Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not Peace, But a Sword

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Our text for today, Matthew 10:34-37, is a terribly difficult passage of Scripture. Not so difficult to understand, but difficult to accept. These words are even more disturbing because they come from the One whom Scripture calls the Prince of Peace. Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”  

Most Christians want to think of our home as a place of refuge and peace, our family as a source of strength and comfort—especially in times of difficulty and tumult. Heaven help anyone who would try to drive a wedge between your dearest loved ones and you! So we have to ask, “What kind of God would come to this earth with the expressed purpose to ‘set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’”?

Jesus is that God. Your Jesus—the one who you love and the One to whom you pray—He is that God. “I have not come to bring peace,” He says, “but a sword… And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

What’s going on here? Well, there are a couple of clues. The first clue is a matter of Law. When Jesus speaks of turning families against each other, He is echoing the Old Testament prophet Micah, who is commenting on his day. Rejection of God and His Word has led to many terrible consequences in society. Rulers are corrupt and judges are easily bribed; there is no justice for anyone. Friends and neighbors are not to be trusted; sin has turned people to selfishness and greed. The family structure has broken down. Micah writes: “The son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.”

In contrast to this breakdown of human relationships, Micah places faith in God and reliance upon His Word: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7).

This is the first clue in understanding what Jesus is saying according to the Law in today’s text: When all share the same faith in the Lord, there will be harmony. When some in the family are believers and some are not, there will be strife because some hold to the truth of God’s Word and some reject it, some worship the one true God and others turn to idols of their own making. Such a family will find peace in only one of two ways: Either all will come to believe in the Lord and abide by His Word, or all will decide that family is more important.

The second clue to understanding Jesus’ harsh words is Gospel: Jesus comes to undo the wages and consequences of sin. All deserve eternal death, because all are sinful and the wages of sin is death. But Jesus comes to die for the sins of the world. He has won peace for us between man and God. He is Lord and God, truly worthy to receive glory and honor and power.

So given all of this, the question you face is this: Are you worthy? Do you really want Jesus to be your Lord and God? Do you really want to trust in the Lord and abide by His Word?

“Of course, I do, Pastor?” you say. “What a silly question for you to ask! Do you think I would be here if I didn’t?”

But I ask you again: Are you worthy? Do you really “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”? All the time? In every way?

Part of you certainly does. That baptized, sanctified, fully cleansed part of each Christian wants nothing more than for Jesus to be Lord and God. This is the part of you that Paul calls “a new creation.” This is what Luther’s Small Catechism describes as the new person who emerges and arises from Baptism “to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

But here in this life, that new creation is not the only part of you. Another part of you doesn’t want Jesus to be Lord and God. That part is the old evil flesh, “the body of sin” still living and working within you. The Old Adam wants nothing to do with Christ crucified and seeks to worship other gods! No, you do not want Jesus to be your Lord and God. Not all the time. You are an idolater!

Knowing who you are—your natural tendencies and inescapable desires—Jesus says to you in today’s Gospel: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”

With these terrible-sounding words, Jesus is lovingly cutting away objects of your idolatry. Remember: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress… Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.” Jesus does not want you to have any illusions about what shall be most important to you. He’s not even asking you to choose between Him and your gods. Jesus is making the choice for you because He knows you don’t have the ability to choose correctly for yourself.

Perhaps you have one of your idols sitting with you today. Go ahead and take a look. Maybe your favorite gods live somewhere across the state or the country. Inventory your memories. Assess your fondest hopes for the future. Consider your happiest moments of your life along with the people who were with you in those times. Think about how secure and comforted those loved ones have made you feel. Have you turned them into an idol?

Consider this in regard to a few common family situations faced today: Suppose your son decided he was going to live with his fiancĂ© before getting married. Would you call that sin or remain silent in order to keep peace? What if your daughter’s team were scheduled to play on Sunday morning? Would you let her miss worship just this once so that she wouldn’t lose her spot on the starting lineup? What if your boyfriend was pressuring you to do things God’s Word has clearly saved for marriage? Would you give in, rather than risk losing him?

