“Christ over Moses”

The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Reformed Church on Sunday, July 9, 2017, as part of our worship and preaching series through the New Testament Letter “To the Hebrews.”  Thank You for Reading!

Today’s Reading: Hebrews 3:1-6

Moses was God’s faithful prophet and priest in his time.

The letter to the Hebrews is an intensely Christian letter: Christ is its beginning and end, and its message throughout. And this letter is written to a Christian congregation, a small group of believers who are saved by faith through grace. But these Christians were also Jews by birth and by education and by religious upbringing, and as Jews, they have been raised to view Moses in a particular way.

As God’s chosen prophet, Moses holds the highest status in the Hebrew faith. According to Hebrew tradition, Moses received the Law – the first five books of our Old Testament – from God verbatim. Moses met with God as a friend, face to face (Exodus 33:11). After these conversations with God, Moses’ face was illuminated, radiating the glory of God (Exodus 34:29-30, 34-35; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7-18). In the Jewish mind, Moses’ relationship with God was the most intimate, most open, most dear, that any human has had with God, after Adam and Eve fell into sin (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

This high view of Moses was likely held by the Jewish Christians to whom this letter was written. And it is for that reason, as the letter opens and the writer of Hebrews is building his case for the absolute supremacy, centrality, and sufficiency of Jesus Christ, that the writer needs to present Moses, as important as he was, as insufficient for salvation.  Yes, Moses was faithful to his calling in his time and place. Moses was God’s prophet, and, in terms of his intimate relationship with God, Moses also functioned as God’s priest, interceding between God and His people. But the writer of this letter also sees that Moses was himself in need of salvation, the salvation that only comes to us through Christ. Moses saw a glimpse of that salvation that was to come, and was faithful to present as much of that glimpse as he was given.

Christ is our Prophet and Priest. We must look to Him.

But what Moses only glimpsed, we see fully, clearly, completely, in Christ! That is why the writer charges us to “consider Jesus.” “Consider” here doesn’t mean to evaluate Jesus according to our standards to see whether he is worthy of our attention; this “consider” doesn’t mean to weigh Jesus as one option among many, equally valid options for salvation. “Consider” here means to fix our entire attention on Jesus, and learn from what we see. It’s the same “consider” that Jesus himself uses when he says:

“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! …

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”

Luke 12:24, 27-28

When we “consider Jesus,” we are devoting our attention to him, in such a way that we learn about the true spiritual reality he has brought us into, and how we are to enter into that reality and live more fully within it. That spiritual reality, according to Jesus, is one of complete providence, being entirely cared for by God: so we live more and more by faith, trusting in God’s care. This kind of “considering” is what James has in mind when we exhorts us to be hearers and doers:

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

James 1:23-24

James uses the same Greek word, “consider,” ironically here; as in: It would be absolute foolishness to spend time to “consider” your appearance – to fix your attention on it in a way that changes your life – only to forget what you look like when you walk away from the mirror. To “consider Jesus” as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, we must study and meditate and ruminate on the life and work and words and identity of Jesus, and then alter our lives, our work, our words, our identity to match what we see. When we “consider” Jesus, we are to hear who Jesus is, and do what we hear.

The writer of Hebrews charges us to “consider” two specific aspects of Christ’s character. First, that he is our prophet, or Apostle, sent by God to reveal to us the truth that we could never discover by ourselves; that, second, Christ is also our high priest, who has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, that we may receive eternal life from God. When we “consider Jesus” – especially as “our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption,” And, “our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father” (HC Q&A 31) – we discover all we need for our salvation.

It is tempting for us, as we mature in our faith, to look for new doctrines, deeper theologies, and more complex aspects of Scripture. But we are always beginners with God, and no matter how mature we become in our faith, we are always growing up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16), always called to focus all our attention always on Christ (Colossians 3:1-4), specifically – as we read two weeks ago – Christ crucified.

Christ Holds us Fast. He is our Perseverance.

For this reason the writer of Hebrews encourages us this morning to “hold fast our confidence, and our boasting in hope” (Hebrews 3:6). By this perseverance in faith, we show that we are God’s household, his sons and daughters, co-heirs with Christ our prophet and priest. As I said, the letter to the Hebrews holds forth Christ at every paragraph; and in holding forth Christ, the writer calls us to persevere, to press on in faith, seeing the person and work of Jesus for us. In Christ alone is our sure salvation, such that nothing can shake us from his hand. That is our confidence.

