28th of May 2017 Arnhem 5.00 p.m.
Sermon: Jesus’ last words
Rev Dr Jos Strengholt
When Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was about to be beheaded, she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot as she climbed the scaffold to the guillotine. She turned to her executiner and spoke her last words:”Pardon me. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
The last words of someone who dies are often very important for us. Sometimes those last words can be awful, and destroy the people who stay behind. Or if they are loving words, spoken to the family that stays behind, they can create beautiful memories of the person who passed away.
I think you remember the last words of some of your family members and friends, and they usually have special meaning for us.
Today we have read the last words of Jesus, before he went to heaven on Ascension Day.
Those last words are important and worthwhile considering. What did Jesus say?
1 Restore kingdom to Israel?
Our Lord had been with his disciples – after his ressurection – for a period of 40 days. He had been eating with them, and speaking with them. But what he discussed, we do not know,. Nothing was written down.
If Jesus had discussed anything that was radically different from what we have read in the Gospels, I am sure Luke would have written about it in his book of Acts.
But as we hear nothing about the content of those talks, I think it is fair to assume that what Jesus discussed, was nothing new.
I guess Jesus spoke with them about what he had been teaching them previously. Because it was only after his death and resurrection, that the disciples finally understood many of the things Jesus had said previously. “Ahhh now we understand what you meant when you said that this temple will be destroyed and rebuilt in three days”.
Luke only writes that Jesus spoke with them “about the Kingdom of God.” That’s all he says. What does this mean?
For Israel, the Kingdom of God was, practically speaking, similar to their Kingdom of Israel. Israel was the land of God.
When Israel lost its independence, and when it no longer had a royal family, Israel’s views of Gods kingdom shifted slightly.
Prophets like Daniel had a new message about God’s rule over the whole world – not over Israel only. Even in the time of the Old Covenant, God widened the view of Israel to see that eventually, Gods kingdom would be worldwide, not only for Israel.
Surely, that was good to know. But Israel, trampled by the oppressive Roman Empire, preferred to focus on how God had chosen them and them alone. “We are the people of God, and all the others are not”, was the common Jewish attitude.
No wonder it was hard for the disciples of Jesus to change their outlook. It took them time and mental energy to make a complete paradigm shift.
Without the Holy Spirit who was about to come, it was impossible to make this mental change. Jesus told them to wait for the coming of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit had been promised in the Old Testament as Gods presence in the lives of all believers.
This old promise was about to be fulfilled, and only then the disciples would truly begin to understand the Gospel-message of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the Kingdom of God
So when the disciples asked whether Jesus would now restore the Kingdom to Israel, they were widely off the mark. The assumed Jesus would restore the nation of Israel as the prime nation in the world. Jesus, are you going to make Israel great again?
John Calvin calls it a dumb question. But that is not very kind. It was a logical question, within the framework of Israel’s self-image as Gods only chosen nation. Within that framework it was logical.
Their question was the last flicker of their former burning passion for an imminent political theocracy – with themselves as its chief executives of course.
But the Holy Spirit was about to burst this framework. Israel was indeed God’s chosen nation, but it was chosen for the sake of the world. God had plans far beyond Israel. And Jesus in the first place, and his 12 disciples with him, were God’s bridgehead for bursting that outdated framework and for making Israel truly God’s blessing for the world. If anything, God wanted to make the world great again.
Jesus’ answer were probably the last words we have of him. “It is not your business to know when God will act.” With this, Jesus answers the question whether God will NOW restore the Kingdom. When? do not be bothered. When God makes all things new, is up to Him.
2 Be my witnesses
I have good christian friends who say: “you see, they ask for the restoration of the nation of Israel, so that is what we should, even today, expect to happen”. And, these friends say, “Jesus does not contradict their question, he simply says, when it will happen is only known to the Father.” And, they argue, by not contraditing the concept, Jesus really affirms it. God will rule, one day, through the people of Israel.
