God has ascended amid shouts of joy; the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets, and I have no idea what to do about this! Have you ever thought that about the Ascension of Jesus? When it comes to the “major holidays” of the Christian church year, we can more or less get our arms around the big ones, can’t we? Even the Hallmark Channel on TV can tell you that Christmas is important. But why is it so important to us? Because the Son of God took on our human flesh, to become one with us, to live under his Father’s law, and to die in our place. Good Friday and Easter are understandably significant. Again, even the secular world will put on a bonnet and take a picture with a bunny. But why is Easter so important for us? Jesus died to pay for the sins of the world (and that means yours, too) and then rose again to guarantee that your sin is gone, your heaven is secure, and that death isn’t the final word for you. These are not small things. In fact, they matter to you because in these acts, Christ speaks a promise and truth about you; and this promise means something for you like nothing else in your life ever will. It’s blessedly apparent why those are eternally significant celebrations.
So what are we going to do with the Ascension of our Lord? I’m not aware of any traditional food that people eat on Ascension Day. I don’t think any of you are going to Grandma’s house after this to open Ascension Day presents. But that doesn’t mean we don’t receive any gifts on Jesus’ Ascension Day - far from it, in fact. Really, if we’re going to talk about the Ascension of Jesus, I have to tell you something: we already missed it. Our lesson from Acts 1 tells us that this “going up” of Jesus took place 40 days after his resurrection. So, the Church celebrates the Ascension 40 days after Easter, which puts it on a Thursday - last Thursday. Some churches meet for worship on Ascension Day to commemorate this festival, but don’t worry, we can still celebrate it today. But even if we can still celebrate it, the bigger question is why celebrate? What are we going to do with the Ascension of Jesus?
Maybe the first problem that arises in our minds is this very simple question: why leave? After all Jesus had been through - born into our humanity, rejection at the hands of those he came to save, training a dozen disciples who never quite seemed to get it, suffering under Pontius Pilate, dying, rising - all of that behind him, why leave? I mean, simply put, he won! So why ride off (or rather rise up) into the sunset now? Let’s hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples and us, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” It’s easy to overlook this very important detail of the Ascension. Why did Jesus ascend into heaven? He said that everything must be fulfilled, and now he returns to heaven precisely because everything has been fulfilled in him. Jesus accomplished his mission of salvation, the whole reason the Father sent him into this world in the first place - not to condemn it, but to save it! So when Jesus cried out on the cross, It is finished! And he says here that everything written about him has been fulfilled, you can know without a shred of doubt that your eternal salvation has been accomplished, finished, fulfilled, completed, done. Call me crazy, but I think that’s something to celebrate. Jesus ascends to the right hand of God’s glorious presence because he has succeeded as your Savior; he’s finished your forgiveness. Jesus wins and Ascension is his coronation as King forever. Ascension – what a great day for Jesus!
Ascension was also a great day for those disciples of Jesus who watched him go up and up until a cloud hid him from their sight. Why was it such a great day for them? Their Master was leaving, and they were watching him go! So this detail of the Ascension account presents another puzzling question: Why were the disciples so happy? Luke tells us, They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Do you see the conundrum here? 40 days ago, those same disciples weren’t rejoicing and happy at Easter when Jesus showed up alive after being dead, but now they’re running back to Jerusalem with joy after Jesus heads to heaven? It’s easy to be critical of the disciples for not getting it when they were following Jesus, and here, that might be our first instinct. Even after those 40 days of Easter joy, they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After all they had seen and heard and experienced, maybe the point would come across that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t of this world and he would not be setting up an earthly throne? But now, I don’t think they’d be asking those kinds of questions anymore. Instead, they went away rejoicing because now they finally got it. Luke said, Then [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. Now, they got it! Jesus had flipped the switch. Now those dots that had previously remained utterly unconnected suddenly linked up and presented a full picture to them. That’s the gospel! That’s what the prophet meant when he spoke about the Messiah suffering for our sins. That’s what God was up to in sending Jesus into the world! Now we see it, and it’s marvelous!
But understanding isn’t the only thing those disciples received. In a matter of ten days, when Pentecost came, they would be clothed with power from on high. They would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and those once timid followers of Jesus who didn’t quite get it would now jump from Jerusalem out into the world with the whole story of salvation. Jesus told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” The disciples finally got it, and they would be clothed with power for taking Christ to the world. Ascension – what a great day for the disciples!
