St Michael’s 14th May 2014
Reading – Acts 1:1-11
According to the Canons of the Church of England “the Holy Communion shall be celebrated in every parish church at least on all Sundays and principal Feast Days, and on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday” (Canon B14). And just in case you are wondering, yes, Ascension Day does count as a principal Feast Day. Ascension Day is supposed to be a major celebration in the life of the church where with glad and thankful hearts the people of God gather to rejoice, to praise and to worship.
Yet in my experience Ascension Day is very much a Cinderella in the church calendar. It tends to attract far fewer people than some of the other midweek festivals and unlike Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday, it isn’t linked to a particular season of the year. We don’t have any public holidays, and, at least in this country, we don’t follow any special customs. No-one today has wished me a happy Ascension Day, or sent a card, or even baked a cake.
So, you may well ask, what is the point and purpose of celebrating Ascension Day? Maybe you would like to turn to your neighbour at this point and discuss what Ascension Day means to you…
For me, Ascension Day can be summed up in three simple words: “Jesus is Lord”. And I believe the reason why our churches tonight should be overflowing with congregations full of praise and worship is that we should be celebrating the fact all power, authority and might has been given to Jesus permanently and forever. Because, no matter what the world may tell us, Jesus in control. He has, as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:9, been exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name. In the words of the prophet Daniel: His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (Daniel 7:14). Jesus is Lord, now, today and forever, and this of all nights should be one of joyful, heartfelt celebration.
Of course we can become so familiar with saying, “Jesus is Lord” we can forget what exactly it means. It can, if we’re not careful, become just another religious slogan which we use over and over again in our creeds and our songs. That’s why amid all the celebrations tonight I believe we need spend at least a little time reflecting on this great theme of the Lordship of Jesus, and discovering some of the implications for our own lives. Now I accept that trying to sum up Jesus’ Lordship in one short sermon is an impossible task, and in one sense we have the rest of eternity to discover all that it entails. But at least let me give you three brief headings and suggest three important ways we should respond to His reign and rule over us.
And the first heading is quite simply that Jesus is sovereign.
Now last week there was a General Election in this country. Against all the predictions the Conservative Party swept to an overall majority. All the leaders of the main opposition parties resigned. The sense of surprise and shock as the results came in was palpable. But was it a surprise to the Lord? No, because ultimately as Christians we believe that governments rise and fall at His command. We have a God who is deeply involved in the affairs of this world and there is no area where He does not reign.
That’s why Jesus can commission His disciples to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) because even in the most distant country He is Lord. So whether or not the rulers of that country recognise His power and authority is one sense beside the point. Even if they oppress every single believer, enact laws that oppose every Christian value and close every place of worship, they cannot defeat the purposes and plans of Jesus who remains in control.
And if it is true that Jesus is sovereign over national and international affairs, then it equally holds good that He is sovereign over our own personal and local circumstances. As the apostle Paul says in writing to the persecuted church in Rome, there really is nothing that will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Of course I recognise there are times and seasons when it is easier to accept this than others. In my quiet times for the past couple of weeks I have been ploughing through the book of Job, which is all about one man wrestling with the sovereignty of God in the face of the most unimaginable and indescribable suffering. It is not an easy read, and a book we often avoid.
But if the book of Job tells us anything, it is that while we should be bold in declaring Jesus as Lord, we should avoid giving pat answers to those who are struggling to see how He can be in control. Ultimately Job only accepts the sovereignty of God because He encounters His greatness and majesty in the works of creation, and sometimes all we can do is bow before the throne of God and say, “Your will be done”, only knowing that side of eternity we see as through a glass darkly, and only trusting that one day all will be well.
At the same time it is also worth reflecting that if Jesus is Lord, then secondly, this also means there is no part of our lives which is not under His control.
This is a point which I believe is particularly worth making in today’s world where we are so often encouraged to divide our lives into separate compartments. We talk about the “world of work” or “life at home”, for example, as if they were completely separate entities, or consider see leisure or recreation time as completed unconnected from the rest of what we do. Now to some extent there’s a good reason for this. When you are at work, it’s often a good idea to act professionally without personal bias, and when you are on holiday, it’s always a good idea to switch off from the world of work.
But as Christians we can sometimes, even without even realising, fall into the trap of making our faith just another compartment to fit into our busy lives. We see being a Christian as principally being about what we do in church and in the privacy of our homes, with little or no bearing on, say, how we shop, or the way we work, or the time we spend down the pub. Actually if Jesus is Lord, then He has every right to influence the way we earn or spend our money. He has every right to influence what we do in our spare time, the programmes we watch, the company we keep, the language we use. Basic discipleship demands that we learn to follow Jesus wherever we go, whatever we do.
