(image from paramentics.com)
THE FESTIVAL OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
They saw something so significant, and this was too important to keep to themselves. That’s what a witness is and that is what a witness does.
Normally a key witness with inside information is very valuable. Their testimony is essential in gathering evidence that can help in a trial or an investigation. Our government has a way of taking care of people who have this valuable information. It’s called the witness protection program. If the testimony is significant, then the witness will be protected. It gets pretty intense, too! Witnesses are given new identities, free housing, job training and employment, medical benefits, and round the clock surveillance all because their information is that valuable. They need to be kept safe or else their testimony will be lost.
But here we are today seeing Jesus leave his followers. The conqueror of death, left his witnesses in a situation where there were plenty of people who wanted them dead. Does that sound like a good witness protection program? Should Ascension really be one of the big festivals of the church?
Don’t get me wrong, going away parties can be fun. You get to remember the good times and share stories. And Jesus certainly has provided us with plenty of good times. He gives us quite a brief summary this morning: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”
Over the past 6 months we seen it all. Jesus carried out everything in the plan of salvation to save us from sin and death. Think back to when we were getting pounded by blizzards. Think of the message that God shared with the world: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Do you remember the Magi, Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, his glory on the mount of Transfiguration? Do you remember the next mountain, one just outside of Jerusalem, called Calvary? Do you remember how he knew exactly what would happen in Jerusalem, but he rode the donkey because he is the kind of humble king who comes to save us? Do you remember the miraculous meal he gave his disciples (and us)? Do you remember what we were doing here about six weeks ago? The Son of God let a bunch of cruel soldiers nail him to a piece of wood like he was a criminal.
But’s that not where the journey ended. Because just a little over a month ago, 170 people gathered in this sanctuary for the best day of the year to hear that Jesus came back from death. The women led us out to Jesus’ empty tomb to marvel again at the complete and total triumph that he won for us. We are free from sin, free from death, free from the devil. We witnessed it all over the past 6 months. God has made us witnesses ever since he planted this saving faith in our hearts. We saw the greatest person who ever lived and the greatest victory parade that has ever taken place. And it was all for us.
But then reality might be sinking in just a little bit today. It normally does at a going away party. You remember the good times, but then… you have to say goodbye. We all witnessed Jesus come and now we are all standing there with the disciples as he says goodbye.
So, why are we celebrating? You might wonder how could the disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy? Are we really supposed to be happy that our Savior is gone? I think sometimes it can feel a little bit like we are witnesses of these things, but that we are now left all alone to fend for ourselves in a world that wants nothing to do with steadfast Bible-based Christianity. The protection for us witnesses does not seem to be working out too well.
I mean, where is Jesus when I need him? Where is he when people start asking questions about my faith in him, my priorities, or my church? Where is Jesus when I have really hard questions? Where is Jesus when times are tough? Where is Jesus when loved ones are getting sick or hurt or even dying? Where is Jesus when there is struggle and strife between his followers?
It can be hard to be a witness when this program seems to be failing. When I feel like I’m all alone in the fight against sin and the devil, I can easily give in. It can be hard to be zealous when I just don’t know what to say or when to say it. It can be hard to speak with joy and confidence when I think no one is going to back me up. It just might not sound like the greatest witness protection program for Jesus to up and leave his witnesses all alone.
But before we complain that life is too hard, before we start to blame God when things don’t work, before we start thinking there really isn’t much protection for us, maybe we should take a step back and view the situation as Jesus sees it. Think of his view from heaven. Can you see any enemies that Jesus still has to conquer? Can you find any of Jesus’ witnesses who are working in a place that Jesus cannot protect them? There is a reason Jesus left this earth and went back up to his throne.
Remember what Jesus said: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 2000 years ago, Jesus ascended because he had finished the job he came to do. He fulfilled every word that God had promised. Christ conquered all of our enemies once for all. Our sins were destroyed forever on the cross. Death was defeated by an empty tomb. Hell was overthrown by a perfect King who is now preparing our home in heaven. The devil can prowl around all he wants, but his head has already been crushed. He’s all bark and no bite. His only weapon is trying to tell lies, but we have The Truth on our side.
