Sermon: Sunday, 30th April, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 24:44-53
Something special is happening this coming Saturday. It is, of course, the coronation of their majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Even if you are not a royalist, at least you ought to be thankful for an extra public holiday on Monday 8th May. We’ve got our café on that morning, and so the pressure is on to have special coronation cakes. I don’t have an invitation myself, but hope to watch it on the telly. What happens during the service at Westminster Abbey? The congregation will shout, ‘God Save the King!’ and trumpets will sound. There is an oath for Charles, as he swears to uphold the law and the Church of England. The King will be anointed on his hands, head and chest. He is presented with the Royal Orb, representing religious and moral authority. Finally, the Archbishop places St Edward’s Crown on the King’s head. After that, the King leaves the Coronation Chair and moves to the throne. In past coronations, peers kneel before the monarch to pay homage, but today we discover that this will be replaced with the homage of the people, where we will have the opportunity to say: ‘I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.’
In our passage today there is the record of a much more important coronation – that of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This coronation might not be obvious from our passage, but that’s at the heart of the ascension of Jesus. He ascends in order to be crowned with glory. We read in verse 51: ‘While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.’ This is clearly something extraordinary and supernatural, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. This really happened in history. Jesus truly rose from the dead. After his resurrection, he appeared to the disciples on around 12 different occasions for a period of 40 days. But now it’s time for Jesus to leave the earth and go back to Heaven where he had come from, though now with a human body. Why does Jesus decide to leave like this? Why doesn’t he just disappear? I think Jesus does this in front of his eleven disciples in order to make it clear that he would not be appearing to them any longer. This was a new stage for them. A new era. Jesus will no longer be with them physically. He doesn’t want the disciples to become confused, and to look for him, or expect him to reappear once more in the way he had been during those 40 days.
What happened to Jesus when he went up into Heaven? His coronation. He is crowned with glory and honour, in a way which far surpasses any earthly coronation, even that of Charles and Camilla. There are more royal guests and this heavenly coronation.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise… The four living creatures said, ‘Amen’ and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:11-12 and 14)
We have been asked to pay homage to King Charles III on Saturday, but no one will worship him, of course. But worship is the right response to King Jesus, because he is our Creator, he is our Saviour and he is our King. We tend to overlook Jesus’ ascension most of the time, concentrating more on his crucifixion and resurrection. But it’s good for us to consider this wonderful past event, and think about what it means for us today.
‘I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.’ (John 17:4-5)
Jesus speaks of the glory he had before he became a human being, reminding us that he is eternal and he is God. However, the end of his life on earth had been anything but glorious. He was totally humiliated, tortured on a Roman cross, rejected by his own. He was spat upon, whipped, mocked, given a ‘show trial’ and found guilty. He became sin for us. He was punished for our sins, though he himself had done nothing wrong. He couldn’t have gone any lower. However, after he reached rock bottom, Christ is raised from the dead. And after his 40 days on earth his ascends into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He is ruling and reigning in Heaven and has total power and dominion over the forces of evil. He is loved and worshipped and honoured there.
‘After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.’ (Hebrews 1:3-4)
‘And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ ( Philippians 2:8-11)
I love reading the response of the eleven at Jesus’ ascension. They watch Jesus going up and up. Eventually a cloud hides him from their sight. They respond by worshipping Jesus, and then with rejoicing! ‘Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.’ (Luke 24:52)
We should ask the question, why do the disciples rejoice, when Jesus is no longer going to be with them? Why should we rejoice this morning that Jesus has been crowned with honour in Heaven? Let’s spend the rest of our time thinking through something of what the ascension means for us.
1. We can rejoice that Jesus is sitting in Heaven.
‘Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.’ (Hebrews 10:11)
Jewish High Priests could never sit down- they were always standing. Why? Because their animal sacrifices could never really deal with the sins of the people. The blood of animals cannot cover our sin. They were signs and symbols. But when Jesus lays down his own life on the cross, this sacrifice is so enormous that it can and does deal with the sin of his people. Nothing needs to be added to what Jesus did on the cross. You can’t add anything to it – not even your best efforts. The only reason our sins can be erased is because of Jesus’ sacrifice. So, when he dies and rises again, his work of saving his people is over. When he ascends into Heaven, he can sit down, because his saving work is done.
