Ascension: A Blank Blue Sky

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 27, 2014

Acts 1:1-11 The Jesus Profile: Ascension: A Blank Blue Sky

What Do We Do Now?
If you have a Bible with you, I’d like to encourage you to open it up to Acts 1. Our scripture passage today will be Acts 1:1-11, and I’d like to encourage you to have it open in front of you. We’ll also be putting the verses up on the screen as I talk about them, but I think there’s something nice about having the Bible in your hands. Sometimes when we read the words on the screen, we forget that they’re actually in the book. And it’s good for all of us to be reading this book.

So, Acts 1:1-11. But before we get into it, let me remind you of what we’re doing. For the last 7 weeks or so we’ve been in a series called “The Jesus Profile.” We’ve been doing—not exactly a biography of Jesus—but a series of details about Jesus’ life. I liken it, a little bit, to the kind of details you might pick up from Jesus’ Facebook profile.

And today we come to one of the more troubling features of Jesus’ life: His ascension back into heaven.

Last week we talked about His resurrection. We celebrated Jesus’ victory over sin and death. We had a whole bunch of people here because, if you believe it really happened, then Easter is clearly the most important day in the history of the world. Jesus overcame the grave. Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God. He was dead, He was crucified, and He returned to life.

But now, today, we’re going to talk about how He left. That’s why I call it one of the more troubling features of Jesus’ life. Because, honestly, if He’d done all of that—He suffered and died and was buried, and then three days later He walks out of His tomb and He’s walking around with the scars on His hand and His side--wouldn’t you think He’d want to hang around for awhile? Wouldn’t you think He’d want to drop in on Pilate and Caiaphas and the others who conspired to kill Him, and show them what was up? Wouldn’t you think He’d want to head over to Rome, and maybe replace the Emperor? Wouldn’t you think He’d want to demonstrate that He really is Lord and King and that people ought to start paying attention to Him?

But that’s not what happens. Instead, He leaves.

If we were a bit more of a liturgical church, we wouldn’t actually be talking about Jesus’ ascension until May 29. On the church calendar, that’s the day marked as Ascension Day—40 days after Easter. Because that’s how long Jesus stayed on earth after the Resurrection. Just 40 days.

But we’re not a church that follows the liturgical calendar all that closely. When we get to late May we’ll be in a different series. And, besides that, the Bible doesn’t actually say all that much about what happened during those 40 days. We read about a couple appearances of Jesus on Easter Sunday, John tells us about Jesus appearing to Thomas one week later, and the reinstatement of Peter on the shores of Galilee sometime after that, but that’s about it. Otherwise, the Bible accounts move directly from the Resurrection to the Ascension.

So, the question is: why? Why didn’t He stay around? Why didn’t He establish His kingdom? Why did He leave?

That’s what the disciples were wondering when it happened. Let’s skip to the end of our scripture passage for a moment, just so you can see what I’m talking about. Here’s the actual description of Jesus’ ascension, Acts 1:9-11:

9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Put yourself in the disciples place for a moment: of all the astounding things they’ve seen, surely this is one of the most astounding. Here’s Jesus being lifted up into the sky. Up, up, up. Not like a bird, flying. Not even like Superman, with a giant leap. I just picture Him floating, upward, until a cloud surrounds Him and He disappears.

And then…the disciples just stand there and keep looking up. I mean, what would you do? I picture them just staring at the sky. What just happened?

I know the passage says that it was while Jesus was still going up that the angels suddenly appeared beside them, but I like to imagine that maybe they stood there for quite awhile. Like, for a couple of hours. Just staring at the sky. “Where’d He go?” “He’s coming back, right?” You even get that impression from what the angels say: “Why do you stand here looking at the sky?” Like they’ve been there for awhile. Just looking up and wondering: “What do we do now?”