Jesus’ says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And the sword of Jesus’ Word is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must given an account (Hebrew 4:12-13).

That Word terrifies the Old Adam, but it brings great comfort to the baptized new man. Jesus wields the razor-sharp sword of His Word to bring you true peace. This is not a cheap peace. This is not a half-hearted peace. This is not a comfortable peace brought by calculated compromise and careful negotiation. This is peace through strength, the power of God’s Word. The Word is the Law that kills and destroys sin in the death of Christ; but the Word is also the Gospel, which raises you to life and heals you in Christ’s resurrection. This is the Word that declares you righteous and holy for the sake of Jesus Christ.

So don’t fear the Lord’s sword or flee from it. For the One who wields this sword is the same Christ who gave His life into death for you on His cross. He knows the killing edge of that sword. For you, He has experienced it firsthand, in His own body. And on the way to Calvary, He experienced the rejection and scorn of even His own family members. He wields this sword—not as an instrument of destruction—but as a skilled surgeon, slicing out sin and death, carving out the cancer of idolatry, reviving and restoring you with His breath and His blood.

But the sword of Christ also brings earthly conflict and division. The cross of Christ always precipitates a crisis when it confronts us. We either deny it in unbelief or we confess it in faith. And the line between faith and unbelief is always up close and personal. It cuts through family ties. It severs every human connection, whether by blood or marriage.

Why would Jesus do that? Why would God tear down the bonds He has joined, the ties of family that you know are so essential to this life?

Jesus must tear down, before He builds up. He must wound before He heals. Christ must cut into your relationships, so He can get into the thick of it all. For Christ must get between a person and the members of his household, so that each will deal with the other, and receive the other, in and through Christ Himself. Without Christ every relationship is in danger of becoming idolatrous.

Jesus says, “Anyone who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” To love anyone over Christ is to make them into an idol. And no one can be God and Lord for us but the One who hung on the cross, who was broken by our death, and in His dying and rising brought us life. Think about your dear loved ones that God has given to you for a time here on earth. They are certainly wonderful gifts from God, but do they make a good god? Are they going to save you?

Can your Dad defy death for himself, much less you? Jesus can and Jesus has. It is on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection that you now shall rise from the dead, fully forgiven of every sin, including your idolatry.

Can your Mom truly comfort you as you face the harsh realities and consequences of your sin? Can anyone? Then why do they go away? How dare they die and leave you to face life alone! Jesus does not and will not leave you to face life alone. Risen from the dead, Jesus ascended to heaven so that He may fill all things—so that there is no place you can ever go where Jesus is not with you.

Can your spouse completely fulfill you? Does he or she know you, your innermost thoughts, and darkest secrets yet still love you perfectly and unconditionally? Jesus is your High Priest, who is able to sympathize with you in your weaknesses, One who in every respect has been tempted as you are, yet without sin. He is the Bridegroom who loves you and gives Himself up for you, that He might sanctify you, having cleansed you by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present you to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that you might be holy and without blemish.

Can your child be the source of your eternal joy? Your hope for the future? Your shot at immortality? Only God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can! According to His great mercy, He has caused you to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. Though you have not seen Christ, you love Him. Though you do not know see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3 ff.).

Has anyone in your family ever treated you selfishly? Has anyone ever put himself or herself first, rather thank keeping you first and foremost in all things? Jesus has never done that, and He never will! Everything Jesus does from His incarnation and perfect life to His atoning death, resurrection, and ascension, even His harsh-sounding words to you—everything Jesus does is for you!

“Anyone who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” With these words, Jesus is keeping your perspective clear. Love your family! Cherish them as precious gifts of God. Hold them and care for them and pour your life into them. You have nothing better to do than to devote yourself to those whom God has lovingly placed into your life. But don’t turn them into your idols!

With one and only one exception, every human relationship will eventually loosen and end. Death will see to it. One and only one connection remains eternal: God the Son has made you His brother in Baptism. In that water with the Word, God the Father has adopted you to be His child and heir forever. God the Holy Spirit has created for you an everlasting family, which extends far beyond the walls of your house and is now as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. You shall live and remain in this house with this dear family forever.

