“What to Preach and Where to Reach” (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

The Ascension of Our Lord
Thursday, May 17, 2012

“What to Preach and Where to Reach” (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

Today is Ascension Day, that glorious day when our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of the Father and from where he will come again on the last day. Ascension Day, which occurred forty days after Easter and thus on a Thursday, which is why we always have service on this day of the week at this time of the year. The Ascension of Our Lord is a major festival in the church year, because it marks such a momentous event.

Forty days after Easter. During those forty days, the risen Christ appeared to his disciples a number of times, speaking, as it says, about the kingdom of God. Christ was preparing his apostles for what he would be sending them out to do after he ascended. He had a mission for them to carry out. This is the church’s mission still to this day. And Jesus gives us everything we need to carry out this mission. What Jesus did to prepare and empower the apostles he does now for us. So what we hear Jesus saying in our readings today from Luke and Acts–this applies to our churches in our day. Our Lord’s marching orders, and the power to carry them out, are still the same.

St. Luke is the one who tells us much about this, both in the ending of his gospel and at the beginning of his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. In Luke 24 and in Acts chapter 1, we hear Jesus telling the church two things: “What to Preach and Where to Reach.”

In these instructions that Jesus gives right before his ascension, he gives an outline of what to preach–that is, the content of the church’s preaching–as well as an outline of where to reach, the extent of the church’s mission. The preaching outline and the reaching outline–both are given here, so let’s give our attention to both.

First of all, what to preach. Jesus gives the apostles their preaching outline in Luke 24, where he says: “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.” First he opens up our minds to understand the Scriptures, what its central content is, and then he tells us how to apply this content to people in the church’s preaching.

“Thus it is written”: In other words, here’s what the Bible is all about, boys. And it’s all about Jesus. “Everything written about me,” Jesus says, “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” What the whole Old Testament was driving at, and what the whole history of Israel was leading up to, now has come to pass in the coming of the Christ, this same Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the great King, the divine deliverer whom God had promised centuries earlier.

And those messianic prophecies now stand fulfilled. Jesus has accomplished the mission he set out to do, the mission he was sent from heaven to do, namely, to rescue mankind. The human race was in a heap of trouble and could not extricate itself. Mankind had rebelled against God, fallen into sin, and come under the curse of death and conflict. Hopeless was our situation on our own. Stuck in the mire, that’s where we were. But Messiah came, Christ came, to undo the mess, to rescue us from the death-trap we had gotten ourselves into.

How would he do it? In a surprising way. The Christ would go to the cross. He would have to do this, if the rescue mission was to be successful. Why? Because justice had to be served. Man must die for man’s sin, the law must be kept. And the wages of sin is death, death under God’s judgment. But to save us, Christ took that judgment on himself. Even though Jesus was totally innocent–he kept God’s law perfectly–he loved us so much that he took our place as our stand-in. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve. His suffering and death is enough to cover everyone in the world, because he is the holy Son of God. His righteousness gets credited to our account, and thus we are free, forgiven, debt paid off in full, and then some. This was God’s rescue plan all along, even if people didn’t recognize it at the time. But Jesus did, of course. That is why he says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer.” He suffered death in our place so that we would not die eternally.

But that is not the end of the story. Jesus continues: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” The resurrection–this too is what is written and what the church should preach. Christ rose from the dead; this is his Easter victory. By his death Christ destroyed the power of death, that dangling sword of Damocles hanging over our head. Christ disarmed death, took the sting out of it. Because he shares his resurrection life with us, we who trust in him for our salvation, we have life in his name.

So the death and resurrection of the Christ–this is the heart and core of the Bible’s content, according to Christ himself. These historic events are the bedrock, the foundation, and the central focus of the church’s message. The death and resurrection of Christ–these are the most important events that have ever happened in the world, they really are. The whole future of humanity and of every individual person in this world depends on these monumental events–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the rescue of us doomed sinners. This then is what gives substance to the church’s preaching.

The application–the life-saving, life-giving application of what Christ has done, applying it to the lives of human beings, for that is what happens in the preaching of God’s word–this is where Jesus goes next in his preaching outline: “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.” Repentance and the forgiveness of sins–this is where the rubber meets the road in applying what Jesus has done historically to you and me personally. Repentance–calling sinners to give up on themselves as their own gods, as their own saviors. You can’t do that job, you will fail miserably. Only God can save you–and yes, you need saving. So repent. Recognize your deadness. Turn to God for life. He will give it to you. This then is the preaching of forgiveness. What Christ won for you on the cross is delivered to you free of charge, with your name on it. And this forgiveness is received by faith, as the Holy Spirit works faith and trust in your heart, as you hear the gospel.

Do you want to know what is the most important thing that is going on in the world today? It is not the build-up of arms in Iran. It is not the Islamic jihad. It is not the U.S. economy or the presidential campaign. No, the most important thing that is happening in the world today is the preaching of the gospel done by the church. It is the church preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of Scripture, and calling sinners to repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. This may look like nothing in the world’s eyes, but this is what God is doing now through the church. It’s why the world is still around, frankly, and that is, to give the church the opportunity to spread the gospel around the world and so to save millions of sinners before the return of Christ.

So Jesus has told the church what to preach. Now the second thing he says in our readings tonight is where to reach. The outreach outline–that’s the other part of Jesus’ ascension instructions. Luke gives it to us in brief in Luke 24, where Jesus says that this message “should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” And then we get it again in more detail in Acts 1, where Christ tells the apostles the expanding extent of the church’s mission: “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Jerusalem. Judea and Samaria. The end of the earth. If you could see these places on a map, you would see concentric circles moving outward. And this is what the church did, as we read about it in the Book of Acts. First in Jerusalem itself, and only among Jews. Then moving outward, out into the country of Judea, and then crossing an ethnic and religious border by venturing into Samaria. Then, even more daringly, going to the Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world. And the going and the preaching and the bearing witness hasn’t stopped since. The mission moved out to northern Europe, where many of our ancestors received the good news, and we today are the beneficiaries of that mission.

And so now we are the church that continues to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. To Africa and to Asia, for example, places where the church is really growing right now. As you know, in March I went to Indonesia to teach at a pastors’ conference there, to help the church in Indonesia carry out its mission in a very hostile environment. Indonesia is the fourth largest nation in the world, with the largest Muslim population. It is exciting to see what the Lord is doing there, bringing thousands of people to faith in Christ. This is but just one example of how the worldwide Christian mission that Jesus started when he ascended into heaven has reached to the end of the earth.

Before Jesus ascended, he gave the church instructions on two things–what to preach and where to reach. What to preach? We preach Christ crucified, crucified and now risen from the dead for your salvation and the salvation of every other person in the world. Where to reach? To the end of the earth–to Indonesia and to Iran and Pakistan and all those far distant places around the globe. But also right here, close to home. In our “Jerusalems”–Bonne Terre, Potosi, De Soto, Park Hills. To your neighbor next door, to your adult children, to your co-worker or friend from the club. Wherever there are sinners in need of a Savior, there is where we bring the gospel. And yes, including here tonight, for you.

Published in: on May 17, 2012 at 10:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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