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Till Christ Returns May 17, 2012

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Acts 1:1-11

Ascension

May 17, 2012

Focus: God lifted His Son to His right hand and poured out His Spirit upon His people.

Function: That the hearers bear witness to the ends of the earth.

Structure: If this…then this…and thus this…

 

Till Christ Returns

            Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!

As we draw near to the end of our Easter season, we’ll be moving from the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth to the time of the church.  Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, which we call Acts, will help us make that transition.

Luke prefaces Acts with the idea that his first book, Luke, talked about all that Jesus did and taught up until His ascension into the heavens.  Much like we might expect from the books and TV shows in our own culture, the sequel begins with a bit of summary or recap of what happened before.

Luke rewinds to the suffering of Christ.  It’s a flashback to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to the betrayal of Christ, His arrest, and the bitter torture He endured all the way to the point of death on the cross.  But considering that’s only verse three of an entire book, we know that death isn’t the end.  Instead, we rejoice each and every day that on Easter morning, God the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

And Christ’s resurrection was no secret, either.  The resurrected Lord and Savior of man revealed Himself to His people, appearing to the disciples, and many more as proof of His message.  Proof that He is the very Son of God, and that His death defeated our sin.

For forty days then, Jesus Christ roamed the world, preaching and teaching again, but this time with all the authority of God the Father in heaven.  No longer did He speak in parables and ways which the disciples couldn’t understand, but instead He slowed everything down, began with the Old Testament, and explained all that the prophets had said about Him.  He taught them how all of the Scripture pointed to salvation through Him, forgiveness paid for on the cross.

But Luke then recounts one of Jesus’ last conversations with His disciples.  He told them to remain in Jerusalem, remain in that city where Christ was arrested, where His followers are persecuted for their faith.  Remain, and wait.  Wait for the gift from above, the gift that the Father will surely give.  It’s the very gift that Christ Himself told the disciples about.  “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him.  You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”

Jesus didn’t hide anything from the disciples here.  He made sure that they knew what He was saying.  “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  When John prepared the way for Jesus, he said that he was baptizing with water, but that One would soon come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  The disciples knew John was talking about Christ, but now Christ reveals that that baptism is about to happen.  Stay here in Jerusalem for a few more days and then “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Luke then tells us how the disciples confused law and gospel, though they did err on the side of the gospel.  We can debate just what they meant when they asked Jesus whether now was the time for Him to restore Israel.  They may still have been stuck in that culture’s idea of the Messiah as One who would set up an earthly reign.  Or perhaps they truly understood now and knew that the end was near.  Either way, here we see that their thoughts were like ours, in that we do nothing, and salvation comes from God alone.  Is it time yet for You Jesus to restore everything?

Whichever way they were thinking, they were likely surprised by Jesus’ response.  That’s God’s alone to know.  It’s not our job to try to plan the end times.  But rather, Jesus tells them, you have something to do.  See, in just a few days’ time, the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit.  And to this our Lord instructed them “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

By Luke’s account, these were Christ’s final words to His disciples before the ascension.  In verse nine, the disciples witness Christ being taken up into the heavens and then being hidden from their eyes by the clouds.   Luke makes it sound like they just kept staring, fixated on what had just happened.  Puzzled that Christ had not only just left them, but just did something not humanly possible.

That they were mesmerized and astonished is evidenced by the angels that then appeared to them.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”  Thinking about the situation, we might’ve expected the angels to say something more profound or to tell them that the ascension was necessary, but they simply don’t bother.  The angels did provide some comfort for the disciples in reminding them that Christ would come again, He would return.

Luke’s accounts of the ascension, both in Luke and in Acts, have a different purpose.  The disciples wanted to focus on Christ, what He was doing, and how He was leaving.  But for Luke it’s all about the transition.   I don’t want to launch into a sermon on what we’re transitioning to, as that would spoil Pastor’s sermon next weekend when we celebrate Pentecost, as that’s the transition.  So instead we’ll focus on Luke’s account at hand today.

Luke downplays the importance of Christ’s ascension.  That doesn’t mean he makes it irrelevant.  It’s still important that Christ ascended into the heavens, took His rightful place at the Father’s right hand, and began His everlasting reign.  It’s still important because Christ had to go heaven in order to send the Helper, the Comforter, the Paraclete, to send the Holy Spirit to us.

Just as we know from the beginning of time, that God the Father didn’t stop with creation, neither does Jesus stop.  Sure the Father rested on the seventh day, more so to provide us with an example than anything.  But He has continued creating, sustaining, and caring for His creation ever since.  In that same way, just because Jesus has ascended into the heavens doesn’t mean that He has stopped working.  Christ is still the mediator between God and man.  He still forgives us of our sins and reconciles us to our Heavenly Father.  He is still present among us when two or three are gathered in His name.  He’s still with us, present in body and blood at His table.

But Luke shifts the focus.  As he already noted, his gospel was all about what Christ did and taught.  But this introduction to his second book shifts from what Christ did, to the work of the Holy Spirit.  The book of Acts is all about the glorification and growth of God’s kingdom through the Spirit’s work, and how He then works through the disciples and the church to strengthen and sustain the church.

Oddly enough, the Lutheran Study Bible describes the power mentioned in verse eight, the power the disciples would receive when the Holy Spirit came upon them, as superhuman strength.  I’m going to stick myself out on a limb here and disagree with the Lutheran Study Bible’s unholy footnote.  In a media rich society, that sounds like a superhero.  But, the Spirit isn’t giving them the power to lift boulders.  The power instead, is the gospel.  The love, forgiveness and salvation of God.  And it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, that in Him, we may do good works.

This particular work, that Christ Himself has given, is to share the gospel.  That’s why He immediately followed power with being witnesses, spreading the gospel in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Christ’s command here is in all essence, the same as the Great Commission in Matthew 28, that we “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

So while He was speaking directly to His disciples, and we’ll hear much more on that next weekend at Pentecost, Christ’s command, commission, exhortation, includes us.  Part of being a follower of Christ, being filled with His Spirit, is sharing the good news to the ends of the earth.  There are people right here in Elmhurst who need to hear of God’s love and forgiveness.  They’re in Villa Park, Bensenville, Chicago, St. Louis, Ohio, and Asia.  People everywhere need to know.  And the Spirit enables us to tell them.

All of this is why the angels’ statement seems so strange.  Why are you standing here?  Sure He’s gone, but He’s coming back.  In the meantime, there’s work to be done.  It’s glorifying to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit that His kingdom and His message is shared with everyone.  For God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

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