There, with Christ—Your Brother, Lord, and King—you will find perfect peace, eternal peace. Peace with God the Father. Peace which declares He no longer holds your transgressions against you. No, you are not worthy. But Christ is; and for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, you are counted worthy. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Holy Spirit Is Poured Out

            The text for today is Acts 2:1-21, which has already been read. 
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Moses’ patience was at its breaking point.  God had delivered His people from the bondage of Egypt and was on the verge of bringing them into the Promised Land.  But it didn’t take long and the grumbling had started.  It seemed like nothing was good enough for them and Moses was taking the brunt of their criticism.  They wanted meat to eat and were tired of following Moses.  Frustrated, Moses cried out to the Lord.  His murmuring and weeping resembled Israel’s, but it was different in an important way.  Moses turned to the Lord in his feelings of insufficiency and frustration, so his complaint did not degenerate into rebellion.
The Lord came to the aid of His weak and distraught servant: He provided a steady supply of meat and then He provided help.  Moses was to select seventy elders upon whom the Lord would put His Spirit.  The next morning they presented themselves at the Tent of Meeting.  The presence of the Lord in the cloud of fire settled over the tabernacle. 
As promised, the Spirit was poured out upon the elders.  They began to proclaim God’s Word.  This extraordinary manifestation of divine power was only temporary, in order to validate the authority of the 70 elders.  When they left the tent, this miraculous gift was no longer available to them.  This was an extension of the work of the Spirit, rather than a partitioning of the Spirit.  One Bible scholar has used the comparison that it was like lighting 70 candles from one candle.  In such a procedure, an extension of the fire and light is accomplished without diminishing the light of the first candle. 
            For some unknown reason, Eldad and Medad, two of the men selected, had not presented themselves at the Tabernacle.  They, however, began prophesying in the camp.  Some, including Joshua, felt the two men should be stopped.  Moses, however, assured him that the Lord gives His Spirit under various conditions for the same purpose.  He wished all of the people would receive the Spirit. 
            Fast forward nearly 1,500 years.  Since the days of Moses, the Jewish people had gathered annually to observe the Feast of Harvest.  We know it as Pentecost, a word that comes from the Greek meaning “fiftieth,” for the feast took place 50 days after the Passover Sabbath.  Singing psalms to the music of a flute, the farmers would process to the temple, bringing their baskets of food from the harvest to present to the priests as a wave offering.  This was followed by a time for worship and prayer in a ceremony of renewal, where the people promised to follow the teachings of God’s covenant.
            But God had special events in mind for His people on this Pentecost at Jerusalem in A.D. 30. 
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
            The “all” who were “together” most likely included the entire group of Jesus’ disciples mentioned in Acts 1:13-15: the Twelve apostles, the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, his brothers, and the rest of the company of persons, in all about 120.  They may have been gathered in the house where the upper room was located, in one of the meeting rooms in the temple area, or in another place.  They were gathered for worship and prayer, no doubt.  Since they were sitting, they were most likely listening to one of the apostles speak.
            The sound that filled the whole room did not merely come from the sky.  It came from the dwelling place of the Most High.  It came from God.  Here was the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prediction: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus’ promise: “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).  The baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire was occurring there in that place on that day.
            The tongues of fire came to rest on each person present.  They all received the baptism of the Spirit, for each would have work to do in carrying out the Great Commission.  Loudly and clearly all of them spoke in languages other than the language they normally spoke.  They did not speak all at once, but each spoke as the ability was given.  This was not babbling or incoherent speech; it was perfectly understandable to those who knew the languages.
            The believers were now equipped and prepared to begin to carry out the assignment that the Lord had given to His Church.  The dramatic signs—the sound, the fire, the ability to speak in other tongues—were signs for that particular time.  Such signs did not always accompany the preaching of the apostles or the testimony of other believers, so we need not expect them today.  However, the Spirit sent by Jesus is always present and active when the Gospel is spoken.  He gives the Word its power, and He gives believers the power to speak the Word.
