Ascension Day Sermon
May 13, 2018
“What is Jesus Doing Now?”
Mark 16: 14-20
Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen. Mark 16:14-20
Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after he rose from the dead. Here in St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus “was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.” What does it mean that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, almighty?
It means two things: that he has defeated our enemies and that he is present with us, giving us his victory.
Christ defeated our enemies when he suffered and died on the cross. We have three enemies: the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. When Jesus died, he kept the word God spoke to the devil after the deceiver led our first parents into sin. Moses recorded in Genesis 3:15 that the Seed of the woman, that is, the Virgin’s Son, would crush the serpent’s head. He did so on the cross. He destroyed his power to deceive. By bearing in his body all of the world’s sin, he took the sin away. The accuser can no longer accuse. The devil has been defeated. Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. This means he is victorious over the devil whose lying mouth he shuts wherever his gospel is proclaimed. He sets sinners free from the devil’s power by the power of his almighty word.
Jesus defeated the world. The worldly powers promise what only God can give. Throughout history, kings, emperors, princes, presidents, and other worldly rulers have sought allegiance from people that rightly belongs to God alone. They threaten. They posture. They promise what they cannot deliver. Puffed up in pride, they vainly seek to displace God and his Christ. Listen to these words from Psalm 2:
In Psalm 110 we read of him:
In Psalm 68 we read of him:
Christ ascended into heaven, victorious over the world, as his enemies are destroyed, shattered like brittle pottery. The ancient Roman Caesars who fed Christians to the lions, the vicious Muslim hoards who invaded Christian lands and slaughtered millions of Christians, the godless Communist killers who tortured and murdered millions of Christ’s Christians, and all other worldly powers that have tried to destroy Christ and his kingdom were themselves destroyed. Christ is at the right hand of God. He reigns, as nations fall into dust.
Christ has defeated the devil and all the evil powers of this world. He also defeats the sinful flesh that lies within us. The old comic strip character Pogo said famously: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Christ’s ascension to his Father’s right hand means that he exercises his power to destroy the sin that clings to us, hounds us, and would claim us for hell if not for the almighty power of Jesus Christ.
Christ could not defeat our sin if he were not with us. When his birth was announced, he was given the name Immanuel, which means God with us. Before ascending into heaven, he said to his disciples, “Lo I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He ascended into heaven, not to be absent from us, but to be present with us.
Christ’s ascension into heaven means that he has defeated our enemies and that he is present with us. He is present with us to give to us the victory he has won. He is present with us where his gospel is preached. He is present with us in our baptism. He is present with us when we eat and drink his body and blood, given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins. Christ is present with his church. He is not absent.
Christ’s session at the right hand of God the Father doesn’t confine him or limit his power. The right hand of God is a way of expressing his almighty power. Some have applied geographical boundaries to Christ’s kingdom. John Calvin, a very clever fellow, was too smart for his own good when he taught that Christ in his human nature couldn’t be in more than one place at one time because a human body is, by definition, locatable in a particular location. He appealed to the authority of Aristotle who said that the finite is not capable of the infinite. For Calvin, the location of Christ’s body was someplace up in heaven somewhere where he was sitting at God’s right hand.
But that’s not what the Bible teaches! From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians we learn that the right hand of God is Christ’s position of almighty power. Far from being absent from us, he fills all things. He is not absent. He is present. He has kept his word never to leave his church. He is not only with us by his Spirit; he is with us with his very body and blood. He is with us where his gospel sounds forth. The King who has triumphed over the devil and reduces the kingdoms of this world to dust also rules in our hearts by forgiving us our sins.
Jesus has all power in heaven and on earth. His power is exercised under the appearance of weakness.
Jesus validated the truth of his gospel as it was preached by the church’s first preachers. He did miracles by their hand. St. Mark records Jesus’ promise to them that these signs would follow those who believed:
St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, recounts for us how this promise was fulfilled. What Jesus said would happen happened. In time, after the Bible had been completed, the signs that accompanied the apostolic preaching of the gospel faded away. God provided these signs in the early history of the church to validate the apostolic teaching.
Jesus never commanded his church to cast out demons, speak with new tongues, take up serpents, or drink deadly poison. He said that Christians would do this. He gave no command that it be done. It happened. There is no command that this sort of thing continue.
The command Jesus gave his apostles, right before he ascended into heaven, was:
The gospel is preached. It isn’t lived. It isn’t done. It is preached. It’s a message from God to us. It is communicated in words. The gospel isn’t something we do. It’s something God says. The gospel is from God, not us. It is the good news concerning Jesus Christ, that God forgives us sinners all our sins on account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This means that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Baptism isn’t our work. It is God’s work. It is the gospel joined to the sign of water. Our baptism is God telling us that the gospel preached to all creation is for us personally, as surely as God joined our name to his name when the water was poured over our heads and we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. These words from Jesus Christ shatter and destroy all of the religions of this world that teach salvation by works. You cannot save yourself from your sin no matter how hard you work at it. You cannot deliver your soul from hell, no matter how hard you try. You cannot conquer death and the grave. You cannot defeat the devil. You cannot overcome the world. You cannot tear your sinful flesh out of you and toss it aside as if you were in command.
It is the almighty Lord Jesus Christ who delivers us from our sin. He is the One, the only one, who has faced death and destroyed it, fought the devil and won, overcome the world, and vanquished all evil powers. Jesus has done it. He is at the right hand of God. Right now he is King of kings and Lord of lords. He shall reign forever and ever.
Jesus did not ascend into heaven to leave us. He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God in order to be present with us and rule over us by his grace. Christ rules over us by preaching his gospel to us, by washing us clean in Holy Baptism, by feeding us with his body and blood, by absolving us of all our sins. This is how he governs his church on earth.
Faith believes the gospel. The suffering Servant who shed his blood for us, destroying death, blotting out sin, and defeating the devil, is the ascended Lord who fills all things, and is most certainly present with his church at all times. His gospel is all we need. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. Grant this, Lord, unto us all!
Rolf D. Preus