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Ascension, “Look Up to Him”

Pastor Gary Wong, May 13, 2021

Ephesians 1:16-23

16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Have you ever heard the expression, “Out of sight; out of mind”? What about the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” Both of those sayings talk about a situation where someone you know isn’t around. When you haven’t seen someone for a while, a couple of things might happen: you might start to forget about him—what he looks and sounds like, his habits, his personality—or you might really start to miss him, especially if he is a close friend or loved one. When someone close to you is gone, it kind of feels as though there’s an empty space in your heart. You feel sad and lonely; you might feel anxious and worried, especially if you don’t know when, or even if, that special someone is going to come back.

I don’t know if the expressions, “Out of sight, out of mind” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” were around in Jesus’ day; but if they had been, which one of those sayings best describes how Jesus’ disciples felt after Jesus had ascended into heaven? Obviously, none of us was there to witness that eye-opening event. However, my good friend and fellow disciple, Luke, wrote about it in a book you know as the Book of Acts. By the way, my name is Paul. By God’s grace, Jesus made me his apostle to the Gentiles. Luke includes a lot of my journey with Jesus in the Book of Acts as well. Anyway, here was the situation at the time of Jesus’ ascension. It had been forty days after Jesus had risen from the grave. Many of you recall the details of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the eyewitness accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John, as well as Luke’s first book which you know as the Gospel according to Luke.

You remember how devastated Jesus’ disciples had been when they had witnessed his crucifixion. With Jesus’ death, they had thought that all of their hopes and dreams had also been lost. Without Jesus, how could there be salvation for God’s people? Jesus had built up the disciples’ hopes when he had said that the kingdom of God is near. It was easy to believe that Jesus was going to restore the kingdom when the disciples had witnessed Jesus’ miracles and had heard him preach and teach with power and authority. But on the day you call Good Friday, it had seemed that the kingdom of heaven was a million miles away, and that without Jesus there wasn’t any hope of getting there. All of their hopes had been buried in the tomb where Jesus’ lifeless body had been laid.

How quickly those feelings of hopelessness were completely turned around just three days later! When the disciples saw Jesus on the day you call Easter, their empty hearts were filled with joy. Luke tells us that over the next forty days, Jesus appeared to his disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. Because the disciples had seen Jesus with their own eyes, their feelings of doom and gloom had vanished. Instead, the disciples were filled with hope. Now that Jesus was back with them, the disciples probably thought that Jesus would pick up right where he had left off. They were wrong. According to Luke’s account, Jesus and his disciples were on a mountain near Jerusalem when they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But …you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7,8).

As soon as Jesus finished speaking, he was taken up before their very eyes until a cloud hid him from their sight. Imagine what it must have been like for those disciples. One moment they were talking with Jesus; the next moment, he was gone. As their eyes kept looking higher and higher, their jaws probably kept dropping lower and lower until Jesus was gone from their sight. As the disciples stood on that mountain, staring intently for any sign of Jesus, they probably had a million questions swirling in their minds. “Where did Jesus go? Is Jesus playing some kind of divine game of hide and seek? Is he coming back? I just got over the trauma of seeing Jesus crucified and then the shock, albeit a pleasant one, of seeing Jesus alive. Now Jesus has taken off again. What are we going to do if Jesus doesn’t come back for a long, long time? How are we going to get along without him? I don’t think that I can take much more of this!”

With Jesus’ second departure, the disciples’ new found feelings of joy and confidence could easily have been replaced with the old feelings of despair and hopelessness. However, the disciples weren’t left standing there for very long before two men suddenly appeared out of nowhere to answer their questions. The disciples had been so busy focusing their eyes on Jesus that they hadn’t noticed these men standing next to them. These two men in white said, “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).

