Sermon for the Ascension of Our Lord, AD 2021

Mark 16:14-20; Acts 1:1-11

Jesus was not the first man to ascend into heaven. As we heard in our office hymn this evening, a man named Enoch was translated into heaven. As Genesis tells us, after walking with God for 365 years this great-grandfather of Noah then was not, for God took him. Elijah also, as we heard in the Old Testament lesson, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. This greatest of the Old Testament prophets by the works God did through him was allowed to enter into heavenly glory without dying. So ascending into heaven is not new with Jesus. It’s definitely rare, but it had happened before. What makes Jesus’ Ascension different? Why do we celebrate it?
           
For one thing, Enoch and Elijah did not die. Jesus died. Jesus is the only one who died and then rose again and then ascended. While Enoch and Elijah were spared from death, Jesus was given the full brunt of death and hell. On the cross He bore the entire wrath of God for us. He took all punishment for sin ever committed. He suffered a true death, just like any man. God, being man, died. Yet in His death we know He did not stay dead. We have been celebrating His resurrection for forty days. In His resurrection we see what Christ accomplished in His death. He conquered. He made a way. He went forward and blazed the path that we could follow.
           
In his death, all our sin and guilt has died with Him. So in baptism, we who have died with him are forgiven and freed from it. Since He was found sinless, since Jesus is the perfect Son of God, death could not hold him. It had no claim on Him so He conquered death. He killed death. The path to eternal life has been cleared by Jesus Christ the conquering King. The robbers and murderers on the road – sin, the devil, death – have all been trampled down by the mighty rider on the white horse, the faithful and true one, Jesus Christ. He has already declared His victory over hell and taken all believers who fell asleep to be with Him. In your baptism you are brought in as a citizen of his Kingdom, even more, an adopted Son or Daughter of the King. The road has been cleared and set straight for you to eternal life.
           
The resurrection of Jesus is both difficult to truly believe and hold on to and at the same time the very foundation and source of our faith. Jesus understood this, which is why He remained with the disciples for forty days after His resurrection. They had trouble believing. He had to appear multiple times to His closest apostles and still rebuked them for unbelief and hardness of heart. Jesus shows them from the scriptures – the eleven, the disciples at Emmaus, the women, and the five hundred others – that all of it testifies of Him. So when we also doubt Christ’s resurrection, or the reality of it for us, we need to run to the Scripture. There we find it all testifying of Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation.
           
We see in many of those Old Testament saints the dim images which Jesus would fulfill. So it is in Enoch and Elijah, who ascended into heaven. For the fact that they did not die is not the only contrast with Jesus. They ascended into heaven and are here no more. Just as if they were dead, we will not be with them until the final resurrection. Jesus ascended far above the heavens, fills all things, and rules everywhere, from one end of the world to the other – not only as God, but as a human being. This is what the Scriptures tell us.
           
We must not be confused and think that because Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father He is therefore stuck somewhere in space, as if He is grounded to sit in His chair until he returns. No, Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand is not to a physical place, but to the place of authority over heaven and earth. The right hand man is the one who has the power to get things done. Jesus is the right hand man – for He is still man, and He is still working for our good, now in a hidden way, and soon when He comes visibly to judge the living and the dead.
           
The disciples were confused about this too. We hear from Acts that they ask, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" The disciples have learned from Christ that His Kingship is near, but they are still thinking in worldly terms. They understand Jesus, God and man, is going to rule but are still limited to thoughts of an earthly kingdom. Christ shows that His kingdom is not of this world, earthly, and perishable, but heavenly, spiritual, and eternal. Now some may take spiritual to mean “only in our hearts or feelings” or, in other words, “not real.” This could not be further from the truth. Jesus says exactly how His kingdom comes, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” He does not have dominion and exercise his authority according to the wisdom of this world. To preach the Gospel and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is how His kingdom expands. His kingdom expands as we receive His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, which He gives to us as a man, and has the authority to do so as ruler of heaven and earth.
           
Have you considered how odd it is that there is a book of Acts? What more is there to say after the life and work of Jesus? St. John Chrysostom met these kinds of questions in the 300s. He wrote on Acts because everyone seemed to be ignoring it. St. Luke gives the answer at the start, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” What Jesus begins to do and teach in the Gospel of Luke is continued in Acts. This work is continued in “the promise of the Father” being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” – the power to understand and teach what Jesus had done. Jesus continues his work in and through church. So also in our gospel reading, So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. Having been taken up into heaven, Jesus is still there working with them and confirming the gospel message that the apostles preach.
           
Jesus ascends not to get away from us, but to become closer than before. He has been given all authority to forgive and strengthen us by the Holy Spirit in His Word and Sacraments. We can trust every promise He makes is true because He has the power to make good on it. He will come again like He left, on the clouds, visibly, in great glory. Yet we do not look to the clouds now, but where He has promised to be. For all who believe and are baptized will be saved. We baptized have been brought into the kingdom of our conquering king, and follow the path He has made to life eternal. Amen.

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