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Sunday Service, 16th May 2021

Led by Rev. Bob Gemmell

Welcome

Call to Worship

Our Lord has returned to his throne in heaven. He is seen no more on earth. Yet he lives and is with us now and for all eternity. We are in the presence of the risen Lord. We celebrate the mystery of our glorious King.

Hymn 439 – Look ye saints, the sight is glorious

Prayer

Ascending Christ, having returned to your Father, you take all our human struggles and anguish into his presence. Continue your ministry of intersession for us, so that the breath of God may fill the emptiness we feel within our lives.

Forgive us Lord, for the fact that at times we are rooted to the earth, unable to see beyond our present troubles, leaving us blind to the glory of your presence. At times we become so engrossed in all that is happening around us that we forget all that you yet have in store for us. We are so concerned with what is immediate that we neglect the things that are eternal.

Lift up our heads so that we may see Christ in all his glory, and in doing so begin to see things in their true perspective. Forgive us, Lord.

Risen and ascended Lord, like the disciples we would have wanted to linger on the Mount of Transfiguration, we would have wanted to cling to you in the Easter garden, and would have been saddened by your Emmaus departure, and begged the Ascension skies never to close. But you have taught us deeper truth: you are not absent even in departure.

We give thanks that mountain-top experiences lie waiting in the valley, that you are as near in the busy streets as in the quiet garden, that you are the guest at every meal, and heaven has come down to earth, as one day earth may be as heaven.

Almighty God, you raised our Lord Jesus Christ to your right hand on high. As we rejoice in his exultation, fill us with his Spirit, so that we may be filled with the desire go into all the world and faithfully proclaim the gospel.

We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

Hear us now as we join together in the prayer that our Lord taught his disciples: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

Children’s talk

When we speak with young people we often ask them to consider where they are on their faith journey. It might be that they haven’t given it much thought, maybe they are simply curious, maybe they like coming to church just for the social aspect, perhaps they think there is something intriguing about this God stuff, it could be that they kind of believe but don’t know what to do, or they could be firm believers confident in their faith … of course there are lots of in-betweens and further possibilities. However, I think considering where we are on our faith journey isn’t just for young people.

There are many times where I would struggle to say that I was confident in my faith and many times where I would say I don’t know what to do.

However, there are also many times that I’ve felt a sense of direction, an overwhelming feeling, a call to act and often in a way that I did not want or wasn’t looking for. Reflection on these times allows us to see the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

The power of the Holy Spirit in my Bible commentary for today’s reading is said to include courage, boldness, confidence, insight, ability and authority. I could certainly speak to using and needing all of these, but especially courage and confidence when it comes to listening and then acting.

How tough it must have been for the first apostles to see Jesus ascend to heaven, to hear the words of the angels say ‘he has been taken from you’, and to have to wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit – not knowing exactly what it would look like – they must have experienced a lot of emotions, possibly rethinking exactly where they were on their journey but holding on to the promise that the Holy Spirit would come.

I like to think that although my life is very different from that of the first disciples, my journey of faith still shares the unknown, the waiting, the fear, the sadness, the doubt, and the joy, confidence, courage, fellowship and belief, and that we share a faith that is very much a journey.

 

Scripture readings (NRSV)

Luke 24:50–53

The Ascension of Jesus

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Acts 1: 1–11

Jesus Taken Up Into Heaven

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. After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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. 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.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “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.”

Hymn 445 – Alleluia, sing to Jesus

Reflection by Rev. Bob Gemmell: Is our Lord’s ascension merely an afterthought?

I wonder if any of us had Thursday of last week marked in our diaries or calendars as Ascension Day. For those, like myself, brought up within the evangelical wing of the Church, the Ascension is, of course, acknowledged but seldom celebrated like other Christian festivals. Certainly from my younger days I can’t honestly remember any great attention being given to Ascension Sunday within the church calendar.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Good Friday, when Jesus died for our sins, and Easter Sunday, when he was raised from the dead – but our Lord’s earthly ministry did not stop there.

After the resurrection Jesus taught his disciples about God’s kingdom: “for forty days after his death he appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. They saw him and he talked with them about the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). And then we are told that he was ‘taken up’ to heaven, verse 11: “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.”

Yes, for many of us today the cross and the empty tomb are rightly there at the very heart of the message we proclaim. However, are we not all a wee bit guilty of celebrating the Ascension as an afterthought?

What I would like to do this morning is to highlight aspects of Jesus’ ascension or exaltation in the hope that it might help us redress the balance in our minds and hearts about the importance and relevance of truly celebrating our Lord’s ascension.

In our reading from the book of Acts we are told by Luke: “I have dealt with all that Jesus BEGAN to do and teach, until the day he was taken up.” The small but important word BEGAN signals that our Lord’s ascension doesn’t mark the ending, but the continuation of his work as Lord and Messiah. That is what Luke’s second book is all about: ‘the Acts of the risen Lord Jesus’, which he works from heaven, through his people, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of God’s purposes.

Secondly it is important to remember that the ascended Lord sent the Holy Spirit to his people. After his resurrection Jesus told his followers: “And I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes down upon you.” In his Pentecost sermon Peter explains: “He has been raised to the right-hand side of God, his Father, and has received from him the Holy Spirit, as he had promised. What you now see and hear is his gift that he has poured out on us.”

Away back in the Old Testament, in the prophecy of Joel, God had promised: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” And this promised is fulfilled by the exalted heavenly Lord Jesus. The ascended Lord sent the Spirit to be present with his people to empower us for mission and to transform us and enable us to live new lives reflecting our Lord.

