Pastor Joel Leyrer - Ascension Day - Thursday, May 30, 2019

Text: Luke 24:50-53

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Dear Friends in Christ,  Some of us with long and deep roots in this congregation may have had snippets of it passed down to them, but nobody present was party to the conversation our St. John’s forefathers had when they built this church and had to make a decision on what Bible story of image they wanted on the big stained glass window everyone would see as they exit the church.

The options were many.  Jesus the Good Shepherd?  The Risen Christ bursting from the tomb?  Jesus knocking on the door to our hearts?  An ornate cross reminding us of what it took to save us from our sins?  Lots of choices, all of them worthy.

What we do know, of course, is what they settled on. It’s the event we mark today:  the ascension of Jesus Christ. 

Why was this image chosen over all the other worthy candidates?   Maybe because this event in the life of Christ conveys two great spiritual truths that connect the past with the present.   We could phrase those two great truths this way: 

THE WORK IS DONE; THE WORK IS NOT DONE

Sounds contradictory, right?  I’ll explain it in a minute.  First, the event itself…

The Evangelist Luke simply and concisely records it in the final words of his Gospel:  When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken into heaven.  Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Think back to Good Friday.  The way in which Jesus left the disciples then filled them with fear and dread and sadness.  Their response now was markedly different.  As Jesus slowly, visibly left them, gradually ascending until a cloud hid him from their sight, the disciples responded with worship, joy and praise. 

Such a response was not limited to eleven men roughly six weeks after the first Easter.  It is the same for every disciple of Jesus Christ in every age.  Worship, joy and praise is indeed the order of the day, because the Ascension has deep meaning for us.  

So, what does the Ascension mean?

It means, first of all, that Jesus’ earthly work was done.  Completed.   And, we might add, completed for us.  The Ascension, therefore, is the assurance of our personal salvation. 

The return of Christ to his throne on high was the last and final step of our redemption.  Like a victorious king who has conquered all enemies in a distant land, Christ was returning home undefeated.  And we are both the beneficiaries and sharers of his work.  Where he is now, we one day will be. 

It is against the backdrop of his ascension that we understand the full comfort of Jesus words to us: “In my father’s house are many rooms…  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  That’s why in a few minutes we will sing with confidence, “On Christ’s ascension I now build, the hope of my ascension…”

In that sense, Ascension Day means the work is done.  Things had come full circle.  He who left his throne on high to break into our space and our time to be born of a virgin, live a perfect life for 33 years on this earth, die on a cross as the substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world, and three days later burst forth from the tomb proving his mission of redemption had been completed, was going home.

Yet, in another sense, the work is not done.  Meaning, the spread of the Gospel now becomes the responsibility of his followers.  That’s us.  In other words, the torch has been passed.

It’s a well worn and often used illustration that I know many of you have heard before, but it makes a valid point, so for that reason we’ll share it once again.  

The story is told (it’s not in the Bible) that when Jesus returned to heaven he was given a grand and glorious welcome by all the saints and angels.  Gabriel especially welcomed him, and then asked how the spread of the Gospel would take place now that he was back and visibly absent from the world.  Jesus answered by saying he had a handful of devoted disciples on the earth, and that he entrusted them to spread the Gospel to all the world. 

Gabriel, who knew the frailty of men, looked troubled and asked, “But what if they fail?  What’s your plan then?”  To which Jesus replied, “I have no other plan.”

The point of that little story is clear.  We are the plan.  The spread of the Gospel has been entrusted to those who know it.  The torch has been passed. 

Practically speaking, the Ascension is our encouragement to keep praying hard, contributing generously and working in whatever ways are open to us for the spread of the Gospel.  Likewise, the Ascension is our encouragement to live our lives as Christian witnesses and, in the words of Jesus, to “let our lights shine before men” in such a way that may cause them to take notice and investigate the hope that is within us.

Therefore, while we certainly and understandably glory in the Ascension and what it means regarding our personal salvation, it is also a reminder of the glorious responsibility we have while we remain on this earth. 

The work is done; but the work of proclaiming that the work is done is not done – and will not be until Christ returns on the Last Day.

There is one more great take-away from this event that we must mention.  It is this:  Jesus’ ascension is the assurance of his rule over all things and the assurance that everything is under control.  The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us that not only does Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords rule over all things, but he does so specifically in the interest of his church and his children. 

This is especially helpful to remember during a time of personal trial or when things just don’t seem to make a lot of sense.  And those times come. 

When our faith in a just world gets shattered or our personal lives are punctuated by the unexpected and unwanted…

When our future in terms of health or employment or family situations begin to change or become uncertain and we start to feel the stresses and strains and self-doubts that so often accompany them…

When it becomes apparent that our life is heading in a different direction than we planned or hoped for and the uneasy feeling that this isn’t really what I signed up for begins to come over us…

Then let us remember this:  Our God reigns. 

And although we may not always understand why he does what he does, of this we can be sure:  Nothing happens in our world or in our lives that does not first pass through his hands.  Paul was not just blowing smoke but speaking verbally inspired, divine, truth in Romans 8:28 when he reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

And the knowledge that Christ, our ascended King, is ultimately in control fills us with joy and peace and moves us to worship and praise him.

Back to our opening thought.  When our forefathers at St. John’s built this church in the late 1920’s they chose a theme for the window that would catch our eye every time we come back from communion or exit the church.  There were no bad choices.  But of all their options, they commissioned a stained-glass picture of the Ascension.

It’s a visual reminder that the work of salvation is done, but the work of proclaiming salvation is not done; and the promise that the Ascended Christ is in control and watching over our lives each and every day.

As this event brought joy, comfort and purpose to the lives of the original disciples, so it does for us.  Glory be to Jesus.  Amen.