The Reformed church has called this confidence, this assurance that is ours in Christ, “the Perseverance of the Saints.” Yes, we are called to give every effort and attention to our own perseverance in faith, holding fast to what we believe, to Him whom we confess. But even more importantly, Christ holds fast to us. This Christian life is all grace, all pure gift to us. And the same gift that saved us carries us throughout this life until we come to our goal, eternal life with God.

Article 14: God’s Use of Means in Perseverance (Canons of Dort, Point 5)

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.

God holds us fast in Christ. When this life threatens, and the world seems on the brink of collapse, our hope is sure, “that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We find our comfort in that promise, in that perseverance that God in Christ is working in us. But we also find our calling there as well. In the midst of fear and doubt and worry, we are to “consider Jesus,” to fix our attention more and more on His character, and His cross. We do that together every week, as we gather to worship, to hear the gospel proclaimed anew, and meditate on its truth, its exhortations, its promises, for us. We also “consider Jesus” clearly this morning in the sacrament of communion, where the real spiritual presence of Christ is shown to us once more in the bread broken and the cup poured. As we prepare to gather around Christ’s Table, let us “consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, who was faithful to Him who appointed him,” and “has been counted worthy” because he “is faithful over God’s house[hold] as a son.” Receive again Christ Jesus, and hold fast to the assurance that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). All this God is working in you for His honor and glory; receive this good news, and live.

“God’s Law for God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD. I draw heavily in this sermon from the Heidelberg Catechism‘s treatment of the 10 Commandments, often quoting Questions & Answers 94-115.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 19:1-20:21

God gave His people His Spirit to empower us to righteousness and obedience.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we are set free from our slavery to sin; in the coming of His Spirit, we are empowered and guided toward the Promised Land of righteousness.

The Israelites received this guidance at the mountain of God, where God gathered His people to Himself, and gave them a framework for their new life together as God’s chosen people, His kingdom of priests to the world. In these ten commands, God lays out the full vision of how His people will live in this world so that His name goes forth to all the nations.

And because we are Easter People, who stand in the revelation of Christ’s resurrection life, we see here in these Commandments first: the fullness of our failure to live up to this holy standard in our own strength; second: the depth of our need for Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins and for our righteousness; and third: that “we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.” (HC Q&A 115)

That perfection, to which we have been called and for which we aim and strive, is always just beyond our grasp in this life. That’s why this sermon series doesn’t go all the way to Canaan, but ends here at Sinai. We will not be fully perfect as God is perfect until we stand in His glory at the last Day, made like Him in His glory. Knowing this, some may come to believe that God, in giving us these impossible Commandments, is – at worst – cursing us, and – at best – mocking us. But God did not give His people these commands to curse or mock them. God had a great purpose for His chosen people, and He gave the Law as a gift to protect and equip them for that purpose. But sin warped humanity toward disobedience, making God’s good Law impossible for us.

That’s why the Jews received God’s Law in terror, knowing how fully they were unable to keep these Commandments. They were so afraid of breaking covenant with God that they added 600-some additional human laws to “fence” the Commandments, so that they would never even almost break any of the Commandments.

But in Christ we have been made free from the terror that God may reject us:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

The Holy Spirit has renovated our hearts, replacing our hearts of dead stone with hearts of living flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And as we walk in the new life and the freedom of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ, our whole lives are transformed from the inside out to more and more live the life that God calls us and empowers us to live. Through His Holy Spirit alive in us,

God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant. God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.

The Canons of Dort, Points III/IV, article 11

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love Him with all of who we are.

More than merely not worshipping other created things in place of their Creator, God frees us to “rightly know the only true God, trust Him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently” (HC Q&A 94).

More than merely not depicting a physical appearance for God, “God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of His Word” (HC Q&A 98), that together we all come more and more to reflect the spiritual presence of God to the world.

More than merely not using God’s covenant name casually or flippantly, God brings us to “use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works” (HC Q&A 99).

