Ascension Day Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 20, 2012| 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
The Ascension of Jesus is his coronation in heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords. When Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God he assumed the throne of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not just in heaven. It is here on earth also. The kingdom of God in heaven is the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of God on earth is the kingdom of grace. The kingdom of God is the holy Christian Church. The kingdom of God in heaven is the Church triumphant. The kingdom of God on earth is the Church militant. They are not two different churches – they are the same Church. But there is a difference between faith and sight. In heaven we will see Christ’s victory over all evil. Here on earth we must live by faith. Faith lives on every word that God says.
Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. It was a command. Faith comes by hearing the gospel. The gospel must be preached. Then Jesus told them that signs would follow those who believe. Christ’s command to preach the gospel remains in force until the end of time. He says to preach the gospel. Where? Everywhere – into all the world. To whom? To every creature. As long as the gospel is preached Jesus reigns here on earth. That’s because Jesus reigns here on earth through the gospel that is preached.
The signs that Jesus said would follow those who believed followed those who believed. It is recorded for us by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. They cast out evil spirits. They spoke in languages they had never learned. Once, on the Island of Malta, Paul was bitten by a poisonous viper with no ill effect. They did many miracles, confirming God’s word through the accompanying signs just as Jesus said would happen.
Jesus did not command his disciples to do miracles. He said they would and they did. He did not promise that they would be a constant or permanent feature of his reign. The preaching of the gospel would be. Baptism would be. The miraculous signs confirmed the truth of the gospel and the validity of baptism, as Jesus said. Jesus did not command that his disciples do these things. He didn’t promise that they would continue throughout the history of the Church. In time these signs gradually disappeared. The Church must live by faith, not by sight. Faith requires the gospel. Jesus rules over us by means of the gospel.
And he rules. Jesus did not ascend into heaven to sit down and watch the world go to hell. He sits at the right hand of God the Father in order to govern his Church by his grace. He exercises power.
The psalmist described Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and ascension in Psalm 2,
What is man that You are mindful of Him,
And the Son of man that You visit Him?
For You have made Him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned Him with glory and honor.
You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under His feet,
Christ’s session at the right hand of God is described in Psalm 110 where we read:
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
Again, Christ’s ascension is foretold in Psalm 68 where we read:
You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive.
Christ’s ascension into heaven does not confine him in a space. The right hand of God is not a geographical location. It does separate Jesus from his Church. Just the opposite is the case. Didn’t he promise that he would be with us always, to the end of the age? St Paul describes Christ’s ascension in these words recorded at the end of the first chapter of Ephesians:
He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Far from restricting Christ, the right hand of God is his position of almighty power from which he rules over his Church on earth and defends her from all of her enemies. Christ won his victory over all our enemies on the cross. He displayed his victory in his descent into hell. He revealed it to the world in his resurrection from the dead. Now he exercises all authority in heaven and on earth.
And he does so wherever and whenever his gospel is purely proclaimed and his sacraments are rightly administered. Stuffy church words! Preaching – why that’s just talk! And sacraments – rituals, hocus pocus, superstitious nonsense. The world mocks and denies what it cannot see.
God could send us more signs and wonders like he did long ago when he validated the apostolic preaching. He could. That’s God’s business if he does. But the nature of Christ’s reign tells us to look for his power – not in dramatic displays we can see with our eyes – but in words that are spoken. True, these words are spoken by mere men. This is the scandal of Christ’s kingdom and why so many take offense at it and walk away from it.
It just doesn’t make sense. We confess that Jesus reigns as King. All power in heaven and on earth belongs to him. We thrill to singing “And he shall reign forever and ever.” But what do we see? People sitting in the pew, listening, singing, praying, walking up to the altar to kneel and eat a little piece of bread and drink a little sip of wine. A pastor stands behind a pulpit and talks. He hands us the little pieces of bread and gives us the wine. What’s going on here? What’s the big deal? Where is the King of kings and Lord of lords reigning forever and ever? It doesn’t make any sense.
So they walk away and do something more interesting, seek out causes more dramatic and meaningful, or just live life day by day, looking for what pleasures the body, stimulates the mind and, when feeling particularly religious, soothes the soul. The Church they leave behind.
They don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. Jesus rules over his kingdom from the pulpit, the altar, and the font. Oh yes, lowly looking, for sure. Not very impressive. Not like performing miracles, making tons of money, righting societal evils, or having a good old time partying hearty at the local tavern. But listen, and don’t be turned off by lowly appearances.
Listen to what Jesus says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” He believes the gospel that the preacher preaches. We confess it in the Creed. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified for us, died, was buried, descended into hell, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Jesus rules over his kingdom. The preacher must preach Christ crucified for sinners because Jesus Christ rules over his Church by his grace. He rules over us by taking away our sins.
The preaching and the baptizing and the absolving and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper are not just religious rituals by which we identify ourselves as Christ’s Church. They are the means by which the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ rules over his kingdom here on earth. They give us the victory he won on the cross. They give us forgiveness of all our sins. They bind the devil. They set us at peace with God. They take us to heaven.
The reason his gracious rule doesn’t make sense is because he doesn’t rule over us like the rulers of the world rule over us. He doesn’t rely on force or intimidation. He doesn’t manipulate us, threaten us, bribe us, pressure us, or con us into doing what he wants us to do. Listen to his promise: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” He does not say, “He who submits will be saved.” He doesn’t say, “He who succeeds will be saved.” He says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
You cannot deliver yourself from your own sin. You can only mourn it and regret it. Can you relive your life and remove from it all of its loveless words and deeds? Even if you could relive it you couldn’t live it the way God demands. You have not loved your neighbor as yourself. You’ve loved yourself more, cared about yourself more, and wanted for yourself what is better. Can you deliver yourself from this sin?
Can you deliver yourself from your sins against God? Can you work within yourself the love that fears him above all else, loves him first and most, and trusts in him alone for everything good in life? Can you take back the idolatrous fear, love, and trust in the creation that captured your heart?
No, you cannot. You need the gospel because the gospel gives you what you cannot get for yourself by any amount of devotion, submission, hard work, or religious dedication. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Yes, baptism saves you. Baptism is not your work. It is God’s work. It is God’s washing. It is God taking what Jesus won for you on the cross and giving it to you. It is God bringing you to where the blood of Jesus was shed for you and washing away your sins in the blood of the Lamb. Anyone who says that baptism doesn’t save is arguing with Jesus. Jesus says it does.
But baptism doesn’t save you without faith. “But he who does not believe will be condemned.” How could Jesus have made it any clearer? Since he is the only one who has taken away sin, he is the only one who can give us the forgiveness of sins. Faith is the only way to receive the forgiveness of sins. This is why faith in Jesus saves and unbelief damns. In Jesus we are saved. Apart from Jesus we are damned. The notion that sincere followers of non-christian religions will be saved by those religions is a denial of Christ, his suffering for us, his resurrection from the dead, and his gracious rule over us.
The words, “He who does not believe will be condemned” are comforting words. Jesus doesn’t say, “He who has sinned much will be damned.” He welcomes the sorrowing sinner back to himself, even when he has fallen again and again. He always forgives those who come to him with penitent hearts seeking his mercy. He never sends them away unforgiven. This is how he rules in his kingdom. This is how he captures our hearts and gains our loyalty. This is how he saves us from sin, death, and hell. Amen