Luke 24:45-52 NIV 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Today we observe a simple tradition after the reading of the gospel. As we hear how Jesus blessed his disciples as he was taken up into heaven, we extinguish the Christ candle. The candle is lit for services through the Easter season, but today we extinguished it for the rest of the year to remind us that our Lord has ascended into heaven to bless us from there.
Good byes are always hard when you love the person who's going away. We have all shed tears when we say farewell to someone we won't be seeing for a while. I remember graduating from college, saying goodbye to a girlfriend who lived on the other side of the state from where I did. I would be going to seminary in the fall and she would be finishing her last year at the college, and I didn't know when I would see her again. Being a 22 year old macho guy, I was surprised that as she drove away with her parents, I stood there with my brother and his wife, and I started to cry. I hadn't felt such strong feelings for anyone since childhood. "Wow," I said to myself, "I must really like that girl." Like turned into love, and then into "can't live without you" as later that summer we were engaged. Yes, she's now Mrs. Wright. That day I realized I was saying goodbye to a girlfriend, but hello to my future wife. (I am forever grateful that she eventually accepted my proposal.)
I was surprised by my emotions again at another goodbye. My father had been ill for ten years. We expected his passing to come at any time. When I got the phone call, I got airline tickets for the family to go home for the funeral. I was doing okay, realizing that God had taken my father to heaven. But several days later when we arrived at the funeral home for the visitation and I saw my father's lifeless body in the casket, I was overcome with tears. "Why am I crying?" I said to myself. "I'm really happy for him. God has rescued a great man from a terrible illness." Goodbyes can bring emotional surprises.
It was surprising for the disciples when Jesus' last days on earth came. Yes, he told them ahead of time that was going to be delivered into the hands of rulers, crucified, die, and rise on the third day. But when it happened they were surprised and afraid. Emotions got the best of them, and even the brave ones, like Peter, ran away and denied knowing the Lord.
When they saw him alive, and several appearances are noted in the holy gospels, their faith was restored. The book of Acts says Jesus "showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:3) One time he appeared to more than five hundred people. During these meetings they put their trust in him again and he forgave their doubts and unbelief. In the last chapter of Matthew it says when the disciples got to the mountain and saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some still doubted that He was God.
Even on the day he ascended to heaven, Jesus was still teaching his followers. Our text says "he opened their minds so they could understand the Holy Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). He gave them the ability to understand the Bible, that what Moses and the prophets wrote about the Messiah in the Old Testament times had now come and been fulfilled by Jesus in his work on earth. Nothing more needed to be accomplished. Salvation for the world was complete. From then on, any person who asked God for forgiveness in the name of Jesus would get it. Nothing more can be added to what Jesus had done.
Jesus' work was finished, but the disciples work was just about to begin. They were to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came to them. Then they were called upon to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations.
I witnessed the nations coming together last Friday at my graduation at the seminary. I received an earned doctorate, but there were two men there who received honorary doctorates for their faithfulness to the preaching in Jesus' name. In the ministry of these two men the nations came together.
One was a pastor from Sweden who had been removed from the ministry because of his preaching. In Reformation times the Swedish people were quick to welcome the theology of Luther and the other reformers. For the past 400 years the Swedes have been very faithful to the gospel that we are saved by God's grace alone that comes to us by faith in Jesus, and not from our good works.
But in recent years a dark cloud has fallen over the Lutheran Church in Sweden. Although 94 percent of the people are baptized as Lutherans when they are born, few ever enter the church again until they are buried. The church and the state are so enmeshed that the church is required by law to practice some unbiblical principles. In 2003 the state proclaimed that no pastor will be ordained in the Swedish Lutheran church who does not agree to work with women pastors and unrepentant homosexual pastors. The church blesses same sex marriages because the state says it has to. Some pastors have been arrested for preaching that homosexuals must repent of this sin. You see, this happens when we let go of the clear teaching of the Word of God and let the ideas of mankind cloud our vision. We get carried away from the truth, and this is tragic for the people who want to come to God because they are not moved to repent of their sins, but to hold on to their sins and think that God will bless them in their rebellion against his will for them. The do not teach Jesus as savior, but as enabler.
This pastor was banned from his pulpit because he would not give up the word of God and teach false doctrine. Our seminary honored this pastor, Rev. Bengt Birgersson of Göteborg, Sweden, for remaining faithful to God's Word at great personal cost. But thanks be to God he is raising up others who are faithful. The preaching to all nations is bringing the nations together.
Long ago when the church of Sweden was faithful to the Word of God, missionaries were sent out. Some of them went to Africa and preached there. In the country of Kenya the word took root and grew.
The other man who received an honorary doctorate last Friday was Bishop Walter Obare of Kenya. Over the past hundred years, the word of God brought to his country by the Swedish Lutheran missionaries brought many souls to Jesus. So when the mother church of Sweden would not ordain new pastors who hold the biblical teaching of the office of the ministry and proper use of sexuality, Walter Obare answered the call of God's people to come and help. In January six faithful pastors were ordained, and in April three bishops were consecrated in Sweden. This was a bold but faithful move, so that the true preaching of Christ's word can continue in the Nordic countries of Europe.
At one time the word of God went forth from Europe to other countries. Now Africa is sending missionaries to re-evangelize Europe.
Christ's commission to his disciples continues today. We must continue to repent of our sin and believe the good news that Jesus forgives and restores us to God the Father. There is no area of our life that we can allow to be off limits to God's word. Our personal life, friendships, finances, and sexuality are all touched by the word that gives us life. God's word cannot be altered in our pulpits and classrooms to make it more appealing. We much preach it just as we receive it from the printed page.
We honor Christ when we do two things: First, we open our hearts to what God's Word wants to accomplish in us. Jesus has ascended to heaven, but he is not distant from us. He sends us the Holy Spirit through the church's preaching and sacraments. We ask Jesus to open our minds to understand the holy Scriptures as he did for the first disciples. In them we find the meaning we need to guide our lives as servants of God.
Second, we commit ourselves to the ministry of the Gospel. It is God's intention that men should be sent to preach the good news to people of all nations, beginning here where we live. This summer a student from the seminary will be sent to witness to the St. Joseph community in order to start a church of our confession there. We should do all we can to support this messenger from God through our prayers, gifts, and encouragement.
Not only that, but it is vital that we support the seminaries that educate our future pastors. Since our synod funds our two seminaries only to the amount of one percent of their budget, it is incumbent upon us to increase our support. We owe them much for the pastors they have sent out over the past 150 years, and our children are depending upon them to send faithful pastors in the future. St. John has taken a bold step this year in committing gifts to both seminaries, and we should look for ways to increase that support.
At the ascension of Jesus the church said goodbye to face to face contact with Jesus. Now, through the preaching and sacraments he instituted, the Holy Spirit brings Christ to us in means that are hidden, yet powerful. We are to use this time God has given us to prepare for Jesus' return. There are so many souls to be reached, and so little time. God, give us the strength, the will, and the power to dedicate ourselves to your saving mission.
When you see the unlit Christ candle here at the altar, remember that Jesus has ascended to heaven, where as our heavenly high priest brings our prayers to the Father, and rules over his church with grace and forgiveness. Amen.
Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.
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