Ascension Day (Observed)| Acts 1:1-11; Mark 16:14-20| Pastor James Preus| May 16, 2013
Last Thursday marked the fortieth day of Easter. St. Luke tells us that Jesus, after his death and resurrection, showed himself alive to his disciples for forty days before He was taken up into heaven. Yet, for most people Thursday passed by with little noted significance. But should the day of our Lord’s ascension to the right hand of God the Father be ignored by the faithful? Don’t we confess in the Apostles’ Creed every day, “He ascended into heaven…”? Let me give you four reasons why we should celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven not only on the fortieth day of Easter, but every day.
First, Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God the Father proves that Jesus is victorious over sin, death, and the power of the devil. When Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, he fulfilled what David prophesied in Psalm 110, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Jesus is the Lord God. He is the eternal Son of God the Father, who from eternity has shared in his divine essence and majesty along with the Holy Spirit. Yet, for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Not only did the Son of God take on our human flesh, but being born under the Law, he humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. In our place he fulfilled the law actively, that is, in our human flesh he perfectly loved the Lord God with all his heart, soul, and mind and loved his neighbor as himself. And in our place, Jesus also fulfilled the law passively, that is, in our human flesh he bore the punishment of all our sins on his body and soul.
Our Savior Jesus was vindicated Easter morning when he rose from the dead. He proved that he was innocent of all sin, that he is truly God’s Son and the teacher of truth, and that he has washed away all our sins forever. Now, in his ascension, God the Father took him who was made for a little while lower than the angels and has crowned him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). It is as St. Paul says, “[the Father of glory] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he has put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:20-23)
What does this mean? It means that our Lord Jesus is victorious over our enemies and rules over all powers and authorities. Your sin is under Jesus’ feet. Satan, who attempts to lead you into sin and unbelief and accuse you before God is now crushed under Jesus’ heal. The Law, which condemns you is under Jesus’ feet along with death and hell. And all other powers and authorities are under his dominion. We have bad government on this earth. Our own government sanctions the killing of unborn children, the destruction of the family with bad laws that destroy marriage, and increasingly, the persecution of the church. History will repeat itself. Christians will suffer from governmental persecution. Yet, these governments too remain under Jesus’ feet. Jesus is in charge. All powers and authorities on earth will pass away. But Christ’s rule will never pass away.
The second reason we should celebrate Jesus’ ascension to God’s right hand, is because it proves that he is always with us. This might sound contradictory. Jesus ascended into heaven. His disciples watched him go. How can he be with us? There is a lot of talk lately about flying rockets back to the moon and even astronauts landing on mars in the near future. Maybe that’ll happen. But I assure you, astronauts will never find Jesus in their adventures among the stars. Elon Musk can’t build a rocket to the right hand of God the Father. Yet, this does not mean that Jesus is far away from us. In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is at God the Father’s right hand that we know that he is with us in the Church today.
It is exactly as God says in Isaiah chapter 57, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (vs. 15). Jesus dwells in the heaven of heavens. Yet, Jesus dwells also with us lowly creatures here on earth. How can this be? Because the right hand of God the Father is not a location far off in a distant galaxy. The right hand of God the Father is God’s right hand of power. Jesus is not limited by his position at the Father’s right hand. Rather, he is unlimited in his power. He is able to do far more than we can either ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). The term, right hand of God, does not refer to a local place, but rather to a position of power. Most people are right-handed. When a person is called someone’s right hand man, it means that that person accomplishes the work the other person sends him to do. Jesus does the work of God the Father. Jesus at the Father’s right hand is all powerful. We celebrate Jesus as the Father’s right-hand, because at the Father’s right hand Jesus is with us here on earth.
This is indeed what Jesus promises us. He doesn’t simply tell his disciples to go out and preach the Gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), but he also promises to be with them always even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). When Jesus’ ministers proclaim the Gospel, they are not only delivering words, but they are delivering Christ Jesus himself, as Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” St. Mark even records that the Lord Jesus accompanied the disciples in their preaching and worked with them (Mark 16:20). And he works with us today as well. Jesus is with us today in this church. This is where he promises to be. We all were baptized by different pastors at different times and places, yet, it was the Lord Jesus who baptized all of us and clothed us with himself. At the altar, although we cannot comprehend how this can be, we eat the true body and drink the true blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, because Christ has ascended to the Father’s right hand. And so, we have Jesus bodily with us here today. Every time you have heard the absolution spoken to you by your pastor, it was spoken to you by Christ himself.
All this is possible, because Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “He who descended is the one who also ascended above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” And indeed, he has filled his Church. And he has raised us up with him and seated us with him even now in the heavenly places through his Word and Sacraments, a reality we will realize more clearly when our faith is turned into sight.
The third reason we should celebrate Jesus’ ascension is because, as the angels told the disciples, Jesus will return in the same way he ascended (Acts 1:11). We all will see Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven. He will come to judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). This is the natural result of Jesus ascending to the Father’s right hand, because Jesus has received all authority from his Father, so naturally, he has also received the authority to judge. And the world must be judged. And Jesus has warned us that he will come at a moment we do not expect. Now, this might sound like a strange thing to celebrate. Jesus’ judgment sounds terrifying. How awful are the words Jesus foretold that he will say to some, “I tell you, I never knew you.”? (Matthew 7:23)
Yet, for us who trust in Jesus and believe that his death has taken away our sins and that through him we are reconciled to the Father, Jesus’ return to judgment is not a terrifying thought. Jesus promises, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) Jesus does not come to judge us, but rather to bestow on us the crown of righteousness. Rather, Jesus says, “whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Our sins cannot condemn us, because Jesus has taken them away. It is not, “Whoever has committed the greatest sins will be condemned,” but rather, ‘Whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This is because Jesus has already paid the price for our sins. The only way we can be condemned is if we reject Jesus. (Which many people do, because they refuse to listen to his word and repent of their sins). But for those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus for salvation, Scripture says, “So Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)
And this brings us to our fourth reason to celebrate Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand, because Jesus will return to bring us to live with him. Through Jesus’ ascension, we too will ascend to live with Christ before the throne of God in righteousness and purity forever. St. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
As surely as Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, so surely will he return to bring us to be with him. This is a real salvation. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. He has a human body, which was nailed to a cross and laid dead in a tomb, which truly rose from the dead and dwells gloriously in heaven. And we will see that same body descend to meet us. And our bodies will be changed in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). We will dwell with Jesus in our bodies, which will be changed after the image of his imperishable and immortal body. What our eyes cannot yet behold, we will see with our own eyes. Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven means that our end is not to be disembodied spirits floating around in the heavens, nor will be become angels. Jesus became a human being to redeem human beings, body, soul, and will. We will truly live bodily with Jesus in a physical new heavens and new earth, one that is not corrupted by sin, but which will last forever, world without end. Amen.
When we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand, we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil; we celebrate that Jesus is with us today in his Church through the ministry of his Word and Sacraments; we celebrate that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead; and we celebrate that we too will ascend to live with Jesus in imperishable bodies without sin, death, and suffering forever. These are things worth celebrating. Amen.