THE ASCENDED JESUS HAS A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FOR US

5.28.17 AscensionA

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(image from paramentics.com)

 

THE FESTIVAL OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Luke 24:44-53

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.

 

THE COMEBACK FOR THE AGES

4.16.17 Easter Sunday

Easter 2017 2

Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

They were down, big.  It really wasn’t even a game.  I literally left the party after halftime because it just wasn’t entertaining anymore (plus it was getting late for my kids, but it was mostly because of how boring the game was).  The score was 28-3 midway through the third quarter.  There had never been a comeback from that deficit in this big of a game. You might remember that day, this past February 5. It was Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New England Patriots.  Now, I’m not at all a Patriots or Falcons fan, so I wasn’t broken up or pumped about it.  I was just kind of hoping for a good game.  But what about the Patriots fans that night?  The game was more than half over and the Patriots looked like they had forgotten what football was and how to play it.

Now, we’ve all been there before like the Patriots and their fans.  We’ve really hoped for one result and got something devastatingly different.  I know some people who were experiencing that kind of pain.  Men who had been so excited about the prospects of what could happen, like Patriots fans in the weeks leading up to yet another Super Bowl, but it all vanished.  They had that stunned look that you see so often from fans of a losing team in a championship game.  (Somewhat how I felt when I shaved my beard yesterday.)  It is just blank, void of energy, void of hope; it looks like there is no tomorrow, no next time.

The disciples were in those dark doldrums, but this wasn’t about a game.  There was no “can we start this over again.”  In fact, it was even worse than Patriots’ fans felt, because even when your team loses there will be another season.  The disciples were dealing with something much worse, something that couldn’t be undone.  Jesus was dead.  After all that time following him, listening to him, believing in himas God’s Son, it was all over.  They didn’t know what to do.  They were afraid.  They were together but felt so alone.  They were completely defeated.  They didn’t even go with the women to the tomb for closure.  It was too raw.  It hurt too much.

Do you know what that’s like?  I’m not just talking about seeing your favorite team getting the beat down.  I’m talking about when life is giving you the beat down.  Your spouse doesn’t seem so close lately.  Your house needs some work, but you’re too busy with work and money is tight.  Then, when you really didn’t need anything else added to your plate, you get rear-ended and the dentist calls saying it’s time for the family’s checkups (and who likes the dentist?). All those kinds of things that pile up and put you into a bad mood can be hard to handle.  They can seem overwhelming.   But somehow you manage.  After all, it’s not a life and death matter.

But then, that happens, too, like Jesus’ followers found out.  Maybe you know someone who has to deal with stage 4 cancer.  Maybe you have a good friend or coworker who was in a bad accident.  Maybe this past year or two you had to say goodbye to mom or dad, grandpa or grandma. That’s a lot worse than your favorite team getting the beat down or life giving you a few twists and turns.  That is life and death.  What do you do then?

And you know that you have to deal with it.  We have to come to grips with the fact that death is not optional.  Because in this world, nothing lasts forever, you and me included. So, what do we do about it?  Are we each supposed to find our favorite coping mechanism?  Some wrap themselves up in fun and family.  Some choose exercise and sports.  Some take to volunteering a lot.  Some try to ignore it all and live for the moment.  Some, sadly, turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain but it only causes more.  Is that what we are supposed to do?  But where does any of that get you?  Nothing we try can get rid of the fact that death will come.

The women on the way to the tomb were right in the middle of that sad reality.  It was dark and dismal for them.  The disciples were in it as well; too scared to go with them, too overcome with guilt that the last time Jesus saw most of them was as they were running away from him in fear.  Defeat has a way of sapping the life out of you, doesn’t it?

I’m sure that’s what Patriots fans were feeling.  And I know that players always say things like, “You just have to keep playing and see what happens,” but I’m sure there were plenty of guys on that sideline who weren’t thrilled with their play.  But then a little light started to peak through the clouds of defeat about halfway through the third quarter, it looked like the Patriots came out of the fog and remembered how to play for a championship.  They scored a touchdown, forced a punt, got a field goal, forced a fumble, got another touchdown.  It got to be a pretty serious game again with 3 minutes left.  The Falcons thought they had the defeated wrapped up, but the Patriots were showing a little life.

When the women arrived at the tomb, there was a little flicker of light.  They went out looking for Jesus’ dead body with a whole lot of disappointment, but when they got there, the guards didn’t meet them.  The large stone wasn’t standing in their way, and an angel was sitting there.  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.”  The women were defeated as they came looking for Jesus’ dead body.  But the angel lifted their heads and hearts and pointed them to a place where defeat and death should have held Jesus, but it was looking like there was life now.  If Jesus was not there in that place of death, that meant there was still hope.  If Jesus had come back from the dead, that meant death doesn’t have to be the winner.  If Jesus was alive, it meant that he was telling the truth all along, he was God’s Son, the Savior from sin and death.

