Acts 1:1-11 Ascension Sunday 2012
You Will Be My Witnesses
Many years ago when you were travelling to a foreign country and going through customs, it was common to hear a uniformed officer ask you “Have you anything to declare?” If you said, “Yes”, you knew you were in for some questioning! So, many people who had some illegal product to declare actually said, ‘No’, to save themselves the trouble. Some got away with it, and some didn’t.
Today I often wonder if the world is unconsciously asking this question of the Christian Church: ‘Have you anything to declare?’ In other words, in the face of all the pain in the world, do we have a message from God to declare, a message that will make a difference, and bring hope to people’s lives? Because a church with ‘nothing to declare’ has no reason to exist, except to be a kind of spiritual country club for its members. A strong church needs a strong message to declare to the world. Our reading from Acts today shows us this message, and how to declare it.
What is the message of the Ascension? Simply put, it is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That’s what Ascension Day means.
The Ascension is often seen as the day Jesus left the church. On the face of it this seems reasonable – one moment he was with the disciples, the next minute a cloud took him out of their sight, and he was gone. But in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Peter gives the true meaning of the Ascension in his sermon in the next chapter of Acts, where he says that Jesus has been ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). The right hand of God is the place of authority and power.
Do you know which passage from the Old Testament is most often quoted by the New Testament writers? I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear which one it is. You might suspect it would be ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, or the Ten Commandments or the passage from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, but it isn’t. The verse from the Old Testament that is most often quoted by the New Testament writers is Psalm 110:1:
‘The LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.
Why did the New Testament writers quote this verse so often? Because they believed that this is exactly what God the Father had done for his Son Jesus Christ: he had raised him from the dead and given him, as Paul says, ‘the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11). They believed this to be true in an objective sense: whether we acknowledge it or not, whether it pleases us to think of it or not, God the Father has made his Son Jesus Christ ‘Lord of all’. At the moment his rule is hidden, but the New Testament writers are unanimous in telling us that one day it will be revealed to all people, on the day when (as the creeds tell us) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.
Why is this message ‘good news’? It’s good news because it gives us hope. So often, in the world as we know it, it’s the forces of evil that seem to have the last word. The tyrant says that ‘resistance is futile’ – sooner or later, his death squads are going to get you. The chairman of the multinational corporation plants his business beside your small town, and within a few years all the little ‘mom and pop’ businesses - that have been a feature of local life for so many years - go belly-up. The people of good will work hard on a peace plan, but the terrorists on either side plant their bombs, and off we go again for another round of ‘you kill one of ours and we’ll kill ten of yours’. And so it goes on.
Ascension Day tells us that one day this seemingly endless cycle is in fact going to end, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and one day his lordship will be revealed to all. And this means that the last word in the universe will not go to the ones who think that profit justifies walking all over the little people. The last word won’t go to the ones who kill and murder and oppress. The last word will go to the one who taught us the way of love and compassion, the one who loved us and gave his life for us – Jesus Christ our Lord. And this gives us hope for the future, and also strength for the present, as we choose to be faithful to him and to live the way he taught us in our ordinary, everyday lives - even though much of the world around us does not acknowledge his lordship.
Jesus is Lord of all; this is what the Ascension symbolises, and this is the message of hope that we are called to ‘declare’. Which leads us to our role in God’s plan: this passage tells us that we are Jesus’ witnesses.
How is Jesus’ kingdom spread? The apostles had a plan for this; in verse 6 we read: ‘So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ In other words, ‘Lord, if you will just make Israel into a superpower, then our armies will be able to enforce your authority everywhere!’ And we can understand their perspective, can’t we? If you’re going to end genocide and fight against tyranny, you need a powerful army to do it. That’s been the standard way of changing the world since day one: meet the sword with the sword.
But Jesus, it seems, has a different plan to change the world – the coming of the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at verse 8: ‘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’.
In order to understand this verse we need to go back to the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 43 God has brought a complaint against his people Israel because of their idolatry. Listen to verses 8-13:
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, ‘It is true’.
You are my witnesses, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the LORD,
and besides me there is no saviour.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it? (italics mine)
The message Isaiah is bringing to the people in these verses is ‘Your God is not like an idol you can see with your eyes, and so your spiritual eyes need to be opened so that you can ‘see’ the invisible Lord God of Israel, who is the only true God. Then you will be his witnesses in the world’.
