as the completion of the resurrection.  The Ascension was the final step in God’s plan for saving humanity.  We need never think that on the fortieth day after Easter, Jesus just so happened to decide that, having seen enough of earth, he might as well head back up to heaven.  We need not think that Jesus could just as well have decided to stay on earth.

No, it was necessary, for our sake, for Jesus to ascend to his Father.  Christians commemorate the Ascension as an essential part of God’s plan of salvation.  To put it plainly, if Jesus had not ascended into heaven, we would not have access to heaven.

Some of you will remember way back when we were still meeting in our sanctuary, that on the last Sunday before the beginning of the season of Lent, we commemorated our Lord’s glorification on the Mount of Transfiguration.  We heard the story of how three of Jesus’ closest disciples saw him changed into his divine glory along with Moses and Elijah on that mountaintop.  We observed together then that Jesus did not stay up on the Mount of Transfiguration.

And we know Jesus did not ascend to heaven from the Mount of Transfiguration, because he had not yet accomplished what he came to do.  I mention the Transfiguration because the Ascension of our Lord can be seen as the other bookend to the Transfiguration.

I invite you to hear these words from Oswald Chambers, from his devotional classic, My Utmost For His Highest:

By His ascension our Lord entered heaven, keeping the door open for humanity. The transfiguration was completed on the Mount of Ascension. If Jesus had gone to heaven directly from the Mount of Transfiguration, He would have gone alone. He would have been nothing more to us than a glorious Figure. But He turned His back on the glory, and came down from the mountain to identify Himself with fallen humanity. The ascension is the complete fulfillment of the transfiguration. Our Lord returned to His original glory, but not simply as the Son of God— He returned to His father as the Son of Man as well. There is now freedom of access for anyone straight to the very throne of God because of the ascension of the Son of Man.

 Brothers and Sisters, our Lord’s Ascension gives us access to the throne of God in heaven.  If he had not ascended, we would not have access.

I want to come toward a close by very briefly touching on the passage we heard from 1 Peter.  Peter wrote about Christians experiencing fiery trials and suffering.

Many of you might say that describes your experience right now as we continue to live in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic.  Even if you would not say that is your experience now, we can be sure that there will be times of fiery trial and suffering sooner or later for all of us.  No one is spared of suffering in this life.

But listen again to the comfort and hope for all of us in the words that the two angels spoke to the disciples who were gazing up into heaven as Jesus was taken out of their sight.  The angels 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.”

 Friends, this Jesus, who ascended into heaven, will come again, to escort us through the door he has opened.  Through his Ascension we have access to that place where there will be no more sadness, no more sorrow, no more tears, no more separation from loved ones, and no more suffering, ever again.  Thanks be to God.