May 12, 2013 - Ascension Sunday
What are you hoping
for today? To have a nice Mother’s Day meal after church? To see and speak with
your mother or one of your children on Skype? To hear some good news about a
friend or relative who is ill? To get a little nap? To finish some yard work?
To watch another NBA playoff game? Maybe just that this worship service isn’t
We probably use the
word “hope” much more often than we use the word for the Christian virtue we
looked at last week. Outside of religious contexts, people don’t talk much
about faith, but we’re always expressing one hope or another. I hope to catch a
fish on the next cast. You hope for your team to win. We hope our sick friend
gets well. You hope for a good night’s sleep.
As Jesus met with His
disciples for what they discovered was the last time, we read in Acts 1 verse 6
that they had hopes. They put their hope in the form of a question, “Lord, is
this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It was a very
reasonable hope, a totally natural question.
Their hope came from
the Old Testament expectation of the Messiah. When God sent a new king from the
line of David, when that ruler became the Anointed One, He would restore Israel’s fortunes, its independence, its wealth and natural resources. That’s what the
prophets predicted and it was only natural to expect the Messiah who had just
risen from the dead in victory over death to complete the story with a
political victory for His country. So the disciples hoped.
There are two kinds of
hope. There are all the hopes we’ve just been talking about, including the
disciples’ hope for Israel’s kingdom to be restored, and there is the Christian
virtue of hope which is part of the trio of faith, hope and love. Part of the
purpose of Christ’s ascension is to point followers of Jesus then and now to
the virtue of hope rather than to all the other things we call hope.
Josef Pieper teaches us that hope can only be a virtue when the object of hope
is God. Virtues, those character traits or habits of the heart we’re studying, is that
they always aim us toward what is good. But the purely natural sort of hope
isn’t like that. If you just hope, you can hope for something bad. You can hope
your jerk brother-in-law falls and breaks his leg. A drug dealer can hope to
make a good sale. A cheating spouse can hope she doesn’t get caught.
The only way hope can
be a virtue is if it takes a form that is aimed at what is always good. And
remember that Jesus said in Luke 18:19 that only God is good. The virtue of hope must be aimed at God. Anything other hope has at least the potential to
point us in the wrong direction.
Take the disciples’
hope for a new kingdom of Israel. By itself such a hope has the potential for
all sorts of bad hope. They would hope for their enemies to be killed. They
might hope for other nations to be their slaves. They might hope for themselves
to have positions of power and authority over others.
Sure, some of our
natural hopes are better than others. It’s hard to see what might go wrong with
hoping for someone we love to recover from illness. But ultimately there is
only one object of hope that is always and surely good, and that is God.
There is another
reason hope is only a virtue if it’s hope in God. Remember that virtues are
habits. Virtue is a formation of your character that lets you regularly and
habitually act in the same good way. Virtue is like the skill of shooting a
free-throw or driving a car. The stronger and better it is, the more
consistently you drop the ball through the hoop or steer the car straight down
But if hope has only
natural objects, how can it be a constant habit? How can you consistently hope?
All our natural hopes have some kind of end. If we’re hoping for someone to get
well, then the person either recovers or dies. In either case, hope in that
case is done. You hope to get accepted to your first-choice college. You either
do or you don’t. Either way it turns out, hoping is over.
So Pieper talks again
about the fact that natural hope is much more characteristic of those who are
young. Young people are full of dozens of hopes, for marriage, for career, for
children, for success, for big changes in the world around them. As we grow
older those hopes start to drop away, either because they’ve been fulfilled or
because we realize something we hoped for is now impossible.
Hope can only be a
consistent, life-long habit if we hope in something that goes beyond youth,
goes even beyond this life. Hope is only a lasting virtue if we hope in the
eternal God through the grace of Jesus Christ.
That’s why the
Ascension of Jesus Christ is so important. It’s not just an afterthought, or a
kind of anti-climax to the story of Jesus. It’s the redirection of hope. If
Jesus had stuck around, the disciples would have kept hoping in the wrong
thing. They would have kept expecting that restored kingdom of Israel, with Jesus sitting on a throne in Jerusalem and the Romans kissing His feet. They never
would have learned the true virtue of hope.
