May 28/29, 2022
Rev. Michael J. Zehnder, Ascension Lutheran Church, Littleton, CO
Speaking of Ascension…
He arrives mysteriously. He helps others, performs miracles, gets betrayed, and finally ascends into the heavens.
E.T. was a great movie, wasn’t it?
Another person who ascended was Moses.
He ascended to the mountain top to get the 10 commandments. When he reaches its peak, the voice of God booms from the sky above:
“Moses!” It bellows, “This is the voice of God!”
“You’re God!?” Moses replies, awestruck.
“Yes, it is I, The one true God!”
“I don’t believe it! You’re really God!”
“Yes, it is true, I am your merciful God.”
“It’s really you! No way!”
Came the reply, “YHWH.” (Yah-WAY)
Spelling bee in heaven.
Then there’s the story of a married woman named Harriet who was very ill and passed away. When she ASCENDED into heaven, an angel was waiting for her. The angel said, “You can be allowed into heaven, if you spell a word for me.” Harriet replies, “OK, what’s the word?”
“The word is love.”
“L-O-V-E, love.” Harriet spells.
“Welcome to heaven, but before you go in, can you watch the gate for me? I have to go do something. If someone comes up you know what to do” the angel asks.
“Okay,” and the angel flies away. A couple minutes later her husband, Harry, comes to Heaven. Harriet asks him,
“What are you doing here,” and he replies,
“I got so lonely back at home, that I decided to kill myself to come here to be with you.” Harriet then says,
“Well, you have to spell a word to pass into heaven.”
“Okay, what’s the word.”
OK, One more Ascension chuckle…
What did Jesus say before He ascended to Heaven on the 40th day after Easter?
“Beam me up, Scotty.”
I guess that would be the Hollywood version. In the biblical version, He just lifted off the ground with His hands in blessing and finally a cloud hid him from the disciples’ vision.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day but since we don’t have services on Thursdays we’re celebrating it today. And we should. After all, the name of our church is Ascension so it seems fitting to give this last event of Jesus’ life on earth some special attention. Ascension comes from the word Ascend. Meaning Go Up. Rise Up. Up, up and away.
“Up, Up and Away” was the name of a hit song in 1967 recorded by the 5th Dimension for their first album. It reached No. 7 on the Billboard pop chart in 1967, won six Grammys and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.
Some of you may remember this (sung):
… Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon…
… Up, up and away
In my beautiful, my beautiful balloon
But Jesus wasn’t in a helium balloon. He and the disciples were outside the city of Bethany and He lifted up His hands to bless them. As He was blessing them, he was simply taken “up, up and away” into heaven.
Jesus’ ascension into heaven is something that probably doesn’t get enough attention. With Christmas and Easter we make a pretty big deal over his birth and his death and resurrection, but what about the ascension? We might think the ascension is not all that important but if we overlook this event we will miss out on the completed work of Jesus’ ministry and the testimony of his coronation in heaven.
Acts 1 says that Jesus stayed on earth for 40 days after his resurrection, giving many convincing proofs he was alive and speaking about the kingdom of God.
Why 40 days? Is there any significance or meaning behind the specific number 40? There are a number of biblical events that last for 40 something or other. God sent rain for 40 days and nights when the flood occurred. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. When Moses went up the mountain and into the presence of God he was there 40 days and nights. The spies spent 40 days scouting out the land of Canaan before crossing the Jordan into the promised land. Goliath taunted the Israelites 40 days until David showed up. When Elijah ate the food the angel had brought him he traveled for 40 days and nights before hearing that important message: “Be still and know that I am God.” Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days in the wilderness. And to me, the most fantastical use of the #40. The bible has 66 different books, but guess how many authors of those 66 books? 40!\
We see that the number 40, as with other numbers in the bible, has significance. We see in some of these references it was a time of testing and judgment. Yet in these times of testing and difficulty at the end there is relief and blessing. The flood waters receded, the Israelites entered the Promised Land, David slew Goliath, Jesus had victory over Satan, etc. We see in the case of Moses and Elijah that the forty days were a time of divine presence and power. Jesus’ 40 days before his ascension were significant too.
According to Acts, Jesus spent that time giving instructions to his apostles and speaking about the Kingdom of God. During that time, He also provided many convincing proofs that he had indeed risen from the dead in bodily form. Jesus appeared to many people during this time. 1st Cor.15:6 states that he appeared to more than 500 people during this time. The 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is important. It was one of divine presence and power and it was a time of preparation and instruction before Jesus ascended, it was a prelude to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to empower the mission He gave them to be witnesses to the entire world: quite an impossible mission without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, as usual, the disciples at first missed all that was going on. They had no idea what Jesus was prepping them for. They still had their focus on other things just like the time Jesus was predicting his death for the third time and James and John were arguing who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom and asking Jesus if they could sit on his left and right. No disrespect meant, but before their anointing by the Holy Spirit, reading about the disciples is kind of like watching a 3 stooges movie, silly guys always focusing on the wrong thing.
So here Jesus is giving to more than 500 people convincing proof of his bodily resurrection, teaching the disciples about the kingdom of God and what do they ask (Acts 1:6)? “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Seriously dudes? They missed the point of his death, they missed the point of his resurrection, they missed the point of his post-resurrection teaching, this missed his promise of an outpouring of His Holy Spirit and now they’re focusing on the establishment of an earthly kingdom, overthrowing the Romans and delivering Israel from foreign domination.
They were eager to know things that Jesus didn’t want them to be thinking about. It was like being in a roomful of kindergarteners and just in passing, mistakenly mentioning the name of your dog. Now all the kids want to talk about is their dogs, their cats and other pets they might have. Jesus had just told them they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit? You think they might have any questions about what all that means? Nope. Instead they go back to their tired old question about overthrowing the Romans, it’s like having kids in the back seat of the car on a long vacation. Every 2 minutes they’re asking, “Are we there yet?”