In the same way, after the Ascension the apostles will no longer be able to see Jesus with their physical eyes. However, when the Holy Spirit comes to them and opens their spiritual eyes, then they will be able to see Jesus at work wherever they go – in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Seeing him, they will point people toward him, the Lord God of Israel, the only true God, now made flesh in Jesus Christ, the Lord of all.
So the issue for us today is this: Has the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to see the saving work of Jesus Christ in our world? This, you see, is why the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra: until he opens our spiritual eyes to see, we quite literally can’t be Jesus’ witnesses. You can’t be a witness when you haven’t seen anything.
William Barclay used to tell a story about a factory hand who had been a horrendous alcoholic. Eventually, through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry of Alcoholics Anonymous, he found freedom from his addiction. However, his old drinking buddies and his friends at the factory gave him a rough time, and would often make fun of his faith in Christ.
One day one of them said to him, “How can you believe the Bible? It’s full of impossible stories! Turning water into wine? Everyone knows that’s impossible; how can you possibly believe that Jesus could do that?”
“I don’t know if he turned water into wine”, the man replied, “but in my life I’ve seen him turn beer into furniture”.
“Beer into furniture? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, when I was drinking, all my money went to beer, and we had no money for any furniture or anything else around the house. But when God helped me quit drinking, suddenly we had a lot of extra money available, and we were able to replace all the broken furniture and get the new stuff we’ve been wanting for so long!”
It’s a great story, and I know many AA members who could tell similar stories. But the point is, of course, that many people don’t see God at work there. They see some sort of natural process, group psychology or self-help or turning over a new leaf. But the person whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit sees that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, which means he’s also Lord of addictions, and is able to strengthen his people to break free of their chains and walk into a new way of life. And when we’ve seen Jesus do things like that, then we can be his witnesses to others.
So the question for us is this: What good news about Jesus have I witnessed, have I experienced, that I want to share with others? And if the only honest answer is ‘nothing’, then we need to earnestly pray that the Spirit would fall on us and open our eyes. And we should not be satisfied with just praying this once and then giving up in despair. We need to keep on praying until we receive the gift the Father promised, as Jesus told us in our gospel for today.
This leads us to the third thing this passage shows us: we can’t be Jesus’ witnesses without the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:4-5 we read:
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’.
They are to ‘wait’. Only the Holy Spirit can make Christians witnesses, as we already saw in verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…’. They need above all to be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘to sink’, like a ship sunk under the ocean – they need to be immersed, surrounded, and totally filled, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, like sponges soaking him up! And when this happens, it has an amazing effect on people’s lives, as we see in Acts where a group of scared disciples is transformed into a band of bold missionaries who preach and heal without fear in the name of Jesus.
The Church has always remembered that the Holy Spirit is essential to our task. In the service of Confirmation the bishop lays hands on the head of the person being confirmed, and prays, ‘Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him or her for your service…’ And in the ordination service, the bishop lays hands on the person to be ordained priest and prays ‘Send down your Holy Spirit on your servant…’. The Church has always known that without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is not just difficult – it’s impossible!
But the Church has often forgotten the little word Jesus uses here: ‘Wait’. We pray the prayer, and then we move on to the next part of the liturgy, because our Sunday lunch is calling us, and we’ve got other commitments to go to. But might God be saying to us “Wait! Do you really mean it? Do you really want it? How badly? Are you willing to stop for a while? Are you willing to fast and pray and not to let go until you get what you’re looking for?”
So let me leave you with this challenge. The Christian Church really does have something to declare, something good: the great news that Jesus our Saviour has defeated the power of evil and that he will bring in his kingdom in all its fulness in God’s good time. The world needs this good news, shared by people whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus at work among us even now.
So: Have your eyes been opened? Has the Holy Spirit filled you and made you one of Jesus’ witnesses? And if not, are you willing to ‘wait’ until he does? Are you willing to pray persistently, without giving up, until you experience what those early Christians experienced on the Day of Pentecost – a baptism, a drenching, a complete immersion, in the power of the Holy Spirit of God?