If the NT consisted of only the four Gospels, we might be tempted to think that Jesus’ ascension was the end, as it is, it marks the beginning of the great Christian era in which following Jesus is a matter of faith not of sight. Today’s reading from Acts tells us how the disciples found themselves to be facing a period in which they would simply have to wait for Jesus’ promises to come true. Promises which hold good for all Christians down the ages.
We know that after his resurrection, Jesus remained on earth for 40 days and ministered to his disciples on several occasions. During this time Jesus appeared, disappeared, and reappeared – with the disciples never quite knowing when he might show up next. In some ways it was excellent preparation for the early days of the church because they had to get used to the fact that Jesus wouldn’t always be around to give them personal instruction. But he continued to teach them, and I have five points I want us to think about this morning from Jesus’ Ascension:
1) The Kingdom Of God
Firstly, on the day of Jesus’ ascension, the disciples were anxiously asking him when his kingdom would be established and wondering when the next instalment of the divine plan would take place.
When we read through the Gospels, we discover how the apostles had a strong political view of the kingdom and were especially concerned about their own positions and privileges within that kingdom. Being loyal Jews, they longed for the defeat of their enemies and for liberation from the powers of Rome, culminating in the final re-establishment of the glorious kingdom of God under the rule of the Messiah.
One of Jesus’ main topics of teaching between his resurrection and ascension was about the kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t rebuke them when they kept asking about the future of the Jewish kingdom (Acts 1:7). After all, He’d opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, so they knew what they were asking.
He tells them that God has not revealed his timetable to us, and it is not for them to know the times or periods established by God – nor is it for us to speculate. I think we should be curious about the future but to be busy in the present, sharing the message of God’s spiritual kingdom.
2) The Promised Holy Spirit
Jesus began to explain something about the power of the Holy Spirit. 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you …” The Son of God could lead, help inspire and save them, but it was the Spirit of God that would inhabit them.
It has been the experience of many believers down the years that the Holy Spirit has been a part of their everyday existence. Indeed, the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of every believer the moment they become a Christian. Whilst that is true, I also believe the Holy Spirit becomes more pronounced at certain times in our lives – baptism of the Holy Spirit vs5.
I know some Christians are uncomfortable with that terminology and there are those who don’t believe in a baptism of the Holy Spirit, but it is something Jesus himself referred to – and that’s good enough for me! (Luke 11:11-13). I believe the empowering presence of Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity of the Christian faith not an added-on luxury extra for a chosen few.
This passage it explains how the power of the church comes from the Holy Spirit and not from man. God’s people experienced repeated fillings of the Holy Spirit as they faced new opportunities and obstacles. Peter was filled with the Spirit three times in the space of chapters 2-4 in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 31). When Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18) he uses the present continuous tense, urging us to go on and on being filled. Ordinary people were able to do extraordinary things because the Spirit of God was at work in their lives. The great Baptist preacher of the 18C Charles Spurgeon was once asked why he preached on the need for more of the Holy Spirit: Because I leak, he replied. And so do we all!
The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples to serve the Lord and accomplish His will. It was His empowering presence in their hearts and minds.
3) The Assurance Of Jesus’ Return
And thirdly, we are given the assurance that Jesus will return again. The ascension was an integral part of Jesus mission and ministry here on earth not a completion as some people suggest. For many of us, waiting is a dreadful thing. In fact, waiting for lockdown to come to an end has challenged all of our patience. This was one of the problems of the early church.
Remember how the Thessalonians stopped working because they were waiting for Jesus’ return? They believed that Jesus would return in a few years, however, by the time Luke wrote the book of Act’s, they realised that Jesus’ return wasn’t as imminent as they had hoped. They realised he wasn’t looking at a calendar when he said he’d return soon but looking at eternity. They realised the gift of His Spirit was ‘return’ enough for now.
As the disciples watched Jesus being taken up to heaven, two angels appeared and gently rebuked them, vs11: 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 the same way you have seen him go into heaven. There can be no doubt that Jesus is coming again and that he will come again at an unexpected moment in time.
4) The Power Of Prayer
Fourthly, in vs14 we read “They (the disciples) all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” They stayed together, waited together and prayed together in the upper room for 10 days before the Holy Spirit fell. A 10-day prayer meeting! And, in doing this, they prepared themselves for the task Jesus had told them would be theirs when the promised Holy Spirit came upon them.
When the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they sought to be one as Jesus had prayed that they would be in John 17:21. They stayed together and they prayed together and, in so doing, they prepared themselves for the job Jesus had told them they would do when the Holy Spirit came upon them as he had promised.
The Holy Spirit fell because the disciples were waiting in prayer. They were praying with expectancy and anticipation. They were claiming the promises of Jesus. They prayed for something to happen. It should come as no surprise that the Day of Pentecost happened.
Prayer is not some mystical enlightenment for a chosen few – it should be a natural part of being a Christian and is, probably, the most important activity of our lives. We can pray about any situation/person/circumstance.
Do remember we, as a parish, pray together three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6.00 pm. If you’ve not joined us – please do! We’ve had some powerful times together these past four months. As Billy Graham once said: “To get nations back on their feet, we must first get down on our knees.” Sitting at our PC’s and tablets is equally as good!
As Max Lucado said:
Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.
Now in heaven, seated at the right hand of the father, Jesus intercedes on our behalf as our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). The exalted and glorified head of the church is now working with His people on earth and helping them to accomplish his plans and purposes. Such an exciting, but demanding, project needs the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit at all times.
The Thy Kingdom Come initiative started in 2016 as an invitation from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to invite the CofE to pray for more people to come to know Jesus. TKC has now grown into an international ecumenical call to prayer during this time of waiting between Ascension and Pentecost. Amongst other things, we are all encouraged to pray for five people we know and love to come to know Jesus for themselves. It’s amazing what happens when we pray. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple famously said:
When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.
5) To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before
And finally, Jesus’ last words before His ascension, His last will and testament if you like, were that the disciples were to be witnesses, vs8: “… in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Or, as the introduction to Star Trek puts it: “To boldly go where no one has gone before!”
This was a mission beyond all expectations. The power of the Holy Spirit would equip the disciples with physical, spiritual and moral energy they’d never experienced before. This wasn’t because they needed it for themselves like some New Age tonic, but because they were the means by which Jesus was to be made known to the world.
The word witness is a key word in the book of Acts and is used 39 times. A witness is someone who tells what they have seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20). One observation about being a witness from the many hours of sitting through Crown Court trials as a Prison Officer, is that when someone is on the witness stand the judge isn’t interested in ideas or opinions, he only wants to hear what is known to be true. And that is what all of us are called to be – witnesses to the fact/truth of the risen ascended Jesus living in our hearts and lives today.
It was the Holy Spirit which enabled and guided the ministry of the disciples, and it is the Holy Spirit which enables and guides our own ministry as his followers and our own witness to Jesus.
In closing, let’s just remind ourselves that those early disciples were looking for the coming of Jesus’ kingdom here on earth. They understood when Jesus talked about the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit taking root their lives after he ascended to the Father. They were faithful in prayer and they were the recipients of a commission to spread the Gospel that was beyond all expectations and they had an assurance that Jesus was going to return in the same way they had seen him leave.
So, as we look forward to Pentecost, let us wait expectantly in prayer this coming week and anticipate the Lord visiting us in a real and powerful way this coming Sunday.
On this Ascension Day, enjoy an old favourite from Rend Collective.
This is a copy of my Ascension Day sermon given at Emmanuel, Billericay on Sunday 16 May 2021. The Bible Reading was Acts 1:1-14.