You know how the Super Bowl ended, right?  Spoiler alert: The Patroits won in overtime.  It was the greatest comeback in the Super Bowl, ever.  That was just one game for one trophy.

The angel said to the women, “He is not here; he has risen.”  Jesus didn’t just win a game or a trophy.  Jesus accomplished the comeback for the ages, for all ages, of all time.  He came back from the grave to win the greatest victory there is.  He conquered death.  CIR HIRI

He had gone to the cross to do battle against our sin.  It was brutal and agonizing. And it looked like he was gone for good.  But with his dying cry of “It is finished” he made a promise that came true when he rose from the dead.  Sin was paid for in full.  For all the times we try to fix our lives and fail, for all the times we turn our back on God to go our own way, only to realize our own way doesn’t remove the curse of sin and death, and for all the times we give up, Jesus had the greatest comeback.  The finality of death is gone.   Death now holds now power over us.  Jesus pulled off the upset.  CIR HIRI

Now, if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser, right?  That’s how it works, as much as youth sports might be teaching kids to try their best and have fun, every game has a winner and a loser.  The Patriots had a massive comeback victory.  That meant the Falcons had a catastrophic collapse.

On Easter, there were huge losers.   The disciples were totally defeated.  They had turned their backs on Jesus.  They ran away and left him to be beaten and killed.  They didn’t deserve anything.  They were losers.

Maybe there are times when you feel like a loser.  You have turned your back on God.  You have failed your family.  You’ve broken a promise.  You’ve made a mistake.  Ok, if you’re anything like me, then it’s a ton of mistakes.  Something really important happens on Easter.

Jesus suddenly appears to the women.  They ran right into the proof that Jesus was alive.  They fell down in worship.  (That’s pretty much the same thing we are doing today, and every Sunday, we worship the one who came back from the dead for us.)  They didn’t have doubts or disappointments anymore. CIR HIRI

Here’s what Jesus said to the women: “Do not be afraid.  Go and tell my brothers…”  Jesus calls the disciples “my brothers.”  That might not seem like a big deal, but this is the first time in Jesus’ life that he calls the disciples brothers.  They didn’t even deserve to be called disciples.  They were losers, but the risen Lord sends them a message: “go and tell my brothers.”  The comeback King, Jesus, said to sinners like that, “go and tell my brothers.”

They were not the losers on Easter, and neither are you.  Jesus came back to life because he wants you to have his victory.  That’s the kind of God we have.  We have a God who fights for us and wins for us.  We are free from our sins through Christ.  He promises that he doesn’t even remember your sins anymore because he paid for them all. Jesus is telling you when he calls the disciples “my brothers” that you aren’t losers.  You have his comeback victory for the ages.

But there has to be a loser.  Do you know who that is?  The loser is death.  The angel and, more importantly, Jesus say to you this day, “Do not be afraid.” Death is defeated by a Savior who came back to life.  There’s more losers, too. The devil, he thought he had a great victory just a couples days before.  God’s Son was supposed to save the world, but he couldn’t save himself.  But early Sunday morning there was a message waiting for him.  Jesus told the devil, “I’m back; you lose.”  The devil can try but he can never convince you that you are a loser.  Because when you believe that Jesus rose, you are on his side, the champion’s side.  The loser is also hell.  The loser is sin and evil and anything that tries to rob you of the joy Christ has won for you.  Easter is Jesus’ comeback for the ages.  He defeated all your enemies and all your fears so that you can live in constant victory.

My friends, without Jesus Christ and his comeback, we would live as losers.  We would be forced to think that this life is everything, this hard, kind of nice but often not so nice life is all there is.  You live, you die; end of story.  And if that were the case, then the devil wins, death wins, sin wins, hell wins.  All hopes, all dreams, all lives would be lost.  Before Easter, no one had made that impossible comeback to conquer death for all time.  Even those who were raised to life again by God’s power before this had to die again.  But not Jesus.  Jesus has the comeback victory.  And that changes everything in our lives.  We are not losers when we are on Jesus’ side.  He said, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live even though he dies.”

Do you see how that makes you the winner? Not even death can rob us of God’s love through Christ.  We have peace. We have joy.  We have excitement, as if life is a constant victory parade on the way home to heaven, a home that was paid for with Jesus blood and assured when he came back from the dead.  Death means we can go home to a Father who will welcome us with open arms to an eternity with him.

I kind of feel bad for the Falcons and their fans.  That was a rough loss.  But there’s always next year.  I don’t feel bad for death.  I don’t feel bad that Jesus completely and totally destroyed it’s power forever.  I don’t feel bad that there is no next year for the devil.  Because I have a Savior who lives, and so do you.  That is the joy we have today and always because of Jesus’ comeback for the ages.

Christ is risen. HE IS RISEN INDEED.  Alleluia!!!!  Amen.