The world cannot hold us confined to run around in an endless maze of disappointments. Jesus tells us to take heart because he has overcome the world. And Paul reminds us our citizenship is in heaven; this world is just a motel. The sinful nature that lives inside each of us has been drowned in Baptism and is fighting a hopeless battle against the Holy Spirit who called us out of darkness into the light of life. This is the day we celebrate the coronation of the Prince of Peace to his rightful place on heaven’s throne because he had completed all his work. He didn’t leave anything undone.
The next time you feel like you are all alone, the next time you feel like you are hopelessly fighting a losing battle against sin, and the next time you lack confidence to stand up for your faith in Jesus, take a look around. Do you see Jesus anywhere? No. You would if you were still lost in your sins. You would if your home in heaven wasn’t already paid for in full. Your King has not left any battles for you to fight on your own. Your King has not left any enemies that can crush you. Your King has provided the full proof witness protection program when he died for all sins, rose from the dead, and kept his promise to clothe his witnesses with the Holy Spirit.
How this witness protection program still continues to work is quite astonishing when you think about it. Jesus commissioned a few fisherman, a tax collector, a former Pharisee and just a couple others to be witnesses. None of them were the religious nobility. None of them were trained public speakers. Not one of them had anything more than you do. They had God’s Word and the Lord said they were his protected witnesses. The group started joyously in Jerusalem and the good news spread. The Spirit brought a few thousand more to faith. They joyously joined in the mission work. Some of the apostles were killed, but the news still spread even more because death cannot hold back Jesus. Some groups tried to change the message just a little bit here and there, to make it more sensible, logical, more human, but their heresies were exposed and the truth of Jesus still spread in this world like wildfire.
Jesus sat on his throne and empowered his small group of followers to boldly witness about him to all nations. They didn’t know when or where or how Jesus would send the Spirit to bring more people to faith, but they knew it would happen… if they went and witnessed. And so, the gospel of Jesus spread to Greece and Rome and Spain and Asia and Africa and Europe and then eventually the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus came over to America.
Jesus protected his witnesses all the way, so that at some point his grace also found you and found me. His witness protection program really works. He gives each of us new identities as God’s children. He gives us a free and eternal home in heaven. He gives us on-the-job training through his word to do his work. And he watches over us every minute from heaven.
You see, that’s what ascension started. That’s how our King works. Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstresses, soldiers, cooks and clerks to be his witnesses. He uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors. He uses you and me. He uses things like a Bible and Baptism to change lives forever. It’s a witness protection program that seems so simple and we could even say weak, but it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. It’s always about the power of King Jesus.
Part of Jesus’ witness protection program that he provides are those who preach and teach and lead the mission work. Jesus is still watching over his church, by sending pastors and teachers to spread this good news.
Jesus provides the workers, but do you know where he gets them from? Do pastors and teachers just appear out of thin air? The answer is no. When I was born did I have a big sign on my forehead so that my parents would know that I would end up as your pastor at Our Saviour’s? Again, no. Then, how does Jesus keep his witness protection program going? How does he find servants for the ministry of the gospel?
Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstress, soldiers, cooks and clerks. Jesus uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors. Jesus gets pastors and teachers from all walks of life to lead the work. You see, it’s a cycle. Jesus continues to use us in his ways as his witnesses. And when you’re a witness, you tell what you see.
That’s what I get to do on a full-time basis. It’s literally the best life on earth. To serve the Lord as a witness and to preach and teach and encourage other witnesses is a privilege and honor. To be a part of this victory parade is humbling and exciting and difficult and awesome and heart-wrenching and inspiring.
Jesus began this witness protection program when he ascended and it is still going strong, because he is in charge. Can you be a witness? You already are, because when he spoke his name over you, God brought you into the program. Can your children or grandchildren be full-time witnesses in ministry as pastors and teachers? That’s kind of how it works. Jesus made it this way, and I think he knows what he is doing, don’t you?
Look what it did to the disciples. They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. That’s what the Ascension does. It shows us our King who is ruling all things for us. It shows us his death-defying power that saves us forever. It shows us the home that we have with him. It shows us that we are witnesses of it all.
God grant it. Amen.