Imagine that you were invited to attend an event that promised a meeting with a movie star.1 There at this event, you’d get to talk to this movie star, ask questions, get an autograph, take a picture — everything. So, hey movies are fun, and it could be interesting, so you go to the event. And you get there, expecting to meet this movie star.
And the movie star is … me.
Now, you won’t hurt my feelings, but I’d imagine you’d be pretty disappointed to find out that I was the movie star. But come on, I really was in a movie. Kind of. When I was in 8th grade, my class took a field trip to the Metrodome2 in Minneapolis. There was a movie being filmed there called Little Big League3. Well, for that day of the field trip, my classmates and I were basically extras in the movie, along with several hundred other people. We would cheer when they’d tell us to cheer. And for the most part, we’d just sit around and do nothing.
I suppose I get how someone could be disappointed thinking they were coming to see a movie star and all they saw was me. Not only was I not starring in the movie, it’s impossible to say if any of those scenes they shot made it into the finished movie or not. So, come to think of it, I don’t think it’s a good idea to advertise myself as a movie star.
But think about this: we do call ourselves Christians. We have a worship service that we tell everyone is going to be all about Jesus. We talk about what Jesus has done. We say that Jesus is with us now. But when you get to church, Jesus isn’t standing up front, just some guy in a white robe! Kind of disappointing?
And since we call ourselves Christians, it’s worth asking, do people see Jesus in our words and actions? Honestly, I don’t think any of us would be surprised that someone would be disappointed with any of us when they were looking for Jesus. We’re not Jesus, and we prove it every day.
That can make celebrating Jesus’ ascension seem kind of strange. The day of Ascension is when Jesus went up into heaven. He is no longer visibly with us. That doesn’t even seem like something to celebrate. Here we’re talking about a supposedly living Savior, but, sorry, he’s not here anymore.
But today, I’d like to remind you that Ascension gives us plenty to celebrate. This is not the day that Jesus left us by ourselves; this is the day that Jesus kept his promise to be with us always. And no, we’re not Jesus. But he promises to use us to point other people to him. So let’s rejoice in our ascended Savior. We are his witnesses!
Our text is the very beginning of the book of Acts. This book picks up right where the gospel of Luke leaves off, which makes sense since Luke wrote both of them. In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2) Modern television shows often start an episode by saying “Previously on _____________.” That’s kind of what Luke is doing here. He’s catching us up on what happened in his gospel before we read Acts.
And in doing so he especially stresses Easter. After 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. (Acts 1:3)
Imagine what those forty days must have been like for Jesus’ disciples! First, they’d been with him for about three years. They heard his teaching, witnessed his miracles. They saw adoring crowds following him, but they also saw the crowds turn against him. They ran away when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. They were horrified when he was killed on the cross, but they were amazed and speechless when he rose. And now, for forty days, they’d gotten to see him several times. They had proof that he had really risen.
You wonder what they thought the future would look like. I mean, after everything that happened to Jesus, it would’ve been pretty excited to see him win. He could go up to those Pharisees and teachers of the law and everyone that had wanted him to die, and he could show himself to them. They’d be forced to admit they were wrong!
But instead, Jesus seems to have only appeared to his actual followers. And instead of talking about a future where Jesus would stay on earth, he told them about Pentecost, which was going to be the Holy Spirit coming to them in the future. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)
Did the disciples get what would happen? Did they understand that Jesus wasn’t going to be around anymore by the time Pentecost actually happened? I don’t think they did.
Because when they were all together on the day Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, look at what the disciples asked him. When they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Jesus ascending into heaven doesn’t even seem to be on the disciples’ radar at this point. In fact, they were thinking Jessu would stick around, that he would show all his enemies that he was alive, that he would finally bring power back to Israel and get rid of those Romans once and for all!
They didn’t get it! I picture Jesus putting his hand to his face here. How could they be so slow to get these things! Jesus wasn’t here to rule an earthly kingdom, he was about to ascend to his heavenly kingdom! Why couldn’t the disciples see this?
Let’s face it, though. We don’t always see it, either. We don’t always get what Jesus’ ascension means for us. It’s pretty easy for us to think that Jesus’ ascension just means he’s not here anymore. And we live that way. We separate the Jesus that we know from the Bible and who we know is in heaven with our real, everyday lives.
