The School of Faith

Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
June 29, 2014, Pentecost III

Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

From the Book of Genesis:
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.

An inscription on a cathedral clock reads:

When, as a child, I laughed and wept, Time crept.
When, as a youth, I dreamed and talked, Time walked.
When I became a full-grown man, Time ran.
And later, as I older grew, Time flew.
Soon I shall find, while traveling on, Time gone.

At the age of 75, Abraham enrolled in the “School of Faith.” Now he was over 100, and he was still having soul-stretching experiences. We are never too old to face new challenges, fight new battles, and learn new truths. When we stop learning, we stop growing; and when we stop growing, we stop living.

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher wrote: “The first forty years of life give us the text and the next thirty supply the commentary.” For the Christian believer, the text is Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.” The “commentary” is being written as we listen to God and obey His directions a day at a time. Sad to say, some people understand neither the text nor the commentary, and their lives are ended before they have really started to live.

Our Old Testament reading this morning is from Genesis 22, and it records the greatest test that Abraham ever faced. True, it also presents a beautiful picture of our Lord’s sacrifice at Calvary; but the main lesson is obedient faith that overcomes in the trials of life. Abraham teaches us how to face and handle the tests of life to the glory of god Consider five simple instructions.

In the “School of Faith” we must have occasional tests, or we will never know where we are spiritually. Abraham had his share of tests right from the beginning. First was the “family test,” when he had to leave his loved ones and step out by faith to go to a new land (Gen. 11:27-12:5). This was followed by the “famine test,” which Abraham failed because he doubted God and went down to Egypt for help (Gen. 12:10-13:4).

Once he was back in the land, Abraham passed the “fellowship test” when he gave Lot first choice in using the pastureland (vv. 5-18). He also passed the “fight test” when he defeated the kings (Gen. 14:1-16) and the “fortune test” when he said no to Sodom’s wealth (vv. 17-24). But he failed the “fatherhood test” when Sarah got impatient with God and suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar (Gen. 16). When the time came to send Ishmael away, Abraham passed the “farewell test” even though it broke his heart (Gen. 21:14-21).

Not every difficult experience in life is necessarily a personal test from God. Of course, any experience could become a test or a temptation, depending on how we deal with it. Sometimes our own disobedience causes the pain or disappointment, as when Abraham went to Egypt (Gen. 12:10ff) and to Gerar (A Philistine town; south central Israel – Gen. 20). Sometimes our hurts are simply a part of normal human life: As we grow older, friends and loved ones relocate or even die, life changes around us, and we must make painful adjustments.

We need to distinguish between trials and temptations. Temptations come from our desires within us (James 1:12-16) while trials come from the Lord who has a special purpose to fulfill. Temptations are used by the devil to bring out the worst in us, but trials are used by the Holy Spirit to bring out the best in us (vv.1-6). Temptations seem logical while trials seem very unreasonable. Why would God give Abraham a son and then ask Abraham to kill him?

All believers face similar temptations to sin (1 Cor. 10:13), but not all believers experience the same trials of faith. God’s testings are tailor-made for each child of God, and each experience is unique. God never asked Lot to face the tests that Abraham faced. Why? Because Lot was being tempted by the world and the flesh and never grew to the place of maturity that Abraham reached.
In one sense, it is a compliment when God sends us a test; it shows God wants to “promote us” in the “School of Faith.” God never sends a test until He knows you are ready for it.

“Life is difficult,” wrote psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. “Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.” This is from the book: “The Road Less Traveled.” That is the first lesson we must learn: Expect trials from God, because the Christian life is not easy.

“In the commencement of the spiritual life,” wrote French mystic Madame Guyon, “our hardest task is to bear with our neighbor; in its progress, with ourselves; and in its end, with God.” Our faith is not really tested until God asks us to bear what seems unbearable, do what seems unreasonable, and expect what seems impossible. Whether you look at Joseph in prison, Moses and Israel at the Red Sea, David in the cave, or Jesus at Calvary, the lesson is the same: We live by promises, not by explanations.

