Ascension of our Lord| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 8, 2005| Mark 16:14-20
We confess in the Creed that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. The right hand of God can’t be found on a map. Geographical limitations don’t apply to Jesus. The fact that we don’t see Him walking down the street doesn’t mean He is absent from us. Christ ascended into heaven in order to sit down at the right hand of God as our text says. The right hand of God is the biblical way of describing the honor and glory and power that belong to God alone. Jesus has all divine power and glory and He will never relinquish it. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. His name is the name that is above every name. Every knee will bow at the name of Jesus and the whole creation will honor Jesus Christ as Lord. Even today Jesus Christ rules over all nations with a rod of iron. As the Father said to His only begotten Son in Psalm 2:8-9, “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; you shall dash them to pieces life a potter’s vessel.”
Christ has ruled over this earth for two thousand years and He will continue to rule over this earth until He returns to judge the living and the dead. Rulers of nations rise to prominence. Their power looks impressive. They command powerful armies with amazing weapons. They rule huge empires. They rise only to fall. They are forgotten while Christ’s church remains Christ’s kingdom here on earth until the end of time.
Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. We are living here on earth. He’s up there and we’re down here. We do not bring ourselves to where He is. He comes to where we are. Christians run into no end of trouble when they try to find Jesus by bringing themselves up to there He is. The ascension of Jesus does not teach us that we must rise up to heaven by some kind of religious exercise or by putting into practice certain spiritual principles. The ascension of Jesus into heaven teaches us instead that the Jesus who suffered and died for us is presently ruling over us by His grace through His gospel and sacraments. He who has all authority in heaven and on earth to do for us what we need doing is pleased to be found by us wherever His gospel is proclaimed and wherever His sacraments are administered. We call these the means of grace because they are the means by which Christ brings His grace to us and sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to establish in us a living faith.
Faith looks to heaven in anticipation of Christ’s return. But when we look to heaven we also look back to the cross. Since we cannot fly back to where Jesus died and rose again, our faith focuses on the gospel and the sacraments of Christ which present Christ’s death and resurrection to us. St. Paul said to the Corinthians that he determined not to know anything among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We come to know the true God only in the person of His Son, Jesus. We come to know Jesus in His suffering and death for us. Look to His humility to see His true glory. It is found in His mercy and His mercy is found in His deep condescension to suffer and die for unworthy and undeserving sinners like you and me. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proclaims that He won a great victory on the cross. He took away the sin of the world by bearing it in His own body. His death and resurrection signaled a radical change in how Jesus would appear to the world.
Before Jesus died on the cross He limited Himself in the exercise of His divine power. He always enjoyed equality with the Father. He has never been less than fully God, but from the time He was born until the moment of His death He covered up His divine majesty under the cloak of humility. He did not take advantage of His divine powers to avoid the shame and suffering of the cross. Whatever was necessary for our salvation was the fervent desire of His heart. This led Him to live a life of humble obedience that culminated in His sacrificial death to turn God’s vengeance away from sinners.
But after He rose from the dead Jesus made it clear that His time of humiliation had come to an end. Before His crucifixion He chose to remain ignorant of certain things. Now He makes full use of His divine omniscience. Before His crucifixion He did not always fully use all of His divine power. Now He uses His divine power and He uses it for the benefit of His church. His humiliation has given way to His exaltation. His disciples were hiding behind locked doors and Jesus appeared to them. He won’t be confined by any natural laws of space and time. He is exalted. In fact, He was exalted even before He ascended into heaven. His ascension is the divine exclamation point of His exaltation. He ascends into heaven to fill all things and to be present with His church here below.
This is why the gospel must be preached to every creature. God loves every human being in this world. Yes, many people will be excluded from heaven. Jesus says, “He who does not believe will be condemned.” But this is not because God did not love them. The gospel promise is intended for everyone and God does not preach the gospel so that it will be rejected. He preaches it so that we will believe it. He wants it proclaimed to the whole human race. The Gospels make this clear. In St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells the apostles to make disciples of all nations. In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus says that repentance and remission of sins will be preached to all nations. Here in St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells the eleven apostles to go out and preach the gospel to all creatures. They were created by God and fell away from the image in which He created them. The gospel brings back the innocence that was lost in the fall. The gospel is for everyone.
When we hear Jesus’ words, “He who does not believe will be condemned,” we might think that He is being too strict and severe. Think of all the people who don’t know Christ! Think of how many people die and go to hell every day! The very idea is so terrifying that many people – even in the church – deny what the Bible says about eternal condemnation in hell. But Christ’s words here are not too strict or severe. In fact, these words actually provide us Christians with a great deal of comfort. Note carefully what Jesus says: “He who does not believe will be condemned.” He does not say, “He who has sinned too much will be condemned.” He does not say, “He who has failed to complete these spiritual steps for success will be condemned.” He does not say, “He who did not have a dramatic and memorable life changing experience will be condemned.” No, He says, “He who does not believe will be condemned.” Since faith alone receives salvation from God, it is unbelief alone that keeps sinners out of heaven.
The gospel is not a new law to be obeyed. The gospel is the good news that God, for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death, forgives us all our sins freely.
If it is faith alone that receives this, why does Jesus also mention baptism? He says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Is baptism the one thing we must do in addition to believing? Is baptism a requirement that we must fulfill in order to do what needs doing for our salvation? No, it is not. Baptism is not something we do for God. Baptism is something God does for us. It is not the work of men. It is the work of God. You may see a man pouring the water and saying the words but it is not a man’s work. God Himself uses baptism as a means of giving to faith what faith needs to receive. Faith cannot travel over time and space to find itself at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus where our sin was washed away and forgiveness was gained for us. But Christ, in His exalted state, seated at the right hand of the Father, brings His crucifixion and resurrection to us in Holy Baptism where we die and rise with Him.
This same exalted Lord Jesus comes to us in the Lord’s Supper where He feeds us with His body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. The sacraments of Christ are not symbols of an absent Lord Jesus. They are vehicles of His gracious presence so that where we have Holy Baptism and where we have the Lord’s Supper we have the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord Jesus Christ who forgives us all our sins and fills us with the Holy Spirit. He is our Immanuel: God with us. He has not left His church by ascending into heaven. He has assumed His throne from which He governs His church on earth.
In the first century Jesus did wonderful signs at the hands of the apostles whom He sent out to preach. They cast our demons, spoke in languages they never learned, raised the dead, and healed the sick. Once, on the Island of Malta, the Apostle Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and he suffered no ill effects. This was just as Jesus said it would be. But when Jesus spoke of these wonderful signs, He was just saying what would happen. When He spoke of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, He was giving a divine command. We aren’t commanded to seek out the spectacular signs. If God wants to do a miracle, He’ll do a miracle. How can we know what He wants to do? On the other hand, we know that He wants us to preach the gospel. We know that He wants us to administer His holy sacraments. We know that these means of grace bring Christ Himself to us in our need. So we will always seek Jesus where He promises to be.
And He will rule over us. His rule is unseen by the unbelieving world, but it is nonetheless a powerful rule. It is a rule in which His forgiveness triumphs over our sin. It is a rule that draws us to God. It doesn’t force us. It doesn’t terrify us. It doesn’t shame us. It brings us into holy fellowship with God so that in Christ’s ascension we see our own. While we live in our bodies here below we are joined in communion with God in heaven. No power on earth can break this fellowship because it doesn’t depend on our strength but on the intercession of Jesus for us at God’s right hand. Christ is the church’s head. Where the head is, there the body must be. While we live here on earth, our true home is in heaven with our Lord Jesus.