Today we look at Jesus’ ascension. I remember one Ascension Day sermon I heard when I was in seminary that stands out. The pastor ended his sermon by saying that the ascension of Jesus was like the old United Airlines TV slogan: “Flying the friendly skies – United.” That was his great illustration of the ascension of Jesus. I remember thinking there has to be a lot more to Jesus’ ascension than just being up in the air with him! But then Jesus’ ascension is often misunderstood today. Helmut Thielicke told the story of his young son, who after hearing the story of Jesus’ ascension, said what he thought God the Father said to Jesus after he ascended to heaven: “You’d better stay up here; otherwise something will happen to you again!” He thought that Jesus found a safe place in heaven where no harm could come to him anymore.
I. What is the meaning of the Word in verse 11?
Note first of all that these are not the words of God, but God’s word as seen in verse 11a. So many people today view Christianity and God as just a lot of words. “Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t have fun; don’t enjoy your life!” Many view Christianity as being characterized by sentences which mostly begin with the words “do” and “don’t.” However such a view of the words of God misses the point of the word of God.
For while God does speak to us in words, what he says is really one word. Through the entire Bible, with its many words, there is one main Word, one message. God’s word to the world is his saving action. God is working out his plan to save his people from sin and that is God’s Word. Now God does tell his people that they must do certain things and not do other things. He tells them this, not because he is a tyrant, but because he desires to save them. He wants them to be his people who will live with him in the right way.
“Repentance is not basically a religious word. It comes from a culture where people were essentially nomadic and lived in a world with no maps or street signs. It's easy to get lost walking through the desert. You become aware that the countryside is strange. You finally say to yourself, ‘I'm going in the wrong direction.’ the first act of repentance. The second act of repentance is to go in an alternate direction. It implies that you not only do this but you admit it to your companions.”
God is calling the people to repent and he will forgive them and give them life. The call not only went out to ancient Israel, but it goes out to people today as well. People today are to repent, turn to the Lord and trust in him. They are to turn from false gods to worshiping and serving the one, true God.
II. What is the Word like and what does it do?
Look at verses 10-11 again: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Just as rain and snow are always falling all over the world so God’s saving plan continues on all over the world. Moreover, the plan of God to save brings much good to those who respond to it. We know the beauty of rain falling after it has been terribly dry. Just as rain falls to bring good to the land, God’s Word goes out to save.
This means that God’s Word, the gospel, right now is raining down all over the world. In parts of the world where Islamic beliefs have taken a stranglehold so that believers are being persecuted for their faith, the Word of God is raining down. In churches today here in the United States and all over the world, God’s Word is raining down, bring good news and life to all who hear and respond to it. In communities where there is tension and unrest because of violence, God’s Word is raining down! And the message is refreshing: Those who hear it and respond to it will be saved. We must never forget that the purpose of God’s Word is to refresh the land with the good news that God loves people and is willing to save them.
What else is significant about the Word? It never fails to do what it was intended to do! When rains and snow fall, they always make plants flourish. God’s word of salvation as well always accomplishes what God intends for it to do. It is not like a lawn sprinkler on a windy day which ends up creating a fine mist that is carried off in the wind and nothing ends up being watered. When God acts and intends to save, NOTHING thwarts his plan. That is a significant thing to remember especially in these troubling times. We hear many promises and many plans from our leaders in this election year as to what they will do to deal with the threats and problems we face. Few of these things will be effective and few things will likely actually change. Let’s remember that when God plans and promises to do something, it happens! What God intends to do is to save his people from their sin. He will do this; nothing can stop his plan from being completely effective.
III. Now what does God’s word in Isaiah 55 have to do with Jesus’ ascension?
Jesus Christ is God’s magnificent WORD; God’s plan of salvation. In John 1:1, the Apostle John calls Jesus the Word itself. God intended to save the world by sending us the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s point is that God’s Word always achieves its purpose. God sent his Son – his Word – from heaven to die for the sins of people. Jesus has now accomplished this and has returned to heaven as Lord over all! That is the significance of Ascension Day. The ascension of Christ is a cause for celebration and joy for the Word returns to heaven having fulfilled and accomplished what God had intended to do!
Look at Lord’s Day 18 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 46 asks: “What do you mean by saying ‘He ascended to heaven?’” Answer: “That Christ, while his disciples watched, was lifted up from the earth to heaven and will be there for our good until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.”
Question 47: “But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world as he promised us?” Answer: “Christ is truly human and truly God. In his human nature Christ is not now on earth; but in his divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit he is not absent from us for a moment.” How comforting to know that while Jesus is in heaven, he is also with us now.
The next question and answer, number 48, becomes a bit technical. Question: “If his humanity is not present wherever his divinity is, then aren’t the two natures of Christ separated from each other?” Answer: “Certainly not. Since divinity is not limited and is present everywhere, it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity he has taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity.” This means that we have a human representative in heaven now for us.
Finally, Question 49 asks:“How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?” Answer: “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members to himself in heaven. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”
A second benefit of Christ’s ascension is that we now have a new Lord and Master. As Jesus returns to heaven, there is no doubt that he is Lord and King of all. This means that we are no longer slaves to sin or to our own sinful nature. Now we live to please our new Lord, Jesus Christ.
A final benefit of Jesus’ ascension is that in Christ we have a guarantee that we too will be in heaven with God. Jesus died as a human being and we too will die as humans. But we also know that Jesus rose from the dead and that means that we too will rise from the dead after we die. And then Jesus, after rising, went to heaven to be with his Father. We too, after we rise, will go to heaven to be with our Father there.