Consider how unreasonable God’s request was. Isaac was Abraham’s only son, and the future of the covenant rested in him. Isaac was a miracle child, the gift of God to Abraham and Sarah in response to their faith. Abraham and Sarah loved Isaac very much and had built their whole future around him. When God asked Abraham to offer his son, He was testing Abraham’s faith, hope, and love; and it looked like God was wiping out everything Abraham and Sarah had lived for.

When God sends a trial to us, our first response is usually “Why, Lord?” and then, Why me?” Right away, we want God to give us explanations. Of course, we know that God has reasons for sending tests – perhaps to purify our faith (1 Peter 1:6-9), or perfect our character (James 1:1-4), or even to protect us from sin (2 Cor. 12:7-10) – but we fail to see how these things apply to us. The fact that we ask our Father for explanations suggests that we may not know ourselves as we should or God as we should.

Abraham heard God’s word and immediately obeyed it by faith. He knew that God’s will never contradicts God’s promise, so he held on to the promise “in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Gen. 21:12). Abraham believed that even if God allowed him to slay his son, He could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). Faith does not demand explanations; faith rests on promises.

Abraham told the two servants, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5). Because he believed God, Abraham had no intentions of bringing back a corpse! It has been pointed out that Abraham believed God and obeyed Him when he did not know where (Heb. 11:8), when he did not know when (vv. 9-10, 13-16), when he did not know why (vv. 17-19).

There are two statements in our Old Testament reading which reveal the emphasis of this passage: “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (v. 8); and “The Lord will provide” (v. 14). As he climbed Mount Moriah with his son, Abraham was confident that God would meet every need.

On what could Abraham depend? He certainly could not depend on his feelings, for there must have been terrible pain within as he contemplated slaying his son on the altar. He loved his only son, but he also loved his God and wanted to obey Him.

Nor could Abraham depend on other people. Sarah was at home, and the two servants who accompanied him were back at the camp. We thank God for friends and family members who can help us carry our burdens, but there are some trials in life that we must face alone. It is only then that we can see what our Father really can do for us!

Abraham could depend on the promise and provision of the Lord. He had already experienced the resurrection power of God in his own body (Rom. 4:19-21), so he knew that God could raise Isaac from the dead if that was His plan. Apparently no resurrections had taken place before that time, so Abraham was exercising great faith in God.

According to Ephesians 1:19-20, believers today have Christ’s resurrection power available in their own bodies as they yield to the Spirit of God. We can know “the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:10) as we face the daily demands and trials of life. When the situation appears to be hopeless, ask yourself, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14) and remind yourself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

Where does the Lord provide our needs? In the place of His assignment. Abraham was at the right place, so God could meet his needs. We have no right to expect the provision of God if we are not in the will of God.

When does God meet our needs? Just when we have the need and not a minute before. When you bring your requests to the throne of grace, God answers with mercy and grace “in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Sometimes it looks like God waits until the last minute to send help, but that is only from our human point of view. God is never late.

How does God provide for us? In ways that are usually quite natural. God did not send an angel with a sacrifice; He simply allowed a ram to get caught in a bush at a time when Abraham needed it and in a place where Abraham could get his hands on it. All Abraham needed was one animal, so God did not send a whole flock of sheep.

To whom does God give His provision? To those who trust Him and obey His instructions. When we are doing the will of God, we have the right to expect the provision of God. God is not obligated to bless my ideas or projects, but He is obligated to support His work if it is done in His way.

Why does God provide our every need? For the great glory of His name! “Hallowed be Thy name” is the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), and it governs all the other requests. God was glorified on Mount Moriah because Abraham and Isaac did the will of the Lord and glorified Jesus Christ.

In times of testing, it is easy to think only about our needs and our burdens; instead, we should be focusing on bringing glory to Jesus Christ. We find ourselves asking “How can I get out of this?” instead of “What can I get out of this that will honor the Lord?” We sometimes waste our sufferings by neglecting or ignoring opportunities to reveal Jesus Christ to others who are watching us go through the furnace.

