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When we think of Jesus’ ascension we often think about what he is doing for us in heaven. Our first Scripture for tonight reminds us that he is sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven as the king of the universe. All things have been placed under his feet. He is ruling everything that happens, not just here in Nebraska, but everywhere in the whole universe, for our good. He has unlimited power, and he is using that power for us. What comfort that gives us!
We might also think of that wonderful, comforting passage from John’s gospel where Jesus assures us that he has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us. It’s a place with many rooms. It’s beautiful, beyond imagination, rich and glorious. And when the time is just right, he will come again in the same way the disciples saw him go into heaven. He will come to take us to be with him in that place he has prepared for us,
Scripture also reminds us that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father so that he can intercede for us. We would think that it would be difficult to get an audience with God, after all he is God and we are mere mortals, not to mention that if we did get and audience with God, after one look at us his justice would demand that we be bound and cast out of his presence into the fires of Hell because of our sins. But Jesus is interceding for us. He assures us that we can come to the Father at anytime and talk to him about anything. He enables us to do that by giving us the white robe of his perfect righteousness so that when God sees us he doesn’t see our sins. He only sees the perfection of his perfect son. Because of Jesus he not only doesn’t cast us out of his presence, he graciously hears and answers our prayers in the best possible way.
All these things are wonderful and comforting, but Paul reminds us that there is even more. He reminds us that when Jesus ascended on high, he took captivity captive and gave gifts to his people.
Paul uses the picture of a victory parade thrown for a hero who has returned home victorious over his enemies. There on display in his victory parade is the great serpent Satan. He had taken the whole world captive by his lies that convinced Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. But Jesus came down to earth and took on the ancient serpent. He defeated him. He destroyed the devil’s work. He bound him with a chain and rescued all who had been taken captive by him.
There on display in his victory parade are books that record all the sins of the world, but on each person’s page that lists their many sins is stamped in the blood of the lamb, “Paid in full”, “Forgiven.” And there is another book that lists only names, the names of those who have received the forgiveness Jesus won for them through Spirit worked faith. It’s the Lamb’s Book of Life.
At the end of the procession is the greatest and most fearful enemy of all, death itself. It still looks like a terrifying monster, but when it opens its mouth, its teeth have all been knocked out. A placard carried before it says, “Jesus rose. Death couldn’t hold him. It can’t hold you either.”
Jesus ascended. He returned to his rightful place in heaven at the right hand of the Father because he was victorious over sin, death and Satan. When his victory parade ended, and he sat down at the right hand of the Father, he gave gifts to his people. And he wasn’t just throwing candy. He gave each and every one of his people, each and every one of us, gifts for serving. He gave different people different gifts, but he made sure his people had just the right gifts they would need to help each other grow and remain strong in the faith until he would come again in glory.
Paul mentions some of the gifts that Jesus gives. He mentions Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. He mentions the reason that he gives some people these gifts, it’s not so that they can lord it over others, but so that they can help others discover their gifts, and then train them and encourage them to use their gifts for serving as God intended.
Paul is very fond of picturing the church as the body of Christ. Each believer, each of you, is a part of the body. You might be a hand, an ear, a mouth, or a foot. It doesn’t matter, every part of the body is important and has a purpose. You know what happens when a part of your body doesn’t work. The body doesn’t function very well. The same is true of the body of Christ, the church. When Christians don’t use their gifts for serving, either because they think that they don’t have an important gift, or because they are lazy or selfish, the body of Christ doesn’t function as well as it could.
You know how you feel if you give someone a gift, a gift you thought was just perfect for them, and they don’t seem to appreciate it; or they cast it aside and don’t use it. Imagine how Jesus must feel when he gives us a gift that is just right for us and we don’t appreciate it, or we fail to use it.
In his grace, Jesus doesn’t do what we might be tempted to do. He doesn’t take our gift away and give it to someone else. Instead he sends us leaders who remind us that Jesus has given us gifts, and that we sin when we don’t appreciate our gifts or use them as he intended; leaders who encourage us by reminding us that our sins of neglect and misuse of his gifts are sins that Jesus paid for. As our substitute he used the gifts he had in perfect service to his Father and his neighbor. As our substitute he took the punishment we deserve for failing to recognize our gifts and use them to serve God and our neighbor. He gives us leaders who point us to God’s mercy and grace and that spurs us on toward love and good deeds.
As Jesus provides Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers who share God’s word with us; as we encourage each other, in view of God’s mercy, to use the gifts Jesus gives us to serve God and others, the body of Christ grows and matures. We are more and more united in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. As we grow together in our knowledge of Scripture we are better able to resist what Paul pictures as storms of false teaching. If we try to stand alone against such storms we are more likely to fall. If we remain immature in our faith because we have not continued to be instructed in the word, we are likely to be tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, to fall prey to the devil’s tricks, lies and empty promises. Instead of remaining united in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God we can easily fall into the pattern of the world with its suspicion, judgmentalism and hurtful name calling. Satan loves to stir up petty arguments among us so that he can divide and conquer.
But, those who continue to hear and study the word together, to pray together, to serve together, continue to mature together aren’t perfect, but they learn from their ascended Lord to strive to put the best construction on the words and actions of their fellow believers, and when there is a problem, to speak the truth in love, remembering to love as Christ loved them, and to forgive as they have been forgiven in Christ.
The Ascension reminds us that Jesus has returned to his rightful place in heaven. There he continues to work for us. He uses his unlimited power to make sure everything serves our good. He is preparing a place for us that is rich and glorious beyond our imagination. He is constantly interceding for us so that we can come to the almighty, holy God, at any time and talk to him about anything and know that he will hear us and answer us in the best way possible. But don’t forget that he has also given you gifts, often unique gifts. He has given you those gifts expecting that you will use them to serve Him and each other. When you fail either to use them at all, or to use them as he intends, he graciously calls you to repentance and points you to the forgiveness he has won for you. In view of his forgiveness, in view of his grace in not only saving you but graciously giving you gifts to use already now, do your part to build up the body of Christ. Use whatever gifts you have to serve God and others in love.