It hurts to be apart from someone. It’s sad. Irish people are not strangers to the pain absence. It used to be the case decades ago that, if someone emigrated to America, Canada or Australia for example, their family here would likely never see them again. You’d exchange letters, but that would be it really. Even in this modern age, pre-pandemic, with modern air-travel and the ability to come home for the holidays, people still cry at the airports saying goodbye to their loved-ones. All that anxiety and worry, hoping they’ll be okay and that they’ll be happy. And the quietness of home without their presence.
We’re feeling the absence of family and friends here in the manse. Baby Anna has yet to meet all her grandparents or any of her aunts, uncles and cousins. We wonder how old she’ll be, how big she’ll be, how many milestones will have passed by before we can properly welcome her into the family. All together. The video calls and picture sharing are great, but they’re no substitute for the real presence of loved-ones.
At the last supper, Jesus spoke to his disciples about how he would be leaving soon and they were sad and worried. After that meal he was arrested and then he died horribly and they were devastated. Their hero, their leader and the whole focus of their life for the last three years was gone. But on the third day they were amazed by something completely unexpected. Something that none of them thought would happen. He rose from the dead, not just revived, but resurrected. He defeated death! That meant that all of the things he was saying about himself and the kingdom of God were true, it wasn’t just a dream or wishful thinking.
But now in today’s passage we read about Jesus leaving again. Not even death could take him away from his disciples… but now he’s leaving anyway. And what’s stranger is that the disciples don’t mind. The last two verses in the gospel of Luke (which kind of overlaps with today’s reading from Acts) says that after Jesus ascended, the disciples weren’t sad at all when they returned to Jerusalem without him:
Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
(Luke 24:52-53, NIVUK)
Even though they just got him back — literally back from the dead — they were not sad once he left. They rejoiced!
We normally feel sad when we say goodbye to somebody, but what if their leaving meant that everything was changing for the better?
This passage is about the ascension of Jesus Christ. I don’t think we make a big enough deal of the ascension of Jesus. What does it mean? What difference does it make? What does it tell us about God and what does it tell us about ourselves? Those are the questions I want to try to answer today.
As much as they loved him and had built their whole lives around him… even though they had just received him back from the dead, the disciples were not sad when Jesus left them to ascend into heaven, because they knew what it meant. And I want you to know what it means too.
Let me read today’s text, Acts 1:6-12, which is about the ascension of Jesus:
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.
(Acts 1:6-12, NIVUK)
Jesus had spoken a lot about the kingdom of God. A kingdom where things were set right. A kingdom where the poor, the hungry and those who weep are blessed. A kingdom whose citizens love their enemies, forgive those who have hurt them and give freely of the blessings God has given them. A kingdom with values so different than this violent and greedy world that it appears to be upside-down. It must have looked to them like that movement died along with Jesus on the cross. That the kingdom of this world was just too big and powerful.
But now Jesus is risen he has proven that his way — the way of the kingdom of God — is the real way of things. It has real power. It is the kingdom that God is building and it will take over the broken ways of this broken world. So the disciples want to know when. Is the kingdom going to come in all its fullness now?
But it’s not their job to know when that will happen. It will happen when the Father has chosen. In the meantime, the role of the followers of Jesus in the building of the kingdom is this:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
(Acts 1:8, NIVUK)
Our lives here in this world are about the kingdom of God and our job right now is to be Jesus’ witnesses. And the power and the ability that we need to do this job comes from the Holy Spirit. Christians are empowered by God the Holy Spirit, to witness to the risen Lord Jesus, God the Son until the kingdom comes in all its fullness at the time chosen by God the Father.
And it’s at that point that Jesus leaves them. He ascends into heaven. This time they weren’t sad because they knew what was happening. Jesus rising from the dead proved that he was who he claimed to be. He is the Messiah, God’s true chosen King. When Jesus leaves them this time he is not leaving them to die, but to ascend to heaven to as the King of all creation.
When Jesus ascended he was returning to the Father who had sent him. He was returning to reign from heaven as God’s chosen King. He was returning to send the Holy Spirit to the church, so that he would be with them in power wherever they go. So the disciples rejoiced after Jesus ascended because their King is ascending to his throne, has given his people the job of carrying on his work and is sending the Holy Spirit to work in and through them.
