Monday, May 25, 2009

Sermon for May 23-24

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord
May 23-24, 2009
Text: Acts 1:1-11

Dear Friends in Christ,
Back in the 1600's a movement began in England, springing from the radical holiness and inner light movements. They were called Quakers. This term came from the idea that if a person was overcome by the Holy Spirit, they would begin to quake. Because of persecutions in England, many Quakers came to the United States, settling in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. We’ve had two Quaker presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. One wonders how good of Quakers these two were, but that was their religious affiliation. Quakers were heavily involved in the abolition of slavery, and in prison reform. Our prison system is sometimes called the Quaker model. Quakers also refused to the bow to the king of England. Why? Because only Christ was King. Other groups that developed in America shared that view, including many New England Congregationalists. This seems like a good sentiment, though it actually violates Christ’s commands given to us Romans 13 and other places. In subsequent generations, this anti monarch attitude has permeated the American church. We could call it our American heresy. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were understood that we don’t bow to earthly kings because Christ is our true King. But, over the years, people have come to even reject Christ as King. They want a buddy, or a divine vending machine, but heaven forbid that we should ever think of Christ as our King. There is only problem here, with this American heresy. Christ is our King.

In Philippians 2 we read: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Here the ESV translation is weak. It is not that this is something we ought to do. Rather, this is something that will happen. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Christ as Lord. The question is whether a person does it willingly in faith, or with an angel’s sword at their back before they are sent to hell. That is a frightening thought indeed.

As Americans we don’t like kings. We’ve fought wars to throw off kings and make the world safe for democracy. Of course one must wonder if this world, filled with sin, ever could be safe for anything. Here is where we as the Church must separate ourselves from the world. We must not listen to the world’s ways. We do have a King - Jesus Christ. He is a great and powerful King who has conquered sin and death on our behalf. He has fought, as our great champion, against the old evil foe, Satan. With a King of this nature, it seems odd that anyone would object. But many in our world want no king but themselves. Ironically, far from leading to freedom, such a view only leads to tyranny. For many it is a tyranny to the needs and wants of the self. But in a real sense, if only I am king, then to get my way, which is my right as king, I must impose my will upon others. How many times have we seen this very thing played out in history? This is not ivory tower theory - this is Hitler, Stalin, and hundreds of other despots throughout the present day and historical world. So it is a dangerous thing indeed to reject the true King.

So why are we talking about Christ as King on the Feast of Ascension? Think on it for a moment. Let’s go through the festivals of the Church. Christmas is about God the Son become flesh. Epiphany is about this man, Jesus, being revealed to the world as God. Good Friday is about Christ becoming our Savior. Easter is about Christ’s victory over sin and death. Ascension is about Christ returning to heaven to take His place upon the throne, as the victorious, resurrected Lamb of God - the Lamb who was slain, but now lives, as we see Him depicted in the book of Revelation. So it is the Ascension that is really about Christ as our King. When Christ ascends into heaven, this is His coronation entrance.

But wait a moment, wasn’t Christ already King? Here is where God operates in a curious way. And Scripture reflects this. Again to Philippians 2: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped...” (Phil. 2:5-6) Christ is King but He does not claim His kingship. Why is He King? Because He is the creator of all things. We belong to Christ because He made us. To see ourselves in any other way would be to rebel against God as Adam and Eve did. Yet, Christ does not claim this kingship, though He would be within His rights to do so. He claims Kingship based solely upon the cross. He is our King because He became flesh and dwelt among us. He is King because He carried our sins. He is King because He died on the cross. He is King because He rose, triumphant from the dead. On this basis alone, Christ ascends into heaven and claims His crown and throne.

Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace. He has the power and authority. But He governs His people by His grace. Yes, the unbeliever will still be required to confess Christ in the judgement. But Christ would have us confess Him now. He would have us confess His grace and love. He would have us live with Him and feast with Him as a free gift. He would have us with Him in love and joy. This is the difference between our King and the despots of the world. The despots and dictators would bend people to the their will. Christ graciously invites us into His throne room and to His feast table, to receive His gifts.

The Divine Service, the liturgy, is the gathering of the King’s court. That is why we build beautiful church buildings and decorate them as gloriously as we are able. This is the throne room of Christ. This is where, in Word and Sacrament, Christ gives us His gifts. The Divine Service does not take place upon the earth, but in heaven. We are transported into the courts of heaven and joined together with saints and angels before our King. We ascend with Christ into the heavenly realm, anticipating that final ascension. This is why we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. We have a King of grace and glory. And we are with Him, in His courts, before His throne, receiving all His good and gracious gifts. He does live and reign to all eternity. He reigns in grace.

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