I love that feeling when you’ve been out in the garden all day, and you are exhausted, and your work has been completed, and you can come in, and sit down and rest. It is satisfying. The work has been done. Think of how Jesus must feel sitting at the right hand of his Father. Think of how satisfying it must be knowing that his wonderful work of rescuing undeserving people has been completed. We rejoice in that too- because it means we have nothing to add to our salvation.
2. We can rejoice because Jesus’ departure is better for us.
That might sound strange at first. Why is it better that Jesus has left the earth? ‘But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment…’ (John 16:7-8)
The Advocate is the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus will no longer be physically present with his disciples on earth, but every single one of his disciples will experience the blessing of Jesus’ spiritual presence with them, through the Holy Spirit. We see this promise coming to pass on the day of Pentecost. And today, every true Christian enjoys the presence of Jesus within, through the Holy Spirit.
Last week, Geoff touched on the great task we all have as Christians – to be witnesses in this world by telling others about Jesus and what he has done for us. Sometimes this can seem like a daunting task! Who will ever listen to what we have to say about Jesus? What if I’m asked a question and am unable to answer it? Will God really change anyone in secular Scotland in 2023? The thing is, when Jesus gives us a message to proclaim, he also gives us the power to proclaim it. Yes, he gives us a task, but he equips us so we are able to carry it out. ‘You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised…’ (Luke 24:48-9) In this sense, Jesus went up to glory so that we might go out into the world as his witnesses, not in our own strength, but in his.
Let’s pray that Kirkcaldy Free Church will more and more be a witnessing church, as all true churches are. We’re good at recommending a new restaurant to others: ‘You must try it’ we say. We recommend bargains we find in the shops. We recommend a good TV programme we’ve enjoyed. God wants you to recommend Jesus to people. Yes, the message includes that they will need to change their minds about themselves and about Jesus, and leave their idols behind. But doing so, and trusting in Jesus, they will be forgiven and receive eternal life. Our message is good news.
The work of God the Holy Spirit is crucial in our witness. Only the Holy Spirit can embolden us to recommend Jesus to others. And only He can bring about lasting change in people, regenerating them, and bringing them to faith. We need to keep going back to Acts 16 and what we read about Paul’s message to Lydia: ‘The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.’ (Acts 14:14)
Unless the Lord opens a heart, a person will not become a Christian. Someone said to me recently: ‘I don’t need any God to forgive me.’ He was totally wrong. But the only way he’ll come to see that is if the Spirit works in him, opens his heart, and brings him to repentance and faith. Please pray that the Lord would empower the preaching from this pulpit. Please pray that the Spirit would be at work as we witness in those ordinary places in which he has placed us. We need to be empowered.
3. We can rejoice in what Jesus is doing in Heaven right now.
‘Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’ (Hebrews 7:25) Right now, Jesus is praying for his people. If you are one of his followers, he is praying for you.
I remember meeting an elderly man whom I didn’t know very well. He said to me: ‘I want you to know that I pray for you every day’. That meant so much to me. I knew he really meant it. It was so humbling to hear. But how much greater is the fact that the risen Lord Jesus Christ prays for us. That is even more wonderful. He is pleading our cause before our Father in Heaven. We’re about to sing ‘Before the throne of God above’. It begins: ‘Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea, A great High Priest whose name is love, Who ever lives and pleads for me.’
We also rejoice that Jesus is preparing a place for us. ‘And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ (John 14:3) In this way, Jesus ascends to Heaven as our forerunner. He goes first to prepare a place for us. Because he ascends there first, and because we are united to him by faith, one day we will ascend to Heaven too.
4. We can rejoice that Jesus has all authority and power as he rules the universe.
Jesus is ruling and reigning as King. And that should put a spring in our step, as we try to reach others with the gospel. As we go out in mission, King Jesus is pleased with us. Should we be as timid as we are? Not if we truly understand the power of Jesus: ‘Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’ (Matthew 28:18-19) Why not be bold? Why not step out in faith, and speak to someone about Jesus? Why not plant a church? Why not invite people to Christianity Explored? After all, if God is for us, who can stand against us?
Sometimes we watch the news and it is so depressing. Or we get discouraged praying for situations and not really seeing much change. Sometimes I feel like that. I need to remind myself – Jesus is still on the throne. He is working all things for our good. He reigns with unlimited authority and unlimited power. Let’s entrust ourselves to King Jesus.