If ever two suffering people revealed Jesus Christ, it was Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. Their experience is a picture of the Father and the Son and the cross and is one of the most beautiful types of Christ found anywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was “glad” (John 8:56). In Isaac’s miraculous birth, Abraham saw the day of Christ’s birth; and in Isaac’s marriage (Gen. 24), he saw the day of Christ’s coming for His bride. But on Mount Moriah, when Isaac willingly put himself on the altar, Abraham saw the day of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Abraham did not withhold his son (Gen. 22:16), and the Father did not spare His Son but “delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32).

Abraham carried a knife and a torch, both of them instruments of death. The knife would end Isaac’s physical life, and the fire would burn the wood on the altar where his body lay. In Isaac’s case, a substitute died for him; but nobody could take the place of Jesus on the cross. He was the only sacrifice that could finally and completely take away the sins of the world. God provided a ram, but Isaac had asked about a lamb. And John the Baptist answered the question: “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

The greatest thing that can happen as we experience the trials God sends is that we grow closer to our Father and become more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Calvary is not only the place where Jesus died for our sins, but it is also the place where He sanctified suffering and, by His resurrection, transformed suffering into glory.

Our children are in recess from public school for the summer. Tomorrow starts three days of Vacation Bible School, here at the church. But class is always in session for us in the “School of Faith.” We become the children of God through faith in Christ; we are His disciples as we faithfully follow Him and obey His will. We are never too old to face new challenges, fight new battles, and learn new truths. When we stop learning, we stop growing; and when we stop growing, we stop living; until we “graduate” and spend eternity with the One who made it possible, Jesus Christ!

Let us pray:
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostle’s and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. †

Flesh and Spirit

Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
June 22, 2014, Pentecost II

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

From the Book of Genesis:
But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named.”

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.

The Christian life is a land of hills and valleys,” said Scottish preacher George Morrison, basing his words on Deuteronomy 11:11, which reads, “but the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by rain from heaven.” Solomon expressed the same idea when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:4 that “[there is] a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Heaven is a place of unending joy; hell is a place of unending suffering; but while we are here on earth, we must expect both joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. You cannot have hills without valleys.

This is especially true of family life, for the same people who bring us joy can also bring us sorrow. Relationships can become strained and then change overnight, and we wonder what happened to a happy home. A Chinese proverb says, “Nobody’s family can hang out the sign “Nothing the matter here.”

The coming of Isaac into their home brought both sorrow and joy to Abraham and Sarah. As you look at the persons involved in this important event, you can learn some valuable lessons about basic Christian doctrine and how to live the Christian life.

Sarah had borne the burden of childlessness for many years, a heavy burden indeed in that culture and at that time; the importance of having a son to carry on the family name. People must have smiled when they heard that her husband’s name was Abraham, “father of a multitude.” He was the father of one son, Ishmael, but that was far from a multitude; and Sarah was not the mother. But now all of her reproach was ended, and they were rejoicing in the arrival of their son.

But the birth of Isaac involved much more than parental joy, for his birth meant the
fulfillment of God’s promise. When God had called Abraham, He promised to make him
a great nation that would bless the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3). Then He repeatedly
promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 17:7) and to
multiply them greatly (Gen. 13:15-17). Abraham would be the father of the promised
seed (Gen. 15:4) and Sarah (not Hagar) would be the mother (Gen. 17:19; 18:9-15). The
birth of Isaac reminds us that God keeps His promises, in His own way, and in His own
time. In spite of their occasional failures, Abraham and Sarah believed God; and God
honored their faith (Heb. 11:8-11).

