On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon boarded the Air Force Helicopter on the White House lawn and flew off into the sky. This marked the end of his presidency. He did not leave office in glory; he left in disgrace. He had resigned due to scandal. If you wanted the president, if you wanted major things done in the United States, you no longer asked President Nixon. He couldn’t help you. He couldn’t pardon you for a crime; in fact, he needed a pardon himself. He was president no longer.
A long time before that, nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus our Savior lifted up his hands, not to flash a peace sign, but to bless his disciples. As he did, he ascended into the sky, and the clouds soon hid him from view.
Did this mark the end of his being our Savior? Absolutely not; he remains our Savior now and forever. Did this mark the end of his reign? No! In many ways, Jesus’ ascension was only the beginning of Jesus reign as the Church’s King over all things. When you need help, when you need forgiveness, do you turn to someone else? Never. Jesus remains our only source for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
This past Thursday marked the day the Christian church has traditionally celebrated Jesus’ ascension. It’s easy for us to forget about Ascension. Somehow it doesn’t seem as big a deal as Christmas or Easter. It’s even easier to think of Jesus’ ascension as the end of the story of Jesus. But today I hope we can start thinking about this important day a little differently.
Ascension is important; it’s a vital and amazing comfort for us in our faith. Ascension was not the end of Jesus’ story but the beginning of his reign as our King. Ascension means that when we need something we can turn to Jesus and trust that he hears us and that as our King he can act in our behalf. And Jesus’ ascension reminds us of the hope we have of his return. It reminds us that Jesus will come back to take us home to his heavenly kingdom forever. The Church’s King is our ascended Savior.
Our text is the beginning of the book of Acts, which, you might remember was written by the Evangelist Luke. The Gospel of Luke was kind of like part one of his story and the book of Acts was part two. Listen to how it starts. 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. (Acts 1:1,2) We don’t know who this Theophilus guy was, other than that Luke addressed both his Gospel and Acts to him.
But did you notice what Luke said about what he was writing and had written? He said that his previous book, the Gospel of Luke, was about what Jesus began to do and teach until he ascended into heaven. That’s an interesting way of putting it. It’s what Jesus began to do. It might seem odd to us. I mean, Luke’s Gospel has Jesus’ birth, it’s got his teaching and miracles, it’s got his suffering and death, his resurrection, and finally his ascension. How could anyone call that the beginning? It sure seems like the beginning, middle, and end!
But there’s a good reason Luke called it the beginning. Jesus’ work didn’t stop with his ascension. Yes, Jesus ascending meant he was no longer visibly with his people. But it doesn’t mean he was gone. Far from it! Notice in our text that Jesus didn’t give his disciples some sort of far-flung final instructions. He gave them instructions for something that would happen very soon. He said, Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. (Acts 1:4) He was talking about Pentecost, which would happen only ten days after the ascension. The disciples wouldn’t see Jesus again, but he would still be with them.
In some ways, he would be closer than ever to them. He had promised exactly that shortly before he ascended. He said, Surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) He would always be with them now. He would no longer be bound by a location where he happened to be standing; he would be with his people everywhere.
This comfort of the ascension can be easy to forget for us today. We no longer have Jesus visibly here with us. So that might lead us to believe, every once in a while, that Jesus is gone. Not here in church, of course. Here, we sing our hymns and say our prayers and we are reminded and are confident that Jesus is with us. But when we’re not here in church, and especially if we’re struggling with something, Jesus’ presence is easy to forget.
When everything’s going against you and life is pressing down on you, and you don’t know how you’re going to possibly get through it, Jesus can seem awfully far away. Oh sure, we know we can pray to him, but even that seems unlikely or like a last-ditch effort most of the time. We might think, “Sure, if Jesus were here right now, he could help me, he could encourage me and lift me up, but he’s not.”
Then there’s our congregation. Could our church possibly forget Jesus’ presence? Easily. Think about it. “Attendance is down. Some people I know don’t seem to come to church any more. There doesn’t seem to be as much offerings. How will we make it? How will we get through? Will the church have to close? If Jesus were around today he could turn things around. He could point us in the right direction, if he were here. But he’s not.”
Wake up! Don’t ever think that way! Jesus is very much here, whether it’s for your life personally or for this congregation. Like he said to his disciples, “I am with you always.” Jesus never left you! He is there to hear your prayers, and answer them. He is here for you!
And our congregation? Jesus said, Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matt. 18:20) Jesus is here with us right now. He has promised to bless us. In fact, he rules the whole world for us. The book of Ephesians tells us that when Jesus ascended, God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church. (Eph. 1:22) Jesus literally rules everything for us. The church’s King is our ascended Savior!
But still, sometimes it seems like Jesus isn’t really doing what we need him to do now. The disciples certainly thought that way. Listen to what they asked Jesus right before he ascended. Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)
You’re almost embarrassed for the disciples here. They were still holding onto the false idea that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom, that he was going to make Israel great again, and that he would rule as King on earth. They were wrong about this, but it’s what they thought they needed. It was that important to them!
But notice how Jesus doesn’t get mad at them, he doesn’t yell at them. He is patient and loving, and he tells them what they really need. 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)
Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, just 10 days later, and we’ll talk much more about that next week. But the main point is still clear: Jesus doesn’t always give us what we want, he gives us what we need.
We can all come up with a laundry list of things we want in our lives. Our problems with loved ones, paying the bills, going to school or work — you can think of plenty of problems with those things. Same thing here at church. We think of problems in attendance, offerings, and attitudes, or need of zeal for evangelism or love of one another. Whatever they are, we want our problems fixed right now, on our terms, in the way we want.
And while Jesus very well might help us in exactly the way we want, he doesn’t promise to give us what we want. But he does promise what we need. And just think of where we find what we need. In God’s Word, Jesus doesn’t answer our every curiosity or give us the winning lottery numbers or a step-by-step guide to success in business. But he does give us the good news of forgiveness to build up our faith and strengthen us to live for him.
This baptismal font reminds us that Jesus has given us an incredible connection to him in baptism. We are connected to Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection in our baptism, guaranteeing that our sins are forgiven, guaranteeing that we are God’s children. Here at the altar in the Lord’s Supper, we don’t get a square meal that satisfies us physically, but we get Jesus himself here with us in the bread and wine, his body and blood given and shed for you, your forgiveness assured, your faith lifted, your relationship to God restored. What you need as sinful people in this world, Jesus gives, and he will continue to give those things to you till the end of time.
And the end of time will come. It might not come when people predict it. It might not come in our lifetimes (or it might), but the end will come. And when it does, Jesus ascension is another great comfort.
After Jesus had ascended and his disciples were there staring into the sky, two angels appeared to 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.” (Acts 1:11)
Jesus’ ascension can comfort us now. It reminds us, Jesus isn’t done yet. Far from it. He will put an end to this dark world and all our troubles. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. He will destroy death and the grave forever. He will come back, and he will take us home. The ascension reminds us of that. So don’t forget it!
Don’t forget that Jesus is our King! He hasn’t stopped ruling, he still rules for us! He gives us blessings that we need every day. He forgives and strengthens us. He fits us for his service. He answers our prayers. And he will return to give us our eternal home. There’s no doubt about it: the church’s King is our ascended Savior. Let us praise him forever!