Because of wars and persecutions, also because of their business activities, Jews had been scattered throughout the Roman Empire and beyond it.  They were known as Jews of the Diaspora, the “dispersion.”  For various reasons they were in Jerusalem on this special day.  Some of them had come just for the feast and would go back to their adopted nation once it was over.  Others had come to live out their golden years back in their ancient homeland.  All of them were “God-fearing”; that is, they tried to live in faithfulness to the God of Israel and in compliance with the Law of Moses.  
When they heard the sound “like the blowing of a violent wind,” a large number of them came together in bewilderment.  Each person in the crowd heard and understood one of the apostles speaking the language of his homeland.  It was not the Aramaic of Judea, which most of them understood, or the Greek of the Roman Empire, which virtually all of them would have understood.  Nor did they hear the dialect of Galilee, which they might have expected the apostles to speak. 
It was natural for everyone who heard to inquire about the significance of such an event.  But some of them refused to believe either the message or the miracle.  They preferred to discredit both by an “explanation” that slandered the Lord’s spokesmen.  They accused them of drunkenness.
“Nonsense!” declared Peter.  “We never drink this early in the day.  You’re missing the big picture here.  The noise like a violent, rushing wind… the tongues of fire… and the various languages we speak fulfill Joel’s prophecy about the coming of the last days.  The last days are upon you! 
“But here’s an even bigger surprise: the gift of the Holy Spirit is for you, too!  For you men and women gathered here.  For your sons and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and anyone else you can name.  For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.”
With that last statement, Peter gets to the heart of it all, doesn’t he?  “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  That’s what this Pentecost surprise is all about.
So the Lord equips the apostles with the Spirit.  The Spirit will use their sermons to kill sinners in order to raise them from the dead.  The Holy Spirit will give them the words to write down in Holy Scripture of their testimonial witness to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ for a world of sinners.  Law and Gospel.  God’s wrath and God’s promises.  Holy Spirit-filled apostolic ministry in the Church. 
Are you jealous?  Wouldn’t you like to see the Lord come down in a cloud and pour out His Spirit like He did for the 70 elders of Israel?  Do you wish you had something like this first Pentecost surprise?  Wouldn’t it be cool to hear a noise like a violent wind rush through this house?  See tongues of fire on the preacher?  And hear all kinds of different languages?  Wouldn’t you like to be there when God adds 3,000 to the number of His Church in one day?
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise!  You have the gifts, too.  The Holy Spirit and all His gifts have been poured out on you.  Through the language you hear today.  I dare say there are not too many Aramaic, Hebrew, or Koine Greek speakers among us today.  You hear this message in English.  If you were in Germany, you could hear it in German.  If you were in Mexico or most of Central and South America, you could hear it in Spanish.  By God’s grace, the Gospel has been translated and is preached in almost every language around the world.
In fact, the Holy Spirit still works through St. Peter’s words, even though he’s been gone about 1,950 years.  The rest of his sermon is not in our text for today, but I can tell you this: he’s just getting warmed up!  Peter continues to preach, speaking about Jesus, the crucified Messiah and everyone starts to realize he is talking about them.  He’s talking about you, too!  So feel free, in your mind, to put yourself among the crowd in Jerusalem on that Pentecost morning.
Peter continues: “Jesus of Nazareth did many mighty works and wonders and signs to prove to you that He was sent from God.  According to God’s definite plan and foreknowledge, you crucified and killed Jesus by the hands of lawless men!  But God has raised Him up from the dead, like David prophesied: ‘You will not leave My soul in Hades, nor will You let Your Holy One see corruption.’  David is dead and buried.  His tomb is down the street, and he knew that God would keep His promises that the Messiah would be from His children.  So David foresaw the resurrection.  And we have seen it to!  We are witnesses!”  
