Sunday, May 28, 2017

New Prayers on the Throne: Sermon for Ascension Sunday 2017

Jaws dropped. Mouths hanging open. Eyes wide in wonder. He'd told them all along he'd go – but did they really have this in mind? There he goes, there he rises, up from the earth, up toward the blue sky, up toward the sun! Their eyes weren't playing tricks on them; but yet they'd never seen anything like it, not even close. It was like a scene from the scriptures, like when the fiery chariot came for Elijah – but this, this was beyond comprehension. Was he flying? Was something lifting him? Was he riding on something, anything? And no sooner had the question appeared than he disappeared, hidden behind a cloud... and when the cloud moved, he was gone. If they squinted hard enough, could they still spot him, even at a great distance? With all their might, they strained to scan the sky (Acts 1:9).

And suddenly, out of nowhere, while their faces are turned upwards and their eyes transfixed on the clouds that papered over where their Lord had just been – well, in that moment, two human figures arrayed in white robes are standing next to them, announcing the inevitability of Christ's return (Acts 1:10-11). You know, angels showing up out of nowhere – that can't be something you ever get used to, it just can't. I imagine that, in between those words and the return to Jerusalem described in the next verse, probably at least one apostle was on the verge of needing a defibrillator! And I wonder if any of the apostles was relieved that these angels didn't have four wings, four faces, bodies of fire, and wheels-within-wheels!

In that sense, you could say that, compared with the prophet Ezekiel, Peter and James and John all got off pretty easy! And yet if you've been with us for all the Sundays since Easter, you know that we've been spending some time exploring the lessons Ezekiel can teach us about why the resurrection of Jesus matters – just what, exactly, kind of difference does it make in our lives? Back in April already, we considered Ezekiel's visions of the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD on a throne-chariot supported by intensely bizarre angels accompanied by wheels-within-wheels – a throne-chariot that could fly or roll anywhere, and yet the rolling throne went to be with the people of God in exile. The truth is, no matter how much Babylon may have viewed God's invasion as unwanted, that couldn't stop God from being there for his people. All the gods of Babylon couldn't stop him. And neither could death stop God's Word-Made-Flesh from invading the realm of the dead or from soaring back up again to invade the world of the living forever. When God is on the move, as God was and is on the move in Christ, no tomb, no stone, no guards, can do anything to stop him from rolling on.

Earlier this month, then, we looked at Ezekiel's prophecy against the bad shepherds – kings and other leaders throughout Israel and Judah's history – whose failure to tend the people as God's flock, whose outright abuse of God's flock, had led to them being scattered in exile. And we know something about what it looks like – in the nation, in the home, even in the church – to labor under bad shepherding. But Ezekiel predicted that God himself would come to be our Good Shepherd, to restore us, to seek out the lost and the strayed, to keep order within his flock with compassion and justice for all. And thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, that promise is true! The Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep, but he lives again to lead his flock.

And then, last week, we looked at Ezekiel's exposé of the human heart – how the people weren't just innocent bystanders sent into exile by bad leaders, but how a heart defect we all share is what sent them there – Israel had a heart of stone. But God, speaking through Ezekiel, promised that there'd be a day when he would take away that heart of stone and replace it with a tender heart of flesh that's ready to do his will and can live up to God's holy name written on it. And thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, that promise is true! Our hearts may need a trimming now and then, but new life for Jesus means new life for what's dead in us.

And now we don't just have the Resurrection to grapple with. There's the Ascension, too. If the Resurrection makes possible a new shepherd over the flock and a new heart in our chest, and if the Resurrection sets the stage for the Ascension, what does the Ascension mean? Well, we know where to turn to learn how the Ascension happened, or at least what it looked like – for that, we go to the Acts of the Apostles. But if we want to know what it means, then I don't think there's a better option than the Letter to the Hebrews. Because really, there are some great parts of Hebrews that tell us about what the ascended Jesus has been up to since then.

I mean, right from the beginning, we find out that Jesus, God's Son, is no ordinary guy. He's the heir of all things, he's the agent of creation, “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2-3a). Isn't that totally wild? Jesus is an exact stamp of everything that makes God 'God'; he's a perfect overflow of his Father's glory. Look to him, and you aren't getting anything second-rate. You're getting God and nothing less – no doubt about it.

