By Ray Trygstad
A Sermon for June 4, 2000, Ascension Sunday
Wesley United Methodist Church, Naperville, Illinois, USA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable
in Thy sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Well, He's gone.
I mean, when He died, everybody thought it was all over. This Man Jesus,
hanging there, just quoted Psalm 22 and left. Crucifixion...surely one really
unpleasant way to die. A tragic ending to an otherwise thoroughly lousy day.
Who would have expected it? Hey, look, He was treated like visiting royalty
when He'd come into town not even a week earlier. So anyway, He was
buriedhurriedly put in a tomb before the Sabbath started, and they
stuck a big rock in front to seal it up so everything could be finished up
after the Sabbath. It just seemed like everything had ended and was grinding
to a halt. But wait a minutehe had said something like...hmm what was
that? Oh yes, John even wrote it down for us: "Destroy this temple, and in
three days I will raise it up." That wasn't real clear at the time; I mean,
who knew what he meant by that? But as it turns out, He came back from the
graveHe was alive again! Then I guess everyone knew what He meant.
What no one could figure then was what came next...a lot of folks, at least
those who knew about it, seemed to think there would be this
triumphant-King-thing going. Some people even talked about a "thousand-year
reign"all this other stuff from Isaiah and Psalm 22 and a lot of other
prophecies was happening, so why not that? Everybody thought that the Messiah
was going to restore Israel to glory and really be a Kingthat's why
he had to be a descendant of David, right? But it turns out there were other
things in Isaiah: "He was pierced for our transgressions; he was bruised
for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and
by his wounds we are healed." Whewwhat a concept. People had thought
sacrificing a lamb was an atonement, but now we are talking serious
atonementnot just a man, but a Manwho as it turns outwas
God Himself dying for us.
In the 60's, the theological argument that "God is dead" became popular in
some circles; the idea was that we could lay Him aside and do as we please,
since He was no longer relevant anyway! Or as Dostoyevsky put it in The
Brothers Karamazov: "If God does not exist, everything is permissible."
The tragedy of this line of thought is that they completely missed the point
of a dead God. Think about itthis Man was God, and for you,
and me, and him over there, and her, and the kids up in the balconyHe
died! People have always sorta thought that sacrificing a life to
save someone else was a brave and noble thing to do, so here we have God,
doing the same thing, but because He is not just a man, His sacrifice saves
us all. What a magnificent plan! An allpowerful death for an omnipotent
But thenand this is the really cool part of itJesus the Man comes
back from the grave, to show all of us that His victory over death is
real. So real that he lets Thomas touch the holes from the nails to
dispel any doubt. His return was so unexpected that even those who loved
Him could take a trip on foot to Emmaus in His company and not even recognize
Him until he broke bread with them. He spoke with and ate with His disciples
(another proof of His physical reality) for forty days, and then asked them
to come up to the mountain with Him. John Wesley points out that our Psalm
for today was written for an occasion when the Ark of the Covenant was carried
up to the Mount of Zion, but it foretells of Jesus' trip up the mountain,
since after all, the Ark was the symbol of the physical presence of God.
Now back to the question about what came next. Some of the folks with Jesus
finally asked him point-blank: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore
the kingdom to Israel?" With what I think was probably great restraint, Jesus
replied, "It's not for you to know the times or periods..." I can just picture
Him standing there, tapping His foot, because hey, even though He's God,
He was also a man, and I'm sure He was thinking "Don't they get it
yet?" So what else does He tell them? "...you will be my witnesses
in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Then
he was taken up into heavenkind of like a celestial elevator into the
cloudsand was seated at the right hand of the Father. So now the disciples
are just standing there gaping into the sky, and some angels appear since
they look pretty foolish with their mouths wide open, and somebody just had
to do something about it. "Hey, you guys from Galilee," they said,
"why are you standing there looking up into heaven? Jesus will come back
someday the same way he went..."
Now comes the realization. He left. He's gone. And...we're in charge.
So this is what comes next. Hmm...hadn't bargained on this.
I mean, He did say there would be some assistance coming, the Holy Spirit,
but nevertheless there's a real burden placed on those who believe in Him.
The events may have happened nearly two millennia ago, but it's a burden
each of us lifts each day.
So how are we doing? You know, He did leave us in charge. Despite arguments
about making Peter "the rock", He didn't say really say to the disciples
"ok now, so-and-so's in charge here so all you have to do is just do what
he says." Sometimes that would be really nice, and some of our Christian
brethren in the Catholic Church get real comfort from having a stand-in for
Peter around, but generally as Methodists we think that Jesus really left
it up to each one of us to carry out His parting words. It's a bigger burden
than it might seem at first, as we have to discern just what it is
He wants us to do.
Hopefully we all talk to Him regularly, and ask for help and guidance from
the Comforter He has sent to us, but His answers and guidance to us comes
in the form of a conviction in our heart, and we constantly must struggle
with determining what are the desires of our own heart and what are the
convictions God has placed there. That's our burden. In many ways it's a
pleasant one, and indeed His yoke is easy and His burden is light, but
nevertheless we have to bear it.
As I look back at them I see that two themes permeate my sermonsgrace
(a favorite topic because it's such a wonderful gift) and social justice.
I'm a convert to the "social justice" side of thing that we prize so highly
in Methodism. I grew up Lutheran which placed a much larger stress on theological
orthodoxy and much less on helping out our fellow man. One of the convictions
that God has placed on my heart recently is that as Methodists we have failed
badly in an area of social justice. If someone told you that there were educated
career professionals, typically with a bachelor's but often with a master's
degree, who receive no medical or dental benefits and have no employer
contributions to a retirement plan you would probably agree that there was
an injustice being done. But this is the way we as a denomination typically
treat our non-pastoral full-time staff. The argument put forward is "we can't
afford to do this" but my concern is: how can Methodists promote social justice
without cleaning our own house first? Remember, Jesus left us in charge.
I don't know where the Lord wants me to go with this but I do know that it's
both a congregational and a denominational issue that I feel compelled to
In order to ensure that we don't stumble aimlessly about without His physical
presence, Jesus not only sent the Holy Spirit, He sent us the plans for our
salvation: the Bible. One of the things I can tell you from my experience
in the Navy: when some leaves you in charge, if they have a mission to for
you to accomplish, they had best provide you with some pretty clear instructions
as well as the resources to accomplish it. Do we read the instructions? Do
we look at the blueprint for our faith, drawn up by the Architect just for
A gimmick often used in marketing is a "free gift". As Christians, Jesus
left us with the ultimate "free gift": salvation. And then he told us to
go out and give it away. And not just in the neighborhood, not just on Center
Street or Franklin Avenue, but to the "ends of the Earth". And it's not a
"free sample"; it's the full version of the product , the "genuine article".
So like those who were with Jesus on the mountain, it's time to shut our
mouths and stop gaping. We need to turn around and walk down the hill, roll
up our sleeves and get to work. We need to act like we're in charge.
Who left you in charge?
Dear Lord, help us to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in our
hearts, and to follow that voice. Help us to remember that we are in charge
and help us to behave that way as well. In the words of the old prayer, give
us the strength to change the things that should be, the serenity to accept
the things that can't, and the wisdom to know the difference In Jesus'
Copyright 2000 Raymond E. Trygstad; all rights reserved. May be copied
and distributed freely in its entirety if accompanied by this statement.
Copyright 2000 Ray Trygstad, Naperville, Illinois