Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ... he ascended into heaven...

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself the question: Where is Jesus now? Have you ever read the gospels and marvelled at how Jesus healed all kinds of sickness - and then said to yourself, where is Jesus now? I wish he was here to touch me and take away my disease - or your family member’s illness. If only you could call him up, or wait until he visited Belfast on tour, then he could sort you out.

Or maybe it is when you see the state of the world (or the church!), with misery, depression, violence, and you think to yourself, if only Jesus was here, he could right all those wrongs. Where is Jesus now?

Or think of the new atheists who seem to dominate the media. When we read how Jesus debated with the Pharisees, Saducees and others, you might think, if only Jesus was here, he could defeat Dawkins in a debate, and things would be much simpler. Where is Jesus now?

In each of these situations, and perhaps more that you can think of, we end up saying to ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if we had Jesus with us now? We read of the first disciples, spending three years with the Lord, listening to his teaching, and we think - they had it easy. Where is Jesus now?

What I want to suggest tonight, as we continue to look at what Christians believe as stated in the Apostles’ Creed, is that Jesus is in the best place he could be. As we’ll hopefully see, we believe that where Jesus is and what he is doing is better than him being on the earth in person.

We’ve been working through the Apostles’ Creed, and come to the last section which speaks directly of Jesus, and you’ll notice it speaks of past, present and future. Firstly, the past, do you see, that after the crucifixion and the burial, Jesus was raised. This was the vindication of his death, God’s seal of approval on Jesus, and the beginning of the new age. The cross and resurrection are together, the centre of the Christian faith, but we’ll be returning in a few weeks to look at the resurrection of the body, so let’s continue, and focus on where Jesus is.

Still in the past, the creed tells us that ‘He ascended into heaven.’ We see this in Acts 1. Jesus was ‘lifted up’ (1:9) after forty days of resurrection appearances, teaching and training the disciples for the mission that was to follow. It isn’t that Jesus was the first man in space, but that he ascended into heaven - he doesn’t just go up and up, but he is taken into heaven.

So Jesus is in heaven rather than on earth. Well, that’s nice for him, you might be thinking - don’t we all go to heaven when we die? (As an aside, I noticed again that common assumption on Facebook of all places. Last week was Father’s Day, and there was a thing going around where you changed your profile picture to one of your dad, to say you loved them whether they were (and I quote) ‘here or in heaven.’) Let’s be clear, not everyone goes to heaven - but Jesus is unique and special because of where he is in heaven.

He ‘sits at the right hand of the Father.’ This is the place of honour, the special place. It’s in fulfillment of that great vision of King David, in Psalm 110: ‘The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’’ King Jesus is reigning over all, in his own special place. Jesus is the king on the throne - he occupied no earthly throne, but is now rightly seated and in control.

We can take confidence that Jesus is in charge - that he is ordering our steps, that he is watching over us, that nothing that happens to us is a surprise or a shock for him. Jesus, the King, is reigning.

But there’s more significance in the fact that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. You see, heaven is the very presence of God, the most holy place, the real holy place, to which the temple pointed. Jesus, the King, is also our great high priest - as we see at the opening of Hebrews: ‘After making purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.’ (1:3).

He can sit down, because he has finished his work of salvation. The sacrifice has been offered, once for all, and so he doesn’t need to be on his feet continually offering the sacrifice. Yet his priestly work continues, as he intercedes for us - Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, is praying for you, Christian.

In the old testament, the high priest had a breastplate containing twelve precious stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. He bore the burden of the people, representing them before the LORD. Jesus is our high priest, and as he sits beside the Father, he represents us, speaking on our behalf. Praying for us.

What a great encouragement that is for you, when you’re facing a time of suffering, or a trial, or something unexpected - Jesus is on the throne, and Jesus is praying for you. The whole letter to the Hebrews is the expansion of this theme, as it reminds us that he ever lives to make intercession for us (8:25). Jesus has paid for our sins, and is praying for our sanctification. What more could you want or need?!

Well, there was still the outstanding complaint from the introduction - if only we had Jesus with us. Surely it would still be better to have Jesus with us, so we could see him? Think again. You see, Jesus raises our humanity to his throne, his flesh is exalted so that God will always forever more have our flesh as part of God. At the same time, it is by going to the Father, ascending to heaven, that Jesus can send the Holy Spirit, who is the power and presence of Jesus, not just with us, but in us, as we believe in him. It is because Jesus goes, that the Holy Spirit comes: ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.’ - but more on him next week!

We’ve see Jesus in the past - risen and ascended. We’ve seen where Jesus is now - at the right hand of the Father, ruling over the universe, and praying for his people. But is that it? What of the future? Where will Jesus be? We see it in the last part of our section tonight.

As the angel said at the ascension: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11) We are promised that Jesus will return - it is the consistent hope of the New Testament, written to people who are in the same boat as us - between the first and second comings of Jesus.

We haven’t been abandoned; Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us; one day he will return. Just a few months back we were studying 2 Peter, thinking about the scoffers who made fun of this idea, but Peter is sure that God will keep his promises. It’s the promise of Jesus in John 14, ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’ (14:3)

But we must remember that Jesus is not just coming so that everyone can go to heaven - no matter how hard some people wish it were so. The Creed helpfully reminds us why Jesus will return: ‘From there he will come again to just the living and the dead.’

I remember growing up, when it was always ‘the quick and the dead’ and we’re in school sports day season, and me thinking, well, I’m not quick and I’m not dead, maybe I’ll be ok. What it is saying is that everyone will be judged. Jesus the judge is waiting at the door, and some day the command will be all rise, the court is in session.

Those wrongs you have suffered, those sufferings you have endured, those sacrifices you made, will be vindicated when Jesus the judge is in session. At the same time, there may be those of us with tender conscience who, when you hear of judgement, immediately shrink back in fear - fear not! Your sins have been dealt with, the punishment paid - and your judge bears the ‘wounds of love’ on his own body. This is why Paul can confidently say that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus - the judge has dealt with our sin.

If you have not yet trusted in Christ for salvation, if you remain in your sins, then I urge you to be reconciled to your judge now, rather than when it will be too late. When you meet him face to face, it will have been too late to find salvation, and instead you will face condemnation from the just judge because of your sins.

So where is Jesus now? Jesus has been raised, ascended, and glorified. He reigns from his throne in heaven, interceding for us. And one day he will return to judge the living and the dead. We believe it because it is the truth about Jesus, and it gives us confidence to meet even our struggles and trials with confidence because Jesus gives us strength for every step of the way.

His prayer is effective, and our joy will be perfected on that day: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (1 Peter 1:8-9)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 26th June 2011.

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