What's more, everything holds together in him, by his powerful word. During the days of Cain and Abel, the earth only orbited the sun because Jesus said so! During the days of Moses, the galaxies only kept their cohesion because Jesus told them to! On the night when Bethlehem's bedraggled shepherds came to tell Mary and Joseph what they'd seen, the baby in the manger was the one telling their hearts to keep beating!

When he was hanging on the cross, blood trickling from his many wounds, his body writhing in agony, and the crowd and soldiers making a mockery of him, the only thing that protected the soldiers and the scoffers and Herod and Pilate and Caiaphas, the only thing that kept the atoms in their body from flying apart, the only thing that stopped their wicked jeers from ending in a bunch of pint-sized mushroom clouds all over Calvary, was that, in each moment, in the divine recesses of his mind, Jesus deliberately whispered to his mockers' bodies' atoms: “No... stay together, that they might live.”

And on that first Easter morning, and during the Ascension, and every moment since then, the ultimate explanation for why the universe runs in an orderly way, why any of it holds together, why quarks stay in baryons and mesons, why the strong nuclear force holds protons and neutrons together in atoms, why any of the four fundamental interactions happen at all, why your mitochondria can keep powering your cells and the synapses in your brain can keep firing and your muscle fibers can keep responding, and why there's even such a thing as oxygen available to you in the air, is because Jesus insists to the universe that it keep holding together so that you and I can exist. And that is the word of his power!

Hebrews goes on to tell us that Jesus had made “purification for sins” – meaning that, on the cross, he acted as both sacrifice to be offered and priest to do the offering. That's a major theme in Hebrews; there's no getting around it. Jesus, by offering up his own life to God in sacrifice, provided the means for sins to be wiped away. But after he'd done that, and after he'd gotten up again, something pretty wild happened: the Ascension. And while Acts continues the storyline on earth, Hebrews continues the storyline in heaven. It goes like this: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3b).

Have you ever really thought about what that means? In all the days from Saul to Zerubbabel, no priest ever sat down on the royal throne of Israel. There was never any overlap between the Levitical priesthood and the Davidic monarchy. But now the priest is on the throne in heaven, seated with God in the position of utmost power – so much so, Revelation actually talks about the throne as jointly theirs, “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1-3). Jesus is heaven's priest-king – something that no priest descended from Aaron, no king descended from David, ever had been on earth – but “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2).

This priest on the throne is like other priests in a lot of ways – he was appointed by God's call, he was chosen from among men, he acted on behalf of humans in relation to God, he offered a sacrifice for sin as well as other gifts like prayers, and so forth (Hebrews 5:1-4). But he's also unlike other priests. Israel's priests under the old covenant got their qualifications from the Law, but he gets his from a promise straight from the Father's lips (Hebrews 7:20-21, 28). Israel's priests had sin of their own to deal with first, but he was sinless from the get-go (Hebrews 7:27). Israel's priests kept dying off, so there had to be a non-stop chain of them, but he has an indestructible resurrection-life, so he's the only one we need (Hebrews 7:23-24). And Israel's priests had to keep doing sacrifices over and over again, because they were only a Band-Aid on the problem; but Jesus offered his atoning sacrifice once-for-all: “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14).

That's a big deal! That's a huge deal! Thanks to Jesus, there's no need to keep making blood sacrifices to God as a way of trying to patch over our sins. Jesus is enough. With Jesus, you don't have to ever worry about who will replace him – nobody will. You don't have to worry that he screwed up and botched the job – no chance of that. You don't have to worry that God won't accept his sacrifice as enough to fix you – the Resurrection and the Ascension are one-trillion-percent proof that God accepted Jesus' sacrifice as purifying you in full. Isn't that a big deal? Isn't that beautiful? Jesus is enough! Let go of guilt, let go of shame, let go of anxiety and fear, let go of any thoughts of impressing God or earning anything from him – Jesus is enough!

