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Sunday Service, 24th May 2020

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession, and let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Opening prayer

Forgive us, Lord, when we are rooted to the earth, unable to see beyond our present troubles, blind to the glory of your presence. At times we become so engrossed in all that is happening around us in these difficult days 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 and full of your love.

Lift up our heads 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, we would have lingered on the Mount of Transfiguration, clung to you in the Easter Garden, 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.

Risen and ascended Lord, travel with us.

Almighty God, you raised our Lord Jesus Christ to your right hand on high.

As we rejoice in his exaltation, fill us with his Spirit, that we may go into all the world and faithfully proclaim the gospel.

This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Adapted from the Baptist Union of Great Britain publication – Gathering for Worship

Hymn – 436, Christ Triumphant, Ever Reigning. Listen here.

Readings

Luke 24: 50–53 (NRSV)

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1: 1–11 (NRSV)

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of 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.’

The Ascension of Jesus

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is 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 towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’

Photo by Nicholas Swanson on Unsplash

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell

The Ascension of our Lord is an event that has been downgraded or pushed to the fringes of the church year by some sections of the Church. Here I stand, guilty as charged; as far as I can remember I don’t think I have ever preached a sermon on the Ascension – I have made reference to it but never devoted an actual sermon to the subject. Why? Probably because within my West Coast background, I, like others, thought of the Ascension alongside Ash Wednesday and Lent, as something our Catholic friends observed, and if they did it… Thankfully those days and such views have long departed.

Perhaps, for others, their hesitance in celebrating the ascension may lie in the concept they have in their minds of Jesus stepping onto a fluffy white cloud and waving to his disciples on some kind of divine escalator. Perhaps we should forget the mechanics and focus on its effect.

Good Friday, Easter Sunday have their rightful places in our lives and in our hearts, but Jesus’ earthly ministry didn’t stop there.

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 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.

Let us take a moment to recall something of the journey taken by the disciples over the 40-day period from Easter Sunday to our Lord’s Ascension – think, for example, of the excitement and the joy of the women returning from the empty tomb with the message of resurrection – or the astonishment of the disciples when our Lord appeared to them in the Upper Room – and his further appearance to convince Thomas that he had indeed risen from the grave. Add to that the heart-warming experience of the two travellers on the road to Emmaus – the sharing of breakfast on the shores of Lake Galilee – the great commission of the disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations. Memories and experiences which would live forever in the minds and hearts of those men and women.

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, he commissioned them to a ministry within which they would have to start making the decisions, planning the strategy, 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 into 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.”

They “went back into Jerusalem, filled with great joy”. These were no longer men and women held prisoner behind locked doors by their fear. 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.”

Luke at the beginning of the sequel to his Gospel, and adding to what he had already written in that Gospel writes: “In the first book, O Theophilus, 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 Jesus’ Ascension doesn’t mark the end, but the continuation of his work as Lord and Messiah. He would continue his work through his commissioned disciples and through us today as we take up and the carry the baton that has been handed down from one generation to the next. A necessary progression proclaimed by the “two men dressed in white” who delivered a very clear message to the awestruck skygazing disciples: “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 into heaven.” And reading between the lines? Get on with the rest of your lives, your work, your ministry. You have been commissioned, now go. It could be said that the Ascension called the disciples to their starting blocks; Pentecost would sound the starting gun.

Away back in the prophecy of Joel, God had promised that He would: “pour out my spirit on all flesh.” An O.T. promise which would be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit would empower the disciples and followers for their work and ministry, for the task of taking the Gospel out into all the world.

During his earthly ministry Jesus’ work was geographically limited – he wasn’t able, for example, to teach in one location while healing in another. But the ascended Christ is now at work everywhere and able to hear and respond to his people’s prayers no matter the time or place. He is able to sympathise with our struggles and identify with our fears and uncertainty. He intercedes for us before the Father.

The Ascension, for the early disciples as for us, was an interim time – between promise and fulfilment. Nothing is recorded within Scripture of the immediate days following the Ascension – 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 any of this ring any bells with where we stand at the moment? As a society and as a Church we are living in an interim time with all the uncertainties that brings. Within our own church, we want to know when it will be possible and safe for us to meet together again. And coupled with that there is the ongoing anxiety about making progress with the filling of the vacancy. Dreaming of ‘the good old days’?

The disciples couldn’t go back any more than we can. They had been commissioned for service and Jesus had left them in his earthly form, but left them with a promise, and the Ascension is the sign that the promise is about to be fulfilled – at Pentecost and beyond.

Hymn – 448, Lord the Light of Your Love is Shining (Shine Jesus Shine). Listen here.

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Lord, we begin by praying for our neighbours. We may not know the details of their situation but we believe that You do and so we lift them before You now.

Lord, we pray for our congregation and for neighbouring congregations in our Presbytery. Bless all those who minister, in whatever capacity. Send Your Spirit, we pray, to revive and renew your Church.

Lord, we pray for our community – the community You’ve called us to serve. We bring before You those who are suffering and struggling, those who are lost and lonely, those who see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Lord, we pray for our nation – for those who are in positions of responsibility and authority. Guide them and grant them wisdom that their leading might be according to Your will and always with the greater good in mind.

Lord, for our world we pray – in all its brokenness and pain.

Where there is hatred, we look for love.

Where there is pain, we look for healing.

Where there is division, we look for unity.

We look for the coming of Your Kingdom and we commit ourselves to working for the coming of Your Kingdom.

All our prayers we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

With thanks to Rt Rev. Martin Fair

Blessing