And for those of us who are online, that, I might add, also includes what we do in front of a screen. I recently heard some research that some astonishing figure like 1 in 7 relationships had been affected because of what one partner or another had posted on social media. If Jesus is Lord, then it’s important to realise He is also sovereign when we are typing or texting. We cannot be one person in real life, and another on the Internet, because Jesus is Lord over our lives all of the time. And nothing destroys the credibility of the Christian faith more than professing believers who have not made the connection between what they believe and how they behave online.
Of course in this life it can sometimes to be hard to see how Jesus is sovereign. We can sometimes struggle to give Jesus control of every part of our lives. But because Jesus is Lord, we can also know that ultimately Jesus has the victory. Or in the words of the angels who spoke to those who witnessed Jesus’ ascension: Men of Galilee… 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 (Acts 1:11).
How or when this happen, we obviously do not know. There are may indeed be times when we even wonder if this will happen. Yet if the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus mean anything, it means that we can trust His word. One day the curtain will come down on history. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord. We see Him face to face, and the suffering and sorrow of this world will be over. And until that happens, we can live by faith day by day, knowing that all His plans and purposes will ultimately be fulfilled, and that nothing we do for the Lord is in vain.
So how then should we live?
First of all, we are called to be faithful in prayer.
Now I guess one reason why we do not celebrate Ascension Day as we ought is that we tend to view it very much as the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus is taken up in heaven, the clouds hide Him from the disciples’ sight and we are left to carry on the work down here. What we need to realise, however, is that Ascension Day is not so much an end as a beginning. Because Jesus is no longer tied to a particular place or point in history, He now has a far greater ministry seated at the right hand of His Heavenly Father. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it in chapter 7, verse 25: Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
In other words, thanks to Jesus’ ascension in heaven we now have guaranteed access to God our Heavenly Father 24-7. That’s quite an amazing privilege, isn’t it? So the question is: are we in fact making use of this privilege? Do we know the wonder and joy of being able to come into the throne room of God Himself at any time in any place with whatever is on our heart? And when I’m asking these questions, please realise I’m asking them as much of myself as anyone else. Indeed, I’ve had to write this part of my sermon no less than three times, because my computer kept deciding to curl up and die. And I have to confess my first reaction was not to pray, or praise Jesus for the fact that He is Lord!
But then again, perhaps I needed reminding that faithfulness in prayer is not just about giving Jesus the big things in life, or the issues that have an obvious spiritual dimension. It’s about learning to see everything from Jesus’ perspective and to seek His will in all things, no matter how small or how technical they seem. I can pray as much about a computer going wrong as for the family that has been recently suffered some tragedy, and indeed it is through praying I can start to understand what Jesus’ priorities really are and which is more important in His sight. Prayer takes the focus away from self to our risen, ascended Lord, and the more we pray, the more we discover the joy and wonder of knowing His will. So why is it, then, I so often find myself so reluctant to pray?
We are called to be faithful in prayer.
Secondly, we are called to be holy in our lifestyle.
Now, although our passage from Colossians is not one that’s traditionally set for Ascension Day, it’s a key passage which reminds us that Jesus’ Lordship has direct implications for the way we should behave day by day. In words of Paul himself, in Colossians 3:1: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. And just in case we are unclear about what he is saying, he goes on: Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:2-3).
You see, although physically we are still down here carrying on the work Jesus has given us to do, in a spiritual sense we already have been raised to new life with Him. And the way we show our thankfulness and gratitude for all that Jesus has done for us lies quite simply in how we live. Which all sounds very basic and very straightforward, but as Paul explains, it involves making some conscious and sometimes very difficult decisions about how we choose to think or speak or act. We have to put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature. We have to rid ourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from our lips. We have to choose to stop lying.
Why? Because ultimately we want to honour Jesus as our Lord. Even though the power of sin may sometimes be very attractive, and even though sometimes it may prove hard to resist, our calling as disciples of Jesus is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. That is why as we pray we must constantly ask for more of His Holy Spirit to help us grow more and more like Jesus, to bridge the gap between our worship and our daily walk with Him.
You see, it is only as we are faithful in prayer and holy in our lifestyle that thirdly we will be fit to be bold in witness. Listen very carefully to what Jesus says to the disciples in Acts 1, verse 8: 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. Effective witness comes from the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. So how do we experience the power of the Holy Spirit? As the rest of the book of Acts shows us, through waiting on the Lord in prayer. And what is the first work of the Holy Spirit when He comes upon us? To make us more like Jesus. Because an effective witness to Jesus isn’t just someone who goes around talking about their faith. It’s someone who can be clearly seen to rely on the power of prayer, and who can show the clear difference the Lord makes in their lives.
So before we go out from here proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord, it seems to me right that we should spend some time waiting on the Holy Spirit, that we should pray for the power of the risen Lord to change and to transform us. Maybe in some large, dramatic way. Maybe in some small, hidden way. Let’s simply recognise that Jesus is sovereign, that He has control over every part of our life, and that ultimately He has the victory. And let’s allow Him to do His work in us so that we can serve Him with joy even to the ends of the earth and that through us many too will come to own Him as Lord.