So we have verse 9 of
our text, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and
a cloud took him out of their sight.” Jesus had to be out of sight if we were
ever going to learn to hope only in Him. Romans 8:24 says, “For in hope we have been saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope.” If Jesus hung around, the
disciples would have been hoping in everything else, like armies and money,
instead of the Jesus they could see.
The virtue of hope is
the expectation of that which is good, knowing that our true and only good is
God Himself, given to us through the grace of Jesus Christ. Our hope is to
know, love and be with God forever.
As a Christianity
Today web article pointed out on Thursday, which is actually Ascension Day,
40 days after Easter, we’ve “underrated and undervalued” this part of our
story. Christmas and Easter, Good Friday and even Pentecost get lots more of
our attention. We change our banners, bring out the poinsettias or the lilies,
even dress up appropriately, but what’s the special color for Ascension? What’s
the right meal for Ascension Day? Probably most of us were aware this is
Mother’s Day before we got here this morning? But did you know it was Ascension
Yet Jesus’ ascension
into heaven is absolutely key to our hope. It’s puts the aim of hope where it
should be. And it seals and guarantees our hope, makes it possible to
hope in God. Hebrews chapter 6, verses 19 and 20, says, “We have this hope, a
sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine
behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.”
The writer to the
Hebrews is connecting Jesus’ ascension into heaven with the Old Testament
experience of the Hebrew tabernacle and temple. Inside of those places of
worship, there was a Holy of Holies, a place where God made His presence known
and felt. Back then only the high priest could enter, carrying the sacrificial
offering for the sins of the people.
Now Jesus has become
our High Priest. Ascending into heaven, He carried the offering of His own
blood into the real Holy of Holies, into the presence of God in heaven. And in
the process, Jesus made possible what Hebrews says, made it possible for us to
hope to enter into that same place, into God’s own living presence.
I stopped in Portland for lunch with my sister Helen a couple weeks ago. We both had a little time
afterward, so she said, “Do you want to see where I work?” She’s an
administrative assistant at a big financial firm downtown near Powell’s. She
led me into a beautiful building—marble everywhere, a big glass waterfall
streaming down one wall—and we stepped into an elevator. But before she punched
a button, she took out a card and swiped it across the panel. Then she punched
number 10, the top floor.
There would have been
no hope for me to get to that floor without Helen and her card. And even if I
managed to get there, I still needed her walking ahead of me, smiling at
everyone and saying, “This is my brother.” Otherwise I’m sure that someone
would have quickly escorted me out.
That’s what Jesus did
for us. We hope for the presence of God, for our own entry into heaven, because
He’s already ascended there for us with the key card of salvation, His own
sacrificial blood to wash away our sins. And He is still there, interceding
with God the Father on our behalf, saying of you and me, “She’s one of mine.”
Or “He’s ours.” “That’s my sister. That’s my brother.”
In Eastern Orthodoxy
they might explain it this way. When Jesus came down from heaven, He became a
man, became human. When He ascended back into heaven, back into God’s presence,
He was still human. That meant something new happened. Jesus carried His
humanity back into God’s presence. Before then, the Scriptures always said
that no one, no human being, could see God and live. Jesus was the game changer
on all that. Now a human being, Jesus Christ our Lord, lives forever in the
presence of God, in unity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.
So we hope in God, and
Jesus Christ is the source and foundation of that hope. We’d never get there
without Jesus. That’s why faith comes first in the order of these virtues. To
have real hope, you must have faith in Jesus Christ. So first faith, then hope.
The ascension of Jesus
has one more thing to say to us about hope, about the specific content of our
hope in God. I’ve said that we hope to spend eternity with God. Over the past
couple of centuries, the Christian Church has gotten a bit confused about what
that means. And if we only read the first part of our text that confusion will
We constantly talk
about our hope in terms of “going to heaven.” And here we read that Jesus went
to heaven, so it seems to fit. We’re going where He went. The problem is
forgetting that the Bible doesn’t teach that we’re supposed to live in heaven
forever. Not even Jesus is going to stay in heaven forever.
