Now What? (2)
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The text for today 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 and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well. It came and went. Did you miss it? The great apocalypse linked to the last day of the Mayan calendar: December 21, 2012? Just another failed attempt to forecast the end of the world. I’d always wondered: What do you suppose those people who count so heavily on the world ending on a particular date do the day after? You know… the ones who give up everything they own, and then gather on a mountainside and wait for Jesus or the mothership to return.
Now I know; I met one of them personally. One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Just knew Jesus was coming back on 12-21-12. December 22nd, he started putting out job applications. But I suspect that he is the exception, not the rule. I’ve always pictured these misguided souls cloistered in their own rooms—forlornly looking outside through their windows, considering the possibility that they had somehow miscalculated. Or even worse, that they had been 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 face as they stand on the mountain, gazing up into the sky where Jesus has just ascended into heaven. It had taken them time and much explanation by Jesus to understand His death and resurrection. Clearly it will also take some time and a careful examination of Jesus’ teaching of Scripture to understand the significance of His Ascension.
The angels try 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 be enough to jolt the disciples out of their daze. In our Gospel, we read that they “went out and preached everywhere.”
What about you? Why are you sitting here? 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 or egg hunts. How many of you will get together with your 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. The Incarnation, when the eternal Son of God took upon Himself flesh and blood. 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.
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. The disciples in Acts see it from this side of creation as He is taken up in a cloud. In Revelation, St. John gets a glimpse of the same event from the heavenly side. It’s like a big tickertape parade. 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 return engagement with Elijah on Jesus’ Mount of Transfiguration just to assure us that all is well with him. But the One greater than Moses, 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. 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 of the Ascension shows this connection, too. This is no ordinary puff of frozen atmospheric moisture. This is the same 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. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate. But His disciples didn’t get it even 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 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. He’s so familiar that even risen from the dead, it’s terribly easy to forget that He is the Incarnate 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 make Him our 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 also 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 observe the Ascension of Our Lord today.
So, now what? Three things: First, know the times. These are 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 the ancient Mayans. Jesus says it is not given us to know the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. St. Peter reminds us that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord. Jesus could return at any time.
Be prepared. But don’t spend too much time worrying about it. Jesus’ appearing will be like a thief in the night, unannounced and unanticipated. But it won’t go unnoticed. Jesus will descend from heaven visibly, in the same way as His disciples saw Him go into heaven. As you wait for that Day, 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 the sheep are given to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice. 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 one day see. But for 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: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
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, not with silver or gold, but 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.