My wife and partner Brenda had a total knee replacement surgery April 5. I have done no blog writing since then, but have kept up with the writing of sermons. For those who are interested, the following is a portion of what was preached on May 29, 2022, Ascension Sunday, at Cooks Point United Methodist Church, shortly after the murder of elementary school children and teachers on May 24, 2022 at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.
The day’s texts were Acts 1: 1-11 and Luke 24: 44-53.
With the terrible news of this past week — terrible news, horrible news, we had a reminder of the evil in our midst. We’ve heard lots of talk and speeches and posturing about the need of more laws and more regulations, and where to place the blame, and while there may be something to that, they miss the point.
I remember after the Columbine shooting — April 20, 1999 — there was a call for more and stricter laws, and one commentator pointed out that over a dozen existing laws had been broken by the shooters.
There is something else that needs to be addressed, that needs to be recognized.
Spiritual forces of wickedness.
My friend Elizabeth Moreau wrote this in her blog, Servants’ Feast last week: If we want to make sense of what happened in Uvalde, then we need to accept that the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone acknowledges and ansers such unspeakable evil. This is a world that has rejected its Creator and sought to be our own gods — from the beginning of time. The only barrier to the evil that prowls around looking to devour is the Cross of our Lord. We live in a world that needs to be saved, and that is precisely what we see every day in limitless ways, including in the mass murder in Uvalde.
Listen to this passage from 1 Peter 5, starting at the 6th verse:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
I think the shooter was devoured…
I’m taking us back to our baptismal vows, taken by candidates for baptism and by their sponsors.
The candidates for baptism are brought forward, and the pastor asks these questions:
On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?
As Christians, we recognize the reality of evil — the spiritual forces of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and our own sin.
As followers of Jesus, who believed in, lived by and taught the Scriptures, we believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the truth of Isaiah 53:6 — all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
We believe in the power of sin, the evil powers of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness — and we believe that as Christians we have the power to renounce and reject them.
But that doesn’t take away the reality.
Part of that reality is that we have to be sober-minded, we have to be vigilant, because our adversary the devil is roaming the earth like a lion, looking for someone he can devour.
The core issues for us to face are these forces of spiritual wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and our own sin. That is primary.
Remember a few weeks ago we explored 1 Corinthians 15, the last chapter of the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the new church just a few years after the death, burial, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Paul wrote this:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…
When we address the tools of evil as if they were the cause of evil, we miss the central point.
I often use the analogy of alcoholism and drug abuse because of my background and my lens on the world. Someone who is an active alcoholic has to stop drinking. That is the primary problem. Everything else is secondary. His or her home life, spouse, children, stress levels, anything else are not the cause of the problem. It is the alcohol, and until that stops nothing else will change.
Our primary issue is not the tools of evil, but evil itself. Our primary issue is sin. And that is addressed by repentance and embracing the grace of God offered through the torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who died for our sin and was resurrected to offer new life.
Where was God in that classroom, and in other pathways of terror? I believe right there, just like every other horror, every other denial of humanity.
And we have a mirror, where we can look at see what we’ve become, and see our need for a Savior. We become doers of the Word of God, and not just hearers. James tells us that when we are only hearers and do not obey the Word, we are like people who look in a mirror and then forget immediately what they look like.
But you and I are here, as agents of Christ in the world, as part of the new Kingdom of God, helping each other and others see the mirror truly, opening our eyes that we may truly see and be witnesses of Christ in the world.
So now we move to the texts for today, and talk about the Ascension of Christ. Last Thursday was Ascension Day, 40 days past Easter Sunday. We don’t make as big a celebration of Ascension Day as other events in Christian and world history — like Christmas, Pentecost, Easter — but it is central in the plan of the Lord.
We have two texts today, both written by Luke the Evangelist. In the Acts passage read earlier, Luke gives a brief summary of what he had done with his first book, the Gospel of Luke. He wrote Theophilus, who could have been his benefactor, that he wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day Jesus was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
After his sufferings he presented himself to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during the forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of God since he began his ministry. Remember after the temptation in the desert, again for 40 days, he began his ministry teaching and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.
But the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of our world.
That’s hard to grasp now, and it was hard to grasp then. His followers didn’t understand. Here’s part of our text:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set up by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The kingdom of God is not like an earthly kingdom. Those of us who are part of the kingdom of God are spread throughout the world, agents for change in all parts of the world. Christianity has moved throughout the world, and soon it will be stronger in the southern hemisphere than in the northern. Africa, South America, Asia and China have growing populations of Christians, and resultant persecutions as well. We are the infiltrators of the spiritual forces of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, agents of transformation in a fallen world, with Jesus on the throne. Jesus was telling his followers that they did not understand, but they could trust him.
And he is telling us the same thing. We do not understand, but we can trust him.
Jesus is trustworthy.
In our gospel passage from Luke, Jesus further explained what had happened and gave hints of the things to come.
Then he said to them, “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, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures — maybe he showed them the passage from Isaiah I quoted above. Maybe he told them that he was the water gushing from the rock in the wilderness, or the fourth man walking in the fire in Daniel, or that it was he who was the suffering servant in Isaiah or the still small voice Elijah heard. Maybe they came to understand that all the Scriptures pointed to Jesus, from the blood on the doorway protecting the people of Israel in Exodus to the prediction of the Messiah riding in on a donkey in Zechariah, to all the references in the Psalms.
Jesus had already ascended by the time he was speaking to them right before he was carried into heaven. He said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you….” He was still there, speaking with them in person, but he was not still with them in the same way. Jesus was already enthroned as the new king.
Think about that. Jesus as king, as his enthronement took place on the Cross. And we are his followers, scattered around the world and across time.
In the Acts passage, after Jesus was lifted up, his followers remained there, gazing up toward heaven, and suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said to them, 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 to into heaven.”
And Luke’s Gospel account added that they went back to Jerusalem, and were continually in the temple praising God.
Jesus left so that he could be with us. He is with us today, and he can be with those who call upon him and worship him throughout the world. In the Apostles Creed we proclaim that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and will come again in glory. The Resurrection of Jesus brought about the new world, and Jesus is offering us the chance to bring more folks into the kingdom before that great and glorious day to come.
We have work to do.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.