Where is God?
The Ascension of Our Lord| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 12, 2013| Isaiah 57:15
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
Where is God? Is he far away? Or is he close by? He is far away. He is exalted high above the world where no one can go. He is near. He is present with us and lives within us. The technical terms theologians like to use are transcendent and immanent. God is transcendent. He is a being who is separate from the material universe. God is the Creator. He is not a part of Creation. He rules over it.
But at the same time, God is imminent. He is near. He is locatable. He has located himself in the person of his Son who became a man, lived, died, rose from the dead, and ascended up to heaven to rule over all things.
Those unfamiliar with the Christian religion will often, as children do, mock what they don’t understand. When they hear talk about heaven being up and hell being down they smirk in self-satisfied superiority, thinking that this kind of talk reflects certain outdated mythological features of the Christian religion.
There is nothing mythological about it. God has always spoken to us in ways that accommodate our human perspective. The Bible frequently portrays the invisible God in visible terms. Heaven and hell are beyond our experience, so God describes them in terms we can understand. Hell isn’t literally down and heaven isn’t literally up. Neither hell nor heaven can be located on a map. This does not mean they are not real places. They are. But we haven’t been in either place. Hell is where God absents himself and does not show any love or mercy. It is where sinners must stew in their own juice, so to speak, enduring the consequences of sin without any hope of forgiveness.
Heaven is that high and holy place of which Isaiah writes in our text. “For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place.’” It is high. It is holy. It is the eternal dwelling of the eternal God. Heaven is high above us. This is not a reference to a place up in the clouds somewhere. The Bible pictures heaven as being up in the clouds and hell being down below the ground because God is high and holy and the devil is deceitful and base. God is good. The devil is bad. Up symbolizes greatness and goodness. Down symbolizes evil. We look up to God. Hope looks up.
God inhabits eternity. He identifies himself by saying, “I am who I am.” He was. He is. He is to be. God does not become. He is immutable. Time cannot change Him. He does not grow old. He does not sleep. He cannot be bribed, threatened, manipulated, coerced, or conned. He cannot tempt anyone to sin, nor can he be tempted by sin. He is incapable of doing wrong. He cannot plan on doing anyone wrong because his very nature abhors all evil. Time rolls on and on and on. God remains the same. He is timeless.
He is transcendent. He is above and over the world. He cannot be contained by the world or even by the entire universe. “I dwell in the high and holy place,” He says. You cannot go there. You cannot draw him from there. Sinners cannot leap up to God by any effort of their own. They are limited by their own finitude. They are damaged by their own sin. They are weighed down by their own guilt. No sinner can rise up to that high and holy place where God, who inhabits eternity, dwells. The transcendent God is too far away.
He is not a part of nature as the pantheists imagine. God is not in the rocks and trees and rivers. You cannot find him by looking inward to see where he is hiding. He dwells in that high and holy place into which you cannot go.
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
Not only does he dwell in the high and holy place. He also dwells with him who has a contrite and humble spirit. The one who has a contrite and humble spirit is the one who does not try to bring himself up to God but admits, in sorrow, that he does not deserve to have God as a loving Father. The humble and contrite heart knows he needs God’s mercy and doesn’t deserve it. He has seen himself in the light of God’s holy law and has seen what offends the holy God and is sorry. He knows he cannot gain the forgiveness of sins by anything he does. He can only lament his sin, bow before the holy God, confess his guilt, and humbly implore God for his undeserved mercy.
God is with those of a contrite and humble spirit to revive them, to give them new life, encouragement, joy, and comfort. The Ascension of our Lord Jesus teaches us this.
Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead he ascended into heaven. As recorded by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, he was taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight. According to St. Mark, he ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. This is what we confess in the creeds.
There is much confusion about what Christ’s ascension means. It does not mean that he is absent from his Church. Jesus promised his Church, “Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” He said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Christ did not ascend into heaven to be absent from his Church, but to be present with his Church until the end of time. Listen to how St. Paul describes it in his Epistle to the 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. (Ephesians 1:20-23)
Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God does not confine him to a place far away from us. He fills all in all. He rules over all. He claims all power in heaven and on earth. He who has all authority in heaven and on earth exercises that authority for our benefit. That’s what Christ’s ascension into heaven means.
Christ’s ascension into heaven is the triumph of the human race over all evil in this world. Consider what ails humanity. Consider what ails you. What must you suffer? What might threaten you? What do you have to fear? This man who is enthroned in triumph over sin, death, and hell has won your victory for you. Every time he speaks to you his gospel, absolving you of your sins, he sets you beside him in glory and gives you a glimpse of what is in store for you in heaven. Every time you eat his body and drink his blood God seals to you what that body and blood have won. They have won victory over all the powers of evil that might hurt you because they have taken away your sins. Christ’s coronation as King of kings and Lord of lords is your own personal victory over every enemy that would hurt you in any way.
Jesus was not just then. He is now. His suffering was then. His dying was then. His paying the price for our sins and taking our place under the law to fulfill it in our place was then. He did then everything we need done now. He did it all back then so that there is nothing that remains for us to do now. It is finished. His doing back then is all that will ever need to be done to secure for us the victory today.
But we don’t live back then. We live now. And now is when we face failures, suffering, fears, doubts, and everything else that comes from being sinners in a sinful world. Our sins cause us grief because they reveal our lack of faith in God. We believe and then do what no believer would do. We want to live holy lives as God’s holy people. We see Jesus at the right hand of glory with the Father and we say to ourselves, “I want to be like him. I want to share what he has. But he is so far above me.”
But he isn’t. Consider who he is. He is your God and he is your brother. Yet he is not two Christs. He is one person. God and man are united in one undivided and indivisible person. It is as the God-man that he did all he did for you. He obeyed. He suffered. He died. He rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven to claim his place of honor at the right hand of God the Father. All this he has done as your God and your brother.
This means that we share in his victory. Our human nature is exalted up on high and Jesus is with us here below. He is our God and our brother at the same time. Even as Jesus cannot be separated into two persons, neither can we be separated from him. So we are in heaven with him and he is on earth with us.
How lowly he appeared as he faced the mockery, and abuse, the whipping, and the crucifixion! How lowly he appeared as he was winning for us the kingdom, as he was preparing a place for us, earning heaven for us by taking away all of our sins.
And how lowly he appears as he speaks his saving truth through the mouths of erring sinners, as he washes us clean of all our sins with water that appears to be quite ordinary, as he feeds us with his life-giving body and blood that to all outward appearance seem to be mere bread and wine.
But we’ve learned not to judge our God by outward appearances. Instead, we take him at his word. He lives in that high and holy place, far above the sin, death, and corruption of this world, untouched by evil of any kind. But he bore the sin, faced the death, and suffered the pain of all human corruption. In doing so, he destroyed its power over us. He lives and reigns above to serve us sinners here below.
And we receive him. We receive him in humility. As we mourn our sins he enters in and brings pure and soothing comfort. He forgives us. Every time we gather together in his name he is there and he forgives us all our sins. He has that right. He exercises that right. And thus he rules over our hearts and prepares us to meet him in heaven. Amen