Listen again to what
happens after Jesus goes up in verses 10 and 11:
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,
suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee,
why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up
from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Our hope is not for us
to hang around in heaven with Jesus for thousands and millions of years,
playing harps and lounging on clouds. Our ultimate hope is that Jesus is going
to come back, just like the angels said, and bring heaven with Him. We’ve read
it from the end of Revelation more than once this Easter season. Christ will
return and the heavenly city will come down to earth and God will be with us, right here.
It’s almost as if the
angels were talking to our time, saying “Why do you spend so much time gazing
up into heaven, as if you meant to spend eternity there?” Please don’t hear me
wrong. I’m not saying you or any believer in Jesus won’t go to heaven when you
die. We will. That’s part of our hope. But that’s just it. It’s only part of
The rest of our hope
is what the angels said, Christ is coming back. And if you look over at the end
of I Thessalonians, you will see that He’s bringing back with Him every
believer who has died. He’s going to raise their bodies from the graves in a
Resurrection like His own. Then He will set up His kingdom, here, on earth.
The habit of hope is a
way of life that trusts confidently that though we grow old, that though our
planet suffers pollution and climate change and extinction of species, God
means to restore and bless and renew this world to be our home forever. Our
life in this world matters now because our eternal life with God will be in
this world. Hoping for the life to come doesn’t mean we have to lose all the
good things of this world forever, like our cats and dogs, flowers and sunsets,
basketball or fishing, or bacon for breakfast. God just wants us to know that
all those things are gifts, are grace that comes from Him through Jesus Christ.
And when Jesus Christ returns, and we rise up again in the Resurrection,
everything good will be restored.
Those disciples didn’t
ask such a bad question when they wanted to know when the kingdom would be
restored to Israel. It just wasn’t a big enough question. They should have
wondered when God would restore His kingdom to the whole world, when Christ
would come and reign not just over one nation but over them all. That’s the
real question. And Jesus told them the time is not ours to know. But the hope
is ours to hope.
Again, please don’t
hear me wrong. I’m not telling you not to hope for heaven. Go ahead. Heaven is
the first place we will be with God. Hope for heaven, but then, hope for more.
Just like Jesus will, we will come back from heaven, our bodies will be raised,
and we will live on this earth made new.
When my grandmother
died I caught my first glimpse of how big our hope is. Beth and I drove up on a
hill that looked out over the valley in Arizona where Grandma raised her family
and my mother grew up. And I looked out at the browns and golds of that desert
valley with the line of green along the river and I felt like I’d lost some of
it along with Grandma. The colors weren’t as bright, the blue sky not as clear.
But we had read I Corinthians 15 at her funeral and I remembered verse 52, “For
the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will
Then I realized that
if Grandma was going to be raised again, then these hills and this valley would
need to be here for her. She wouldn’t be who she was without the Verde Valley, without the cottonwood trees and the blue sky and the brushy hills. My hope
for Grandma is in God, in His resurrection of her in Jesus Christ and in more.
When Jesus returns, she will be raised and the world she lived in will be
This week evangelicals
mourned the death of Dallas Willard. Yesterday our friends from Church of the
Servant King remembered Brian. Today we grieve with Joy Dillon over the loss of
her friend’s baby and her own sister’s loss to cancer. Tomorrow there will be
other griefs to share. Yet, as Paul says in I Thessalonians 4:13, we “do not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Paul goes on, “For
since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God
will bring with him those who have died.” There is our hope. It’s a huge hope.
Jesus who died and rose again will return. And when He does He will bring back
with Him all those who have died in faith in Him, in hope in Him, and He will
give them back their world, restored and renewed to be what He made it to be,
His kingdom, His presence with us forever.
Let us ask God to make
our hope big enough, to grow in us the virtue of a hope that encompasses all
that He intends to do. Let us seek the habit of living in a hope that includes
everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, that includes our own selves, that
includes this whole world which God created to become His kingdom. Let’s not
just hope for part of it, but all of it. Let’s hope big.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj