Our Savior’s Lutheran Church – Whitefish Bay, WI
30 May 2019 + The Ascension of Our Lord
St. Luke 24:44-53 THE KING ASCENDS IN TRIUMPH
X In Nomine Iesu X
24 44 Then He said to them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you ware clothed with power from on high.”
50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. 51 While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
I have two questions for this festival day of forty days after Easter: So what? and, Now what? “So what?” might be more fitting for the lips of those who do not believe, or those who don’t see the point for making such a fuss for a holy day that always falls on a Thursday. (Couldn’t the Lord have waited until Sunday?) So what?
“Now what?” is more on the minds of the baptized who live in the last days waiting anxiously to see the glory of Jesus face to face.
So what? is not the kind of question people who have gone through Lent and the fullness of Holy Week and who have celebrated the joys of the Easter Season for six weeks ask themselves. You know exactly why you came today, or at least you have pretty good notion. Besides, believers don’t need an excuse to worship! “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Still, I’m not sure we’re always quite so clear about what exactly why we do what we do when we do it, festival-wise.
Good Friday seems clear enough: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross for the life of the world remembered. Though some mistake it for defeat, we still proclaim the victory. Easter Sunday is clearer still: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—the open, empty tomb. He is risen, Alleluia! But Ascension Day? That’s the odd one. So odd, it isn’t even remotely on our culture’s radar screen. No Ascension Day parades, you’ll note; no Ascension Day sales down at the mall. I haven’t heard a word this past week about there being “four more shopping days left until Ascension Day”; no one, to my knowledge, is having Ascension Day family parties. The festival just isn’t conducive to it. (“Sorry, Pastor, we won’t be in church this Sunday: we’re going to Grandma’s for Ascension Day this year.”) Let’s face it—in comparison to Christmass and Easter, Ascension seems to be not much of a big deal. I don’t know: do many circuits still gather for circuit-wide Ascension Day services like this?
But the Ascension of Jesus is a big deal, a very big deal. If Christ be not ascended, then we’ve got a big problem. Where in the world is He? Let’s get down to the “so what” of Ascension Day.
First, Christ’s Ascension is the culmination of His work, the big tickertape parade down the streets of the city in which the conquering Christ strides across the crystalline glassy sea in the heavenly throne room and takes His rightful seat at the right hand of the Father as the hosts of heaven sing out: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Moses never made it into the Promised Land. He was buried on Mt. Nebo in the land of Moab, with a single cameo appearance with Jesus at the Mountain of Transfiguration just to assure us that all is well with him. But the One greater than Moses, Jesus (which is the same name as Joshua), having gone through the parted Sea of Death in His exodus from death to life, now enters the heavenly Promised Land as the conquering King. Now you see why Ascension is set on Thursday. Forty days after His resurrection, in parallel to Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness after the Red Sea, forty days after His exodus from the Egypt of death, the Promised “Greater-than-Moses” Lord leads the charge to the heavenly Canaan in a bright cloud.
The bright cloud shows this, too. See, this is not just some errant cumulus nimbus interposing itself between the rising Jesus and His disciples! This is the bright cloud that descended on the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus gave a glimpse of His glory. This is the cloud that led Israel through the wilderness. This is the cloud of the glory of יהוה, the shekinah that settled between the cherubim over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. It is the manifestation of God’s abiding—though hidden-from-our-eyes—presence.
The Ascension proclaims the reign of Jesus Christ over all things. His alone is the Name that is above every name. Greater than the name of every prophet, priest, or religious leader, greater even than the Old Testament covenant name יהוה, so great is the name of incarnational name of the Son of God that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven, on earth, and under the earth—and every tongue confess the three-word creed: “Lord Jesus Christ” to the glory of God the Father.
But we forget the reign of Christ—or more truthfully, we often willfully disregard it. Our old Adam will not abide it—to be subject to such a King who dies to save His subjects by sheer grace! By nature, we recognize only the reign of power and the sword. Even Jesus’ handpicked disciples didn’t get it. As He was about to extend His hands in a final blessing, they asked Him, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Does the revolution start now? Can we break out the swords and summon the troops? They still didn’t recognize that the fight was over, the battle won. Christ had triumphed; the King was returning to His city, to His throne, to sit and reign.
Here was Jesus as they had known Him for three years. They saw Him, they touched Him, He ate with them. Even risen from the dead, it’s so terribly easy to forget that this Man from Nazareth is the Son of the Most High God. He is God in the Flesh. The throne He ascends to occupy is the very same throne He has had for all eternity as the only-begotten Son of God, the throne He willingly left, emptying Himself of His divine honor and glory to become Man; humbling Himself in obedience to His own Law to save a world of lawbreakers.