And as you are listening to Peter preaching about this man Jesus, and His death, and His resurrection, and all the promises of the prophet, it begins to click.   You must have sung those psalms a thousand times, but never knew what they were talking about.  Now you understand—they’re about the Messiah, dead, raised, ascended to God’s right hand.  It all makes sense now.  This Jesus was the One, the long-promised, the long-expected.  The Messiah has come!
And then the sermon comes crashing to an end.  Peter says: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 
Oh, you may have not shouted, “Crucify Him!”  You may have not driven any of the nails into His hands and feet, but your sin did!  The wickedness in which you were conceived and born did!  The evil you’ve done did!  The good you’ve failed to do did!  The Righteous One was placed on that cross for the payment of your sins.  He was wounded for your transgressions; He was crushed for your iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought you peace, with His stripes you are healed… and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
 The realization hits you like a ton of bricks.  “That was the Messiah, promised and sent by the Lord God.  I’ve killed Him.  It was my sin that put Him there on that cursed tree.  It was me that deserved to die such a shameful death.  What can I do?  Is there any hope for me?  Can I be saved?”
And at that point, the preacher answers with some of the sweetest words that you’ve ever heard: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” 
It’s such Good News, you rush home for your family and friends.  You tell them about Jesus.  About the promise of David.  About death and resurrection and ascension, and about the Holy Spirit and baptism and the forgiveness of sins.  And through your testimony of the Word, the Holy Spirit is poured out on them, too!  They believe and are baptized, too.
So it is, dear saints, that the Holy Spirit worked on the first Pentecost, and continues to work until this day.  No, there generally aren’t the miraculous outward signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity, but He is alive and well.  Every Sunday is a little Pentecost!  The Holy Spirit is poured out on you in the Word read and preached, the Sacrament administered and received. 
The only wind you hear today is the air that comes from my lungs as I read and preach.  But in that hot air, the Spirit is at work, sustaining and strengthening you to trust in Jesus only.  And in the everyday language of English the sermon pours out the Holy Spirit upon you.  He kills you in your sins, raises you from the dead just as Christ is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.  The Holy Spirit creates the faith that you believe that Jesus died for you.  That Jesus rose for you.  That all of your sin is forgiven.  You are a new creation in Christ.  The old has passed.  The new has come.  You are God’s beloved child!
The Holy Spirit has been poured out on you.  He called you to faith in Jesus through the preaching of the Gospel in words you could understand.  He has enlightened you with the gift of salvation in Jesus when the apostolic minister baptized you in the Triune Name.  There, heaven broke open for you for Christ’s sake.  Paradise came down on you at the font.  And the Spirit was poured out upon you with that Word in the water that you might be Christ’s own and live with Him in His kingdom forever.  In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies, the whole Christian Church and keeps it united in the one true faith.
And you know what else:  And while it may not be as dramatic or flashy, the Holy Spirit is still at work in a mighty way!  He will add many more than 3,000 to the number of Christ’s Church today.  While only God knows the actual number, reasonable estimates place the number baptized into the kingdom of God on a daily basis between 100,000 to 150,000 souls!
No, I haven’t been drinking this morning.  I’m stone cold sober when I tell you that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on you.  Consequently, you call on the Lord’s Name and you are saved!  Right here!  Right now!  In these gray and latter days.  And with the Holy Spirit-filled Gospel there is always more.  Jesus serves up Himself and gives you the privilege of sharing your faith.  “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink,” He offers.  “He who believes in Me as the Scriptures say, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” 
The real miracle of Pentecost is repeated again and again and again.  People are brought to faith and receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Like my previous illustration of a candle lighting another candle (perhaps even many candles), the mighty, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit is repeated again and again and again.  Every time a baby is baptized.  Every time you call upon the Name of the Lord in worship.  Every time you hear a sermon proclaiming Christ crucified for a world of sinners like you and me.  Every time you receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Every time you confess your sins and hear by faith this wonderful Word of Absolution: You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Now What?