If we are doing something wrong and committing a sin — which happens every day — we tend not to take it too seriously. After all, it’s not like we’re going to get struck with a bolt of lightning for it. If anything, the only problems we expect from is to get “in trouble” for it from someone in our lives, or even from the church. Other than that, it might not enter our heads too much.
We can really separate Jesus from everything going on in our lives. Sure, if something is going wrong, we might pray that God would help us and ask Jesus to hear us. But those prayers can sometimes be seen as kind of a last-ditch effort. And we can pray them not really expecting them to be answered, but more in terms of, “well, it couldn’t hurt to at least try praying, I guess.”
And since Jesus isn’t here in the flesh anymore, our concept of who he is can get wrapped up in other human beings. When there’s a problem with someone’s relationships, like the relationship with their pastor or with another believer, that problem can lead to a problem with their relationship with God. “I don’t need the church if this is how people act!”
This is a big problem, not only within the church. Every one of us, as a believer, represents Jesus to the world. And there are plenty of people out there, waiting for us to mess up, waiting for us to do something to prove in their minds that Christianity is just a worthless cult full of hypocrites.
So let’s get things straight right now. Jesus has not left us. That’s not what his ascension means. It means he’s with us always, wherever we are! Look back at our lesson from Ephesians, [God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given … And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph. 1:20-23)
Jesus is at God’s right hand! That doesn’t mean he’s stuck to a chair up on some clouds somewhere, that means he’s ruling everything, everywhere, right now. He’s the King! He rules the world! And he doesn’t just rule it; he is head over everything for the church. He is ruling for our benefit. He’s working out all things for good for us! (Rom. 8:28)
So our prayers are not last-ditch efforts. They’re an opportunity to have a one-on-one audience with the King of the Universe himself. And not only can this King help us; but he has promised to work out everything for our good! He has already paid the price of our sins and guaranteed us a spot in eternal life! So we can trust that he’s always with us!
But even though he’s the king, he still makes use of us. He wants to use us to point people to him. That’s what Jesus told the disciples in our text, and it’s still true today. 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. (Acts 1:8)
This passage isn’t just about the book of Acts. It’s not just the disciples who experienced Pentecost and then went on to build the early Christian Church like Acts lays out for us. This passage is about us! We are his witnesses! We witness to Jesus’ love today.
When you come to church, no, you don’t see Jesus in the flesh. But you see him in the Word. You see him in bread and wine as he gives you also his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. You see him every time another soul is connected to his love forever in baptism. You see Jesus when we preach and teach him and give him in his Word and sacraments.
And it doesn’t just happen at church. We are his witnesses every day in our lives. This doesn’t mean that we pretend we’re perfect or that we have to somehow be hypocrites. We sin. We fail. Everyday. From the pastor on down, every Christian can say this. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point people to Jesus, it means we have all the more reason to do just that!
We can point to the same Savior we cling to! We point to the same one who took our sins onto that cross and paid them in full. We point to, well, our Savior, and we can tell anyone that Jesus died for their sins, too.
Remember, that Savior is alive and he is currently ruling the entire universe. If he has called on us to be his witnesses, won’t he also give us what we need to carry out that command? Of course he will!
So don’t be afraid. Look for opportunities to see people who don’t know Jesus, or who have wondered away from this church, or whatever church they might have gone to in the past. Don’t treat Jesus like someone who is gone; treat him like your Savior-King! Show others how much he means to you! Look to him for forgiveness for your sins, and for the strength to point others to him.
Friends, you’re not perfect. You’re not movie stars. But you are Christians. That means you represent the King. So live up to your calling. Look at all the things Jesus has promised you, look at how he’s taken your sins away, rejoice that he wants to use you to reach others.
Yes, he’ll come back. The angels reminded the disciples of that in our text. 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. (Acts 1:11) He will be back to take us to heaven, but until then, we don’t stand around looking into the skies, we go out and share Jesus’ prize. We have Jesus’ forgiveness and love, and we get to proclaim that love to the world. So share it! We are his witnesses!