It is also important to acknowledge that Jesus’s ascension is his heavenly enthronement as King. According to the Apostles’ Creed: “he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”. Jesus is taken up to heaven in a cloud and Stephen later declares that he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. God’s kingdom has been inaugurated through the enthronement of Jesus, who now sits on heaven’s throne and will return to consummate his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

We must also recognise that Jesus’ ascension is his return to his Father. Before and after his death and resurrection Jesus declared that he was sent by his Father and must return to his Father. One commentator has suggested that there has been no sweeter reunion in the history of the world than Jesus’ return to his Father. Perhaps the closest analogy is that of a courageous and wounded soldier returning to his loved ones after a hard-fought victory. Jesus fully accomplished his mission and glorified the Father on earth and at Jesus’ ascension the Father glorifies the Son in heaven.

Another reason for marking and celebrating our Lord’s ascension is the fact that he acts now as our heavenly mediator and high priest. As the Apostle Paul pointed out to Timothy, our Lord is the unique mediator between God and all people. He is there interceding on our behalf before the Father. Paul, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews and John in his first Epistle all refer to the fact that the exalted Lord Jesus is now in heaven interceding for his people as our true high priest and advocate. During the days of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ work was geographically limited – he didn’t teach in Ethiopia while healing in China. But now he is at work everywhere and able to hear and respond to his people’s prayers no matter the time or space. He sympathises with our struggles and promises to do whatever we ask in his name.

Our ascended Lord, our mediator and advocate but the same ascended Lord, will return as King and Judge. In the passage at the beginning of Acts that I have already quoted we are told that two angels explained to the disciples: “This Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.” Jesus’ heavenly reign will be fully realised on earth. This is the very thing we prayed for earlier in our worship: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And at his return, the Lord Jesus will execute divine judgment, vindicating his downtrodden people and judging his enemies.

To sum up: though often overlooked, the ascension completes Jesus’ earthly ministry and signifies his enthronement as heavenly king. Jesus has completed his Father’s mission and now he rules with all authority and intercedes with all sympathy as our mediator and high priest.

Julian of Norwich is quoted as saying: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These words could be said to sum up the transformation in the lives of the followers of Jesus on Ascension Day. Our Lord’s departure from their presence is not an occasion for grief and tears; it is the start of something new for them, a moment of joy and hope. What an amazing 40 days it had been for the disciples. What a mix of emotions they must have felt, yet Jesus wasn’t content to simply comfort them with his presence. He challenged them and commissioned them to a ministry within which they would have to start making the decisions, planning the strategy, but with the proviso that the Lord would be with them, unseen but supportive.

In our Gospel reading Jesus ascends to heaven, leaving his disciples gazing upwards; they will never see him again. It is worth noting how Luke closes his Gospel: “while he was blessing them, he departed from them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and went back into Jerusalem, filled with great joy, and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God.” These were no longer men and women held prisoner behind locked doors because of their fear of the authorities. Pentecost, and the coming and empowering of the Holy Spirit, was still a week away, but they now knew that whatever fate befell them as individuals in future days, ultimately: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The Ascension for the disciples was an interim time – between promise and fulfilment. Nothing is recorded within Scripture of the days following the Ascension leading up to Pentecost – the questions that must have filled their minds or the uncertainty that clouded their thoughts for the future. I wonder if they developed a hankering to return to ‘the good old days’ when Jesus was there in their midst and the buck stopped at him. Whatever filled their minds, everything was completely changed by the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Does this ring any bells with where we stand at the moment? As a church it could be said that you too are living in an interim period in your church’s history, an interim period not so much between the Ascension and Pentecost but one between ministries. The disciples were looking forward to the fulfilment of the promise of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. You are looking forward to our sole nominee preaching next Sunday – is there any significance with the fact that next Sunday is Pentecost!

Those early disciples were commissioned for service and Jesus had left them in his earthly form, but had left them with a promise, and the Ascension is the sign that the promise of his continuing presence would be with them at all times and though all circumstances – at Pentecost and beyond.

As a congregation, cling to that same promise at Pentecost and beyond and remember the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The intercessory prayer was read by Rev. Suzie Stark.

Here is a prayer for today by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev Martin Fair.

Loving Lord, as Jesus prayed for His disciples so we pray today for Your Church in all its parts.

We pray with thanks for the saints now gathered around Your throne, that their witness to the gospel was strong and true.

We pray for the worldwide Church, praying for a fresh outpouring of Your Spirit in the days of Pentecost now before us.

We pray especially for those parts of Your Church which live under the daily threat of persecution. Grant protection, courage and strength, we pray.

We pray for the Church across Scotland – traditional denominations, independent streams, fledgling fresh expressions – that You would equip it with all necessary grace for the challenges of this day. Bind us together in loving unity, as Christ prayed.

We pray for the Church of Scotland, for all who serve within it and for all who turn to it seeking light and love. Grant it a sure sense of where You are leading; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

We pray for our own congregations, asking that You would give us the persevering spirit of those of our forebears who came through seasons of great challenge.

And we pray for ourselves for we are the Church, the individual parts which make up the Body of Christ on earth. Inspired by Your word, shaped by Your Spirit, send us out to be salt and light.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Hymn 436 – Christ triumphant

Blessing

Like those early disciples, open up the doors and go out into the community to serve the risen Lord, assured of his presence and his power and the touch of his hand on your life.

And now may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest upon you and remain with you and with all whom you love, now and ever more. Amen.