Ascension Day 2016
Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.” (Jn. 16:7)
The ascension of Jesus is one of the harder things to understand as Christians. From our perspective, it seems like Jesus leaving made everything a lot harder. Now we’re serving a King we cannot see. We’re preaching the gospel of a Savior, who isn’t visibly present. It’s easy to think that if Jesus were here in person, somewhere on the globe, so many of our problems would go away. If we had a theological dispute, we’d go ask Jesus who was right. If we needed to make an important decision, we’d go ask him which decision was the best one. If someone was in sin, we might ask Jesus to confront them. Probably all of the other world religions would be tiny or non existent. We could fly Jesus into India, and convince the Hindus to become Christian. We could fly Jesus into Saudi Arabia, and He could convince the Muslims to become Christian. This would solve Wall Street thuggishness. Jesus could go in there and turn over all the tables and computers and tell them to quit being so greedy. He could meet with the leaders of the governments, with the top generals of the militaries of the world, and show them how to rule in righteousness and not use their power for evil. And if Jesus were here, surely we wouldn’t need as many hospitals. He could heal cancer and HIV and provide bread for the hungry in parts of the world that are impoverished.
But Jesus said it is to our advantage that He went away. He said it was better that He ascend into heaven. This means that our vision of what the world would be like if Jesus were here in person is false. Perhaps small bits of what we imagine would be true, but apparently we can’t imagine all of the ways in which it would actually be far worse than it actually is. Jesus said it would be better if He went away. The two thousand years that have elapsed since Christ walked the earth are better than if He had stayed. Jesus actually says that this is because if He doesn’t leave, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, will not come. I’m not sure we can explain the mechanics of this. We might wish that Jesus just stay and send the Holy Spirit at the same time. But Jesus says this cannot be. Apparently, there is some significant connection between Jesus being in heaven and the Spirit being here on earth. If Jesus had not ascended into heaven, we would not have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit being here with us is better than Jesus being here with us in person. How is this the case?
Jesus says that if the Helper comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. Notice that those words roughly correspond to the vision we had a few moments ago about life in this world if Jesus were here: more believing in Jesus, more justice and righteousness, more good decisions and peace. In other words, Jesus says the Spirit is able to accomplish this far better than He can by staying. This means that in the last 2000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven and poured out the Spirit, we have every reason to believe that there is more faith in Jesus, more justice, more peace, and more wisdom prevailing in this world than if Jesus had stayed. How is this possible? It doesn’t seem likely.
The answer is bound up with what Jesus is doing in heaven and how the Spirit is involved in that. So what is Jesus doing in heaven? Our lessons help us understand this. Daniel saw a vision of heaven, and Jesus, the son of man, ascending with the clouds of heaven, coming to the Ancient of Days. And what was given to Him? Dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him (Dan. 7:14). In Acts 1, where Luke records the ascension, Jesus says that He is sending the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in order to give them the power to testify of Jesus from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And the book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, the capital of the Empire, preaching and teaching the gospel boldly and openly. Paul writes to the Ephesians telling them that they are in part proof that Jesus has ascended because they used to be dead in their trespasses and sins and under the dominion of the devil, but now they have been made alive and saved by grace through faith, and they are beginning to walk in good works that Jesus prepared for them. Finally, our last lesson was John’s vision of heaven, and there He saw Jesus on a white horse riding forth in battle, making war on the nations with the sharp sword coming out of His mouth.
If we put these pieces together, an image begins to emerge. Jesus needed to ascend in order to receive the dominion of the whole world. Where do you rule the whole universe from? You cannot rule the entire cosmos from Rome or Jerusalem or Washington DC. And you cannot rule the entire cosmos from any of those places because you cannot be handed the authority for the entire universe in any of those places. Where do you receive the rule of the universe? Who can give that to you? No one but the Ancient of Days. No one but God Himself. But how can a man rule all peoples, nations, and languages – not to mention planets and galaxies? And I think this is where our initial vision of Jesus being on earth really does break down. Can you imagine the lines to see Jesus? How many months or years would it take for you to get an appointment with seven billion other people on the planet? And how many problems or issues would each person have? Probably multiple issues a day at least. There would be no time for meetings with generals, political leaders or else many of the sick and suffering would just have to wait. Even if Jesus can walk through doors or move supernaturally from place to place, He is still bound by time and space as a fully human person.
So the Spirit is the means by which Jesus rules the world. His Spirit was sent to fill the apostles so that they might preach and teach and write Scripture. This is the sword going out of the mouth of Jesus. This is why He is called the Word of God. This is how He can be the King of all kings and the Lord of all Lords. His Spirit is poured out into the hearts of men and women and children, raising them from the death of sin and guilt and shame, causing them to become kings and priests, causing them to believe and walk in newness of life. One man cannot see to the needs of seven billion people, not even a man who is perfect and powerful and God in the flesh – at least not as this world has been created and configured. But the 2 billion Christians in the world – the 2 billion men and women and children filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – they can begin to care for the needs of the world. And so we catch a glimpse of the armies of heaven, riding behind Jesus, clothed in fine linen, white and pure, an army of over 2 billion and counting. You see, Jesus could have stayed and slowly made progress by constantly telling everyone what to do and fixing everything directly Himself. But instead, He ascended into heaven and sent His Spirit to lead us into all truth. He filled the apostles with power to preach and write the Scriptures. He filled the Ephesians with the Spirit to hear the gospel and believe and receive the Scriptures and pass them down. And so century by century, the Spirit has empowered the Word preached and taught and read, and caused people to believe and in turn bring healing and grace to others around them. Two pierced hands became twenty-four hands which have become over four billion hands today – hands lifted in praise and prayer, hands laid upon the hurting and sick, hands reaching out to lift up the forgotten and needy, hands holding the Word of God, sharing the Word of God.
The Spirit works with what God has made. The Spirit doesn’t destroy creation; the Spirit doesn’t brainwash people and turn them into religious robots. The Spirit renews people, the Spirit woos the rebels, the Spirit raises the dead. The Spirit can be a fierce wind, a Pauline preacher, an Athanasian theologian, a Reformational tornado, but the Spirit is just as often a nursing mother, a gentle father, a comforting friend, a listening grandparent, a patient breeze, a meaningful glance, a glass of cold water.
And so we with all the faithful are assembled here this evening to confess with one heart and voice that this is better. It is to our advantage that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sent us His Spirit. It is far better this way. Our faith is stronger because Jesus has ascended and given us His Spirit. Our understanding of justice and peace is far better and growing every minute. And we have far greater access to the wisdom of Jesus than we ever could with Him stationed somewhere here on earth. We have His Word and His Spirit. We are the armies of heaven. There are no waiting periods or lines to stand in. His churches fill the globe with greater and greater access to Scripture every day. And the Spirit teaches us to pray to God our Father, where we have complete and total and immediate access with our every care.
This is better. This is far better.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.