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Ascension, “Passing the Torch”

Pastor Gary Wong May 20, 2020

Acts 1:1-11

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 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. 4 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. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." 6 So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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." 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 "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."

When it comes to sporting events, they don’t get much bigger than the Olympic Games. People all over the world tune in to view the opening ceremonies and the events that follow. Perhaps the most spectacular highlight of the opening ceremonies is the lighting of the Olympic flame. For weeks prior to this ceremony, countless runners carry a torch from Athens, the birthplace of he Olympic games, to the host city. Although many people would love to participate, few individuals are chosen to receive this once in a lifetime honor. Through cities and towns, farms and fields, the torch is passed from runner to runner. Anticipation builds as the last runner enters an almost completely darkened stadium. In the 1992 Barcelona games, Spain’s para-olympian archer, Antonio Rebollo, lit an arrow from the last runner’s torch, took careful aim, and launched his arrow into the night sky. All eyes were riveted on this single flaming arrow arcing across the stadium. When it passed over the cauldron primed with high octane gas, it instantly illuminated the night sky in a spectacular blaze of fire and light.

In many ways, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is similar to the relay of runners carrying the Olympic torch. Rather than passing a flaming torch, however, Jesus was passing on something much more powerful to his disciples: the gospel. The gospel has the power to pierce souls and illuminate a world darkened by sin. When God created the heavens and the earth, the first thing that he made was light. Adam and Eve, who were the crown of God’s creation, basked in the light of God’s love. Theirs was a perfect relationship between God and mankind. Sadly, they disobeyed the Lord and thus plunged the world into darkness.

Sin severed Adam and Eve’s once perfect relationship with God. And since all of us have inherited a sinful nature from our parents, we were born spiritually dead and blind. Left to ourselves, we would stumble and bumble through life, without a clue as to where we are going. And even if we knew where we wanted to go, we didn’t know how we were going to get there. Simply put, we were hopelessly lost. And without the one true light to guide us, we would end up in hell where we would be separated from God’s love forever. God could have let his just judgment against sinners stand. After all, death is what all of us deserved because of our sins. God, however, takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Because God is gracious and compassionate, he wants all people to be saved. So out of his love for the whole world, God promised to remove the curse of death. God fulfilled that promise by sending his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior.

God’s plan of salvation called for Jesus to run the race that each of us must run. That meant that Jesus had to become part of the human race. The first step in Jesus’ journey, as the Apostle John tells us, was when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). That is a mind-boggling statement. In the Nicene Creed we confess that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God, from true God, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made.” Yet, Jesus did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, Jesus humbled himself when he became a human being. Jesus, like you and me, had to keep God’s law perfectly. If he failed even once, all would be lost. The devil knew that. That’s why he threw every temptation that he had in his bag of tricks at Jesus. Yet, Jesus did not fall for any of Satan’s lies. He didn’t swerve off the path. He didn’t trip or fall into a sinkhole of sin. Rather, Jesus ran a perfect race from his first step to his last. His final lap took him to the cross at Calvary where he suffered the punishment that you and I deserved. For three hours, darkness covered the land as Jesus was forsaken by his own Father. Then, with a loud voice, Jesus declared, “It is finished” (John 19:31). Jesus then gave up his Spirit and died.

The darkness that had covered the land matched the gloom that had come over the disciples’ hearts as they witnessed Jesus’ suffering and death. They could hardly believe what they had seen. Jesus, the light of the world, apparently had been snuffed out. The disciples certainly believed that Jesus was the promised Savior. The Holy Spirit had convinced them of that fact. But now that Jesus’ lifeless body lay in a tomb, their faith was teetering on very shaky ground. They didn’t remember Jesus’ prophecy that he would suffer, die, and be raised to life on the third day. So when Mary and the other women reported that the tomb was empty on Easter Sunday, they couldn’t or wouldn’t believe. It wasn’t until Jesus had shown himself to them and had given many convincing proofs that he was alive that they believed. Luke tells us that Jesus then appeared to them over a period of forty days after his resurrection and spoke about the kingdom of God.

So, what was the disciples’ attitude about their role in God’s kingdom now that that Jesus’ was with them once again? From their question, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” it appears that they still didn’t get it. They failed to understand Jesus’ mission. He did not come down from heaven to establish an earthly kingdom. Rather, he came to establish his rule in hearts through the power of the gospel. Now that his work on earth had been completed, it was time for him to return to his Father in heaven. Jesus, however, was not about to leave his disciples in the lurch. First, he told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift that Jesus’ Father had promised. Furthermore, Jesus told them what would happen when they received that gift: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world”(Acts 1:8).

As soon as Jesus had said this, he was taken up into heaven. So, what was the disciples’ attitude now that Jesus had left them a second time? Were they wondering if they would ever see him again? Should they wait for his return? What, if anything, should they be doing while they waited? If they had any of those questions or doubts in their minds, they were erased by two angels who suddenly appeared and 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 that you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In other words, the angels assured the disciples, “Don’t worry. Jesus is coming back. In the meantime, you’ve got work to do. You are witnesses to all that Jesus said and did. God is going to equip you with power from on high to testify that Jesus is the Savior. There’s one more thing. Even though Jesus has returned to his Father in heaven, he hasn’t abandoned you. Right now he’s ruling over all things for your benefit. So get to work!”

Friends, Jesus is sending us to be his witnesses. He has given us the awesome message to testify to the world that God forgives the sins of everyone who believes Jesus is the Savior. He equips us with the Holy Spirit who empowers us to boldly share the good news. At his ascension, Jesus passed the gospel to you and me so that we would pass it on to others. We start in our own homes and then share it in our community and the world. We pass the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation through faith in Jesus from generation to generation, and we won’t stop until the Last Day. Therefore, empowered by the Spirit, may our light shine before men that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven. Just as the runners in the Olympic relay pass the torch, let’s pass on the gospel. Amen.

“Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” (CW 175)

Text: Charles Wesley, 1707-88, abr., alt.

Hail the day that sees him rise

To his throne above the skies!

Christ, the Lamb for sinners giv’n,

Re-ascends his native heaven.

There the glorious triumph waits;

Lift your heads eternal gates.

He has conquered death and sin;

Take the King of glory in!

See the heav’n its Lord receives,

The earth he leaves;

Though returning to his throne,

Still he calls mankind his own.

See, he lifts his hands above;

See, he shows the prints of love.

Hark! His gracious lips bestow

Blessings on his Church below.

Still for us he intercedes;

His prevailing death he pleads.

He, the first of all our race,

Near himself prepares a place.

There we shall with you remain

Partners in your endless reign.

There your face unclouded view,

Find our heav’n of heav’ns in you.

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