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April 9th, 2018

Uniquely Luke

You have a friend in highest places. 

Luke 24:45-53

 

Thank you

I am not entirely sure why this feels like the right Sunday to say what I’m about to say. Perhaps it is due to Linda’s and my 25th anniversary at Corinth that we recently celebrated, and all the humbling affirmations we received. Maybe it has something to do with coming to the close of one of my favorite sermon series ever. Maybe it’s about a special message to people who come to church the Sunday after Easter. 

What I want to say is just “Thank you.” Is there another profession where people commit an hour or two of every week, week after week, month after month, year after year, to hear the same person talk for half an hour? You prioritize this time because you believe what we’re doing here is critical to your own spiritual growth and to the health and strength and witness of the church of Jesus Christ.

For my part, your willingness to hear and respond gives me the opportunity to invest time every week studying the greatest book ever written. Or should I say “books.” I have not done an exhaustive research on the subject, but I cannot imagine there is a body of literature anywhere that has been more thoroughly read, dissected, explained and applied than the 66 books of the Bible. On a head level, I affirm with the Apostle Paul that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for what we believe and how we live (2 Timothy 3:16-17). On a personal level, I love the time I am able to invest every week studying these passages. Sometimes they are very familiar to all of us (and for good reason – there’s much there to draw our attention), but there is always a fresh angle. At other times, we start with an obscure or confusing text, and inevitably I find myself astounded by the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in inspiring and preserving the Bible. I have never ever come through a week or study, reflection and prayer and felt that my time was wasted. I love doing this, and you even pay me to do it! So, thank you.

Uniquely Luke

Since January, we’ve been studying only stories that are “uniquely Luke.” We think the Gospels all tell the same stories, especially the first three. Luke is so different.

Some themes do appear in the other Gospels, but more prominently in Luke – what you do with your money and how you respond to the poor, how you treat people that everyone else rejects and marginalizes, the physical characteristics and diseases of people (of course, since he’s a doctor), the way Jesus treated women – recognizing them, teaching them, and empowering them, the role of the Holy Spirit and prayer in the life of Jesus, and God’s direct intervention and control over Jesus and others. (He uses the Greek word dei, “must,” more than anyone else.) One of Luke’s other favorite words is “amazed.” Jesus constantly wowed the people. Joy floods this Gospel.

As we said last week, one of Luke’s key motifs is the journey. Not only does he relate more journeys than anyone else in the New Testament, both his Gospel and the book of Acts leave you with a sense that the journey isn’t over. We’ll look shortly at the end of the Gospel of Luke, but his sequel (Acts) concludes with the equivalent of a literary semi-colon. The Apostle Paul has been longing to get to Rome so he can preach. He arrives there, but Luke leaves him under house arrest. He leaves you craving Volume 3! For Luke, the journey of following Christ is always “to be continued.”

Consider the stories about Jesus you would never know if all you had was Matthew, Mark, and John. You wouldn’t know about the birth of John the Baptist to an aging priest and his post-menopausal wife, about the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, about the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem where there was “no room in the inn,” about the shepherds abiding in the field or his presentation in the temple or the response of Simeon and Anna or the 12-year-old Jesus getting separated from his parents at the Jerusalem temple. That’s just the first two chapters!

Without Luke you wouldn’t have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of Martha whining about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet while she did all the work, or the prodigal son or the ten lepers who were cleansed but only one returned to say thank you. Without Luke, you wouldn’t know Zacchaeus was a wee little man or that Jesus wept over Jerusalem when he saw it from the Mount of Olives. There are several aspects of his trial and suffering unique to Luke, and only Luke tells the story we shared on Easter Sunday about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. How much Jesus we would never know if a Gentile doctor hadn’t come to know Christ, traveled with Paul, and decided to interview, research and collate every detail he could for posterity!

What’s the relevance of all that to today’s sermon? Did you know if it weren’t for Luke you wouldn’t know how Jesus transitioned from earth to heaven after the forty post-resurrection days on earth? That Sunday School picture burned in your mind of Jesus raising his arms and levitating into the clouds – only Luke tells that story!

Commission

We often speak of “the great commission,” but it would be more accurate to speak of “the great commissions.” Each gospel has its own version of Jesus’ directive to his disciples to extend his ministry around the world, although in Mark’s gospel that’s part of the section that someone decided to add because they thought his account of Jesus’ life needed a better ending than the one Mark actually wrote.

Matthew has the most familiar version of the great commission. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Going, therefore, make disciples of every ethnic group, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

John says that on Easter night Jesus appeared to the ten disciples (minus Judas and minus Thomas, although there could have been some there not among the original Twelve) and said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

Luke tells this story twice – once at the end of his gospel and once at the beginning of Acts. The versions are a little different, because the purpose is different.

Here’s what all the versions of the great commission have in common. First, they all include in context that at least some of Jesus’ closest followers still had doubts and questions after the resurrection. It wasn’t just “doubting Thomas.” As powerful an experience as it was to see Jesus alive again, their PTSD from seeing the crucifixion coupled with a total paradigm shift about the Messiah made it still hard to believe.

Second, each account emphasizes Jesus’ power and authority. It’s more than the power over demons or the authority of his teaching. He is exerting something more like royal authority, kingly control over his subjects. The One in charge is sending them.

Third, the Holy Spirit figures prominently into Jesus’ commission. He’s leaving them, but he wants them to know they will not be alone. The Holy Spirit will direct and empower them. All of the Gospels include this reminder in one way or another.

Fourth, this commission is centrifugal in nature, a contrast to their Jewish assumptions. The Old Testament is concerned about the nations, consistently, but the desire and prayer is that the nations will come to Jerusalem, will come seeking the one true God, will follow God’s laws and worship him as the Jews do. Jesus is reversing the direction now. His consistent message is, “I am sending you out. Don’t get comfortable where you are. Leave Jerusalem. Go to the nations. Spread the Gospel. Tell of Jesus.”

