June 2019   
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Message for 4-27-14 THE ASCENSION


Acts 1:1-11


            Today’s passage is a classic text to use when we have to say goodbye to somebody we hold dear.  What a way for Jesus to say goodbye – to rise straight up into the clouds!  No hugs – no choked-up speeches of regret.  Before they know it, before they can get 1 more word in edgewise, before they can grab Him and keep Him from flying away, Jesus is off the ground and rising into space over the Mount of Olives. 

Looking down, Jesus sees the city where He died and rose.  To the south, He sees the town where He was born.  To the north, He sees the Sea of Galilee.  As He rises higher, the landscape fades into a giant globe, and Jesus disappears into another world.

What if Jesus had stayed here?  We’ve figured out the options on where to put someone when they’ve died.  Where do we put Someone who has risen from the dead and will never die again?  Where’s He supposed to go?  Where does He fit in our society?  Imagine if Jesus was still on the loose in His resurrected body! 

If it’d been in their power to do so, we know what Jesus’ followers would have done.  They would have tied Jesus up and they would have kept Him somewhere where they knew they could find Him, so that they could get hold of Him whenever they needed Him.  They would never be so lucky.  Even in those 40 days before He ascends to heaven, the risen Jesus has no address and no cell phone number where He can be reached.  No one can control Him.  No one can pin Him down.

But the issue is far deeper than the simple question of where do we put a risen body.  Yes, one can try to dismiss the claim as a fairy tale, or as a convenient ending to a hoax that hides the telltale evidence.  But that approach creates more problems than it solves.  If the risen Jesus did not truly rise into heaven, the implications are enormous.

Andrew Purves calls the Ascension the hinge on which hangs all that we believe.  He argues that, “Without the Ascension, the Lordship of Christ is relegated to the past.”  Without it, we’ve got a Lord who is not on the throne.  Through the Ascension, he says, “the Incarnation continues.” God-in-the-flesh remains alive just as He was when He rose.

In his book Space, Time, and Resurrection, Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance observes that the Ascension is the reverse of the Incarnation (Jesus’ coming in the flesh).  When Jesus is born, God and humankind meet on our turf.  In the Ascension, they meet on God’s turf.  In the Incarnation, God becomes flesh in space and time without ceasing to be God.  In the Ascension, Christ ascends above all space and time without ceasing to be human or diminishing His physical human existence.  Through His rising into the clouds, we see that Jesus’ coming in the flesh was not a temporary put-on.  God has taken up permanent residence in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Torrance says that the Ascension is what shows us that the historical Jesus and our heavenly Lord are one and the same – although He has risen beyond our world of space and time, we cannot separate Him from space and time.  To know the mind of God, the Ascension forces us back to the historical Jesus. 

Torrance also argues that Christ’s work of reconciliation is not complete without the Ascension.  He argues that we cannot go where Christ has not already been, that Christ must redeem every step of human existence, from the womb to beyond the tomb.  Jesus paves the way for the arrival of a resurrected human race in heaven.  In the Ascension, Jesus takes human nature where it has never gone before.

Jesus also ascends so that He can multiply His mission here.  His presence (paradoxically) becomes a barrier to His own Great Commission.  If Jesus stays, His presence becomes a distraction.  We become too dependent on Him.  Jesus could only heal as many people as He could personally touch.  But through His Ascension, Jesus is no longer held back by limitations of space and time.  The Ascension opens the door for Jesus to be more available to us than He ever could have been on earth.

But Jesus will not remain out of sight forever.  Jesus’ rise to the throne of God is only a temporary holding pattern.  Jesus predicts that His return will be like lightning that flashes all the way across the sky – no one will miss it.  And the Person who comes back will be the same person who rose into the sky so many centuries ago.  Jesus is the world’s oldest living Jew, but the years have not changed Him one bit.

Unless the risen Jesus actually rose to the throne of God, the implications are enormous.  If Jesus left His body behind when returning to God in heaven, then we have been left behind as well, stranded on this side of the great divide.  If Jesus did not rise to heaven with the same body with which He walked out of the tomb, then who is sitting on the right hand of God?  Is it someone who was once truly human like us, but no longer?  Or is He Someone who can still sympathize with our weaknesses? 

God in the flesh has taken up residence in heaven, preparing a place for us.  Jesus can do so much more for us there than He ever could on earth.  By rising to God’s throne, Jesus shows us that He remains the same Person He always was.  By His ascension, He shows us that His earthly Lordship continues until we see Him again.

Jesus has ascended to the throne of God.  I am only going back to Belleville.  There’s no comparison.  But the time has come for us, just as it came for Jesus and His followers.

During my time here on Sunday mornings, we’ve talked quite a bit about stewardship and finding God’s mission for us, as individuals and as a church.  We talked about the great risks Jesus took to connect with sinners.  My very first Sunday here, I said that our starting point is the historical Jesus.  If God truly came to this earth in the flesh, then what he said and what he did are of monumental importance.  We need the whole Jesus, both the loving Jesus and the no-nonsense Jesus.

I carry with me a lot of happy memories from here. There are a lot of good souls I’m going to miss around here, including a larger chunk of youth than I’ve ever seen.

Don’t let everything grind to a halt while you are without a pastor.  Don’t put your church on hold.  Now is the time to do the opposite: to actively find and pursue your mission from God right now.  Holy Cow will happen here 3 weeks from today.  We need your input to discover who this church is right now, and what kind of leader do you need to look for.  You will be asked 103 questions about conflict, does your church welcome change, how a pastor should operate, what’s going on in your spiritual life.  All answers are between you and Holy Cow.  You will get back a picture of the entire church that should help you greatly as you plan your next steps toward the future.