Focusing on the wrong question or wrong set of facts reminds me of the story of Sherlock and Watson
Sherlock Holmes and Watson are on a camping trip. After a good session of singing around the campfire, they retire to their sleeping bags. Several hours later, Sherlock wakes up and nudges Watson awake. Watson groggily asks, “What?” “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson thinks about this for a minute, wiping his eyes. “I see millions of stars,” Watson answers. “What does that tell you?” asks Sherlock. “Well, astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies. Astrologically, I can see that Saturn is in Virgo. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful and we are insignificant. What does it tell you, Holmes?” Sherlock remains silent for a few seconds, then says, “It tells me that someone has stolen our tent.”
Well one thing the disciples got right. Jesus gave instructions for them to go to Jerusalem and wait. He told them to wait for him to send the Holy Spirit; which he did ten days later at Pentecost, which we celebrate next week. Jesus tried to encourage them that his departure was actually a good thing (John 16:5-7) He said, “It is actually advantageous for you that I should go.” Can you picture the disciples’ reaction? “Seriously? We’re going to be facing all this persecution and doing it without you here with us but somehow that’s to our advantage? How could it be better for us that you’re leaving?” We’ll talk more about that next week at our Pentecost celebration, but let me just note a couple things right here. First, in the Luke 24 version of the Ascension it says “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” I think this is the moment when the three stooges became the three sages. Suddenly, it must all have made sense where before it was just one confusing event after another. Specifically, the Luke passage says what he explained to them was “that Christ had to suffer, die, and rise from the dead on the third day, with repentance and forgiveness of sins preached in his name.” In reading this you can almost hear 11 light bulbs go on in their heads. 11 disciples because they had not yet replaced Judas with Matthias to make 12 again. Jesus told them to “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” One way in which this was better would be that through the Holy Spirit Jesus would not just BE WITH his disciples, he would BE IN his disciples; and this would prove to be the better thing.
When we see the apostles’ lives after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost we see a drastic change from how they were before. Where once Peter was thinking only of himself, protecting his own skin even at the cost of betrayal – “I tell you I don’t even know that man” – and getting all blustery in the Garden of Gethsemane, cutting ears off he turns into this bold preacher and powerful leader. Where once the Apostles all scattered when Jesus was arrested, after the Holy Spirit comes we see their boldness and dedication to win the world for Jesus Christ, and preaching repentance and forgiveness in His Name even in foreign languages they had never studied.
We don’t have Jesus with us in bodily form. But we do have him in Spirit form; all the time, everywhere we go. We have Jesus himself living inside of us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. The Ascension proved to be a blessing as it prepared the disciples for the coming of Jesus’ spiritual presence, no longer confined to the limitations of time and a physical body. Augustine reflects this benefit in a prayer: “You ascended from before our eyes, and we turned back grieving, only to find You in our hearts.”
By the end of our Luke passage I think the disciples were finally getting it. After Jesus lifted off up, up and away it says, “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” This reminds me in a way of the story we recount at Christmas time about the shepherds. Remember they had seen the angels sing at the birth of Jesus and they said, “Let’s go see this thing” and they did and they returned praising God and telling everyone about it. Well on Ascension, after seeing Jesus go up, up and away into the clouds, the disciples also see angels, who ask, “Why are you just standing here looking into the sky?” And it knocks some sense into them and they go off praising God.
The disciples might have thought this was good-bye when in fact it was really just see you later. For the angels said, “The same way you saw him go up he will return as such.” The angel gives them hope. He isn’t gone forever. He’s coming back-just as he said he would. Jesus was silent during much of his trial when the false accusations were being hurled at him but in Mark 14:62, after the high Priest asked Jesus if he was the Christ, Jesus answered that he was. Then he said, “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The angels said the same thing to the disciples at His ascension. It was about His coronation in heaven and His glorious return.
Even with this promise, I’m sure it was still a scary moment for his disciples as they watched him disappear. They may have been wondering, ‘what’s going to happen now’? What they may not have realized is that this wasn’t the end it was actually the beginning of a new exciting chapter: the evangelization of the world. “Go into all nations and preach the Gospel.”
It was time for The Great Commission. Instead of continuing to look UP in anticipation, it was time to look OUT with intention; it was time to spread the gospel. They were to spread it to the ends of the earth, to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the world.
Stephen also had a vision of Christ at His ascension. Before he was stoned to death he saw Jesus as he said in Acts 8:56, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was the affirmation that Jesus had ascended and was ruling at God’s side.
The Apostle John was also given the privilege of being able to see and hear the proclamation of Jesus’ return in Rev. 1:7-8, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17:5, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” The ascension is where that prayer was answered. The glory of Jesus was restored and He returned to his rightful place with his Father on his throne. Exchanging humiliation for glorification. Exchanging the cross for a throne. Exchanging a crown of thorns for a crown of glory.
1st Pet. 3:22 states that Jesus has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. When Jesus ascended into heaven it was the exclamation point on his triumph over his foes. Jesus has accomplished his mission; he has conquered death, defeated Satan and is back in his rightful place and position. We have the testimony that what Jesus said is true.
And the future promise for us is that just as Jesus ascended into heaven we who are his followers will too. 1st Thess. 4:16-18 tells us that on the Last Day we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air at our own ascension. Christ’s ascension is a first-fruit of our own ascension and we are to encourage each other with the blessings of what is yet to come. That’s what we are to be doing until Christ comes again – telling others about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and his ascension into glory and we explain this will also happen to us someday and we will be lifted up, up and away to meet King Jesus in the clouds.