Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sermon – “He Ascended Into Heaven” (Acts 1:3-11)

We call them mountaintop experiences—and in the Bible we meet with many of them quite literally:

•     Noah and his family standing atop Mount Ararat as the rain-soaked earth began to come to life once again, the rainbow stretched across the blue sky, and God established his covenant, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20 – 9:17)

•     Abraham clutching his beloved son Isaac to his breast at the peak of Mount Moriah, as the scent of the freshly sacrificed lamb fills the air. He calls the place Jehovah Jireh, “The Lord will see to it”. (Genesis 22:9-14)

•     Moses at the summit of Mount Sinai as God himself passes by before him and proclaims himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 33:18 – 34:8)

•     And it may have been in the exact spot once again where Abraham had met with God that Isaiah had his astounding vision of the Lord, the train of his garment filling the Temple and the seraphim crying aloud to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

We find that same pattern repeating itself in the New Testament. Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured before them. I love the way the old King James Bible renders it: “And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.”

So it is today that we come to another mountain, the Mount of Olives—a Sabbath day’s journey, as Luke describes it, or about three-quarters of a mile, outside of Jerusalem. For forty days Jesus had been appearing to his followers. In last week’s sermon I referred to Jesus’ meeting with seven of them on the shore of Lake Galilee. This week the scene is back in Jerusalem, where Jesus had instructed all the disciples to gather. In spite of having seen and met with Jesus on numerous occasions, their minds were still racing with questions. “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus leaves them in their quandary: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons…” But he does give them one sure promise: “You will receive power…”

Then Luke tells us that in plain sight of all of them Jesus was taken up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. It is a strange scene, and so far out of our experience that it is impossible for us to explain or fully understand. On the one hand I am inclined to avoid a literalistic interpretation of the passage, where Jesus shoots up like a missile being launched into the stratosphere. On the other hand, I don’t think we are entitled to understand Luke’s account simply as a kind of metaphor or worse still, an invention or a myth. I believe that Luke is relating an actual historical event. The problem is that it is beyond description. It lies outside all our normal human categories.

One thing is certain, however, and that is that the cloud that took Jesus from the disciples was nothing less than the Shekinah glory of God. It was the cloud that enveloped Mount Sinai when Moses received the Law and that led the people of Israel in their forty-year trek across the wilderness into the Promised Land. It was the cloud that had filled the Tabernacle when the Ark of the Covenant was returned—so thickly, in fact, that the priests were unable to stand to minister. “The Lord is king!” sang the psalmist. “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Psalm 97:2).

We see that same cloud in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. Matthew describes it as “a bright cloud”. And just as Jesus had been accompanied by two people on that occasion—Moses and Elijah—so now, as they gazed upwards into the heavens, the disciples found themselves in the company of two men. Have you ever had one of those experiences where your thoughts are in an entirely different place and suddenly something brings you back into the “real world”? I suspect that that is what happened to the disciples when the men spoke to them. “Galileans, what are you doing standing there, looking into the sky?” But you can hardly blame them. Just as Peter had wanted to put up lean-tos for Moses and Elijah, so now the disciples needed time to ponder this unique and remarkable moment in their lives. Nineteenth-century hymn writer Frederick Faber put it well:

My God, how wonderful thou art,

thy majesty, how bright;

how beautiful thy mercy seat

in depths of burning light!

Father of Jesus, love’s reward!

what rapture it will be

prostrate before thy throne to lie,

and gaze and gaze on thee!

Praise


So what do we mean when we say Sunday by Sunday, “He ascended into heaven”? As with the disciples, the first thing that Jesus’ ascension should do is to draw us to look upwards—to recognize that Jesus shares fully in the glory of the Father. As we read in Philippians (2:9-11),

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

So it is that Christian worship is always Christ-centered, Christ-directed worship—for Jesus is the focus of worship not just on earth but in heaven. With John in the Revelation we hear the roar of the heavenly host as they sing together, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) Our worship here at Messiah is a foreshadowing of that day when we too shall gather around the throne of the risen, ascended, glorified Christ. We recognize that fact in the Eucharistic Prayer as we confess that we are joining with those “countless throngs of angels [who] stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, offer you unceasing praise”.

Too easily the focus of worship can move from Jesus to me. I have seen it in congregations and I have seen it in myself. Instead of keeping my focus on Jesus, the criterion shifts to what I want, to my preferences, to my comfort zone. Worship moves from being Christocentric to being egocentric. That does not mean that we should suspend all our critical faculties when we gather for worship. There are bad prayers, bad songs, and even (dare I say it?) bad sermons—and I’m sure I have preached my share. Yet that does not mean that because it challenges us or annoys us or even profoundly upsets us that a sermon or a prayer in itself is bad. Worship that draws us into the presence of the risen, exalted, glorified Christ will always be challenging.

Prayer


Our Gospel reading this morning is taken from what is often called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17. There is a reason that we read from that prayer every year on this particular Sunday. It is to remind us that, just as Jesus prayed for his church on the eve of the crucifixion, so he continues to intercede on our behalf even now. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews (7:25), “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” When Stephen, the church’s first martyr, was facing death, the Bible tells us that he gazed into heaven. And what did he see there? Jesus not seated, but standing at the right hand of God. Jesus was interceding for him at that very moment.

When you really begin to think about it, it boggles the mind. Many times when I have visited people in times of illness or severe distress, they have shared with me how they have felt physically buoyed up by the prayers of their Christian sisters and brothers. There have been times when I have felt that myself as well. Did you know that each Sunday there is someone in prayer for our worship throughout the service? It happens invisibly and unnoticed. Yet I believe that that prayer is a significant factor in making the presence and power of the Holy Spirit a reality for us when we meet.

But pause for a moment to realize that Jesus himself is praying for us right now. And if John 17 is anything to go by (which it is!) he is asking, “Father, may they know you…” “May you truly be God in their lives…” “Keep them in your care…” “May they be one as you and I are one…”

As I examine my own life I am aware that all too often I have ignored Jesus’ own heart’s desire for me in the presence of the Father. As I look at the church, I see how many times down through history right to our present day we have made that prayer into a mockery. I know that if I were Jesus, I would have thrown up my hands in despair and given up praying a long time ago. Yet Jesus continues to plead for us, to intercede before the Father on our behalf—and he promises that as we learn to pray in the same way he will grant our requests.

Power


A third thing about Jesus’ ascension was that it was necessary in order to make way for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had said to his disciples after the last supper, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Now, before he ascends to the Father, he tells them again, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

During his time on earth Jesus’ ministry extended over little more than a 150-mile stretch. Within a very few years the gospel would be making inroads into Egypt in the south and over the whole northern coast of the Mediterranean as far as Rome and beyond. But none of it would have happened without the Holy Spirit.

My suspicion is that the disciples might easily have been quite comfortable spending the rest of their lives simply sharing their reminiscences about Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit who would turn all that they had experienced over the previous three years into a passion, an unquenchable flame that would spread across the world.

Statistics reveal that, according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, 50.7% of the population identify as introverts. Several years ago we took an informal poll of the Vestry and discovered that 80% of us were introverts. That makes sharing the gospel a challenge. It means that we are probably more comfortable being a “holy huddle”—that the notion of evangelism (at least as it is portrayed much of the time) strikes terror into our souls. But perhaps there is a good side to that as well—if it makes us depend more on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus did not command his disciples to be witnesses. He made a statement of fact: “You will be my witnesses.” We are Jesus’ witnesses, whether we like it or not. And I believe that as we live in conscious dependence upon his Spirit he will turn our eyes to those around us—and the Spirit will open our hearts to the heart of Jesus to make his love known.

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