But what about you? Is Ascension a great day for you? For modern Christians, is Ascension kind of like when your parents went on an exotic vacation, and you didn’t get to go, but they brought you a t-shirt? Is that all you get? A flimsy memento of someone else’s great and awesome experience? Kind of like, “Jesus ascended into heaven and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”? Not so fast. Jesus ascended into heaven and resumed full use of his divine power and glory, what a great day for him. Jesus ascended into heaven and his disciples received tremendous blessings of wisdom and the Spirit, what a great day for them. Jesus ascended into heaven, and it’s a great day for you, too. Ascension means that Jesus has fulfilled everything written about him, he’s accomplished your salvation, and now he rules over all things for your good. Did you see that dramatic picture in our lesson from Revelation? We heard about the white horse whose rider is called Faithful and True. He wears many crowns. He leads the armies of heaven. He rules with an iron scepter. His name is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Sometimes the imagery in Revelation is confusing, but I don’t think you can get any clearer than this! This is Jesus, your ascended Lord who rules all things. And did you catch the small detail? He’s dressed in a robe dipped in blood, while the army following him is wearing pure white robes. Why? Because your King fought this battle alone, and his followers are clean and spotless because of him.
Christ the ascended King rules over all things for the good of his Church. That’s the repeated refrain of the festival of Ascension, but does it always feel like it? Look at the world around you and ask yourself, does this place look like it’s “under control”? Watch the news for about five seconds and then answer that question. We see another shooting, another senseless act of violence, hatred here, hunger there, no clean water in that country, poverty, war, and natural disasters. Skeptics doubt whether God even exists, so imagine what they’re thinking when the Christians run around saying something as absurd sounding as “Christ rules over all things!” Let’s take this question of Christ’s kingship out of the worldwide spectrum and zoom in a little closer to home. Sometimes it happens that God’s people start to ask those questions. “If the ascended Christ rules over all things for us, why don’t we feel a little more blessed? I thought I was on the right team here! If we have the King of the universe on our side, then how come we have such a hard time filling the pews on Sunday morning; or paying the bills; or getting our kids to listen? If the Lord of the Church really is looking out for the best interests of the Church and the spread of the gospel, then why would we ever have to call back foreign missionaries due to lack of funding? Or ever experience a shortage of pastors and teachers? If only the gospel would start working!” We doubt whether we can really trust in a Jesus that we can’t see with our eyes. We wonder if he’s still reigning in heaven and whether or not he’ll keep his promises. Maybe when he ascended into heaven, he set his mind on all heavenly things and is completely uninterested in what’s happening here on earth.
That’s the temptation when things don’t seem to “go right.” But I can assure you that’s not the case. There’s a small detail in the ascension account that opens up a world of comfort. When Jesus went up into heaven, a cloud hid him from the disciples’ sight, and two angels appeared to tell them something. Right away, that’s pretty significant. When are the other times in the New Testament that angels show up to offer further explanation? At Christmas, they proclaim this Christ-child to be the Savior of the world. At Easter, the angels say, “Here’s an empty tomb!” So, it’s no small thing that angels show up at the Ascension. And what do they say? “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back.” Small phrase, but a world of meaning: This same Jesus. Which Jesus is that? The Jesus with his human body – not as though his taking on our flesh was some kind of mistake or some “season to get through,” this same Jesus right now, today, still has his glorified human body. This same Jesus – the One who came to reveal the grace of God and save sinners. This same Jesus – the One with nail-scarred hands and feet. Think about that – he still bears the wounds that paid for your sin and every day he wears those wounds and gives a constant testimony to the Father that your sin has been paid in full. This same Jesus – the One who lives to intercede for you, to plead your case. Ascension – what a great day for you and for all humankind!
Jesus elevates your human nature to the throne of God himself. His presence there is the perfect testimony of your forgiveness. Jesus lives to fill all things and keep his promise to be with you always. Jesus ascended to prepare a place for you in the mansions of his Father. Jesus lives to rule with absolute power over absolutely everything for one purpose – you; your benefit; your eternal good. Ascension – what a great day for Jesus! What a great day for his disciples! What a great day for you!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.