St Michael’s, Thursday, May 5th 2016
Readings – Daniel 7:9-14; Acts 1:1-11
So happy Ascension Day! How many people here have already marked the occasion with a party or a card? I thought not. Ascension Day is the one major festival of the Christian Year that I suspect most of us don’t really know how to celebrate. After all, unlike Christmas or Easter, it’s hard to picture what actually happened, and those stained glass windows that show a pair of feet disappearing into a cloud don’t really help. Nor unlike Lent, does Ascension Day mark the start of a particular season in the year. Ascension Day, at its simplest, is about Jesus leaving this earth and saying goodbye to His disciples, and in some ways that’s a hard thing to celebrate.
So why then are we gathered this evening on Ascension Day? Let me suggest to you three particular reasons.
First of all, Ascension Day is about Jesus receiving a kingdom.
Now in the book of Daniel chapter 7 we find one of the more obscure passages in the Old Testament, of which tonight – you may be pleased to know – we have only heard a few verses. It is a strange vision of four great beasts coming up out of the sea, one like a lion, one like a bear, one like a leopard, and one too terrible to describe. Now we could spend all night trying to figure out the exact details of what these beasts represent, but one thing Daniel does make clear. These four beasts in some way stand for human kingdoms based on human might and power. Each arises in turn and causes mayhem and destruction on the earth, and we don’t have to use too much imagination to see nations and countries today behaving in the way Daniel describes.
But in the midst of this weird vision we suddenly find Daniel describing a different sort of kingdom. This is a kingdom established not by human power but by someone called the Ancient of Days, in other words, God. Unlike human kingdoms, this one will never pass away and never be destroyed. And as we see in verses 13-14, the authority over this kingdom is given to someone called the Son of Man:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
So the two questions we have to ask when we read this passage are: who exactly is this Son of Man and when will His kingdom be established?
Let’s move forward to the New Testament, to our reading from Acts:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Isn’t it interesting that the one thing Jesus is teaching His apostles is all about the kingdom of God? We don’t know exactly what Jesus was teaching, but Daniel chapter 7 gives us some important clues. After all, for three years Jesus had been referring to Himself as the Son of Man, and now after His death and resurrection He was able to make His identity perfectly clear: that He was and is the selfsame Son of Man Daniel saw. And the reason why He is leaving His apostles and being taken up into heaven is to return to His Heavenly Father, the Ancient of Days, to receive this everlasting kingdom.
This wouldn’t mean that life would be easy from now on for these first disciples. Indeed there would still arise kingdoms on this earth that would inflict trials and tribulations on all who profess the name of Christ. Sometimes the persecution would be fierce, and it would seem all too easy to doubt whether Jesus had won the final victory. Yet Jesus wants to assure the disciples then, as He wants to assure us now, that this victory has been won, that this everlasting kingdom is secure, and as the apostle Paul writes later in Romans 8:38-39 that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And that is the first reason that we celebrate Ascension Day. The kingdom of God has been established once and for all, and if we recognise Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord, the wonderful truth is, we can be part of that kingdom.
But let’s be clear – this doesn’t mean we can simply spend our time here on earth rejoicing in some kind of holy huddle. And if Ascension Day is only about coming to church and taking part in some kind of special service, then we really have overlooked the second important reason why we mark the occasion, namely that it’s about the church receiving a mission.
Acts 1:6-8: So when they met together, they 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.”
So what does it mean for us to be Jesus’ witnesses? Well, the other day someone asked me, “Why doesn’t God make Himself more obvious?” That’s a perfectly good question and one I believe we should expect whenever we talk about the goodness of our loving Heavenly Father. For my part, I launched into the usual answers, and started talking about the blessings we do not see, and the sin that prevents us from recognising God as our Heavenly Father. But the more I talked, the more I realised that part of the answer actually lies with us, His church.
You see, when Jesus commands us to be witnesses, He is telling us to make God obvious to those around us. The words we say, the things we do, the life we share together should so clearly point to the reality of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that no-one around us is left wondering or guessing. Because at its most basic level this is what it means for us to say we are the body of Christ. We are recognising that the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ calls us to be His physical presence here on earth, and to provide the evidence that He is alive.
But of course we mustn’t restrict our witness only to those around us. In our reading this evening the disciples were thinking in purely local terms, and seeing Jesus as good news primarily for Israel. Jesus instead sends them out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. And if Jesus really is the one who has authority over our lives, then it falls to each and every one of us to consider where He might be sending us, and what task He has given us to carry out. That’s why as we celebrate Ascension Day I believe it is appropriate for all of us to say with the prophet Isaiah, Here I am. Send me! Because again, it is lives that show total submission to Jesus that reflect most fully the reality of His presence. And it is those who are prepared to step out and live by faith who are so often the ones who most effectively act as His witnesses here on earth.
So Ascension Day is about Jesus receiving a kingdom that will last forever. It is about the church receiving a call to make Him known here on earth. And thirdly, and just as importantly, it is also about us receiving a hope that is strong and is certain.
Acts 1:9-11: 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.”
Now how and when Jesus will come back we simply do not know. For 2000 years people have speculated about times and seasons, and some have become very rich making predictions about His return. But our calling is to live by faith, not by sight. If Jesus says He is going to return, that is good enough for me. For the cross and the empty tomb is proof that His word can be trusted, and that one day our mission here on earth will be over. And whenever that happens, those proud kingdoms that would deny Jesus will be judged once and for all. We will stand before the throne of God with Jesus seated at His right hand, lost in praise and wonder and awe. There will no longer any pain, any suffering, any sickness of body or of mind, because all things will be made new.
And this hope isn’t just something that we tack on to our message that Jesus is Lord and King. It is the fundamental reason why we keep going in our mission, even when we face trials and persecutions, even when the opposition is at its fiercest. You see, whatever we do in the name of the Lord Jesus really is worth it.
Now one of those men so intently into the sky was the apostle Peter and later on, in 1 Peter 1:3-5, he would write these words:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
Isn’t that wonderful? You, I have an inheritance kept in heaven. How do we know we will receive it? Because we are shielded by God’s power, by the one whose kingdom is everlasting. If that is not an incentive for us to keep going in our mission, then I am not sure what is.
So how should we respond to the message of Ascension Day? You’ve probably spotted that I have skipped over verses 4 and 5 of our reading from Acts:
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
In some ways of course these were specific words to the first apostles. They had not yet received the Holy Spirit and it was ten days later that the Spirit dramatically came upon them at Pentecost. For our part we don’t have to wait to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon anyone who turns in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, and we already have all the resources that we need to go out and fulfil the mission we have been given.
Yet I would also suggest that as the apostles came together to wait and pray until that first Pentecost, it can also be good idea for us to come together in a season of preparation and waiting. Because if Jesus is now reigning as king, it’s good to gather in His name and make sure we are really listening to what He is saying. It’s good to reflect on the calling He has given us to go out as His witnesses. And it’s good to focus again on the wonderful hope we have received, an inheritance stored up for us in heaven.
That’s one reason why the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have asked every church this year to hold a season of prayer between Ascension Day and Pentecost. Not as some sort of inward looking exercise, or mystical retreat from the concerns of the world. But prayer specifically in response to the message of Ascension Day under the heading: “Thy kingdom come”.
So in response to the archbishops’ call we will over the next ten days be praying together as a church and inviting others to join us in prayer. We do not know what the results of our prayer will be. We may find it a real challenge at times to continue with this season of prayer. But we will keep on praying because we know this pleases our Heavenly Father and because we know He hears prayers offered in Jesus’ name.
In a moment, then, we will dedicate this season of prayer to the Lord. As we do so, let’s be bold enough to pray that His presence would be so visible among us that others also discover the hope that comes through Him. Let’s ask that in whatever way our Heavenly Father chooses – something of His kingdom comes here in Devonport and Stoke, as it is in heaven. And let’s trust Him to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, for His name’s sake.