And so after he'd presented his priestly sacrifice, he sat down on the throne, right next to his Father, in the place of honor. The author tells us that he's waiting until all his enemies – everything that resists his vision of life for us – are subdued and beaten and tamed forever. That's a wonderful thought; that's a wonderful hope. But does it leave Jesus passive, sitting quietly on a chair watching the hands on the clock? Well, what do you think? Not a chance! Jesus has perfect access to his Father; there's no gap between them, no distance (spatial or relational) to separate them – that's perfect access. And here's how he's been using his perfect access within the true Holy of Holies in heaven: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Did you catch that? Did you hear that? There's what he's been doing all this time: praying. From Ascension to 2017, Jesus has been talking his Father's ear off about us. From Ascension to 2017, the heavenly Holy of Holies has been the scene of an uninterrupted prayer meeting, an unrelenting marathon where Jesus, acting as priest, prays to the Father for us. Jesus prays for me. Jesus prays for you. And Jesus doesn't pray at a distance. Jesus never has the feeling like his words of prayer float away in the air; there's not enough space between his praying lips and the Father's listening face! Isn't that good news? That's what the Ascension makes possible – that's the beauty of it.

I know that, for many of us in this congregation, for some who are here this morning and for some who aren't, what we're seeing here on earth is a rough season. Some of us are incredibly stressed out, feeling lost and alone, wondering how the bills will get paid. Some of us are frustrated, angry, broken-hearted in the face of a world of injustice, whether here in America where unjust judges have sway and an outraged nation can't come together, or in the world at large, where stadiums of children are blown up and busloads of young believers are martyred. Some of us are in danger of losing our homes. Some of us already have, and are wondering what to do, where to go, where to turn.

Some of us are remembering those whose lives were stolen by war, one of the most devastating corruptions wrought by sin against God's good world, but who yet marched into an earthly simulation of hell so others wouldn't have to. Some of us are grieving tragic loss, wondering how we can ever feel complete again with our heart ripped in pieces and divided by death. Some of us are watching the sand in life's hourglass get awful scarce, hear the tick of the clock grow louder and more foreboding as our earthly time runs down, as our bodies wear out. Some of us are wrestling with feelings of betrayal, with feelings of abandonment, with feelings of futility like we're beating our heads against the wall, we're stumbling in circles and can't break the cycle of sin, of monotony, of failure and tears and pain.

And if you're in those shoes, maybe you're wondering if God even notices. Maybe you're wondering if God is even listening. Maybe you're wondering if your prayers are just shattering against the clouds, or if they fall too short to reach. And here's the message you need to hear: Jesus is praying for you! Whatever your situation, whatever feelings you're processing, whatever grief or turmoil you're trying to hand over to God, Jesus is setting it before his Father's face. His prayers always reach home, and God is not prone to reject the prayers of the Son who triumphed over the cross. So take encouragement from this: even if you can't shake the feeling that your prayers aren't good enough to reach, Jesus' prayers for you always reach the heart of a receptive God. So what, in the big scheme of things, is left for you to fear?

Or maybe, this morning, you feel distant from God. You feel like God is a million miles away, far removed from your life. You feel like you can't approach – that you're not good enough, that you're unworthy, that you're too lost, too alone, too unlovely. I know – I've been there, I've had those feelings, too. But here's the message that you and I need to hear: “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh; and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22). We can “draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25). If you feel too unlovely, if you feel too unworthy, if you feel like you aren't enough – have confidence, have assurance! You're entering through him – in his flesh, in his body, clothed in him; and there's nothing more lovely and worthy and sufficient than Jesus.

What's more, if you feel distant from God, think about this: the Bible says that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It repeatedly describes believers as being “in Christ.” What does that mean? It means a lot of things, but one of them is this: where Jesus goes, you go. Where Jesus goes, your life goes. As a believer, the maximum distance between you and God is the distance between Jesus and God. And so when the Bible tells us that Jesus is seated with God on God's throne, that Jesus sits at God's right hand, that Christ is “in God”... well, come on! Believe it! Thanks to the risen and ascended Jesus, the maximum distance between you and God is squashed down closer to zero than you can possibly imagine! If that's not an incentive for confidence, what is?

And you never have to worry about losing this.  Abide in Jesus, keep being near to God through him, trust him as priest and follow him as king. So why would you ever even consider running anywhere else? Why would you even think of bailing on him, jumping ship on heaven's throne room and the Advocate you have there? “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)!

Jesus isn't going anywhere; Jesus will never go AWOL; Jesus will never desert his post on the throne – he's our anchor within the veil, he's the guarantee of every Yes to God's every promise, he's the prayer for every question and the answer for every prayer. And when we gather, we are especially then with him – so “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). For that, too, our Prayer Warrior and Priest is praying on the throne. Keep on praying with him, and obeying the word of his power whereby he tells us, “Just like the atoms... stay together.” Amen.

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