Isaac’s birth also meant the rewarding of patience. Abraham and Sarah had to wait twenty-five years for their son to be born, because it is “through faith and patience [we] inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). Trusting God’s promises not only gives you a blessing at the end, but it gives you a blessing while you are waiting. Just as Olympic athletes develop their skills as they practice hard and long before the big event, so God’s children grow in godliness and faith as they wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith is a journey, and each happy destination is the beginning of a new journey. When God wants to build our patience, He gives us promises, sends us trials, and tells us to trust Him (James 1:1-8).

The birth of Isaac was certainly the revelation of God’s power. That was one reason why God waited so long: He wanted Abraham and Sarah to be “as good as dead” so that their son’s birth would be a miracle of God and not a marvel of human nature (Rom. 4:17-21). Abraham and Sarah experienced God’s resurrection power in their lives because they yielded to Him and believed His Word. Faith in God’s promises releases God’s power (Eph. 3:20-21), “for no word from God shall be void of power” (Luke 1:37).

Finally, the birth of Isaac was a step forward in the accomplishing of God’s purpose. The future redemption of a lost world rested with a little baby boy! Isaac would beget Jacob, and Jacob would give the world the twelve tribes of Israel; and from Israel the promised Messiah would be born. Down through the centuries, some of the “living links” in the chain of promise may have seemed insignificant and weak; but they helped to fulfill the purposes of God.

In Galatians 4:28-29, Paul makes it clear that Ishmael represents the believer’s first birth (the flesh) and Isaac represents the second birth (the Spirit). Ishmael was “born of the flesh” because Abraham had not yet “died” and was still able to beget a son (Gen. 16).
Isaac was “born of the Spirit” because by that time his parents were both “dead” (beyond child bearing age) and only God’s power could have brought conception and birth. Ishmael was born first, because that natural comes before the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46).
When you trust Jesus Christ, you experience a miracle birth from God (John 1:11-13), and it is the work of the Holy Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Abraham represents faith, and Sarah represents grace (Gal. 4:24-26), so Isaac was born “by grace…through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is the only way a lost sinner can enter the family of God (John 3:16-18).

It is worth noting that, in the biblical record, God often rejected the firstborn and accepted the second-born. He rejected Cain and chose Abel (Gen. 4:1-15). He rejected Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, and chose Isaac. He bypassed Esau, Isaac’s firstborn, and chose Jacob (Rom. 9:8-13); and He chose Ephraim instead of Manasseh (Gen. 48). In Egypt, the Lord condemned all the firstborn (Ex. 11-12) and spared only those who were “twice-born” because they were protected by faith in the blood of the lamb.

Isaac pictures the child of God not only in his birth but also in the joy that he brought. Isaac means “laughter,” and this time it was not laughter of unbelief (Gen. 18-9-15). In the parables recorded in Luke 15, Jesus emphasized the joy that results when lost sinners repent and come to the Lord. The shepherd rejoiced when he found the lost sheep, and the woman rejoiced when she found the lost coin; and they both asked their friends to rejoice with them. The father rejoiced when his prodigal son came home, and he invited the neighbors to a feast so they could share in his joy. There is even joy in heaven when sinners turn to God (Luke 15:7, 10).

Nowhere do we read that Ishmael caused great joy in Abraham’s home. Abraham loved
his son and wanted the best for him (Gen. 17:18). From before his birth, Ishmael was a
source of painful trouble (Gen. 16); and after he matured, he caused even greater conflict
in the family (Gen. 21:9).The old nature is not able to produce the fruit of the Spirit, no
matter how hard it tries (Gal: 5:16-26).

Like every child of God, Isaac experienced persecution (Gen. 21:9; Gal. 4:29). Ishmael was apparently an obedient son until Isaac entered the family, and then the “flesh” began to oppose “the Spirit.” It has well been said that the old nature knows no law but the new nature needs no law, and this is certainly illustrated in Abraham’s two sons.

Jewish children were usually weaned at about age three, so Ishmael was probably seventeen years old at the time (Gen. 16:16). How unfortunate that a seventeen year old would torment a little boy of only three! Jealousy probably played a role. But God had said that Ishmael would become “a wild donkey of a man” (Gen. 16:12), and the prediction came true. The flesh and the Spirit are in conflict with each other and always will be until we see the Lord (Gal. 5:16-26).