“What do we do now?” really does seem to be the question to ask when you talk about the ascension. What we do now seems to be the point of Jesus’ leaving. His plan, even if you look back before the cross, has always been about preparing His followers to carry on His mission after He left. He wants to transfer the Incarnation, as it were, to us.

You can see that in the instructions He left with His disciples right before He went on His cloud ride. Acts 1:8:

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

“I’m leaving,” Jesus seems to be saying, “so that you can tell people about me. The way the good news of the resurrection is going to spread is not by Me showing my scars far and wide, but by you telling the story for Me.” When the angels say to the disciples: “Why do you stand here looking at the sky?” you can read into that: “Hey, don’t just stand here. You’ve got a job to do.”

For many of you, Acts 1:8 should be fairly familiar. When we did the Open Doors campaign that led to the building of our new addition, it was Acts 1:8 which provided the structure for our vision. We said that our goal is to “Open Doors to Jesus in Spencer, Northwest Iowa, and around the world;” and we’re still operating under that vision. Like I said, it seems to be the point of the ascension. Jesus wants us to share His message with our neighbors, the communities that surround us, and the nations of the world. It’s a good vision for us as a church. It’s very Biblical.

But, if we’re honest, it’s not very easy.

Imagine being Peter, or James, or John listening to Jesus' instructions just before He returns to heaven. Imagine being among the first members of the church trying to carry out this plan after Jesus has physically left. Imagine the questions and the doubts: "Jerusalem? But that's where they killed Jesus." "Samaria? They're so different from us." "The ends of the earth? I've never travelled more than 100 miles from home." How were they going to do what Jesus asked?

We wonder the same thing. How?

How can we draw in our family and friends who have been resistant to church for 20, 30, 40 or more years?

How can we relate to these new neighbors who are so different from us? People who are strangers, who have a different lifestyle, different priorities?

How can we make a difference for people who live so far away? People who live in Haiti or Turkey or Indonesia?

Frankly, it sounds impossible...and on our own, it probably is.

But, if we look more closely at the ascension story, we’ll see that Jesus hasn’t left us to accomplish this task all by ourselves. In fact, here’s the main thing I think we need to learn today about the ascension: Even though Jesus leaves, He’s still the main character in the story. Even though Jesus is no longer physically present on the earth, that doesn’t mean He’s left us to carry out His mission alone. It’s still His mission. And He’s still carrying it out.

If I’m honest, I didn’t do a good enough job of emphasizing this when we were doing the Open Doors campaign. I kept saying that Jesus wants us to be His witnesses. That He wants us to tell His story. That we have a job to do. And that’s all true. But what I didn’t do was remind you that He is going to do this job through us. That He hasn’t stopped working. That He still claims responsibility for the mission.

Frankly, when I told you all that we have to Open Doors for Jesus I probably frustrated a lot of you. Many of you probably thought: “That's just not me. I'm not good at talking about what I believe. I'm not good at explaining my faith to others. I just can't do it." I'm afraid that I left a lot of you discouraged because I told you to do something you know you can't do.

But that’s because I left out the most important part: Not only does Jesus tell His followers what He wants them to do, He also tells them how they'll be able to do it. Not only does He tell us He wants us to be His witnesses, He tells us that He’s the one who will make it happen.

Episode II
Even though Jesus leaves, He’s still the main character in the story. Jesus is always and continuously the primary actor in the church, and so He enables His followers to do what He has called them to do. As we go through the story now, we’ll see this in three ways.

First, what I’ll call Proof. Jesus is still alive today. This is verses 1 through 3:

1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

This is the introduction to the book of Acts, and it helps us to understand who wrote it and to connect it with what comes before it.

We don't know who Theophilus is, but he's the same man that the gospel of Luke is addressed to. (Luke 1:3) Therefore, we know that the book of Acts is written by the same person--whom we believe to be the Apostle Paul's traveling companion, the physician named Luke.

We also know from these verses that this book in front of us now is meant to be a continuation of the story told in the gospel of Luke. Verse 1 calls attention to the "former book" so that we know this book will carry on from there. It's a sequel. If George Lucas had naming rights, he probably would have called the book of Acts "Episode II."

