Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why the Ascension of Jesus Is a Reason to Celebrate (Sermon preached on May 12th, for the observation of The Ascension of Our Lord)

Sermon texts: Luke 24:44-53Acts 1:1-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Ascended Lord, Jesus Christ.  Let us pray:

O grant, dear Lord, this grace to me, recalling Your ascension, that I may serve You faithfully in thanks for my redemption (LSB, 492, st. 3). “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of (our) heart(s) be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, (our) rock and (our) redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

In the name of Jesus.

            I have to confess: for many years I had difficulty understanding why the Ascension of Jesus was such a big deal; even wondering to myself why it was a something to celebrate at all.  I mean, I would hear this talk from pastors and professors who know much more than I about the Bible and Christianity, and the history of how God’s people have worshipped, and they would talk about how the Feast of Ascension was such an important day.  They would put it into the category of Christmas, and Easter, and would talk about the services for Ascension calling for that sort of celebration.  And indeed, in the history of the Church, the Feast of Ascension has its very own day, and it was always one of those important days of the Church Year that demanded its own week-day service.  Could you imagine the Church not gathering for worship on Christmas Eve, no matter on which day of the week it happened to fall in any given year?  That’s how it was for Ascension.  40 Days after Easter—always a Thursday—Christians would gather together to remember the Ascension of Jesus—and I never understood.
            Christmas was obvious to me.  Jesus had come!  Let’s celebrate!  Our Savior is here; and isn’t he cute!  Easter?  We’ll that doesn’t need much explanation, especially if you’ve been present for the services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Jesus has given himself up into death.  Jesus has been crucified on the cross.  The Son of God has been forsaken.  But behold, Christ is risen!  Obviously, Easter is worthy of a day of celebration.
            But Ascension?  The day when, Luke tells us, Jesus “parted from them and was carried up into heaven;” the day when the one who had come to be with them—God in the flesh; Immanuel—would be seen departing from them; what is there to celebrate in that?  I just didn’t understand; and apparently, judging by the fact that the day of Ascension comes and goes without notice in most Christian congregations—even those with a mind toward the Church Year—and for many years has not been given its own evening of Festival Worship Services, I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand why the ascension of Jesus is such a big deal—and wonders what there is to celebrate.
And yet, as the story is told in the Gospel of Luke, even after Jesus had departed from the disciples and was carried up into heaven, the disciples remained and worshipped.  And then, when they departed into Jerusalem, they didn’t depart in despair, or with frowns on their faces, as if they had reason to be sad.  Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.  Apparently those who were there thought Jesus’ ascension was a reason to celebrate and to sing praises.
So what was I missing?  What are we missing?  What is it about the ascension of Jesus that we have failed to see?  What is it about Jesus’ departure into heaven that gave those disciples, and the Church Fathers, so much joy, and caused them to rejoice with high praise?  And what is it about the ascension of Jesus that would cause us to do the same, if we would see it, or understand it, or just simply believe it?  Why is Jesus’ ascension such Good News?  Why is it essentially, part of the Gospel?  And what about it is a reason to rejoice, when it appears to be anything but?
To begin to answer that question, I’d like you to picture a boy, coming home from school with a good report card.  Imagine the excitement and anticipation building as all the hard work has paid off, and he waits to get off the bus, and walk into that house, report card in hand, to show mom and dad that he has gotten straight A’s.  Those A’s are the marks he has earned in an effort to please mom and dad, and there they are, written in ink by the hand of the teacher, and with her signature to prove it: a job well done; excellent work.  And most important of all—mom and dad are proud of him.
Do we forget where Jesus is going when He ascends?  He’s ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.  He’s going home, so to speak; and even more, Jesus is bringing with him proof of a job well done.  Where Adam and His descendants fail, Jesus has succeeded.  Not a single one of the Laws demands had been overlooked; no assignment given Him from the Father is incomplete.  He has finished them all; and done the job perfectly.
You shall have no other gods: check; Jesus wouldn’t flinch at Satan’s temptation to do otherwise.  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your god: check; in every trouble, Jesus has called on the name of the Father, and taught the disciples to do the same.  Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy: check; Jesus would sanctify each day with the Word of God, and would never give in to Satan’s twisting and turning of His Father’s commands, but would rest in them as the very Bread of Life from which He lived.  Love your neighbor as yourself, honoring authorities, and protecting bodies, and living a life of sexual purity, and protecting the possessions of others, and speaking well of others, and being content with what the Father would give, be it great or small: Check, check, check, and check; Jesus does it all; fulfills the Law of God in such a way that His life of service to His neighbor becomes the model by which all would know if they are doing any good at all.
