I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that with the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.
As I was preparing for today and reading through the lectionary, I assumed that I would be giving a traditional Ascension sermon. But as I was reading I kept coming back again, and again, and again, and again to Ephesians 1 and this passage. And in particular I kept coming back to the word “hope.” Our world is facing a crisis of hope. But I hope that’s not surprising to you; it’s not anything new.
You see, we plunged into this crisis the moment sin entered into the world through the Fall. Ever since that moment we have been looking for something—anything—we can that would provide us with a sense of security, fulfillment, flourishing, and salvation. We know, deep down, that this world is broken and we readily put our hope in anything that promises to fix it, whether it can deliver or not.
As John Calvin has famously said, our hearts are idol factories.1 Unfortunately, Christians are not immune to this. The Church is not immune to this. Since this is the case, I want you to consider the following questions before we jump into today’s text: In whom or what do you put your hope when it’s not in Christ? And, how do you respond when those hopes fail to deliver safety, security, and flourishing?
If we can be honest with ourselves our answers to these questions reveal how easily our hearts and affections are captivated by things which promise to deliver that which only God can provide. So, as you think about these questions, as you honestly search your affections, your heart, and your motivations, I want us to spend the rest of our time together—quite literally2—looking at the hope to which we are called.
What is Our Hope?
St. Paul writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that with the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
Now, there’s a whole lot in that sentence—that’s not even a full sentence, I stopped it just so you know. There is a lot there to unpack.
But let’s begin simply by asking what is the Christian hope? And the answer, because old dead guys usually say things better than I do, I want to read in full from the first question and answer from the Heidleburg Catechism. It asks,
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own but belong body and soul and life and death to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for my sins by his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from head apart from the will of my father in heaven. In fact, all things must work together for my salvation b. Because I belong to him, Christ by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole heartedly willing from now on to live for him.
If we jump back a bit to verses 3-14 for context—I’m not going to read them, but you can fact check me later—we see that what I just read is exactly the hope that St. Paul has in mind in our verses for today:
He begins his letter by assuring the Ephesian believers that have every spiritual blessing in Christ. God not only loves them, he has loved them since before the world was even created. He has adopted them as his children. He has redeemed them and forgiven their sins. God has guaranteed that they will share in his inheritance and live with Christ in the new creation. All of these promises have been sealed for them by the Holy Spirit who both lives in them and marks them as God’s own, forever.
This is their hope.
These are all the blessings, says Paul, that the Ephesian believers already have. Meaning, the hope that St. Paul prays for is not some new blessing that they have yet to receive. Rather, St. Paul prays that they would come into a deeper understanding, and experience, and knowledge of the hope and the riches they already have in Christ. Hope and riches which are grounded in immeasurably great power of God.
We are Far too Easily Pleased
But if this is true, why is there a crisis of hope? Not the least of which in the Church? Why do we find ourselves looking to other people and other things for our sense of security?
Well, I think N. T. Wright is correct in his book, Surprised by Hope, when he says that “people lose hope when they cease to be surrounded by beauty.”3 In other words, to have a lasting hope it must be anchored in something that is infinitely beautiful, or else your hope runs out. When our hope is found in created things, they are finite by definition. They have a beginning and they have an end, and when they end our hope ends with it.
I’ve been re-reading The Hobbit with my daughter, and we’ve gotten to when Bilbo Baggins meets Gollum for the first time. They’ve gotten into a sort of Middle-Earthian rap battle with riddles. I was struck again by Gollum’s last riddle.
This thing all things devours,
Birds, beasts, flowers.
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stone to meal,
Slays kings, ruins towns
And beats high mountains down.4
The “thing” in question is time. Every created thing that we put our hope in will eventually be conquered, destroyed, or devoured given enough time.
But Wright makes the connection between hope and beauty, so how do we understand that? Well, my other favorite author with two initials, C. S. Lewis—and others—have argued that universal human desire are all signs that something exists which can satisfy, and which is necessary to sustain our being.5
We hunger, and there is food. We thirst, and there is drink and water.
Here’s the connection: because there is a universal human desire to experience and participate in beauty, something must exist that is both unaffected by time and beautiful enough to fully satisfy our desires and sustain our hope.
The problem, as Lewis points out in The Weight of Glory, that our sinful natures have so distorted our desires and shriveled our capacity for satisfaction that we foolishly put our hope in anything with a fleeting beauty rather than in the God who actually provides all that we need in Christ.
He writes, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”6
What you have to understand about the beauty of God in Scripture is that the beauty of God is a reflection of his glory, and all the beauty of creation is intended to be a sign-post, which points us back to God. As a result of our sin however we are blinded to the beauty of God, and in our distorted desires we love the created rather than the creator.
I should say we love the created more than the created.