More than merely not working on Sundays, and anxiously attempting to define what counts as work and what doesn’t, God leads us to receive the Sabbath as a gift that helps us to live into our true calling: “That every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath” (HC Q&A 103).

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love each other creatively, proactively, and selflessly.

More than merely “honoring” our parents, and getting along with those we have to, God through His Spirit empowers us “to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not stealing from others, God is making us “to protect [our neighbors] from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not breaking our marriage covenants, God is compelling us to “live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage” (HC Q&A 108), because “We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy” (HC Q&A 109).

More than merely not killing or even hating others, Christ’s resurrection life frees us and motivates us to “Do whatever [we] can for [our] neighbor’s good,” and to “work faithfully so that [we] may share with those in need” (HC Q&A 111).

More than merely not lying, or speaking poorly of others, God’s Spirit is working in us, bringing us to “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” and to “do what [we] can to guard and advance [our] neighbor’s good name” (HC Q&A 112).

More than merely not envying others’ possessions or relationships, the Spirit has given us new hearts that “take pleasure in whatever is right” (HC Q&A 113), so that our desires become tuned to God’s desires.

Christ’s Spirit brings us to obey, not out of fear, but out of love.

Yes, truly, God’s Holy Spirit alive in us is at work to bring us to full obedience, not in order that we might earn our salvation for ourselves, but so that we might embrace the fullness of new life that we have received in Christ Jesus, and walk in God’s ways for His honor and glory. We obey not out of fear, but out of love.

Brothers and sisters, let us continue this new-life journey together, keeping in step with the Spirit who has written God’s Law on our regenerated hearts (Ezekiel 36:24-28, Jeremiah 31:33-34), and is even now making our lives “a small beginning of this obedience” (HC Q&A 114). And knowing the greatness of our need for Him, let us come again to receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for us, remembering always that this forgiveness and righteousness is never our own doing, but always God working His will in us. And let this holy feast nourish your spirits to persevere in the newness of life that is ours in Christ Jesus, and “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). Amen!

“Receive the Kingdom as a Child”

This sermon series through Mark, we’ve been considering the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the start of his reign as God’s anointed King. As we begin Lent, we listen for our King’s call to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This morning Jesus offers us a particularly appropriate image for what denying ourselves looks like. Lent’s invitation to self-denial sounds inconvenient and intimidating and maladjusted; Jesus makes sure we begin to understand precisely what he means, and what we can expect when we accept his invitation.

Mark 9:30-36, 42; 10:13-16

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

If we have eyes open to see it and hearts ready to accept it, Jesus invites us to become like children in order to receive his kingdom of life. This may seem a simple, harmless request from our King, but this should give us some surprise. How are children better suited to receive the kingdom than we able, responsible adults? Our King’s request, which is really more of a command, should also give us some concern. Even if it does make sense, that children will inherit the kingdom, how is it possible for us able, responsible adults to become like children again? These are the questions we must answer if we are to faithfully follow Jesus Christ as our King, and as our Savior, on his way to the cross for us, and for the whole world

Children and the Kingdom

Our passage this morning begins with another journey through Galilee. These are not quick bus rides, or even car trips, but wearying walks, under the overbearing sun and in the clinging dust, over rugged mountains and through treacherous riverbeds. It is on one of these rigorous walks that Jesus is trying again to warn his disciples about what is to come. Jesus is trying to prepare these young men for what will happen to him in Jerusalem at the hands of those who should know better, the religious leaders who should be welcoming and worshiping Jesus, not rejecting and executing him. This is too much for the disciples to grasp, even though Jesus speaks plainly to them.

Somehow, the disciples skip over this lesson. All they catch of this is that the kingdom they were promised is getting closer. They miss the importance of how Jesus will bring in his kingdom: that the kingdom of God comes by a cross instead of a crown. The disciples ignore Jesus’ warning and instead bicker about who will be greatest in this new kingdom. Jesus catches them vying for prestige and status, which is the greatest possible irony of this story. Jesus is teaching them that this kingdom will come by being killed, instead of by killing, by being humiliated instead of by being elevated, and his disciples are playing “rock, paper, scissors” about who gets to be Jesus’ right-hand man. The scene is almost comedic, until Jesus tells them, “Whoever would be first must become dead last, and the servant of all.” This doesn’t make any sense. This is the exact opposite of how the world works. What kind of kingdom is run by servants and underdogs?

