“[Jesus] being assembled together with them, commanded them to that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).
We are now in the ten day season of Ascension, which began last Thursday, when our Lord ascended back into heaven from whence he came at the Incarnation. The Ascension is unique among the events that are listed in the creeds because we don’t actually see it. We do see, in our lessons from Luke, our Lord ascending into the cloud. But we don’t see what happened after his disappeared from view and returned to the Father.
In the eyewitness biblical accounts, we see the Incarnation, the Epiphany, the Cross, the Resurrection and the descent of the Spirit. These events can be seen because they all took place within the dimension of space and time. But the Ascension took place in heaven, in eternity, in the dimension of reality not accessible to those bounded by space and time.
To see what happened in the Ascension, we have to turn to the portions of Scripture where prophets were given a vision of heaven not normally accessible to the human eye. One such passage of Scripture is chapter 7 of Daniel. Daniel writes,
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (7:13-14).
St. Luke tells us that Jesus disappeared into a cloud. Daniel tells us that the cloud bore Jesus, the Son of man, to the Father, the Ancient of days, where he received from the Father universal dominion. Because he conquered sin and death through the cross, Jesus, the Son of Man, or descendent of Adam, received back the universal dominion that the first man, the first Adam, lost through sin.
Another passage where we see the results of the Ascension is in Revelation. St. John was called up into heaven “in the Spirit.” He writes, “I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). John’s vision reveals that Christ, the Passover Lamb who died for our sins, has ascended to heaven. He now continually presents his sacrifice before the Father.
Daniel and John tell us that the Ascension is greeted in heaven with great fanfare and worship. However, St. Luke tells us that after the Ascension the disciples entered into a season of prayer. They were joyous, to be sure. They were “continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53); but they were, nonetheless, in a state of anticipation. Our Lord ascended into heaven to be crowned with many crowns, to be worshipped by the whole host of heaven. However, he instructed the church on earth to do a curious thing: wait and pray.
In the aftermath of the Ascension the first disciples returned to the upper room to wait and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost. Though Christ has ascended, though he has led captivity captive, though he is seated on the throne of his glory, his followers must wait and pray to discern what their new ministry will be and to receive the power from God to carry it out.
This is a pattern for the Christian life—one that is a frequent source of frustration for us because we are impatient. Jesus is Lord of all creation. The table seems to be set for all manner of good things to be accomplished now. But God requires that we also wait and pray before we are able to experience his power in our lives and participate in his work in the world.
The first disciples were to wait for Pentecost. That was the day appointed for the Spirit to come in fulfillment of the Law. If they had tried to act before the Spirit came to indwell and guide them, their actions would have resulted in failure—like the Israelites who attempted to enter the promised land after God told them they would have to wait forty years (Numbers 14:40-45). Pentecost would also be a day when pilgrims from around the world would be gathered in Jerusalem. It would be a day of unique opportunity for proclaiming the gospel. Thus they were to wait and pray for two things: the coming of the Spirit, and the right moment of opportunity.
As a church, we observed an extended season of fasting and prayer from the end of last year through Lent. We believe that God is placing before us great opportunity for ministry. Sometimes we get impatient. Sometimes we want to know why can’t just do it all now. Why does it take so long to build? Why does it take so long for the things God puts before us to come to fruition?
The Ascension helps us understand why. We can only “see” heaven through prayer, when we ascend, with Daniel and John, in the Spirit. It is only as we spend extended seasons of time in prayer that we are able to see things from the vantage point of heaven and discern God’s will for us. It is only in response to our prayers that God sends us the Spirit in new ways so that we can do his will (Luke 11:9-13).
When we act hastily, without prayer and the guidance of the Spirit, our actions become fruitless. I’ve seen churches come up with great action plans for marketing and outreach that never produce any significant results. There is nothing evil about the plans. The plans seem sensible. They just aren’t God’s plans. They are not developed and discerned through extended seasons of praying and waiting upon God. They lack the guidance of God’s Spirit. Consequently, they bear no significant fruit.
The ten day period of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost will result in the coming of the Spirit, a sermon by St. Peter that will convert thousands and an outbreak of fruitful ministry in Jerusalem and beyond. When we wait and pray, there comes a time to act. The difference is that prayer aligns our actions with God’s will; and the Holy Spirit, who comes in response to our prayer, makes our actions fruitful.
The ministry of our church is a product of waiting and praying. Sometimes we have waited and prayed for years before God opened a new door of opportunity and sent us the Spirit is a new way so that we could do what he called us to do. But God is always faithful. As Isaiah writes, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (40:31)
Our Lord has ascended. He sits on his throne as universal king. Let us be faithful to wait and pray for the Spirit to come to us in a new way so that we may know and do the will of God.