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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Acts 1:1-11
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 too long?

         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.

         Christian philosopher Josef Pieper teaches us that hope can only be a virtue when the object of hope is God.[1] 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 the road.

         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.[2] 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 Sunday?

         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 continue.

         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 our hope.

         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 be changed.”

         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 restored.

         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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] On Hope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 26.

[2] Ibid., p. 40.

Last updated May 12, 2013