I must make it very clear that after April 30, I am no longer available here for pastoral services of any kind.  I will be on Mars.  Please don’t ask me to conduct a funeral or visit someone in the hospital.  I have had enough painful experiences where church members have not let go of a former pastor.  I will continue to be your friend.  But the best way I can help the next pastor is to do like Johnny Carson did after he retired.  In 31 years as a pastor, I have turned down every invitation to do pastoral services in any previous church, and I intend to continue that policy.

I want to share with you once again some of the beliefs I hold most dearly.  In a world where truth is “whatever is true for you,” I believe there is some truth that is true for all, truth that is not determined by opinion polls, truth that does not depend on whether anybody believes it or not.  The Himalayas exist, whether we believe it or not.  Not all opinions are of equal value.  We can’t equally affirm both those who believe in the law of gravity and those who don’t.  Sometimes truth requires judgment or choices.  There are some questions where we can’t have it both ways at once.  God either exists, or does not exist.  Jesus either rose from the grave, or He’s still in the ground.

That’s why I am not a universalist.  That’s why I don’t believe that all roads lead to heaven.  The world’s religions could all be wrong, but we cannot all be right.  Don’t say, “I just believe in Jesus because I was born in America and not Iran.”  It doesn’t matter where you were born.  You are more likely to learn the laws of space travel in Texas than in Indonesia, but that doesn’t change the laws of space travel.  To quote Scotty from the Starship Enterprise, “You cannot change the laws of physics.”

America has been turned upside down during the time I have been here.  In the pulpit, I have tried to keep my political opinions to myself, because it is extremely risky to proclaim that God endorses a specific candidate, party, or law.  History usually proves such claims wrong.  I do believe it is my duty to point out what’s wrong with 2 popular political beliefs out there at the moment: “Words are just tools,” and “The end justifies the means.”  Both of these are from a famous community organizer I had to read when I was in college.  This guy gave 11 reasons why the end justifies the means, and argued that truth doesn’t matter, because words are just tools.  You say, “That’s not new, politics has always been that way.”  Yeah, but it used to be that people knew it was wrong, they just did it anyway.  Today, many leaders proudly believe it is right.  In one old Russian novel, a character says, “People used to be ashamed for being criminals, but what is to be done with this man who is proud of it?”  We live in a disturbing age. 

On the issue of sexuality that is currently dividing the church, as I explain in my book, I believe the Bible teaches one consistent sexual ethic.  It is repeated 3 times, in Genesis, Jesus, and Paul: “The two [man and woman] shall become one flesh.”  The lifelong bond of a man and a woman is the only safe place God has given us to share this wonderful gift from God.  That has been the church’s teaching throughout history, and I believe it is still correct.  God said this to an age where there was sexual freedom of all kinds, like today; what God said to people back then is just as true today. 

But I also think we need to do a better job of loving those who struggle with same-sex desire. Why? Because God loves them, and wants the very best for them.  Same-sex desire is driven by a need for love that only God can provide.  God wants to use us to show that love.  I believe, like that favorite statement of mine from the Chester Cathedral, that “through faith in God and trust in God’s promises, we can [all] become the people God wants us to be, free of what imprisons us, healed of what harms us, and more fully alive.”

What about the Bible?  I take the Bible as innocent of error until proven guilty.  I believe the miracles of the Bible (like the parting of the Red Sea, the Virgin Birth, and Jesus walking on the water) really and truly happened.  When the Bible tells me of a worldwide flood, I give it the benefit of the doubt.  I refuse to blow it off as legend.  Last Sunday, I asked the question, “Does it matter whether any event in the Bible really and truly happened?”  My answer was and is, “Absolutely!”

            I believe that God is greater than any pain, any problem, any temptation, or any fear we can ever face.  If we fear God, we don’t need to fear anything else.  Compared to God, we are just dust.  But God thinks we are priceless dust.  Human life is sacred to God, from the unborn child to the Terri Schiavos of this world.  

What’s the bottom line for my faith?  Grace.  No one can earn their way to God.  Salvation is the free, undeserved gift of God.  That is the message that saved me 41 years ago.  And you know what makes grace so wonderful?  The fact that we are lost without it.  If sin is trivial and unimportant, then so is grace.

What is the Gospel in 8 words?  “Jesus died to put us right with God.”  If you believe that Good News, that’s what it takes to become a born-again child of God.

And what does my faith stand or fall on?  Jesus’ resurrection.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead, I’d become a Buddhist.  Jesus’ resurrection gives us reason to believe that the rest of the story is true: the claim that Jesus is God in the flesh, the claim that He did actual miracles, the claim that His death can save us from our sins, the claim that there really is a life beyond the grave.  Without the resurrection, we would have no clue.

Finally, I believe that on this occasion, we need to hear the last words Jesus speaks before He ascends to heaven.  Jesus says, “It’s not for you to know times and seasons.”  Don’t ask God for a timetable on when God’s going to send you a pastor, or when God’s going to turn your church around.  As you search for a pastor, God’s role makes all the difference; just don’t make God’s job any harder than it already is.   Jesus says, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit shall come upon you.”  God will give you the power to carry out God’s mission, if you will use it.  Jesus says, “You shall be my witnesses” – in your own community, in the broader culture where you live, and to the ends of the earth.  If you are pursuing God’s mission at all 3 levels, God will keep you in business.  And Jesus’ last promise (in Matthew 28:20) is the last word I leave with you.  Jesus promises, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  You have His promise.  Pastors come and go, but Jesus will be with you always.

Let us pray.  God, I thank you for the precious time we have spent together.  We are so thankful that you remain the same person who walked the hills of Galilee, and that You are seated on the throne of heaven.  We praise you for your promise that You will be with us always, to the close of the age – that will never change.  Help us not to just stop and hold onto our memories, but to go forth and carry out your mission for us in this world.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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