When, like Isaac, you are born of the Spirit, you are born rich (Gen. 21:10). Isaac was the heir of all that his father owned, and God’s children are “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Abraham cared for Ishmael while the boy was in the home, but “Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac” (Gen. 25:5).

Finally, Isaac was born free while Ishmael was the son of a slave (Gal. 4:22). Freedom is one of the key themes in Galatians (5:1) and one of the key blessings in the Christian life (4:31). Of course, Christian freedom does not mean anarchy; for that is the worst kind of bondage. It means the freedom to be and to do all that God has for us in Jesus Christ. “No slavery except by entrance into some higher servitude,” said Phillips Brooks (An American Episcopal Priest; served many years at Boston’s Trinity Church and later Bishop of Massachusetts; He also wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem); and that “higher servitude” is personal surrender to Jesus Christ. No one is more free than the child of God who delights in God’s will and does it from the heart.

Sarah was wrong when she told Abraham to marry Hagar (Gen. 16:1-2), but she was right when she told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp. The Apostle Paul saw in this event an allegory involving the Law of Moses and the grace of God (Gal. 4:21-31). Sarah represents grace (the heavenly Jerusalem), and Hagar represents Law (the earthly Jerusalem under bondage). The lesson is simply that God’s children are to live under the blessings of grace and not the bondage of Law.

The conflicts in Abraham’s home could have been solved four ways. Isaac could have been sent away, but that would mean rejecting the promises of God and all that God had planned for the future. Isaac and Ishmael could have lived together, but that would mean constant conflict. Ishmael’s nature could have been changed to make him more agreeable, but that would have required a miracle. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and it always will be flesh. The only solution was to send Ishmael and his mother out of the camp and make Isaac the sole heir.

When you consider the facts about Hagar, you will better understand the relationship between Law and grace in the Christian life.

To begin with, Hagar was Abraham’s second wife. She was added alongside Sarah. Likewise, the Law was “added” alongside God’s already existing promises and was temporary (Gal. 3:19, 24-25). God did not start with Law; He started with grace. His relationship to Adam and Eve was based on grace, not Law, even though He did test them by means of one simple restriction (Gen. 2:15-17). The redemption of Israel from Egypt was an act of God’s grace, as was His provision, the sacrifices, and priesthood. Before Moses gave the Law, Israel was already in a covenant relationship with God (“married to God”) through His promises to the patriarchs (Ex. 19:1-8).

Second, Hagar was a servant. “Wherefore, then, serveth the Law?” Paul asks in Galatians 3:19, and gives the answer. The Law was God’s servant to keep the infant nation of Israel under control and prepare them for the coming of the Redeemer (Gal. 3:24-25, 4:1-5).
The Law was given to reveal sin (Rom. 3:20) but not to redeem us from sin. Grace does not serve Law; it is Law that serves grace! The Law reveals our need for grace, and grace saves us completely apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:20, 28).

A third fact is obvious: Hagar was never supposed to bear a child. The Law cannot give what only Jesus Christ can give: life (Gal. 3:21), righteousness (Gal. 2:21), the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2), or an eternal inheritance (Gal. 3:18). All of these blessings come only “by grace [Sarah]…through faith [Abraham]” (Eph. 2:8-9).

This leads to a fourth fact: Hagar gave birth to a slave. If you decide to live under the Law, then you become a child of Hagar, a slave; for the Law produces bondage and not freedom. The first doctrinal battle the church had to fight was on this very issue; and it was decided that sinners are saved wholly by grace, apart from keeping the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-32).

Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out completely and permanently. But God did not forsake them. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, and God promised him also that he would become a great nation. The Arab world is a force to be reckoned with today, and it all began with Ishmael. Most of the Arab world is Muslim and they believe in a god named Allah. This was brought about by choice or by conquest. Make no mistake. There is a war going on between those who believe in the One True God, and those who have rejected Him.

