TEXT: Mark 16:19, 20
‘After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.’
As the evangelists record, on the day of his ascension Jesus was with his disciples in Jerusalem. He gave them some final instructions during a meal, then when they’d finished the meal, he led them out to Bethany. He continued his instructions on the way and repeated his promise to send them the Holy Spirit. They should go to Jerusalem, he said, to wait for the Spirit to come. Then he raised his hands in a final act of blessing, and as they watched, he was taken up from them until a cloud hid him from their sight.
Jesus’ ascension is the final act in God’s great drama of salvation. God the Father received his divine Son back to the glory of his right hand, and in doing this, he gave his stamp of approval to everything Jesus had accomplished here on earth.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul points out that the Jesus who ascended that day is the same person ‘who descended to the … earthly regions’. The Son of God descended from the glory of heaven to the lowliness of earth as the infant of a young woman. He descended into the sin, sorrow and suffering of this world, for us.
God had seen us in our need. He’d seen us trapped in the tragedy of our sin. He’d seen that, try hard as we would, we could never bridge the gap that we’d created between us and himself by our sin. The only way we could be spared the punishment that sin brings was for someone to take our place – to keep God’s law perfectly on our behalf, and yet to suffer its punishment in full.
That’s why the eternal Son of God came from heaven to earth, from glory to humility. That’s why he gave up his life on Calvary. And God accepted this sacrifice of his Son, and raised him to life again on the third day.
To convince people that the sin of all humanity’s been paid for, Jesus showed himself alive on a number of occasions during the 40 days after his resurrection. In effect, he was saying to his disciples, and us: ‘I’m alive! I’ve taken all your guilt on myself … all your weaknesses. I’ve suffered all your temptations for you. I’ve been punished most cruelly for you. But I’m no longer dead! I’ve conquered death and Satan. I’ve cancelled out all your sin. Just believe this and you’ll have life with me and my Father in heaven.’
Jesus’ resurrection proves to us that our sin has been paid for. But to make us even more sure, our Lord ‘was taken up into heaven’. Because he was completely satisfied with what Jesus had done, God the Father received him back to his right hand side … restored him to the full exercise of his divine authority and power.
As St Paul says, ‘He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe’.
That’s why Ascension is a festival of joy. It shows us that God’s saving work for us is complete. There’s nothing more to be done. Our sin’s been paid for – all of it! You are forgiven! Christ’s work is perfect. No matter how many times we may still fall into temptation – even though we try hard to fight against it – God’s taken all this into consideration. Jesus’ death has covered it all.
By faith you can be at peace with God – in spite of your many weaknesses and failings. By faith you have God’s own assurance of a place in heaven, where your risen Lord’s now gone on ahead of you, You don’t have to work for it; and you don’t have to have any anxieties about whether or not you’re worthy of it. In yourself you’re not worthy, and you never can be. But Christ has removed all your unworthiness so you can now have the certainty of faith to say with St Paul: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
Our text tells us that ‘after the Lord had spoken to [the disciples], he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God’. What this means has been well described by St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. ‘[God] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms far above all rule and authority, power and domin-ion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body.’
The fact that the ascended Christ is now at God’s right hand doesn’t mean he’s confined somewhere ‘up there’ beyond the stars! The picture we often have of God the Father sitting on a shining white throne above the clouds is poetic imgagery. Jesus himself described what’s meant by his sitting ‘at the right hand of God’ when he said: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’. As ascended Lord, the God-Man Jesus Christ now fully shares in the rule of earth and heaven.
In a sense, his ascension was like a coronation, by which he was unmistakably declared almighty ruler over heaven and earth. Within the eternal trinity of the Godhead, the ascended Christ now controls all things throughout Creation, according to his unlimited wisdom and grace.
Now … what does all this mean for you and me?
Think back for a moment to what St Paul wrote in Ephesians! ‘[God] seated [Christ] at his right hand in the heavenly realms … and … placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church …’
Jesus Christ, the exalted ‘King of Creation’, who is both ‘Son of God and Mary’s Son’, as we sing in one of our hymns, now rules over all things in this universe. He controls all the forces in this universe, and directs everything that happens in the interests of his church – and that includes you and me.
The ascended Christ is vitally concerned about his church here on earth, and about you and me who’re members of it. He’s vitally concerned about his church because God the Father’s given him to the church as its Head.
There’ a wonderful reassurance in this thought for all of us who’re members of Christ’s church through faith. We can have this very real assurance that our ascended Lord is directing everything that happens – on a global and national level, and in our community and our own personal life – he’s directing it all in our best interests. We can confidently say with St Paul: ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him’.