The “uniquely Luke” version of this commission grounds this thrust in understanding the Scriptures (Old Testament) properly (45). He tells them it is written that the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead (46). In Luke, the message to be preached is one of “repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (47). You are to tell people to do a U-turn from their sins; they must not wallow in them. God will release them from the penalty and power of sin, but not so they can just continue on in their sins. This is to be a new way of life that leaves behind the old way of life.

The word “witnesses” is unique to Luke’s version of the Great Commission. This is a theme that will be carried through not only the beginning of Acts, but all the way through. The followers of Jesus are to declare what they have seen and experienced. That’s the heart of the Christian message. This gospel has changed your life, now change others by testifying to what he has done for you.

The great commission forms the last “red letter words” in Luke’s Gospel. This is the last direct quote of Jesus. That makes it very significant.

But it’s clear the disciples did not act on this immediately. They had to be forced out of Jerusalem by persecution. What will it take for the Lord to engage you in his greatest priority? The gospel ultimately is not for you to enjoy, but to share.

Ascension

Now comes the “uniquely Luke” ending to his Gospel. Let’s look at these last four verses carefully.

Verse 50. When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.

The Greek word translated “led out” is “uniquely Luke,” and parallels the Exodus. Instead of being led out of Egypt to a permanent home they could call their own, which is the story of the Israelites, Jesus’ followers are being led out of home to the world.

Bethany on the Mount of Olives was the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. This was the place of the donkey ride toward Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus was popular here. This likely means we’re not just witnessing a scene with the eleven disciples. Perhaps this is even the occasion the Apostle Paul refers to, when more than 500 saw him at once.

Because Jesus “lifted up his hands,” most commentators see his blessing as a priestly blessing. Jesus blessing his followers in this way is “uniquely Luke,” and only here in the Gospel. The book of Numbers records the blessing priests were to give: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Many Jewish traditions surround this blessing, called birkat kohanim (“priestly blessing”) in Hebrew – including how the priest holds his hands, symbolic of windows through which God sees and blesses his people. The priest’s head should also be covered and the people should not look directly at the priest’s hands because they represent the presence of God.

Verse 51. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.

Why did Jesus ascend in this very visible way? It may be connected to the mysterious appearances and disappearances since his resurrection. Without this bodily ascension they would have expected to see him again and again, and would have ultimately become disillusioned. They may have doubted those previous experiences were even real.

The ascension is also one more validation of who Jesus is. It is his last miracle. We have learned to trust Luke as a historian. He heard this from eyewitnesses.

Verse 52. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

This is the first time Luke records that anyone “worshiped” Jesus. The word literally means “to kiss towards.” It’s the act of obeisance – bowing down to kiss the ground before a superior.

Luke has saved the word “worship” for this moment in his gospel. It’s the only place in Luke where Jesus’ followers worshiped him. This is Luke’s grand conclusion to the Gospel. Jesus is fully man, but not only man. This Jesus is worthy of worship.

Notice this response of joy that connects to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds – “good news of great joy.” Joy is a persistent New Testament theme, as we will see in our next sermon series on Philippians!

Verse 53. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Luke’s gospel ends where it began, in the temple. But now everything has changed. It must have been quite a sight for these believers to meet day after day, somewhat off to themselves, still participating in temple rituals but knowing nothing would ever be the same.

So what?

I love how the Heidelberg Catechism asks about every doctrine, “How does this benefit us?” What difference does it make to us that Jesus ascended?

First, you have a friend in highest places. This is the first emphasis of the catechism, “that he is our advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven.” John writes, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” (1 John 2:1). Do you ever fall short in your attempts to live for Christ? You have Someone in heaven who says, “No condemnation for Bob! I died for all his sins.”

One of us is in heaven, and he’s on our side. Jesus is in heaven, physically, not wandering around earth as a disembodied spirit. This means one of us (one who shares our flesh) is in the presence of the Father. The rest of the New Testament will unpack the significance of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of the Father.” He is our ruler, our prayer partner, our friend, and he’s right there next to God.

Second, expect the unexpected in your journey with Jesus. Remember, one of Luke’s most consistent themes is that life with Jesus is a journey. You’re always going somewhere. You’re on the move. When something happens that you didn’t expect – a joy or a disappointment – it will never be a greater setback than the cross and never be a larger triumph than the resurrection and ascension.

The catechism says it this way: “We have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the head, will also take us, his members, up to himself.” The journey will have ups and downs, but it will end gloriously in his presence. Whether alive when he comes or physically in the grave, we will rise with him.

Finally, don’t get too tied to your temporary home. The catechism again:  “He will send us his Spirit, as a further pledge, by whose power we seek those things that are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.”

This is the first year in twenty we didn’t celebrate “holy humor Sunday” on the Sunday after Easter. The service would be filled with jokes and other silliness to celebrate God’s last laugh on the devil when he raised Jesus from the dead.

In memory of holy humor Sunday, I’ll share one of the classic holy humor stories that illustrates this final point.

A wealthy man was determined to take his money with him after he died. So he bought gold bullion with all his wealth and placed it in two suitcases in the attic so that he could grab them on his way up. Nobody knew why he always insisted he should die at home, but that was the real reason. The two suitcases in the attic were directly above his bed. He told only his wife, so no one would steal the gold.

Well, the time came when he passed, and his wife went to the attic. Sure enough, the two suitcases were still there. She said, “I told him he should have left them in the basement!”

The ascension of Jesus is a visual reminder that we leave this world with nothing. We enter a new place where very little that we chased after in this life will have significance. So set your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Amen.

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