And He has been given marks.  Those wounds in his hand and side—wounds from which His blood was shed, poured out for all to cover their sin—those are the marks He bears on his body to show the Father proof of a job well done.  His hands, and feet, and side are the marks which please the Father so much, that He would lavish upon Jesus the riches of His glory.  With the marks of the cross always and forever on His body, Jesus ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father, where He makes the Father proud, and pleased, and anxious to bestow on you such marvelous gifts that are beyond comprehension.
Why does Jesus’ ascension give us reason to rejoice?  Because His ascension means that you have an intercessor.  When the Father looks upon you, He cannot look at you without seeing the marks that Jesus earned in saving you, and earning for you the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  The one whose blood has earned forgiveness, and whose resurrection has ripped a hole in death which makes it unable to keep you in the grave, has ascended on high, and has been seated by the Father at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and is there with the name that is above all names, so that you would have a Savior, through whom the Father’s blessings are yours, because of a job well done by Jesus.
And so, one who believes in the Ascended Lord can’t help but rejoice, for in the Ascended Lord, there is certainty of an almighty God who does not look at your sin and wait for the day to bring down His wrath and punishment.  With Jesus’ ascension, His bloody marks are interceding for you.  There is certainty of an almighty God who looks at you and sees His Son put upon you in Holy Baptism, and who sees His Son speaking for you in Holy Absolution, and who sees His Son giving His very body and blood into you in the Lord’s Supper, for the righteousness of Jesus is put upon in you in the Gospel.  Greater than all your sin, is the ascended Lord, through whom the Father is also, now pleased with you.
And even then, there is still something remaining for us to see; still something left of Jesus’ ascension to be revealed, and believed, so that our joy might be complete.  Even while we rejoice at the wonderful news that Jesus has ascended to the Father to intercede on our behalf with His sacred wounds, we must always remember, that the Ascended Lord Jesus, is still with us.
He is not far from us, as if His ascension has removed Him from us.  The risen and ascended Jesus is here; He is in this place, today.  And you have heard His voice.  Do not think that in the Holy Absolution you are hearing only the voice of a man.  And do not believe, that when the Sacred Scriptures are read, you are hearing only words.  And do not be consider that when you come to the feast prepared by the LORD you are only pretending.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.  The place you have gathered this morning is called the Divine Service for a reason.  For here, the ascended divine Jesus comes to serve you, who are weak and heavy laden.  In Holy Absolution, through the voice of a called and ordained servant of Christ, the ascended Lord Jesus is present in the place to forgive your sins.  And in the reading of Sacred Scripture, the same Word of God by which the entire World was created, is in this place, speaking to you the very Words that bring you life.  There is a reason the pastor says, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and you say “Thanks be to God.”  And there is a reason, on a day like Ascension, we read the Holy Gospel in the midst of the congregation, you see, because the ascended Lord Jesus has promised to be here, and to be present, in His Word.  You hear the voice of your pastor, but because of Jesus’ promise, and the post-ascension witness of the apostles, you can be certain that the one who is actually speaking to you, is Jesus Christ Himself.
And of course, although the body and blood of Jesus have ascended on high to sit with the Father, in His Supper, He is not only here in His Word, but He is here in His body and His blood to forgive, and to sanctify, and to make you all, one holy communion, brothers and sisters in Christ, who week, after week, after week, come to the Divine Service to hear the voice of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus; to be forgiven by the one whose marks make the Father pleased with you; and to receive this ascended Jesus into your bodies, so that, together, you might be His living body today.
For if that is what we see going on in the Divine Service, then you will also know, that the post-ascension witness of Jesus has not ended, but has been heard again today.  Jesus has ascended on high, where His marks are the means by which you receive every good gift of the Father.  And yet, Jesus is here, speaking to you in the Divine Service, so that you who are weak and heavy laden, might find rest in Him, and have every reason to celebrate in the Ascension of Our Lord.  In the name of T Jesus, our ascended Lord.  Amen.

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