In spite of continuing unrest in various parts of the world, in spite of shootings, in spite of increasing drug use, in spite of road deaths, in spite of AIDS, the ascended Christ is still ruling at the right hand of his Father – channelling our lives in our best interests.
So … if you’re sick or have some disability, don’t despair! Christ is still in control; God is working for your good!
If you have financial problems, or you’re out of work, or your income’s taken a dive, don’t lose courage! God knows!
If your children let you down, or your marriage has broken up or is under stress, don’t throw in the towel! Christ is on your side, and he’s still in control.
So often when trouble comes we give in to despair. ‘What’s the use?’ we ask. ‘Where’s God? Why doesn’t he help?’
Your heavenly Father is always there, and Christ is at his right hand. He’s in charge, and he rules everything in this universe in the best interests of those who’re his. He only has your good in mind in the way he deals with you. You mightn’t always see it at the time, but you will … with the wisdom of hindsight!
And beyond this life he’s prepared a place for you in the never-ending glory of his Father’s presence.
So …you can face each day confidently, trusting in the almighty rule of your ascended Lord and King.
However, Jesus’ ascension to God’s right hand doesn’t mean he’s left his disciples – ancient or modern – to our own devices, to flounder around by ourselves in a world that by and large is antagonistic to all he stands for. Shortly before he parted from his disciples he assured them: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’.
True, he did withdraw his visible presence from them, but as the ever-present God he continued to be with them, and he continues to be with his disciples of all ages.
As those early disciples went out to preach his gospel in all the world they realised more and more how close the ascended Christ was. Mark tells us: ‘The disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by signs that accompanied it’.
Those men were very much aware of the presence of their Lord, and of his Spirit, in their lives. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to them, as Jesus promised. They went out to preach and teach with new boldness … to witness and baptise. And as they did this, the ascended Lord himself worked through them. He confirmed and strenthened their spoken word with signs – a lame man healed, Saul the persecutor converted to Paul the Apostle, lives changed, faith strengthened, deeds of love and service. The mass conversion on Pentecost, and the spectacular growth of Christianity in spite of strong opposition – even persecution – all this testifies to the fact that the ascended Christ works mightily in and through his followers.
The same Lord is still close to each one of us today. He’s put us into this world for a special purpose – just as the apostles had a special purpose. His purpose for you is not that you should selfishly live just for yourself. You’ve been called to live under Christ and serve him and witness to his love. And he wants to work through you as he worked through his chosen 12.
There’s a story that tells of Jesus’ return to heaven. The angels Michael and Gabriel were there to welcome him. They congratulated him on his victory over Satan, and for having drawn so many disciples to follow him. ‘But’, they asked, ‘what’ll happen now that you’ve withdrawn from the world?’
‘I’ve provided for that’. Jesus told them. ‘I have Peter and John and the other Apostles to go out and preach in my name.’
‘But how will people of later ages come to know what you’ve done for them?’ Gabriel asked.
‘I’ve arranged for that, too.’ Jesus said. ‘ I’ve charged my people throughout history to be my witnesses and tell people about my love for them.’
‘But what if they let you down?’ Gabriel asked in awed tones.
‘I have no other way’, Jesus replied.
It’s just a story, but it makes a challenging point. To each of us the Lord says, ‘Go into all the world, starting with your own home and community. Go and preach and live my gospel, and witness to my grace. And don’t be concerned about your weaknesses and inadequacies, because “I am with you …”’
As you respond to this call as a member of Christ’s body and of this St Peter’s congregation, you too will see the signs of your Lord’s mighty presence, and of his power at work in and through you and your fellow members: children and adults drawn into the body of Christ through baptism; some friend or relative who comes to new life in Christ; growth in your own faith and in the love that expresses that faith; prayers answered; lives changed. These are the kind of signs that show the ascended Lord is still mightily active in his church, and in you today.
Rejoice that your salvation has been completed, and that you are a forgiven child of God, with an eternal destiny in heaven! Rejoice that the ascended Christ rules over all in his powerful, loving way. Rejoice that he continues to work in and through his church on earth to draw people to himself! And rejoice that he works also in and through you, in spite of your all-too-human frailties!
Rejoice, the Lord is King!
Your Lord and King adore!
Jesus, the Savjour reigns,
The God of truth and love;
His kingdom cannot fail,
He rules o’er earth and heaven.
He sits at God’s right hand …
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, Rejoice!
Rev Robert J Wiebusch