Those two men (whom the Bible tells us were angels) were a heaven-sent answer to the disciples’ prayers. The angels’ words gave the disciples tremendous comfort, encouragement, and hope. In so many words, the angels assured Jesus’ disciples by saying, “Hey, guys! Relax! Sure, Jesus has gone into heaven. But you know, you really shouldn’t be surprised that he’s gone. After all, Jesus had said all along that he would go back to his Father as soon as his work here on earth was done. But don’t worry. This isn’t the last time that you are going to see him. Jesus is going to come back to earth one last time. And do you know what else? He’s going to come back in the exact same way that you just saw him go into heaven. Jesus is going to come down from the clouds with his angels. The difference is that the next time Jesus comes, everybody—and I do mean everybody—is going to see him. Every knee will bow down and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Then Jesus is going to take all who believe in him to heaven to live with him forever. Now that’s something worth waiting for!”

Jesus’ disciples needed to be reassured that Jesus had not abandoned them and that they would see him again. It’s part of our sinful nature to be tempted to doubt God’s promises, especially when we are dealing with a lot of problems. It’s pretty easy to get discouraged because we can’t see Jesus or don’t seem to see evidence of his love in our lives. We might even be tempted to lose hope because things seem to be spinning out of control and we don’t have the power to do anything about it. If you’ve ever felt (or maybe are feeling) this way, you’re not alone. Believers in my day also had those feelings. That’s why I wrote this letter to my Christian brothers and sisters in Ephesus.

Just as I wrote to them, I’m telling you now that no matter how many problems you might have and no matter how big they might seem, there’s no reason to despair or give up. My prayer for them and for you is that the Holy Spirit would open your hearts and minds so that you would know the hope to which God has called you and me. Our hope isn’t just wishful thinking. Ours is a sure and certain hope because it is founded and grounded on our Savior and what he has done for us. Jesus loved us so much that he gave up the riches of heaven to live as one of us. Jesus lived a perfect life and then died an innocent death to save us from suffering in hell for eternity. Even though we didn’t deserve it, God has adopted us into his family through faith in Christ. As his sons and daughters, God has given us a glorious inheritance that will never spoil or fade or be taken away from us. God has given us the priceless gift of eternal life in heaven. All the wealth of this world is nothing compared to the riches that await us.

Now, you might be asking, “How can we be sure that God has the power to keep his promises?” Friends—God has incomparably great power. What’s more, he’s using that power for us who believe. You want evidence of God’s power? God used his almighty power to raise Jesus from the dead and seat Jesus at his right hand in the heavenly realms. Jesus is using his almighty power to rule over all things. There is no power on earth, under the earth or in heaven that comes close to Jesus’ power. Remember, Jesus has conquered our greatest enemies—sin, death, and the devil. Since Jesus has taken care of our greatest problems, how much more will he use his power to help us with our other problems as well?

Even though we can’t see Jesus with the eyes in our heads, we can see evidence of his love and power through eyes of faith. We see his power working through his Word and the sacraments. Through his Word and water, God creates faith in baptism. He preserves and strengthens that faith with his Word and the Lord’s Supper which assures us that our sins are forgiven. Through faith, we know that Jesus will meet all of our needs, both physical and spiritual.

Friends—Jesus may be out of our sight, but he certainly isn’t out of our minds. To the contrary, his absence on earth only makes our hearts grow fonder for him and long for the time when we will see him face to face. Jesus’ ascension assures us that he is working tirelessly on our behalf. Knowing that Jesus is with us always gives us the motivation to get up in the morning, the power to serve the Lord and fellow man each and every day, and peace of mind when we lie down to sleep at night. Until the day when Jesus returns in glory, let’s worship and serve the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, strength and mind. Jesus has promised, “I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20). To that promise we say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.

“On Christ’s Ascension I Now Build” (CW 173)

Text: Josua Wegelin, 1604-40; tr. William M. Czamanske, 1873-1964, alt.

On Christ’s ascension I now build,

the hope of my ascension.

This hope alone has always stilled

All doubt and apprehension;

For where the head is, there as well

I know his members are to dwell

When Christ shall come and call them.

Since Christ returned to claim his throne,

Great gifts for me obtaining,

My heart shall rest in him alone,

No other rest remaining.

For where my treasure went before,

There all my thoughts shall ever soar

To still their deepest yearning.

Oh, grant, dear Lord, this grave to me,

Recalling your ascension,

That I may serve you faithfully,

Adorning your redemption;

And then, when all my days will cease,

Let me depart in joy and peace

In answer to my pleading.

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