Once we have identified with Jesus Christ and confessed Him, we are part of this war. We did not start the war; God declared war on Satan (Gen. 3:15). The only way a believer can escape conflict is to deny Christ and compromise his witness, and this would be sin. Then the believer would be at war with God and with himself.

Each believer must make the decision once and for all to love Christ supremely and take up his cross and follow Christ. To “carry the cross” does not mean to wear a pin on our lapel or put a sticker on our car. It means to confess Christ and obey Him in spite of possible shame and suffering. It means to die to self daily. It may also mean to give your life for Him.

Let us pray:
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Amen. †

Proclaim His Victory!

Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
June 1, 2014, Easter VII – Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

From the Acts of the Apostles:
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.”

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:
According to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places…

And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.

Today is Ascension Sunday. The Feast of Ascension commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter.

Have you ever asked the question, why did Jesus leave when He did? He’d only been at His mission for about three years. He’d struggled to gather a nucleus of followers despite much opposition and ignorance. He’d gone through hell on a cross, dying, but then rising from the dead. And now when His resurrection from the dead had just provided the impetus for things to really get going; He decides to leave. Why would Jesus ascend into heaven? Was He fed up with the people of this world? Did He want to escape? Perhaps He wanted some time off – a vacation? What good could possibly come out of Jesus leaving this world and leaving His disciples to fend for themselves?

Did He actually leave? And did He actually leave His disciples to fend for themselves?

After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus remained on earth for forty days and ministered to His disciples. He had already opened their minds to understand the Old Testament message about Himself (Luke 24:44-48), but there were other lessons they needed to learn before they could launch out in their new ministry. Jesus appeared and disappeared during those forty days, and the believers never knew when He might show up. It was excellent preparation for the church because the days were soon coming when He would no longer be on earth to instruct them personally.

Let’s deal with why He left. The fact is, Jesus had done everything He came to do; As He said on the cross: “It is finished!” Shortly before His ascension Jesus said to His disciples: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms..This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)

He had completed His mission! He fulfilled the Scriptures. He did exactly what He said He would do, exactly what had to be done. He did what only God could have done. And when He was done He left. He didn’t hang around to clean up a few loose ends – there was no more for Him to do. Every sin had been paid for. The depths of the riches of love in the gracious heart of God had been revealed, and the door of the grave kicked open. So He ascended into heaven. And He was gone.

As believers, we know that He died and rose again. Eternal life and forgiveness of sins are very important. But every once in awhile, we ask the question, why does God allow bad things to happen in this world? That’s just like us, isn’t it? We look at things from a human perspective.

We read this morning in the book of Acts, Luke’s other Ascension account, when His disciples asked Jesus the question: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” This reveals an earthbound mindset; A self-centered worldview. They were still holding out for the conquering Savior who was going to rid them of the Romans and go back to the good old days when the Jews ruled.

We were born this way, with an inherited sinful nature. And we will die with that sinful nature still clinging to us. But we do not need die forever, apart from God. By the grace of our heavenly Father, through total victory gained by Jesus through His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, we have been set free. The Holy Spirit has torn away the trappings of sin and wrapped us in the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness. Daily, through Word and Sacrament He leads us to repent of sin and cling to Christ.

Christ left this world 40 days after His resurrection. The disciples saw Him leave with their own eyes. Here’s where the facts of Ascension, the doctrine of Ascension matters in our lives right now. He is gone, but not really. He is gone…but here more than ever. He is with us even more powerfully than if He could be seen with our eyes. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present, all-powerful Lord.
He is in control, in charge, working everything out for our good – everyone of us – wherever we are, wherever we go. There is no place we can go where Christ will not also be. There is no situation so complex or desperate of helplessness that Christ can’t work it out into something that benefits us. Ascension means we have His power, His presence, and His promise.