The Holy Spirit must enlighten the eyes of our hearts to enable us to see the beauty of God. And even if he does so, our sin makes our vision cloudy. It will do so until the day we see Jesus in his beauty face to face.
So, with all that, let’s revisit our original questions, which I think we can now rephrase like this: Who or what is beautiful to you than Christ when you are most afraid and anxious? Your answer is where you place your ultimate hope?
Is it money? Maybe your bank account or your 401K? Is it family?
What gives you comfort when you’re lonely? What gives you comfort when you’re alone?
If you’re married are you convinced that your life would be better if only your spouse got their act together? Or your kids?
Or is it politics? Do you despair when the other political party is elected to office? Or, in my case, any political party?
We could go on and on and on and on, but money and family and politics are three areas in which we are confronted daily with the reality that they cannot satisfy our deepest needs and desires. All three are good things, don’t mishear me. They’re good and proper and God has instituted finances for stewardship and sustenance, he has instituted the family, and he has instituted law and order in this world—all are good things, but not a single one of them can save you.
Good things make terrible gods. We are far too easily pleased.
Jesus, a Better King with a Better Kingdom
Paul Tripp once wrote—on Twitter no less, something good actually comes out of Twitter—“No matter how attractive it may seem, your tiny little kingdom of one has no capacity whatsoever to satisfy your heart.”7 No capacity.
When we turn our hope away from Christ and into created things we are building the security system of our own kingdom rather than resting in the security of God’s.
Ok, so I am finally getting to the Ascension.
The good news that we see in the Ascension of Christ is that there is a better king than you, and he is over a better kingdom. He is a king who can bear the weight of, and sustain, our hope. And that means the pressure is off of you. It’s exhausting trying to be God.
St. Paul writes, “I pray that you may know what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe according to the working of that power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he,” the Father, “has put all things under his,” the Son’s, “feet and has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
God displayed his power over Satan, Sin, and Death in the resurrection of Christ; his power over all earthly and spiritual authority, rule, power and dominion in the Ascension.
Now St. Paul takes his description of Christ’s description here directly from Daniel 7, where Daniel has a vision of the Son of Man going to the Ancient of Days and receiving an “everlasting dominion, and a kingdom which cannot be destroyed.”8
Christ’s rule and reign at the right hand of the Father is real, but it is presently hidden from all and can only be made known to us by the Holy Spirit who works in us the very same power that God worked in Christ to raise him from the dead and seat him upon his throne. The very same power. The power that conquered death and empire—but the day is coming when the King and his Kingdom will be fully revealed for all to see.
The Acts of the Apostles teaches us that Christ will return in the same way that he left,9 while the book of Revelation gives us a vision of what that day will be like: when Jesus returns, he will bring heaven with him; he will throw Satan, Sin, and Death into Hell forever and he will make all sadness come untrue. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain or suffering; no more war or death because Jesus is going to heal the nations.10
His beauty, and his glory, and our hope will fill the earth as water covers the sea.
Grace, this is the hope you already have in Christ as Sons and daughters of the king. You already have it. It’s yours. I pray that we will all come to know and experience this hope as an ever deepening understanding through the Holy Spirit. But for those of you who are here today, or hear this on a recording somewhere—if you’ve never tasted the forgiveness found in Christ, hear again why the Ascension of Christ is good news for you: Your kingdom cannot and will not sustain you—time devours all. When you make yourself an emperor the empire falls. But, in spite of your sin and your rebellion against this cosmic king, King Jesus invites you into his kingdom—a kingdom that is everlasting and will not go away, so that you rest in the beauty of Christ and find a forgiveness and a sure hope that will not cease.
The beauty that you have been searching for for your entire life, exists in Christ. And by faith you, too, can have every spiritual blessing in Christ and be marked as God’s own forever by the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the ☩Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.11.8. ↩︎
This sermon was delivered on my last Sunday at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, KY. The next weekend I moved (back) to West Virginia to help start a new Anglican church as part of Mission Hope: WV—a WV church planting initiative of the Diocese of Christ our Hope. ↩︎
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg xx. ↩︎
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: There and Back Again. ↩︎
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. ↩︎
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. ↩︎
Paul D. Tripp, via Twitter. I’ve been quoting this ever since I first saw his tweet, but it seems to be deleted. A quick search on twitter shows that a lot of retweets occurred around July 24th, 2010. ↩︎
Daniel 7.14. Verses 13–14 are often mistakenly understood to be about Christ’s return, but the context actually suggests his ascension. The Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven in v13a, but v13b clarifies “he came to the Ancient One, and was presented before him,” verse 14, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship…” St. Paul is clear that this happened when Christ ascended (cf. the context of this sermon’s passage, Eph 1.20-23). ↩︎
Acts 1.11 ↩︎
Revelation 21, 22.1,2. ↩︎