Ten days later they would receive the Holy Spirit. From chapter two:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(Acts 2:1-4, NIVUK)
Just as Jesus said, the Holy Spirit came upon the church and it gave them what they needed to do their job of being Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus said they would start in Jerusalem and so, that day when Jerusalem was full of people speaking different languages, the disciples were given the ability to speak to the crowds: to be Jesus’ witnesses to the people in Jerusalem no matter what language they spoke.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’
(Acts 2:5-11, NIVUK)
The church is doing its job. They’re doing exactly what Jesus said they would do. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,” he said on the day he ascended, and ten days later he church poured onto the streets of Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking about God’s deeds of power. Telling people that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s chosen King and that he has risen from the dead. The church is doing its job but really it is God working through them: the Holy Spirit is giving them the ability to witness and to speak in different languages so all the crowd could hear the gospel.
What do we learn from this story of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus and of the church filled with the Holy Spirit. How can we have the kind of passion and life that the church did that day. How can we do our jobs as witnesses for Jesus? Because that is our job you know. And it’s still our job. Church isn’t on pause during this lockdown. The mission continues and it’s why the church exists: to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world.
Knowing that Jesus is risen and ascended and that he sits at the right hand of the Father will change how we live our lives. We know that Jesus is King. We know that he is in control and we know that he is coming back one day — so when he comes back will he find a faithful and obedient church doing the job he gave us to do?
Knowing that Jesus is king will change your priorities. When you realise that the King of the universe is the Prince of Peace, a former prisoner, a victim of the violence of this world for our sakes it will change the way you look at the world and the way we treat one another. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be beaten up. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be abandoned. The King of everything knows what it’s like to be tortured and killed. So in this violent world, whose side do you think the True King is on?
Knowing this story changes the way you view the church. Jesus has told us what our job is: to be his witnesses. And he’s told us how we’re going to do that job: in the power of the Holy Spirit.
No longer would the mission of God be focussed on one little area as Jesus worked to tell people about the kingdom, to heal and bless — now God the Holy Spirit works through all who have faith in Jesus to follow him, and that blessing and power and witness can spread all over the world with the followers of Jesus.
Knowing this story will also tells us where the church’s power comes from. The Holy Spirit made it so that these ordinary disciples could talk to all of the different people in the crowd in their own languages. God will help us to do the job he has given us to do. If God has called you to do a job, he’ll give you what you need to do it. Maybe that will be the confidence or the words to speak to someone about Jesus. Maybe that will be the grace and the love that you need to befriend people and show them in a very real way what it is like in the kingdom of God. With friendship and grace. Maybe it will be the courage you will need to speak out against injustice. If God has called you to do something God will give you what you need to do it.
Your options might seem limited at the moment. How can we witness when we can barely interact with others lest we spread infection. It may seem bleak to have church on your own at home, watching a screen, listening to my voice or reading along. But look at it this way, Facebook and Youtube have never had so many sermons on them before. The internet can be a very dark place and now little lights are coming on all over. Share the message. Chat about it. People who were curious about church and too intimidated to walk in the doors of a strange building now only have to click a link to have their introduction to what we believe.
We don’t have Sunday school now, but if you have kids and suddenly find yourself at home more than you’ve ever been before, this time can be used to discuss faith with them, to practice family worship together. Read God’s word together, pray together, sing together. If you are Christian parents that’s your calling, your job for the King, and as intimidating as it might seem, God will empower you to do it.
We serve the same King as the apostles did and we can serve him in the power of the Holy Spirit, just like they did. Same King. Same power. So today, know who the King is and know what your job in his kingdom is: to live here and now in this world as witnesses of the true King and his Kingdom until the King returns.
Lord God, help us to be witnesses for Jesus Christ wherever it is you have placed us, among the family, friends , neighbours and colleagues you have given us. Help us to trust you to provide the power that we need to answer your call, follow Jesus and point others to him. We pray for all of the sermons and services that are now online, may they be a blessing to the church and may many people, who would have otherwise not heard the good news today, hear it. Help us to know that our worship at hope is so important and to know that you will give us the power that we need to do the job that you have called us to do. We pray in the name of Jesus, our King and our Saviour.
Today please also remember in your prayers:
- The bereaved
- The sick
- The lonely
- Those working to keep us supplied with essential supplies
- Those working in medicine and caring
- Those working to develop vaccines and treatments
- Those in leadership
May God be near them in their pain and suffering and strengthen them to meet the challenges that they face.
Some songs celebrating Christ our King.