And to drive the point home, Jesus brings forward a child, to show them exactly what he means: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Jesus shows his disciples a child: someone least able to appreciate status or power, someone who appreciates competition only in the context of play and never for personal gain, someone still filled with the wonder of innocence. It is this kind of person, this child-like character that Jesus offers the disciples as a lesson for what we are to become if we are to be able to fully receive and welcome the King and his kingdom in our lives.

But what do children have that makes them able in a unique way to receive the King? Aren’t we called to grow up into spiritual maturity? Aren’t we as adults more valuable contributors to the kingdom’s mission in the world? I don’t think we should be too quick to accept children as a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ lesson. Children are not perfect – none of us are – but they offer us an image of the kind of life that is able to truly welcome the kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t explain further. He only says we must become like children. But our best guess is that the childlikeness Jesus is asking of us is trust. Children cannot provide for themselves or defend themselves, but they usually don’t feel any need to do so. We all come into this world with the sense that we are to be taken care of, that we are someone else’s responsibility. Gradually, as we grow older, we are given increasingly higher amounts of responsibility, larger and larger obligations, which slowly remove from us that sense of being held, of being cared for, of belonging to someone else. Sadly, more and more children do not grow up with this care; and even if they do, we are asking them to grow up younger and younger, placing the weight of responsibility, and work, and college, and “real life” on their shoulders. How are our children to hold on to their child-like trust if we take it from them?

Our Lord and Savior places children among us as a reminder that we do in fact belong to someone else. For those in our Heidelberg Catechism class, this is review, but what does the first question and answer of our Reformed Catechism tell us is our only comfort in life and in death? That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This attitude of child-like trust makes us uniquely and particularly able to accept Jesus as he is, as the King of the Cosmos and Lord of Eternity. Without a sense that we already belong to him, we cannot welcome him as Lord and King because we are still trying to be our own lords, the kings and queens of our own castles, and that only leads to anxiety, and misery, and exhaustion. We are created beings, and pretending to be creators in our own right is sin: that’s why Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise in the first place. Ruling over our own kingdoms, like the world expects us to as adults, is what the Apostle Paul calls “living after the flesh,” and it only leads to death. Jesus invites us to become like children: to trust, aware that we belong to a gracious King who offered his whole life for us.

Children of the King

There is still one question remaining: how? If we are able to believe that all this is true, that Jesus asks us to become like children if we are to welcome the coming new kingdom and our King with joy and gratitude, then how is such a thing possible? The world trains us well that adults are to be responsible managers of their appearance and reputation and job, their belongings, their children and families, etc.. In essence, our American world demands of us to assume a throne we assume is empty. The opposite is also true: if you do not have a job, or a good reputation, or a house, or a houseful of belongings, or children, etc., it is because you are not a good enough king or queen to deserve such a kingdom. We make judgments on “Have Nots,” even ourselves when we don’t match up, because we feel we must earn our way in this world, and whoever has not made their way did not earn it.

But children don’t earn their way. The comfort and stability and safety and love that children enjoy is given to them without any discussion of earning or deserving; or, at least, it should be. Jesus’ invitation to become like children flies in the face of all our attempts to earn our way in this world, and it is an offence to our American way of doing things. Nevertheless, Jesus invites us to become like children, and what is more, he himself makes it possible for us to become children of God.

In Romans 8, Paul reflects on how it is we can become like children:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Did you hear that? Jesus Christ, in his act of love on the cross for us, so embraced and identified with us, with all of humanity, that when God sees us, he sees his Son Jesus Christ, and claims us as his child. To confirm this adoption, God sends the Holy Spirit to live within us, as a guarantee of our adoption. That is what the sacrament of baptism is all about: baptism is the outward sign and seal of what is already true inside us. That is why we baptize children and infants in the Reformed Tradition, because the spiritual reality of baptism is that we are adopted as children of God in Christ! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross have opened the way for us not just to become like children, but to actually become true children of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working inside us.