            The text for this evening is Acts 1:9-11: “And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  Here ends the text.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Well.  It came and went.  Did you miss it?  The great worldwide earthquakes and the May 21st rapture of all believers promised by Harold Camping foreshadowing the October 21st end of the world? 
I’ve wondered: What do you suppose Mr. Camping and his followers did on May 22nd?  I can just picture them cloistered in their own little rooms—forlornly looking outside through their windows, considering the possibility that Camping had once again miscalculated.  Or even worse: wondering if somehow they were among those who were left behind.  Saying to one another: “I can’t believe we’re still here.  Now what do we do?”    
Now what?  The same question that Jesus’ disciples faced as they stood on the mountain, gazing up into the sky where Jesus had just ascended into heaven.  It had taken them time and much explanation by Jesus to understand His death and resurrection.  Clearly it would also take some time and a careful examination of Jesus’ teaching of Scripture to understand the significance of His ascension.
The angels tried to jumpstart the process: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Obviously, that must have been enough to jolt the disciples out of their daze.  In our Gospel, we read that they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53).  What did the disciples do?  They worshiped and waited.
What about you?  Why are you sitting here?  Why did you come here on this Thursday evening forty days after Easter?  What’s so special about this particular day that we observe it with a church festival: The Ascension of Our Lord?
            The reason for Good Friday is clear enough: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross for the life of the world.  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 the culture’s radar screen.  No Ascension Day parades, no Ascension Day sales at the mall.  How many of you got together with you family for an Ascension Day dinner?   
            But the Ascension of Jesus is a big deal despite its low visibility in the secular world.  A very big deal.  Historically, in the early Church, it was one of the three festival days, right along with Easter and Pentecost.  Observed long before people thought to celebrate Christmas.  Well worth better understanding.     
            What, then, is Jesus’ Ascension?  What does it mean?  What happens when He ascends into heaven?  And what does it all have to with us, the Lord’s Church and His dear Christians?  To answer these questions we will delve into great mysteries that are wonderful, and well beyond our limited understanding.
            The answer begins with the first Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord.  Actually, it begins even earlier—nine months earlier—when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  That’s when the eternal Son of God took upon Himself flesh and blood, a human nature.  So the two natures of Christ—divine and human—are perfectly and eternally united in the person of Jesus. 
What marvelous love that God has toward us that He would unite Himself—God and man together—in the person of Jesus!  And He does this for us, so that He would be our Brother.  So that He would be tempted and suffer like us.  So that He could sympathize with us in our weakness.  So that He could die in our place and suffer the punishment for our sins.  So that He could rise again from the dead for us to bring us life.  So that He might ascend to the Father’s right hand for us. 
This personal union of the natures means that all of the attributes of the divine nature are communicated to Jesus’ human nature.  All the things that we can say about God we can say about Jesus as a man.  According to His human nature He knows everything, is all powerful, eternal, full of life, and is in every place.
            Now, from Jesus’ birth to His crucifixion, we see glimpses of this union.  In His miracles, knowledge of the thoughts of men’s hearts, and transfiguration, we see the man Jesus doing things that only God can do.  And yet, in His state of humiliation, we see that Jesus did not fully use all of the divine attributes that are His by this personal union.  He was tired and hungry and did not know certain things; He limited Himself to one location.  But this is the significance of the Ascension: When Jesus sits down at the right hand of God, He is permanently and fully taking up the use of all the divine attributes through His human nature. 
This is what Paul means when he says, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.”  Jesus fills all things, that is, He is present absolutely everywhere.  And this is where the celebration of the Ascension brings us comfort.  For we often seem lost and alone, as if God is far away or that He’s turned His back on us.  We live in a sinful world and we ourselves are sinful, and have lives that are full of trouble, on the outside, and on the inside.  Sin pushes us away from God and the devil loves this.  He wants us to think that we have to do it on our own without God, that we have to make it on our own, that we have to fix it on our own.
            But we are not alone.  Jesus, our Brother, our Friend, our Savior, and Crucified Lord—this God-Man Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, so that He might be near us, in the midst of us, with us.  His ascension is not His leaving us, but His drawing near to us.  And so it is He—He the man who has spoken with the disciples, the One who has endured all tribulations in His assumed human nature, and who therefore has sympathy with us—He will be with us in all our troubles also according to His human nature.
            In a sense Christ’s ascension is the culmination of His saving work.  It’s the big tickertape parade down the streets of the city described by St. John in the book of Revelation.  The conquering Christ strides across the 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 might and honor and glory and blessing.”