The present reign of Jesus Christ is often neglected or even denied within the confines of Christendom by those who seek some future reign and some future kingdom as though Christ were not now seated at the right hand of Majesty on high. The kingdoms of this world are now the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And we don’t put Jesus on His throne by our prayers and pieties. Nor do we by our religious feelings and tears make Him Lord. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. This day proclaims His lordship over those who believe and over those who refuse to believe. This is not a matter of faith but a matter of fact. Our faith no more seats Christ on the throne than unbelief unseats Him.
To our joy, the Ascension of Christ is the glorification of our humanity. This is not man-become-God, but God-become-Man to rescue fallen humanity by bringing mankind back to God. The Apostle Paul writing to the Colossians views Christ’s Ascension as our own: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col 3:1-4).
We need to put to rest the old gnostic notion that Jesus somehow shed His humanity in His Ascension, that He is once again free of the confines of His body. That may sit well with the New Agers and all the so-called “spiritualities” of our day, but there is no comfort in a Christ without a body enthroned in heaven. And just as we can say that Mary is Theotokos, the “Mother of God,” because she bore the Son of God in her womb, so we can say that a human being reigns over all things from the throne of God. Jesus is our High Priest, like us in every way yet without sin, sympathetic to our humanity, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, showing the wounds of His once for all atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple, pleading our forgiveness and pardon.
There’s no comfort in a disembodied God, just as there is no comfort in an absent Jesus. And while we’re at it, let’s shoot down a second misunderstanding of the Ascension, namely that Jesus “went” to another place, the way we say when Grandma dies, “She’s gone to a better place.” Jesus disappeared into the cloud of God’s presence; He didn’t shoot off into space like a missile. He’s withdrawn His visible presence, not His actual presence. He departs in one way so that He can be with us in a yet greater way.
He’s not gone to another place, but He has embraced this place: this mixed up world of war and terror and corrupt boardrooms and adulterous bedrooms. He “fills all in all.” Had Jesus not ascended, we would be stuck in those forty days before Ascension Thursday, with Jesus popping in here and there. If He’s here and He can’t be there, and if He’s there He can’t be here. And how is He then going to “be with us always,” as He promised?
The gift of the Ascension is Jesus’ abiding presence in the Word, in the water of your Baptism, in the Bread that is His Body, the wine that is His Blood. He has gone away in one sense to be with us in a yet greater sense. The culmination of Jesus’ work, His present reign, the glorification of our humanity, His greater and nearer presence—these are the “so what” of the Ascension.
So, now what? Three Things:
First, know the times. These are the last of the last days. The Ascension of Christ marks the beginning of the end, the eschaton, the Sabbath’s rest of the cosmos prior to the Last Day. The work of salvation is done. “It is finished.” And when you’re done with your work, you sit down. There is nothing more that needs to be done than what has been done: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ now reigns.
This means that we are in the midst of the “Millennium,” the “thousand year” reign of the saints with Christ. “But it’s been nearly two thousand years,” someone will say. “When did the thousand years begin?” Answer: “They began when Jesus ascended to reign from the right hand.” And we may as well put away our calculators and calendars because they won’t help. It is not given us to know the times or the seasons. If a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord, then this is His cosmic Sabbath, His rest, having completed the work of our salvation. And His appearing at the end of the days will be like a thief in the night, unannounced and unanticipated. Go about your lives in freedom and keep watch with joy.
Second, listen. Don’t look, listen. Now is not the time for seeing but hearing, and by hearing believing. Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing. So, stick your eyes in your ears and listen to what the Lord has to say. You cannot see Him, but you can hear Him in His Word preached to you. You cannot see Him, but He can be recognized in the Breaking of the Bread that is His Body. You cannot see Him, but He is with you always, to the end of the ages. What you now must believe, you will see one Day. But now you must trust in what is not seen. That is the essence of faith.
Third, speak. Having heard, we speak. Jesus didn’t leave His disciples just to stare into space. Nor did the angels who attended Jesus’ Ascension. “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Lo, He comes with clouds descending, at a day and a time you do not and cannot know.
But in the meantime, for as many days as we have, “you will be my witnesses.” In Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of earth. Discipling all nations; baptizing in the Name and teaching; proclaiming repentance for forgiveness—forgiveness is something you turn to that is already there, not something you earn by your repenting. Proclaiming repentance for forgiveness in the Name of Jesus to all the nations.
It couldn’t be clearer than that, could it? We don’t need a mission statement or some new and shiny synodical program. The church has it straight from Him who is her Head. Speak the good news of Jesus to the world for which Jesus died. And do it with all the joy and confidence that comes with being under the gracious reign of Jesus. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ now reigns in glory—all of it to save you.
In the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Rev. Dr. Charles L. Cortright X