Thursday, May 14, 2015

One Giant Leap for Mankind: An Ascension Day Sermon

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93 Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Most people will recognize these famous words as those of Neil Armstrong as he took his first steps on the moon. The moon landing happened years before I was born, but many of you—I’m sure—remember watching it on TV. My generation can easily take it for granted, but what a remarkable event it was! 

Neil Armstrong’s words express the fact that walking on the moon was more than just a momentous personal accomplishment. For one he represented his country, it was an enormous matter of national pride that the first man on the moon was American. Much more than that however it represented a milestone for the whole human race. In taking those first steps he extended the reach of humanity to territories it had never been before. It was a moment of tremendous personal glory but it also brought glory to all of us. “We did it!” people say, “We walked on the moon!” as if they were somehow personally involved. It was a vicarious victory for us all.

Have you ever looked up at the moon on a clear evening and thought, “There is a man’s footprints somewhere up there?”  One of us walked on the face of that luminous, celestial body. It really is mind boggling. 

As extraordinary as the moon landing is to contemplate, however, the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is an even greater mystery. Jesus Christ is the great pioneer of the human race boldly going where no man has gone before. As Saint John tells us, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” At the center of deepest heaven, the fountain of all creation, the right hand of God the Father, sits one of us.

If Neil Armstrong brought glory to us all, than Jesus more so.  Jesus’ ascension was also a vicarious victory for us all. This is the real manifest destiny of the human race. We were created to share in the glory of God and reign with him forever. In being exalted, Jesus brings exaltation to all of us.  He is the head and we are the body. The glory, honor, and blessing that the Father pours out on Christ flows to all his members. As the Psalm says,

“It is like the precious oil upon the head, Coming down upon the beard, Even Aaron's beard, Coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon Coming down upon the mountains of Zion; For there the LORD commanded the blessing-- life forever.” (Psalm 133:2-3)

To many the story of the Ascension seems like an odd and obscure episode.  Although we are not sure what to make of it, the work of salvation and redemption that Jesus came to accomplish is incomplete without it. Jesus told his disciples, “Unless I go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

This is the Holy Spirit, God himself, who is poured out on us so that we too might share in the blessing and the victory that belongs to Christ. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that Christ has ascended, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named…And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It also tells us that even when we were dead in our transgressions, God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in heavenly places so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace and kindness toward us.

This is the first thing I want us to remember about the Ascension, Jesus Ascended for our sake. As the only begotten Son of God, Jesus already enjoyed the glory and blessing of the father for all eternity, but he became one of us in order that we too could share in the glory that he had with the father from the beginning. He took our human nature back with him to the Father’s right hand. 

The second thing I want us to remember is that Jesus’ Ascension means we have a powerful advocate who pleads our case before the throne of God.  He lives to make intercession for us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Jesus continually presents his finished work of redemption to the father. He shows him his wounds and says, “See I have them graven upon the palms of my hands!” Jesus is our heavenly high priest. The book of Hebrews says it this way,

“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:24-26)

The third and final thing I want  us to remember is the words of the two men in white to Jesus’ disciples, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
 One of the things that often perplexes people about the Ascension is the manner of Jesus’ departure, the way the disciples saw him go. “Why does Jesus float up into the clouds?” they ask, “doesn’t this imply a primitive ancient idea that God lives somewhere literally in the sky? How can a modern person take that seriously?” Pastor Tim Keller makes an interesting point, “We can only speculate,” he says, “but it may have been for the same reason that we have a coronation ceremony.”

What does he mean by that? A coronation ceremony is meant to be a very public presentation of splendor and majesty. It is meant to exalt the person being crowned and proclaim to everyone the authority he is being given. I think Jesus’ very dramatic departure functions the same way.

According to the men in White, Jesus’ return will be of the same character. The letter to Titus says, “we are waiting for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2:13). We have no way of saying concretely what it will be like, but just as Jesus was visibly exalted on the clouds of heaven at his ascension, so he will be very publically and visibly exalted at the time of his glorious second coming.

 At that time there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he is the risen and ascended king, but every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Revelation 1:7 says, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”

When Christ appears in his glorious exaltation we who belong to him will be exalted with him. We will be caught up together--with all the righteous saints before us—in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

Friends, let us reclaim the Ascension as an essential piece of the Gospel. Let us boldly proclaim to all the world that Jesus Christ has been exalted to God’s right hand, that he lives to make intercession for us, and that he will one day come again in glory to judge the earth.