Ascension matters because it offers so much assurance in a world devoid of certainty and safety. Ascension means that Christ will come again. That was the message of the angels in Luke’s other ascension account in Acts 1: “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.”
Just before Jesus ascended He gave His disciples a mission and responsibility. In Acts we read, “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” And in our Gospel reading: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

His disciples were to be witnesses of all that He had said and done. A witness is somebody who sincerely tells what he has seen and heard. As Christians, we also have a responsibility to be witnesses who point to Jesus Christ and tell lost sinners how to be saved. It doesn’t matter if you are pupil, plumber, preacher, police officer or pool cleaner, we all have the same ultimate purpose – to glorify God in all we think, say, and do and be witnesses where we live, work and play.

How could a group of common people ever hope to fulfill that kind of commission? God promised to provide the power (Luke 24:19; Acts 1:8), and He did. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the church and empowered them to preach the Word (Acts 2). After Pentecost, the Spirit continued to fill them with great power.

Witnessing is not something that we do for the Lord; it is something that He does through us, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. There is a difference between a “sales talk” and a Spirit-empowered witness. We go forth in the authority of His name, in the power of His spirit, heralding His Gospel of His grace.

For some reason, our Lord’s ascension is not given the prominence in the church that it deserves. Think of what it meant to Jesus to return to heaven and sit on the throne of glory! His ascension is proof that He has conquered every enemy and that He reigns supremely “far above all” (Eph. 1:18-23).

Our Lord’s ascension into heaven was an important part of His ministry, for if He had not returned to the Father, He could not have sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-15). Also, in heaven today, the Saviour is our interceding High Priest, giving us the grace that we need for life and service (Heb. 4:14-16). He is also our Advocate before the Father, forgiving us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9-2:2). The exalted and glorified Head of the church is now working with His people on earth and helping them accomplish His purposes (Mark 16:19-20).

Of course, He is also preparing in heaven a home for His people (John 14:1-6), and one day He will return and take us to be with Him forever.

The last thing our Lord did was to bless His people, and the first thing they did was to worship Him! The two always go together, for as we truly worship Him, he will share His blessings. He not only opened their lips to witness, but He also opened their lips to worship and praise Him!

Dr. Luke opened his Gospel with a scene in the temple (Luke 1:8ff), and he closed his Gospel the same way (Luke 24:53). But what a contrast between the unbelieving, silent priest and the trusting, joyful saints! But Luke’s witness doesn’t end in Jerusalem. He continues his witness in his next book, The Acts of the Apostles, where the Gospel traveled from Jerusalem to Rome!

We need to grasp the reality and impact of Christ’s constant presence with us. Even more than that, Jesus wants an ongoing relationship with us. Matthew records these words in his ascension account: “I am with you always to the very end of the age”…to the end of time. Isn’t it ironic that with all of our communication resources today – internet, email¸ cell phones, text messaging – those very things may be keeping us apart from God. Making a phone call or sending a dozen tweets, two dozen emails, or 100 text messages a day does not make for a complete, fulfilling relationship.

A fulfilling relationship needs time, commitment, sacrifice – all of which Jesus offers. Jesus is here, here with you, always. You have the promise of His presence, actually the reality that He is always with you. And what is our part in this relationship? He gives us His Word so that we can keep in touch, to remain close to Him. Use it, study it, and pray over it. Cling to it. He may be gone from our eyes, but He is with us more than ever.

In the aftermath of the Ascension, notice what the disciples did. They didn’t mope around and act depressed because Jesus was no longer physically, visually with them. “They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” We need to do the same – worshipping, praising, witnessing at the temple or church, at home, at work – everywhere, all the time, knowing that Jesus is with us wherever we go, wherever we are. He may be gone, but not really. He is here with us more than ever. And soon, we will be there with Him – in heaven, that is, face to face.

Until then, seek Him in His Word, Body and Blood. Cling to His promises. And live each day as those disciples did, with “great joy.” Proclaiming His victory!

Let us pray:
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven; Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. †