And so we come to the season finale, the episode that draws together a lot of the threads of the story line, but leaves a few hanging out there for the next season, even a bit of a cliff hanger – keeping us intrigued and ready to come back for more when the new season begins.
It all started in the cold and wet of the beginning of March with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We spent that time looking forward to and preparing for Easter, the slow ramp up. Then there were the dramatic events of Palm Sunday, the entry into Jerusalem, the clearing of the Temple then Maundy Thursday – foot washing, Last Supper and Gethsemane. Thursday bled into Friday as Jesus’ trial continued. On that Friday afternoon we watched as he was beaten and crucified. Saturday we waited and Sunday we celebrated – Jesus is alive, he has risen. Alleluias have echoed ever since as he’s appeared again and again to his disciples – walking with them on the road to Emmaus.
But now the season is coming to an end, the chapter is closing. Jesus is returning to heaven.
A new chapter is about to start – the age of the Holy Spirit. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, and the fulfilment of the promise that Jesus makes on the day of his ascension – to send the Holy Spirit – but I’m not going to steal Margaret’s thunder for next week, so today, let’s pause at this turning point and let’s have a think about Ascension and what it means.
Because of his ascension, Jesus is gone, so we are witnesses.
In this last conversation that Jesus had with his friends and followers we read that he pointed back to those who had witnessed to him even before he had arrived. He drew examples from the different sections of the Old Testament. From the earliest accounts of the formation of God’s people from Genesis, and the freedom God gave them in the Exodus from Egypt, and the law God gave them to live by – this is the law of Moses, and they all point to Jesus. We don’t know exactly what examples Jesus chose, but given what had just happened to him I suspect that the Passover might have featured. From the prophetic writings, the messengers of God to God’s people over the centuries, perhaps drawing on Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant. And from the Psalms, the hymn and prayer book of the people of God, perhaps the good shepherd ideas he drew on so strongly in his teaching about himself – Psalm 23. These all witnessed to Jesus, who he is, and what he would do, long before he was born to earth.
While he was here, he was his own witness. He did the things that his Father gave him to do, and taught with his own authority. This was one of the things that earned the hatred of the religious leaders – he had his own authority and people believed his account of himself.
But now it is time to hand on the baton. Jesus is about to ascend, and so he commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, to share their experiences of what they had seen and heard and believed. They were faithful and obedient to that command. They told other people, some of them wrote down their witness statements, and we have them preserved in the pages of the Bible. We are here today because these people, and many others through the centuries, were faithful witnesses and form a chain of faith from the them to us. We now receive this command from Jesus, and have the opportunity to forge the next links in the chain.
I know that many of you already have “Thy Kingdom Come” booklets. If you haven’t got one, then grab one from me on the way out. We can use them to help us to pray for the people we are a witness to, and to pray for ourselves that we may be faithful witnesses.
Because of his ascension, Jesus is enthroned, so we worship.
I wonder if you, like me, are struck by the contrast in the emotions of the disciples in this story to what we’ve seen through the rest of the season. During the journey towards Jerusalem they were continually confused and repeatedly we are told that they didn’t understand when Jesus told them what would happen when they got to Jerusalem. During Easter week they are perplexed, make big promises about never letting Jesus down and then running away in fear. They’re heart broken at his death. Even when reports of Jesus’ resurrection begin to circulate they are afraid, doubting, go back to fishing, and often don’t recognise him when he does appear. They are, in summary, a right mess. But not now. And I find that a little strange, because in some ways they are back in a similar situation. Jesus has left them. OK, this time he’s been taken directly into heaven, rather than dying on a cross, but he is still gone. They are still left behind. But this time they’re not confused, and not grieving. They are worshipping, full of great joy, blessing God. Something has changed.
It seems to me that part of that change is due to the fact that their minds have now been opened and they understand what the Scripture had pointed to, and that the events of Easter were planned, deliberate, and purposeful, and they have really come to trust and believe that Jesus is God’s chosen one, the Messiah, who will rescue people from all that holds them captive. Because they believe this, they trust his promise that he will send his Holy Spirit, and that they will also be raised to life one day. They have finally come to understand that Jesus really is the King and that his kingdom, the kingdom he’s been going on about from day one, is a real thing, and that Jesus had really brought it near.
It’s exactly what we heard from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. Jesus had returned to heaven to take his rightful place, on his throne, above all other rulers and authorities. And the only reasonable reaction to this is praise and worship. As Paul writes in Philippians, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Because of his ascension, Jesus is in power, so we are encouraged.
What did we say Jesus had promised to his disciples? “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” That sounds impressive, doesn’t it. “Clothed with power from on high.” It seems to me that power has got a bit of a bad name. “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” is a common proverb, and it does seem to have some truth to it. We only have to look around the world to see examples of power that has been misused and abused. Power in untrustworthy hands is extremely dangerous. It has a multiplying effect, a magnifying effect, on the impact a person can have on the world, and that can be very harmful.
However, on the flip side it can be very positive. In that passage from Ephesians Paul talks about the “immeasurable greatness” of the power of God – power which raised Jesus from the dead and put him in the place of power that he is in today. Later on in the same letter, Paul prays that his readers might have power to comprehend God’s love, and describes the power of God as, “able to do more than we can ask or think”
So, Jesus promised his followers power flowing from God’s limitless power, so power can’t be all bad. It must be possible for power to be a positive thing in our lives. There is another saying about power. “Power without control is useless.” And it seems to me that this is the crucial thing. Whose control is this power under? I know that I am a sinful person, and the temptation to misuse the power that I have, whether human or spiritual, whether as vicar or as a parent, in all contexts, is always there. The only way to resist this temptation, and to use power rightly is to remember that it is not me that is in power. It is Jesus who is on the throne. Jesus is in power, and any power I may have been given is only safe when it is used under his direction and at his command. This is so encouraging. Jesus is in power, and in the end all powers will bow at this throne. This world and its troubles are not the end of the story. There is another season coming, a season in which Jesus, ascended and glorified, enthroned in power will be seen and witnessed to by the whole of creation. Evil and death will be gone for ever and we will live in eternity, risen and ascended with our risen and ascended Lord.