Maybe what’s so intimidating or offensive about the call to deny ourselves and take up our cross is that we don’t really understand what kind of God would ask us to lose ourselves, to say “no” to ourselves. If God was a loving Father, wouldn’t he want us to be happy? This is the gospel that America has by-and-large bought into: God only wants us to be happy, and as long as we’re all basically good people, then we’ll all get to heaven where we’ll be even happier. But in the American gospel, there’s no real need for Jesus. Sure he’s an inspiring teacher who shows us how to be good people, and he’s our always-available best friend who helps us feel better when we’re sad, but in the American gospel, that’s it: Jesus does not need to die, to rise again, to suffer, to conquer sin. In the American version of Christianity, sin does not exist. If this is the gospel you have found yourself believing, you have missed some very important details. We are not basically good people, as our call to confession reminded us this morning. We are totally unable to live good lives, even with Jesus’ example. We are not called to be happy, but to be holy. And Jesus doesn’t tell us to sit back, relax, and let him handle it; he tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. And if we do, if we go all in on this backwards kingdom – where children and underdogs are on top, and able, responsible adults in charge of their own kingdoms are left outside – then we are adopted into the family of God, without doing anything to deserve it, without anything good in us to reward. Adoption into God’s family cannot be earned or won, but it is also a whole lot more than about being happy while we live the way we want.

What if I were to tell you that this is the good new of Jesus Christ? What if the gospel is about more than just a reserved spot in heaven and permission to live whatever way you wanted in the meantime? What if the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you have been adopted by a loving Father who claims you entirely as his own, and now you belong not only to him, but to his family as well? What if the gospel of Christ, and the kingdom of God, can only be welcomed by people who know how to receive it as children, instead of trying to win it or take it or earn it or deserve it? How would you live today differently if that’s true? If you are not the king of your castle, but really just the steward of the true King’s resources, how will you spend your money this week? If you belong not just to a nice church, but to a world-wide family of God, what does that mean for our disagreements, our conversations, our needs? If all that is asked of you is that you become like the child you truly are in Christ, how will practice your devotion to our Father in heaven? This might be a complete reversal of how you’ve heard the gospel before, and this might mess up some of the categories and rules you have in place. But this is the word of Christ for us this morning, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive.

Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard the gospel. Or maybe you’ve heard it, but it hadn’t taken hold of you like this before. Maybe you’ve noticed that something inside you is looking for this, looking for a loving Father who has a plan and a purpose and a calling on your life, looking to belong. Know that the work is already done: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is seated at God’s right hand, advocating for you and praying for you now. And if something inside you is urging you to accept this gift of salvation, to claim this for yourself, then the Holy Spirit of adoption has already been given to you, and is working on you. What is asked of us, is to deny ourselves in order to receive Christ, to claim his sacrifice as a payment for our sin, to welcome the adoption that is offered to us. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. We do not earn this; we only receive it.

“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.

“This,” he said, “is what you have 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, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set 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, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:3-11)

Today the Church celebrates the Ascension.

Or, at least, it’s supposed to. I don’t know of too many (any, actually) churches holding special services this evening. It’s never bothered me before: growing up, we’d go to Christmas Eve services and Christmas morning services; we’d go to Maundy Thursday services and Good Friday breakfasts and Easter Sunrise services. The incarnation of Jesus and the Passion of Jesus are both easily key theological and worship occasions in the year’s calendar. But the ascension?

The Heidelberg Catechism, as it usually does, gives us helpful answers to, “Why the Ascension?”:

Q&A 49
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.

Q&A 50
Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church, the one through whom the Father rules all things.

Advocate. Pledge. Head. The Heidelberg Catechism distills these answers from the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament, and offers compelling reasons why perhaps we should be gathering for a truly unique and appropriate occasion of worship this evening.

Still not convinced? For further evidence, I turn to N. T. Wright:

Why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer…is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism regularly operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view.  Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians….It’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this….

Only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand — when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present — are we rescued from a wrong view of human history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus. (Surprised by Hope, 110-111 and 113)

For this reason, N. T. Wright suggests compellingly that today is the most appropriate celebration of “Christ the King,” and not the end of the Liturgical Year (which, Wright argues, confuses Christ’s real, present reign with the influence of the Church). We may not be gathering today to worship and celebrate Christ our Lord and King, but let us not forget in our work, our rest, our play, and our daily small acts of personal devotion and worship, that “Jesus is Lord.” Amen!