I think this a misreading of these last words of Jesus. Jesus does directly contradict their Israel-centric expectation of a kingdom for Israel. Instead of focusing on Israel, he focuses on the whole world.
“You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and then in Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth.”
The work of God is not inbound, but outbound. Yes, Israel is important, but not for its own sake, but for the world.
With this, Jesus answers their mistaken idea that this world will end with Israel being a strong political theocratic nation. That is a misunderstanding of the role that God has reserved for Israel.
Isaiah already announced this to Israel, in Isaiah 43:10: “You – Israel- shall be my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant that I have chosen”. This is now to be fulfilled through the apostles, who go into the world with the Gospel as God’s witnesses.
And of the Messiah, Isaiah prophesied in 49:6, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel: I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Israel’s task had always been to be a light for the nations; when Jesus came, it started to truly fulfill this task through Jesus, and then his Jewish disciples were told to witness in Jerusalem and beyond and in the whole world. What we read in Acts 1 is fully in line with the prophecies of the Old Testament.
And what we read there shows that the dream of a kingdom for Israel was indeed misguided.
God has a world-vision. He wants the whole world to know him and obey him. The ends of the earth, reaching the whole world with the Gospel, that is what we should be occupied with, not with an earthly kingdom of Israel. Or in that regard, not with any earthly power.
These were the last words of Jesus. Important to remember. The role of the apostles was to reach the world. And our church is based on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the apostles. So as a church our role is very similar. If we are a truly apostolic church, we do the work of the apostles.
The last words of Jesus were about the mission of the church. Surely, we exist to be a pastoral community; yes we exist to praise God; yes we exist to live a good Christian life. But all that loses much of its value if we do not witness to the world. If we keep our mouth closed and if our life does not show Jesus Christ to the people that we meet.
Heed these final words of Jesus.
And the task of the church is not just to witness to the people we meet, to our Jerusalem, but also to speak to people who are further away. People of different faiths, people from other countries.
And what an opportunities we have for this here in Arnhem. We meet Dutch people, and people from all over the world. The last words of Jesus: Tell people about me.
3 You will receive power
God knows, this is not so easy.
And that is why he gave his Holy Spirit to the church.
Next week we will of course celebrate Pentecost – then we will think more about the work of the Spirit.
But for today, let me underline two things the Spirit did for the early church – and for us.
First, God, by the work of his Spirit in their minds and hearts, enabled them to move from being inward looking, and Israel-focused, or church-focussed, to being outward looking, and world-oriented.
And for being witnesses in this world, the Holy Spirit gave them insight, and power. Just as we, today, need wisdom and power from God, to talk about the Gospel with other people.
He gives us this task, and with that task, Jesus also gives the strength. He never asks us things beyond our abilities, and with his Spirit he has enabled us to witness for him.
We cannot do without the Holy Spirit if we want to know and serve God. That is why Jesus ordered his disciples to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promise of the Father. And, this Spirit has come and is now part of the life of all believers in Jesus Christ.
So we have no excuse.
It is important for us to stay close to God and always ask him to give us a refill of the Spirit. We can never have enough of God’s presence in our lives.
We can know God, we know his will. And his will was expressed so clearly in the last words of Jesus Christ before he went to heaven. “Be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and to the end of the earth.”
So concluding, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for the whole world, because he is the master of the universe. That is why any narrow focus, whether that is on Israel, or on your own country, or on your own denomination, is not in accordance with the last words of Lord Jesus Christ.
He wants the whole world to know Him and we, his children, his church, have to be his witnesses. Those were his last words to us. This is so important. We can pray, and he has given us the strength of his Spirit to speak about Him.
So practically – why not pray more for your friends and neigbors. And speak with them about your faith.
Invite people to come with you to church. That may feel scary – but do it when there is a potluck – who can refuse a good meal.
And if we obey his command and we go, then he will surely bless us beyond what we can imagine. To people who do that, he promises: “I am with you to the end of the age”.