And the key word for us in these first two verses is the word "began."

Luke says, "In my first book--the Gospel--I dealt with all that Jesus BEGAN to do and to teach before He ascended into heaven." That first book, which deals with Jesus' entire earthly ministry from His birth to His resurrection, is just the BEGINNING of all that Jesus did and taught. That was a chronicle of the things Jesus BEGAN to do, and by implication this book we are reading now will tell us about things He continued to do.

In other words, it really is a sequel--it really is Episode II--and Jesus is still the star, He's still the main character. Even though He is going to disappear into heaven before we read the 11th verse, this book is still about Him.

This book has many names. It is sometimes called the Acts of the Apostles and sometimes called the Acts of the Holy Spirit; but it is probably best called the Acts of the Lord Jesus Christ through the Apostles and the Holy Spirit, because that is who this book is really about. Luke tells us right from the first verse: he's still telling the story of Jesus.

And this is so important, because the clear implication is that right now, Jesus is not finished. He’s not done with His doing and His teaching. He is not dead and He is not absent. He is alive and He is present.

So, in verse 3, we are told that for 40 days Jesus showed Himself to His disciples and “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”

This was no ghost. This was no vision or dream or nightmare. This was not something they ate causing a mass hallucination. Jesus kept showing up. Like I said earlier, He showed Thomas His scars. He walked with Peter beside the Sea of Galilee. He met with His disciples and convinced them that He was still alive.

And so, Luke can say that his first book was about what Jesus began to do, and by implication this second book is about what He continued to do. Because of the resurrection we celebrated last week we know that the story of Jesus is not finished.

And what this means for you and I is that we can have confidence as we bear witness to Jesus’ story.

Everything rises and falls on the resurrection. Everything hinges on whether or not you believe Jesus is still alive today. If He’s not, then you and I are wasting our time this morning. We could have slept in. We could have cleaned the garage.

But if He is, then His resurrection virtually compels us to tell His story. How else do you explain the remarkable change that came over the disciples? From fearful to fearless? From doubting to dauntless? How do you explain that nobody ever produced a body? How do you explain 2000 years of church history? Jesus is alive and it changes everything.

And so, we can be confident as we continue to tell His story.

Let’s move on in the passage. We’ll call this next part Power. Jesus is still active today. Let’s read verses 4-5:

4On one occasion, while he was eating with them [here’s a convincing proof: dead men don’t eat], he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

Jesus told his apostles to stay put in Jerusalem because something important had not yet happened but was about to. This begins the countdown to Pentecost.

Jesus says: “Wait for the gift.” What is the gift? It is the gift of the Holy Spirit of God. “The gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.”

Back in John 16, on the night before Jesus went to the cross, Jesus told them He was leaving. And He said it was actually for their good that He was leaving. Because it was only after He left that the “Counselor” would come (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit is important.

And it’s coming “in a few days.” Soon.

Well, that got them interested! And later when they met together with him in the vicinity of Bethany on the Mount of Olives, they asked more about it. Verse 6:

6So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

It’s the question we started the sermon with, isn’t it? Are you going to go show yourself to Pilate and Caiaphas? Are you going to go take on Caesar? Jesus, you came back from the dead! Who’s going to stop you? Let’s take Israel back to the top of the international food chain! Let’s make it better than it was in the days of David!

But that’s not Jesus’ agenda. In fact, Jesus’ agenda is not ours to know:

7He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

We talked about this in the Forever series. God’s not in the business of sharing His schedule with us. He doesn’t really want us spending our time speculating on the end. Instead, He’s got a job for us to do. Verse 8:

8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

The gift of the Holy Spirit is coming. In a few days. And when the Spirit comes, the apostles are going to receive power.