               Moses never made it into the Promised Land.  He was buried in the land of Moab, with a single cameo appearance on Jesus’ Mount of Transfiguration just to assure us that all is well with him.  But the One greater than Moses—Jesus our Joshua—having gone through the parted Sea of Death in His exodus from death to life, entered the Promised Land as the conquering King at His ascension. 
Now you see why Ascension Day has to be a 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 One greater than Moses leads the charge to heavenly Canaan in a bright cloud.
            The bright cloud shows this connection, too.  This is no ordinary puff of frozen atmospheric moisture.  This is the cloud that led Israel through the wilderness.  This is the cloud of the glory of Yahweh, the shekinah that settled between the cherubim over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle, the manifestation of God’s abiding, though hidden, 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 prophet, priest, or religious leader—greater even than God’s Old Testament covenant name, Yahweh.  So great is the 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 if you’re honest, you must admit: you forget the reign of Christ; don’t you?  Or perhaps I should say: “You willfully disregard it.  Your Old Adam will not abide it—to be subject to such a King who dies to save His subjects by sheer grace.  You recognize only the reign of power and the sword.  I do, too.
Even Jesus’ handpicked disciples didn’t get it.  As He was about to extend His hand in a final blessing, they asked Him: “Are You now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  In other words, “Does the revolution start now?  Can we break out the swords and summon the troops?”  The disciples 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 forever and ever.
            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 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 vacated, 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 Christendom, by those who seek some future reign and some future kingdoms, as though Christ were not now seated at the right hand of Majesty.  The kingdoms of this world are now the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. 
And by the way: we don’t by our prayers and pieties put Jesus on His throne.  Nor do we by our religious feelings and tears make Him Lord.  He is Lord—King of kings and Lord of lords.  Ascension Day proclaims His lordship over those who believe and over those who refuse to believe.  This is not a matter of faith, but fact.  Our faith no more seats Christ on the throne than our unbelief unseats Him.
            The ascension of Christ is the glorification of our humanity.  This is not man become God, but God become Man to rescue fallen humanity, to bring mankind back to God.  The God-Man reigns—fully divine and fully human He reigns over all creation.  God Incarnate.  God in human flesh.
            We need to put to rest the Gnostic notion that Jesus somehow shed His humanity in His ascension, that He is once again free of the confines of the 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.  Just as we can say that Mary is 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, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
And as perfect Man, Jesus is also 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.  So 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 went 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.  In fact, He is more present now than ever.  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 fallen, dying world.  Had Jesus not ascended, we would be stuck with Jesus popping in here and there every so often.  If He’s here and He can’t be there, and if He’s there and He can’t be here—then how is He going to “be with us always,” as He promised?  The gift of the Ascension is Jesus’ abiding presence in the Word, the water of 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 significance of Christ’s Ascension.  These are the reason we gather here to worship tonight. 
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 work of salvation is done.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ now reigns.  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,” you say.  “When did the thousand years begin?”  And I say, “They began when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.”  
You may as well put away your calculators and calendars.  They won’t do you any more good than they did Harold Camping and his bunch.  Jesus says it is not given us to know the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.  If a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord, then this is His cosmic Sabbath, having completed the work of our salvation.  And His appearing will be like a thief in the night, unannounced and unanticipated.  As you wait, go about your lives in freedom and keep watch with expectant joy.
            Second, listen.  The days and years between the Ascension and the Last Day are the times for hearing and listening to Jesus.  He is physically present.  It’s just that we don’t see Him with our eyes.  But we hear Him with our ears. 
Now is the time to listen.  Now is the time the sheep are given to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice.  Now is not the time of seeing, but hearing; and in hearing, believing.  Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing.  You cannot see the Lord, 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 age.  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 staring into space.  Before ascending, He gave His Church a mission: “You will be My witnesses.”  In Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Discipling all the nations—baptizing in the Name and teaching.  Proclaiming repentance unto 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 whizbang synodical program.  The Church has it straight from her Head.  Speak the Good News of Jesus to the world for whom 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 for the sake of His Church.  All that you might be redeemed, purchased and won from all sins, from death, and the power of the devil with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  All that you might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.  All that you might hear and believe this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...