25 May 2017

Homily for the Ascension of Our Lord

"Rejoicing on Ascension Day"
2 Kings 2:5-15; Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

(With thanks to Dr. Joel Biermann, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, who unwittingly provided a great outline for a homily here.)

Today we see no decorated evergreens, no poinsettias. We give no gifts; we send no greeting cards. We see no lilies or colored eggs or chocolate bunnies. I’m pretty sure no one here has any kind of feast planned for the hours following this service—no hams or lambs or turkeys roasting in the oven, no tables set with the fine china and crystal, and no guests coming over. And if I were to shout the acclamation, “Christ has ascended!” what would be the proper response to shout back?

Then there’s this little fact: today is a Thursday—an odd day for gathering in God’s house…except when Christmas falls on a Thursday. It’s not just that the world ignores this festival; much of the Church has also lost interest. It’s as if Ascension Day doesn’t matter much.

Ah, but it does matter. It matters just as much as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. In fact, let’s push the envelope and say it matters even more. I mean, how many of us would actually walk out on a favorite, compelling two-hour movie only an hour and a half into it? We’d miss the thrilling climax that resolves the conflict, the big finish that sets everything right. Yes, Ascension Day does matter. So, let’s rejoice on this Ascension Day. Let’s ponder seven reasons to rejoice on Ascension Day.

First, Jesus ascended so that the Holy Spirit could descend. As Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7). No Jesus going up in a cloud, then no Holy Spirit coming down to comfort and guide the Church. And no Holy Spirit, then no faith, no salvation, no comfort, no peace, no strengthening and sustaining. But Jesus has ascended. And so the Holy Spirit has come. And the Spirit brings to our remembrance all that Jesus has said and done for us. The Spirit bears witness to us about Jesus. He takes what belongs to Jesus and declares it to us.

Second, Jesus now reigns over everything. He is our sovereign King of the universe. Now, we Lutherans get a little skittish talking of Jesus’ sovereignty—because, after all, it can and does get used as a replacement for His grace and mercy—but He does indeed reign over everything. God the Father “put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22). We were dead in our trespasses, but God has made us alive in Jesus, His Son. He has forgiven us all our trespasses. He has cancelled the record of our debts against God, nailing it to the cross. And now God has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus]” (Col. 2:15). So, as someone once said, there is not one square inch of all the world over which Jesus does not say, “Mine!” That includes you and your life and me and my life. To say it another way: we and all the world belong to Him. And His grace and mercy make Him our benevolent sovereign.

A third reason to rejoice on Ascension Day: The Ascension was God’s plan from the very beginning. Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection were all foretold in the Old Testament. So was His ascension. Elijah being taken up in the whirlwind is our “preview trailer” for Jesus. Our Lord “was lifted up, and a cloud hid Him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Jesus’ ascension is the capstone to His earthly ministry and all of His saving work for us. Jesus now sits at the Father’s right hand with His enemies of sin, death, and devil under His feet as His footstool (cf. Ps. 110:1). And there’s more. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve to live in perfect harmony, perfect communion, perfect fellowship with Himself. God and man, divine and human—they were supposed to live together in the closest, most intimate way. Of course, Adam and Eve fell into sin and ruined all that, not only for themselves, but also for us. And we’ve been perfecting the art of the ruin ever since. But along came Jesus to live, suffer, die and rise for us and thus reunite us with our God. By grace you and I have been saved. And God “raised us up with [Jesus] and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Yes, God has had a plan for you from the beginning, and that’s it: making you and your fellow Christians partakers of His divine life…even now…lasting forever.

Fourth, Jesus ascended bodily. Life with God is not just a spiritual matter—it includes and involves the body. Jesus is true God and true Man, completely God and completely human, all at the same time, all in one Person. Now a true human body is the object of all honor and worship. So Jesus’ bodily ascension gives new meaning to our human nature and our human bodies. In Him, they are very good. They will be restored and resurrected. They will go into eternity. And all the material stuff of God’s creation is good too.

Reason #5 for rejoicing in Jesus’ Ascension: The commission announced by Jesus is now in full force. When someone dies, the terms of their will go into full force. Jesus has died, Jesus has risen, and Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand—not a place, but the position of authority, which is everywhere. Think “right-hand man.” So Jesus’ last will and testament is in full force. It includes things like “Take, eat, this is My body” and “Take, drink, this is my blood.” And when we do what Jesus commissions us to do, we are blessed. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Jesus’ will also commissions us to do other things. “It is written…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Jesus’ commission also says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). And, of course, you remember the one about making disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). Yes, you and I—all of us—have the high privilege of bearing witness and proclaiming the reality of Jesus to the world, right where we live and move and have our being, to the people whom God puts in the path of our day to day lives.

Reason #6: The ascension of Jesus is a preview of His promised return. Jesus went up through endless ranks of angels physically and visibly. Remember what the two angels told the disciples: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10). And how’s that? Physically and visibly. It will not be a spiritual or metaphorical return. Jesus loves us too much to have us rest our faith and our eternal life on metaphors. No, our ascended Lord will come again with His physical body. We will see Him. Everyone will see Him. No one will miss it. For us who cling to Him by faith, ever glad for His rescue from sin and death, it will be a joyous reunion. For those who don’t give Jesus the time of day by faith in the heart, well, it won’t be a good day…or eternity…for them. But Jesus will come back in the body, physically and visibly.

Finally, reason #7 to rejoice in Jesus’ ascension: Jesus is Lord. It was the confession of early Christians in the face of a Roman government hostile to the Gospel. It’s the confession us Christians today in the face of all that vexes us—everything from incurable diseases to lost jobs to government officials suing us for living out the Christian faith. Not only did Jesus come back from the dead; now  He reigns on high. He is Lord of all creation. He is Lord of your life. And, as Luther said, “The little word Lord means simply the same as redeemer. It means the One who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same” (LC, II:31). Now if Jesus has done all that for you and me, who are we to fret that the world is going to “heck in a hand basket”? Who are we to wring our hands when things do not go our way? Who are we to doubt God’s goodness? Who are we to stay silent about Jesus and all that He’s done for us? Yes, we may be sinners, but our ascended Lord has conquered the sin. He has overcome the world. He has defeated death itself. And now He guides and governs all things for our good.

So we rejoice on this understated, under-celebrated festivity. Christ has ascended! He has ascended indeed!  The King ascends to heaven. Alleluia. O come, let us worship Him. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Amen.

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