The Greek word there is one you might recognize. It’s dunamis. It’s a word that means strength and might. In 1866 when a man named Alfred Noble invented a substance that would explode when detonated, it was this word that he used for a name: dynamite. So what Jesus is promising here is the explosive power of God to do what He is calling His disciples to do.

The Holy Spirit is the third member of the Trinity, fully God. Equal to both the Father and the Son, His role is to fill believers and enable them to do ministry and follow Christ. Like plugging your computer into the electrical socket on your wall, the Holy Spirit is the power source for all Christian ministry.

This is how Jesus remains active in our world today. This is why the book of Acts is still all about Him. Through His Holy Spirit He is equipping and enabling His followers to be His witnesses in ever-expanding circles all over the world. Jesus has not left us without resources. He has not called us to an impossibly difficult task and then abandoned us to flail about in our own failure.

Rather, He promises to do the very thing He asks us to do by the power of His Holy Spirit acting within us. And so, the story of the church, even today, is still a story which has Jesus as its primary actor.

And so, what this means for you and I is that we have the ability to bear witness to Jesus’ story. The apostles didn’t have the Holy Spirit yet. They had to wait a few days, until Pentecost. 10 days after Jesus went to heaven. And when Pentecost came, the disciples began a movement that changed the world. A movement that’s still going today.

You and I, we live on the other side of Pentecost. And so, the same Spirit that came to them is available to all followers of Jesus today. He’s the same Spirit that is among us right now in this room. And He’s the same Spirit that will enable you and me to open our mouths to witness to Jesus this year. This week!

Is there someone right now in your life that you need to open your mouth and witness to about the Lord Jesus? The power of the Holy Spirit is available to you to talk to them. It’s not a spooky thing. Just do it. Trust in that power and act. Trust in that power and talk. Open your mouth and witness.

The apostles did. And Jesus worked through them.

In the Same Way
Now, let’s look at the final part of the passage. I’ll call this Promise. Jesus will physically return someday. Verses 9-11:

9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Again, we don’t know exactly what this looked like. I’ve always pictured it as Jesus slowly rising into the sky, like He’s riding an elevator that isn’t there.

The book of Acts doesn’t say anything about where He goes, except in chapter 7 when Stephen has a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). The book of Ephesians also says that Jesus is now in the heavenly realms, at God’s right hand, ruling over every rule and authority and power and dominion (Ephesians 1:20-21).

Philip Yancey points out that this must have been the most exciting day of Jesus’ life. “The creator, who had descended so far and given up so much, was now heading home. Like a soldier returning across the ocean from a long and bloody war. Like an astronaut shedding his spacesuit to gulp in the familiar atmosphere of earth. Home at last.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 226)

Jesus was gone. And the disciples must have been confused. But the two men dressed in white want them to know that He’ll be coming back.

The same Jesus, the same way. He was taken up in the clouds. He’ll come back again someday on the clouds (cf. Mark 14:62 et al)

And so, we should get busy. Our job is not to be staring up in the sky waiting for Jesus’ return. Our job is to get busy being his witnesses until He does… And He will.

Jesus is coming back again. The same Jesus, the same way. Not just His Spirit. But His physical, visible return. We’ll all see Him. The dead will rise to greet Him. And He’ll establish His kingdom on earth.

And so, what this means for you and I is that we have hope that should strengthen us to continue to tell His story until He returns. We know how the story is going to end. We know that nothing we do for Him will be in vain. We know that even as we serve as His witness Jesus is the one carrying out His mission.

This same Jesus--the same Jesus who appeared to the disciples after His suffering...the same Jesus who ate with them and spoke with them...the same Jesus whom they witnessed rising to heaven in the clouds...the same Jesus who the angels said would return again...this same Jesus is still active and at work in His church. His followers really can accomplish what He asks--not because of their great strength--but because of His power at work in them through His Holy Spirit.

Even though He physically leaves the earth right at the beginning of the story, He is not gone. The story of Acts--indeed, the story of the Church--is only and always about Him.