Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Our Ascended Savior

Acts 1:1-11 In the introduction to his Gospel, Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing his account of Jesus Christ so that Theophilus may know with certainty the things he has been taught concerning Christianity. 
We don’t know who this Theophilus was except that in the way he was addressed as “the most excellent Theophilus” he was very likely a person of influence.  Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts from which tonight’s text is taken and we see that this book is also addressed to the same Theophilus, but this time his title is removed. 
So what you ask?  Well just this, early Christians did not address one another with titles such as “Most Excellent” which means that Luke’s Gospel was the instrument that the Holy Spirit used to bring this Theophilus to faith in Jesus--and now with his next book, Act, Luke wants to make sure that Theophilus knows the rest of the Gospel story from the ascension onward-- which is the story of the Holy Spirit and the church.
Through these same words, written nearly two thousand years ago, the Lord speaks to us on this Ascension Day about those things that he wants us to know with certainty and believe with all our heart:  1. that Jesus is just exactly who claimed to be:  the Savior of the world—2. that this Good News of salvation is for all people, in every place and time—3. and that Jesus will return as he ascended:  as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Luke writes:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
            In these opening sentences you have a brief little summary of the contents of Luke’s “first book”—his Gospel:  the things that Jesus did and taught—his choosing of the apostles—his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension—and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
This is the story of Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written down by Luke, and read by us tonight for exactly the same purpose as it was originally written to Theophilus:  that we may know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is-- and that his ascension is the visible demonstration that he has accomplished what he was sent by the Father to do—and that knowing these things, the Holy Spirit would give us the same measure of faith that he gave to Theophilus who was the first person to read Luke’s history of the early church.
By profession Luke was a doctor—but he was also a very fine historian.  Besides being inspired by the Holy Spirit, he gathered sources and weighed evidence and interviewed first hand witnesses-- to make sure that what he wrote about Jesus was true and reliable and could be counted on to lead people to faith in Jesus.
The story of Jesus, written in the pages of Sacred Scripture, is grounded in a particular point in time-- with Roman and Jewish leaders we know from the historical record.  The story of Jesus is grounded in particular places that you can still visit today.  The story of Jesus is grounded in particular cultures for which there is rich archeological and anthropological evidence. 
Luke’s biography of Jesus and history of the early church is accurate.  But even more than that—his inspired words are the power of God unto salvation through which the Holy Spirit worked faith in Theophilus’ heart as he read the story of Jesus—just as the Spirit works in our hearts the same way tonight to bring us to faith.
Theophilus didn’t get to see the many convincing proofs of the resurrection that the disciples of Jesus saw.  He read about them in Luke’s books.  But as he read about them, the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart and he became one of those blessed ones of whom Jesus spoke who did not see-- and yet believed.
We are a part of that same blessed group.  We look back over the last six months of the church year and see through the Gospel story the birth of our Lord and the Magi’s visit.  We walked with Jesus on the road to the cross and we saw his suffering and death.  During this Easter season we have also seen that death was not the end for Jesus—but that he rose again and appeared as the risen Lord to over 500 of his faithful followers. 
This biblical picture of the Lord has been revealed to us for one reason:  that just like Theolphilus, we might know with certainty and believe with all our heart that Jesus is just exactly who he claimed to be:  the Savior of the world who has brought us into God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection—and who desires that others would have a place there through our witness in word and deed.  Luke writes:
While staying with them Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."  So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"  He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." 
            It is necessary that each of us believes that Jesus Christ is our Savior from sin and death if we are to enter into the kingdom of God.  Luke wrote his Gospel for that very purpose.  But much too often, we stop there-- and our own personal salvation becomes the pinnacle of God’s work in the world. 
But just as much as God loves us and works for our salvation-- so he loves the world and works for the salvation of the world.  This Good News about who Jesus is and what he has done- -is for all people.  That Christians forget this at times-- is nothing new.
Even after all they had seen and after all they had been taught--the disciples still thought that the goal of the Messiah’s work was about restoring the fortunes of physical Israel.  They still didn’t understand that Israel had always been—at its heart—a spiritual kingdom comprised of all those who had faith in God’s promised Messiah.  But at Pentecost they were about to get a powerful, visible demonstration of that wonderful truth that the kingdom of heaven is open to all people through faith in Jesus.
Just as he promised, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostolic community-- and in a miracle that made it clear that the Good News of the Gospel was for all people--pilgrims from all over the world who had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost heard the Good News of Jesus proclaimed—each in their own language.  As they took this message back to their own countries, more and more people—both Jews and Gentiles-- came to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The Holy Spirit was given by the ascended Christ for that very purpose of inspiring and empowering the proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Savior of the world-- so that those who believe in him-- can share him with others.
The words that we hear Jesus says tonight, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” were not just spoken to those present at the ascension-- but they are spoken to every Christian, in every time and place—right down to this moment. YOU ARE MY WITNESSES! 
There is much that we do not know in life—there are times and seasons and circumstances and situations in our lives where the Lord gives us the same answer that he gave to the disciples who asked about the restoration of Israel:  it is not for you to know the Father’s business. 
But what Jesus does want us to know tonight, is that our lives have meaning and purpose no matter what our situation or circumstance-- and that divine purpose is to bear witness to God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ to every corner of the world.
The apostles never travelled to San Angelo or Wall or Miles or Cristoval—but we have—and this little corner of the world is our mission field—and the Holy Spirit has been given to us by the ascended Lord so that we would bear witness to Jesus in our daily lives. 
We are:  who we are-- and what we are-- and where we are-- so that through our witness as many people as possible might come to know Jesus as their loving Savior before they meet him on the Last Day as the Mighty King and Righteous Judge—for that is how he ascended and that is who he will return.  Luke writes:
When Jesus had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
            At his ascension, our Lord did not go up into heaven as the Babe of Bethlehem—he did not return to his Father’s side as the poor, itinerant rabbi who had no place to lay his head—he was not lifted up from human view as the Suffering Servant. 
Our Lord ascended into heaven as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who conquered the enemies of sin, death, and the devil that had ruined his Father’s world and wrecked our lives-- and he took his rightful place at the throne of Almighty God from whence he had come.  That is the way that he will return—as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords-- and at his return every knee will bow to him—either in love or in fear. 
            That is why it is so important for us on this Ascension Day to learn these things that the Lord wants us to know:  that Jesus is the one and only Savior whom God has provided to the world--and that because his salvation is intended for all people, he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might bear witness to him and bring others to faith in him.  And that united together with all who believe, we look for him to come again the same way he ascended:  as the most highly exalted King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Amen.

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