The Ascension of our Lord| May 17, 2015| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. 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.
Christ’s ascension into heaven is a major event in the history of the human race. The Lutheran Church historically celebrated this festival. Even today, years after most Germans have abandoned the Christian religion as something to believe, Ascension Day remains a national holiday in Germany.
Few churches in America celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. It falls on a Thursday forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost. The series of bulletin inserts with the propers for the day that we order from Concordia Publishing House doesn’t feature the propers for Ascension Day. This day is apparently no longer regarded as very significant.
But it is. Christ’s ascension into heaven is what guarantees our ascension into heaven. Christ’s ascension into heaven is an historical fact. It’s not a myth invented by the early church to express their hope in a life to come. It happened. Eyewitnesses recorded it. St. Mark writes in today’s Gospel Lesson,
So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.
St. Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles,
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
A thousand years before Christ ascended into heaven, it was foretold by the Psalmist, David who wrote in Psalm 68,
You have ascended on high
You have led captivity captive.
St. Paul writes,
He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. (Ephesians 4:10)
Christ did not ascend into heaven to be confined in a geographical space. As Paul wrote, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” Heaven and hell cannot be located on a map. The Bible consistently uses picture language to describe what cannot be understood in any other way. The most beautiful descriptions of heaven are the symbolic descriptions found in the Revelation of St. John.
Throughout the Bible, heaven is pictured as being up and hell is pictured as being down. God is up. The devil is down. The symbolism is obvious. God is above us. Heaven is where God is. In heaven we will be with God and will enjoy perfect fellowship with God. Heaven is the most beautiful, the most wonderful, and the most peaceful place. There is no sin in heaven. There is no sickness, no death, no sorrow, and no pain. There is pure joy without a taint of regret or sadness.
At Bethel, Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. It was a picture of what was to come. His descendent, Jesus, was that ladder. Jesus said to Nathaniel, after Nathaniel confessed him to be the Son of God and the King of Israel:
Most assuredly, I say to you hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. (John 1:51)
Christ is the ladder to heaven. Christmas is when we celebrate God’s incarnation. God became a man. He was born. We confess Mary to be the mother of God because the Child she bore was not just a baby boy. He was also the eternal God. Everything Jesus did he did as true God and true man.
Jesus, true God and true man, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus, true God and true man, suffered and died on the cross for us all. Jesus, true God and true man, rose from the dead on the third day. Jesus, true God and true man, ascended into heaven to claim his authority as King of kings and Lord of lords with almighty power to rule the whole universe.
Christ, in his human nature, always had all divine powers. But he did not always use all of them. When he was hanging on the cross they mocked him. They said, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” The man they were mocking was the Son of God. He had almighty power to come down from the cross. But he remained on the cross. By not exercising his divine power to save himself from suffering, he won for us release from all our suffering. By bearing the imputation of the sin of the whole world against him, he washed away all of our sins. In our own human nature, God confronted all evil and overcame.
God won the victory of good over evil, of righteousness over sin, of health and wellbeing over sickness and misery. He won this victory by becoming a human being and doing what he required humanity to do. God became our brother. Jesus came forth from the Father. He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. Jesus returned to the Father. He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Before he came forth from the Father he shared eternal glory with him. After he returned to the Father, he shared eternal glory with him. But now he is true man, our brother, one of us. We belong to him. We are flesh of his flesh and bones of his bones. We are his Church.
As the hymnist puts it:
He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord’s ascension
We by faith behold our own.
Where he is we shall be. The head cannot be where the body is absent. The body cannot be where the head is absent. Wherever the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, there is Christ. There he is exercising all authority. The right hand of God is God’s almighty power. Christ exercises his almighty divine power right here in this place. Whenever you hear the gospel and believe that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, Christ is reigning over you as your King. The power he exercises as King of kings and Lord of lords is the power to save sinners. As he said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
There was a popular song sung back in the sixties that included the refrain: “Tell me, over and over and over again my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” There was nothing particularly Christian about the song. You don’t have to be a Christian to see that this world isn’t headed toward heaven. Take a look at what’s going on throughout the world today and consider the words of our Lord Jesus:
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9-14)
The gospel sets free. False gospels enslave. Where Christ’s gospel is proclaimed sinners bound in service to selfishness and self-centeredness are forgiven of their sins and set free from their power. Where the obedience of Jesus is proclaimed as our righteousness before God we are saved. We are rescued and delivered from the sin within us, the lies of Satan, and the death that clings to our bodies. We are transported from earth to heaven. That’s what the gospel does. It has the power of him who sits at the right hand of the Father. He provided the signs of casting out demons, speaking in tongues, surviving venomous snake bites and poison, and healing the sick by touch. Jesus promised these signs and kept his promise. But he didn’t command these signs and he didn’t promise that they would continue throughout the history of his church. He did command that the gospel be preached until the end of time. He also commanded baptism. The gospel and sacraments retain their power to save sinners after the miraculous signs have disappeared.
The gospel is inherently powerful. This is how we know that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us, and ruling over us. The gospel has his power. The gospel is never just words. Christ’s words – his gospel – are God’s power to take you to heaven. They are how to get to heaven. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Why? It’s not the power of our faith. Our faith is often a flickering candle or a broken piece of grass. The power of the gospel is the obedience and righteousness of the God-man, Jesus, who offered up himself as the ransom to set us free. Even now he pleads for us.
He who does not believe will be condemned. That’s because the world is going to hell and Jesus is the only way to heaven. We are on the eve of destruction and only Jesus can deliver us from it. This is why we cherish his gospel as our greatest treasure in life. It confirms in our hearts the precious truth that where Jesus is there we will be. Our bodies here and our souls above, we have true dignity on earth. Those on their way to heaven know how to live here on earth. Amen.