Sunday, May 20, 2012
Sermon for the Ascension of Our Lord (observed 5-20-2012)
“Expanded Horizons” (Acts 1:1-11)
I once met a young man who had never left his hometown. And I mean never.
I asked him, “You mean, you’ve never lived anywhere else, right?”
“No,” he stated, “I’ve never left this city. My school is here. My doctor and dentist are here. All my family lives here.”
“You’ve never taken a vacation anywhere?”
“Not even Disneyland?” I asked. It was only a few miles down the road.
“We can’t afford it,” he replied.
Needless to say, I was astonished. Not that Disneyland was too expensive. Everyone knows that. Rather, I was amazed that someone in this day and age of planes, trains, and automobiles had never traveled more than two or three miles from his home. Talk about needing to have your horizon broadened. That young man must have had a limited view of the world.
Now, of course, even if you cannot travel you can have your horizons broadened through education. You can visit places all over the world through books and videos and the internet. Still, many people go through life with a limited view and understanding of the world. All they know is what is right in front of them … what they can observe with their own eyes. But there is so much more out there beyond our noses. Over the horizon something entirely new awaits us.
In the account of the Ascension of Jesus in Acts chapter 1, God expands our horizon. There is more here than meets the eye. Although the cloud has hidden him from our sight, he is still present with us. He sits at the right hand of the Father. But this does not mean he is reclining in some sort of heavenly La-Z-Boy, kicking back now that his work on earth is done. The “Father of glory” (Eph. 5:17) has “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 5:22-23). Jesus as True God and True Man is “omnipresent.” He is present everywhere and is ruling and reigning for the benefit of his Church. He is with you and rules and reigns for you who have been marked with the name of Christ in Holy Baptism and who trust in him for life and salvation.
The disciples had a limited view of the kingdom of God. Gathered together on the Mount of Olives, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still had a faulty view of Jesus’ mission as the Messiah. They expected him to lead a revolution, defeat the Roman armies controlling Judea, and set up a new, glorious, everlasting kingdom of Israel, with the Messiah as king. Earlier, in their sorrow and confusion over the death of Jesus, the men on the road to Emmaus said to their fellow traveler (who unbeknownst to them was the risen Savior), “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Just three days earlier, he truly had redeemed Israel in his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. But they were still expecting this “redemption” to take the form of an earthly kingdom.
I wonder if this isn’t similar to the way you and I pin our hopes and dreams on the nation in which we live. We fret and fume when the economy slumps. Reports of doom and gloom from around the globe create anxiety for us here at home, too. The price of gas and other commodities keep going up and up. We wonder how long we can go on with such enormous national debt. We’re in an economic slump, but we’re also in a moral slump, too. Sin has been with us since the Fall, that’s for sure. You and I are daily in need of repentance and forgiveness for our many sins. But that which was once looked upon with contempt is now celebrated in public and sanctioned by the government. Calls for spiritual revival in our land from different quarters of the Christian church have largely gone unnoticed. And so we look at what’s happening in our nation, and we wonder how long God will continue to bless America. We seem to have forgotten that no matter what happens in our land – when things are so out of control, when things are out of our control – we have a Living, Risen, Ascended Savior who has all things under his control.
At the Ascension of Jesus, God expands our horizons. He causes us to look beyond worldly kingdoms to the kingdom of God. Leaders come and go. Nations and empires come and go. Their influence waxes and wanes. But the kingdom that matters and that is eternal is the kingdom of God. And you are a member of that kingdom by baptism and by faith in Jesus.
In our text, St. Luke writes, “to them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” So what exactly did Jesus say about this kingdom? Before his death, he said things like this. It’s near. It’s at hand. It’s within you. It’s in your midst. It doesn’t come by observation. It’s not of this world.
In the 40 days after his resurrection, this is what we have recorded about what Jesus taught about the kingdom: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples” by baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28) … “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16) … “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47) … “Peace” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19) … “If you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23) … “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep” (John 21:15). Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God comes by the preaching of the Gospel and through Baptism. He provides nourishment for his lambs and sheep through Word and Sacrament. It’s about repentance and forgiveness in his name. Martin Franzmann wrote that “the name of Jesus Christ” is another way of saying “the kingdom of God.” In Jesus, we recognize that “Where the Lord Jesus is at work, there God himself is at work establishing his royal reign of grace among men” (Martin Franzmann, The Word of the Lord Grows, p. 7).
In the Ascension, God also causes us to look beyond worldly power to the power of the Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses,” Jesus told the disciples, giving the promise of Pentecost. Worldly power is all about strength. The power of the Spirit energizes us for humble service. Worldly power is all about military might. The power of the Spirit is given through the ministry of the Word. The Holy Spirit works through that preaching to deliver the kingdom to us and bring us into the kingdom. On this side of heaven, service in the kingdom is shaped by Jesus’ ministry. That means it may include suffering and sacrifice. The apostles certainly came to understand that as we see in the rest of the Book of Acts.
After Jesus was taken from their sight, two men appeared. Probably angels. Maybe the same two men who appeared at the empty tomb. Both times they had questions for Jesus’ followers. At the tomb, they asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:4) Good question. Jesus is not dead. He is alive. He is living and still powerful and active in our midst today. At the Ascension, they asked, “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus will visibly return again one day. On that day, we will see the final, visible restoration of all things … the public manifestation of the kingdom, the rule and reign of Christ which exists right now. No one knows the hour at which Jesus will return to visibly restore all things. Don’t worry in the meantime. “It’s not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Leave all things in God’s hands.
The disciples asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The fact is that the kingdom was standing right in front of them, restored in his risen body. And the kingdom is in our midst today in the Word that you hear and the body and blood that you eat and drink. Seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is our victorious Savior. He defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil in his death and resurrection. What we endure now are the last gasps of the devil’s kingdom. But we know that we already share in Christ’s victory. In him, we can ascend above our daily struggles and sorrows, because what Paul says in Ephesians 2 is true for you: You have been made alive together with Christ, raised up with him, seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6).
So look over the horizon today. See your Ascended Lord. Take comfort in his presence and power for you.