Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, might be the most forgotten holy day of the Christian year. That’s too bad, really. Without the ascension of the Lord, we don’t get Pentecost. If Jesus doesn’t leave us and ascend into heaven, the Holy Spirit doesn’t come down and fill us up with heaven. That’s the give and take we get in the Gospels. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus says in John 16. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” That’s not nothing.
I can’t tell you why the Spirit couldn’t have come with Jesus still hanging around, but I can tell you that our story of salvation wouldn’t be complete without the Spirit coming to us. When the prophet Jeremiah realized that what we needed wasn’t simply forgiveness but a complete change of heart, there was no getting past our need for the Spirit to enter us and change our lives from the inside out. This is what Jesus opened his disciples’ minds to right before he ascended, and it changed everything.
God who is beyond us yet within us, guide us by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” by Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring
(YouTube video with lyrics for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/YuMh_ept-Js)
Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne. Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own. Awake, my soul, and sing of Him Who died for thee, and hail Him as thy matchless King through all eternity. Crown Him the Lord of life, Who triumphed over the grave, and rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save. His glories now we sing, Who died, and rose on high, Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die. Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side, those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight, but downward bends His burning eye at mysteries so bright. Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time, Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime. all hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me; Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.
Have you ever wondered why the God of the Old Testament sometimes looks so different from Jesus and the God of the New Testament? If you have, you wouldn’t be the first. Since pretty much the beginning of our history, Christians have struggled to make sense of how the Old Testament, with all its sordid tales of conquering and divine judgement, could possibly be compatible with the New Testament’s story of a compassionate, merciful God who loves us enough to become one of us and ultimately to die for us. In the early 100s, a Christian named Marcion even went so far as to say we should simply chuck our Old Testaments out the window. The disparities between the Jesus he knew and the God who supposedly killed all of Egypt’s firstborn sons in one grand act of divine jealousy was proof that these were two very different gods.
Jesus, however, thought quite the opposite. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” For Jesus, the relationship between the Old Testament and what would become our New Testament was a seamless one. Everything the Old Testament talked about pointed to him and his death and resurrection.
Simply put, what Jesus gave his disciples on that day of his ascension was an interpretation. He explained that the key to interpreting the Old Testament is found in him and his story, what we call “the gospel.” Go back and read it again, he said, and you’ll see how everything was leading to this very moment — to the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, and even, as the disciples were about to find out, to the coming of God’s Holy Spirit.
When I was taking my first classes in biblical interpretation, we said that what Jesus gave us here was a lens. How do we read the Bible? Through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, of course. When I began applying this very biblical principle, one of the key Old Testament passages that really came to light was Jeremiah 31:33 — “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” I remember wondering how God would do this. How would God write the law upon our hearts?
No doubt this was a question Jeremiah’s readers had been asking for generations. God had tried stone tablets with laws literally carved into them. That didn’t work. Then an entire priestly class was created to help everyone do the right thing. That didn’t work either. So, God decided to set up judges, kings, and prophets to help guide and rule. Jeremiah was one of those prophets, but even he prophesied that the answer lay elsewhere.
Maybe more surprising, however, is that Jesus, standing there with his disciples only moments before his ascension, also points beyond himself. “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” He’s talking about the Holy Spirit, of course, whom we said last week was our advocate and the “Spirit of Truth.” The Spirit lives and works within us. God lives and works within us. That’s a crazy, life-altering fact.
The implications of this are far-reaching. The fact that God lives and works within us suggests that following the law — what we call ethics or morality — is more a matter of living rightly in the moment than it is adhering to any sort of ancient checklist. It also suggests that God isn’t done working in the world yet and that God might not be done telling us what we need to hear, either. In other words, there’s a lot more to God’s story than we might think, and because the Spirit has come upon us, we’re an inescapably huge part of it now. No wonder, then, the ascension is so important. It has everything to do with us.
Prayers for Our World
Let us pray, as we did last week, for our neighbors, our church, and our world:
- For those among us and around our world who continue to live in fear and hopelessness, not only because of this virus but because of other illnesses or poverty or loneliness or injustice or depression or stress, we pray that the Holy Spirit would prove to be their true advocate and bring them hope, healing, and peace.
- For all those who have gone back to work or will be soon, we pray for their safety and continued health.
- For our national and local governments, we pray for wisdom as they weigh the costs of reopening and continue to make decisions on how that should happen.
- For the church here and around the world, we pray that we would be witnesses, like Jesus says, to the life-giving power of his death and resurrection. May we be beacons of hope, justice, mercy, and salvation to each and every person we meet.
- For all those who have died this week because of COVID-19, we pray that God would receive them into his open arms of love.
Eternal God, we thank you for opening up our minds to your truth, and for sending us your Spirit to remind us what you’ve told us and to shine a bit of light on what it means for us today. We ask now that you would hear our prayers this morning, prayers for our city, our church, and our world, and that you would do so in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, one God with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.