Ascension Sermon 2010| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 16, 2010| St. Mark 16, 19
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. Mark 16:19
When Jesus came into this world he came to fulfill the promises God gave through the prophets. What did the prophets say about the coming Savior? Sometimes they portrayed him as a conquering king. Sometimes they spoke of him as a suffering servant. Which portrayal was right? Would he come to suffer? Or would he come to conquer?
He came to do both. By suffering, he conquered. He defeated our enemies. He did not destroy them by the power of the sword or the gun. He didn’t defeat them by deft politicking. He didn’t make a deal with them, compromising good with evil. He routed them and rendered them powerless by suffering on the cross for the sin of the world.
Christ’s crucifixion is payment. It is payment to God. Jesus offers to the Father his own holy obedience. He does so vicariously as the substitute for all humanity. By this holy offering he sets the world free.
Christ’s crucifixion is victory. It is the woman’s Seed crushing the serpent’s head. It is good defeating evil. Innocence faces sin and overpowers it. God fights mankind’s battle against the devil and prevails. When he prevails, those for whom he fought prevail.
The suffering servant and the conquering king are one and the same person. His victory cannot be known apart from his suffering. The ascension of Jesus into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty is the ascension of him who suffered. It is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who ascended into heaven.
It is to him that God speaks the words of the psalmist, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” (Psalm 110:1) St. Peter describes his ascension with the words, “Who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.” (1 Peter 3:22) He rules. He rules with authority. He has almighty power.
The right hand of God is not a geographical location. You cannot find heaven on a map. Christ’s ascension into heaven does not confine him someplace far away from us. Not at all! 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) In ascending into heaven Jesus assumes his rightful place at the right hand of God.
But the Son of God was always equal to the Father, was he not? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are coequal. None is greater or lesser than another because each person is God and no one is greater than God. The Son of God did not have to be born, to live, to obey, to suffer, to die, to rise from the dead, and to ascend into heaven in order to have authority equal to the Father.
But it was not just as the Son of God that Jesus ascended into heaven. It was also as the Son of man. Jesus is one person. He has two natures: divine and human. When he assumed all authority in heaven and on earth he did so as both our God and our brother. Jesus is our God. Jesus is our brother. It is as our God and our brother that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. As the hymnist writes:
He has raised our human nature
In 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;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension
We by faith behold our own.
What is he doing at the right hand of God? What is his session at the right hand of the Father all about? What is its purpose? The Apostle Paul explains the purpose of Christ’s ascension when he writes:
Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8:34)
Jesus intercedes for us. He died for us. Now he intercedes for us. He pleads our case. He made our cause his cause when he joined our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Our cause is still his cause as our flesh and blood are exalted at the right hand of the Father.
If only we could learn what true authority is all about! It’s not about pushing people around. Jesus did not gain his kingdom by threats, bribery, coercion, or manipulation. He gained his kingdom by suffering the wrong in silence and bearing the sin of sinners without complaint. This is what has brought us peace with God. This is what has washed away our sins and delivered us from their penalty. This is the power that destroyed our death. This is how he led captivity captive and delivered us out of spiritual slavery into the liberty of the children of God.
That’s what we preach. Jesus said:
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. (Mark 16:15-16)
This is what takes place here on earth. It doesn’t look like much. Mortal and fallible men speak. Water is poured over the head. It’s not much to look at. But when this is going on here on earth, the Lord Jesus is ruling over this world from the right hand of divine majesty in heaven. He governs all nations and rules over this whole world in such a way that his gospel will achieve the purpose for which he has it preached. Sinners on their way to hell will be delivered from their sins and be sent on their way to heaven.
Jesus reigns. As the choir sings, he is “King of kings and Lord of lords and he shall reign forever and ever.” He rules over the whole universe. He has almighty, sovereign power. And where does he choose to display his power? How does he choose to exercise his authority? He speaks words of forgiveness to sinners caught in their sins and facing certain death. He rescues them from their well deserved damnation. He raises them up by faith into the glories of heaven.
But here on earth everything appears much as it has always appeared. This bothers people. They want more evidence of Christ’s authority than he is willing to provide. His rule is invisible. They want to see. They think that the gospel preached and the sacraments administered are rather mundane and impotent things. They see no evidence of power. They feel no power from it all. So they wander into one error after another, seeking a Jesus who will display his power visibly.
This is why one of the most persistent errors afflicting Christ’s Church over the centuries has been a substitution of political power for spiritual authority. We see this error in the claims of the papacy that requires all pastors everywhere to bow before the authority of the pope at Rome. We see it in the many forms of Millennialism, the notion that Jesus will return to this world, not to judge the living and the dead, but to set up a political kingdom on this earth and to rule over it for a thousand years. We see it in every attempt to replace the authority of the gospel with the power of the sword.
It is very true that Jesus rules over the nations of the world. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. But he gave to his Church spiritual, not civil, authority. The Church has no power to legislate. The Church has no mandate to reform society. The Church’s business is the proclamation of the gospel.
That’s because the greatest need we have in this world is for the forgiveness of sins. All of the sin out there that causes wars, injustice, poverty, and every sort of social evil is not just out there. It is in here. It is inside of us – every single one of us. We don’t need a Savior who will establish social justice or bring about peace between the nations. We need a Savior who will intercede for us before the throne of God.
That’s what he does. He speaks on behalf of those of a contrite and humble heart. They are those who do not boast of their sins or defend them or make excuses for them. They confess. They are grieved by their failure to love. God demands that we love him above all things. God demands that we love our neighbors as ourselves. We fail. The contrite sinner is the one who knows this, is sorry for this, and confesses this to God.
We confess. Jesus intercedes. He speaks on our behalf to God. He shows the Father his holy obedience and reminds him that he offered it for us. He doesn’t try to get us off on some legal technicality. He points to his righteous obedience and he points to his holy suffering. He points to what he did for us as our substitute. He does so with authority. God the Father accepts his plea for us. The Father loves the Son and grants him everything he asks. We are forgiven of all our sins. We are at peace with God. This we have through faith in the one who died, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God foreshadows our ascension on the last day. Christ is the head of the Church. We are his body. Where the head is, there the body must be. So even as we travel through life here below our home is in heaven where Christ rules as our King. Amen