There have been two occasions when I went to see a movie and didn’t know that in fact it was only the first of two parts. The first time was the sequel to “Back to the Future” and the second was the sequel to the “Matrix.” In both cases two movies had been shot at the same time. To the best of my knowledge this fact had not been revealed before the release, and so movie goers were surprised – and in my case, disappointed - to find that the end of the movie was not the end of the story.
That is not the case with “Avengers: Infinity War,” the Marvel universe movie that just opened in record breaking fashion. Anybody who knew anything about the Avengers movies knew going in that this was the first of two parts. People knew that all questions would not be answered and plot lines would be left in the air, awaiting completion. Instead of leaving surprised and perhaps frustrated, they emerged expectant of the next movie.
The books of Luke and Acts are like “Avengers: Infinity War” in that you begin Luke knowing that it is not the end of the story. Instead, the story of Jesus and the Gospel continues on into the book of Acts. This means that Luke doesn’t have to do everything in his Gospel. There are themes that he can wait to develop in Acts.
Luke and Acts are two volumes. However, they are tied together by the event that we are celebrating tonight, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. The book of Luke ends with the ascension of Jesus. The book of Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus.
The ascension of Jesus joins them together, and it’s not just because Luke is about the earthly ministry of Jesus and Acts is about the growth of the Church as the Gospel was spread. Instead, events in the book of Luke are the reason that the ascension takes place. And the events in the book of Acts are made possible by the ascension of Jesus Christ.
We learn at the beginning of our text that the risen Lord said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Jesus begins by reminding the disciples about how he had told them that is entire life and ministry was a fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Up until now the disciples had never come across as being anything but obtuse – genuinely clueless when it came to almost every aspect of Jesus’ ministry. But now the risen Lord opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Jesus enabled them to understand how his death and resurrection fulfilled the Old Testament.
Then he added, “You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Our Lord said that the disciples were witnesses of his death and resurrection – something that was now going to be proclaimed among all nations. But first they were going to receive what Jesus described as “the promise.” They were to wait in Jerusalem to receive it.
We are told, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Jesus says that his death and resurrection have fulfilled the Scriptures, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name. That preaching of repentance never ceases to be true for us. We are people who continue to struggle with sin. It continues to trip us up in the things we think, and do, and say.
Because we are transgressors of the law, Jesus was numbered with the transgressors and died as a sinless sinner. Though without sin of his own, he took our sin – he became sin for us. He suffered death and God’s judgment.
Jesus faithfully carried out the will of the Father as humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. Yet on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus had said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Son of God humbled himself in order to give you the forgiveness of sins. And now God has exalted him. That’s what the ascension of Jesus is about. Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, was exalted to the right hand of God. And this exaltation is directly tied to what happens at the beginning of Acts.
In our text Jesus tells the disciples, “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” We receive more details in Acts where we read, “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me;
for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
Before he ascended, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus’ ascension and exaltation that brings this about. Ten days from now we will celebrate Pentecost when this happened. On that day Peter declared to the Jews that they had killed Jesus. Yet then he announced, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
The exaltation of Jesus in his ascension makes it possible for Jesus to pour forth the Spirit. Or to put it another way, the outpouring of the Spirit provides the proof that Jesus has been exalted. It is as the exalted Lord that Jesus now sends forth the Gospel and creates faith through the work of the Spirit.
The One who humbled himself for you, has now been exalted. Peter said on another occasion in Acts, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."
Jesus humbled himself in order save you. Now raised from the dead he has been exalted as the ascended Lord. He has given you his Spirit whom he poured out on you in Holy Baptism. There he washed away your sins and assures you that as you repent and call on his name you continue to have forgiveness.
Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and exaltation have given you the Holy Spirit. And Jesus’ words to you continue to be the same as they were during his ministry: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Our Lord has shown us that for those who belong to him, the way of humility and service leads to exaltation. It does because this is the way that Jesus has already walked for us.
Today in the ascension we celebrate the exaltation of Jesus Christ. What does his exaltation mean for you? It means that in humility you now seek to serve. You are to do this at home as you assist and help husband or wife; father or mother; son or daughter. You are to do this at work and school to bosses and employees; teacher and students. You are to do this at church to another.
The world doesn’t think like this. It says instead that you should put yourself first. You should look out for #1. You need to take care of yourself. But the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ has changed everything for us. The way of Jesus was one of humility and service; it was a way of sacrifice and death. But it led to resurrection, life and exaltation.
The Spirit sent forth by the exalted Lord leads us to recognize this. He has made you a new creation in Christ. He nourishes the new man in you with the true body and blood of Jesus. He draws you in faith toward Jesus and enables you to walk in Jesus’ ways.
You can do so because of the One has given you the Spirit is the exalted Lord. He has shown you where the way of service leads. It leads to exaltation with Christ for you. It does because while the ascended and exalted Lord has withdrawn his visible presence, this is only temporary. The One who ascended into heaven will come again in the same way as he went into heaven. And he will exalt you. He will demonstrate to all that the humble life of faith in Jesus results glorious eternal life with the exalted Lord.