The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, "Which," He said, "you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven."
Why Jesus Ascended
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The Ascension of our Lord has always been a festival day in the Church. Lately, it hasn't been much of a festival. Services like this one are generally poorly attended. That is due, in part, to people losing sight of the meaning of the Ascension. Christmas is pretty clear, with the baby and the wise men and the shepherds. It is fun, in a churchly sense! Easter is pretty easy too. The resurrection is one of the foundational truths of the Christian faith, and it is filled with drama and the appearing Jesus and the amazed disciples. But the Ascension is just one of those days that people don't quite get.
Oh, it is filled with a drama of its own - disciples gathered around Jesus and Jesus rising up into the clouds, and angels talking and making promises about Jesus returning in the clouds, and all that these things mean. But what it means for us who were not there and haven't actually seen it is puzzling. The Bible never explicitly says why Jesus ascended. Besides that, this is another one of those holidays just for Christians, like Epiphany. There are no Ascension Day cards sent. There are no television specials and stories of cute little animals or fat, jolly old elves bringing candy to make the world around us around us sit up and take notice. Nope, it is a day just for us few - and we have to dig out the meaning for ourselves. And that is what we are going to do, today. Our goal this evening is to ponder Why Jesus Ascended.
That first Ascension Day is the last day that anyone saw Jesus on earth. Paul was caught up into heaven and saw Jesus - whether in the body or out of the body, even he could not say. John, as recorded in Revelation, saw Jesus in His glory in a vision. Those two sightings are not "on earth". Ancient Christian legends aside, no one has seen Jesus on earth since the day He ascended into heaven and was hidden from sight by the cloud.
I suspect the visible ascension stunned the disciples. Even after they could no longer see Jesus, they stood staring into the sky, perhaps searching for another glimpse. And Luke tells us that, "And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.'"
So why did Jesus ascend?
We want to underline what was already noted - the Ascension was necessary. First, Jesus ascended to fulfill prophecy. The Psalmists prophesied about God ascending, Psalm 47:5, "God has ascended with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet." Then there is Psalm 68:18, "Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captive Thy captives; Thou hast received gifts among men." Jesus also had prophesied His ascension, saying, in John 3:13, "And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man."
Aside from fulfilling the prophesies, Jesus ascended visibly to show the disciples exactly where He went. He ascended. They saw it happen. The resurrection was not witnessed. It was demonstrated to be true "by many infallible proofs", but no one was there, in the tomb, to see Jesus' body come back to life. The Ascension was witnessed. They saw Him rise into the sky.
Now, that doesn't mean that heaven is "up". One of the early Russian cosmonauts boasted that he could not see God or heaven up there as he orbited the globe. He was a victim of that silly idea. The Jews of Jesus' day, and most people of whatever religion back then, considered God to be "up" and evil to be "down". It is a common image even today. God Himself speaks of being above, and looking down on us. Jesus' ascension into the skies was a symbol at the same time it was a reality. In the ancient world, the word for "heaven" was also the word for "sky" and the word for "the place where God dwells". Jesus rose into the sky to illustrate visually that He was going to be with the Father, and to reign over all things.
Many Christians assume therefore that Jesus left us and is up in heaven now. That belief is at least a part of the reason so few Christians celebrate the Ascension. That belief, however is absolutely wrong-headed. The Jesus did not ascend in order to leave us alone here on earth. He did it so that he might be with us always, just as He promised. Jesus is not gone, just His visible presence from among us. But Jesus is true God. He can do anything, and so He can be present with us - right here! - even though we cannot see Him. And according to His promise, He is! Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.
Think about it, and it makes perfectly good sense. And yes, God wants you to use your intellect and think - You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. Yes, God wants you to use your mind in faith and in love and in service to Him. The use of the mind - however - should always be subject to the Word of God. With that one caution, God would have you use your intellect to the fullest.
Jesus ascended to aid us in believing. Now, I am not suggesting that we have the power to believe on our own. We do not. Still, it would have been much more difficult for us - more intellectual road blocks, more emotional hurdles to deal with - if Jesus had not ascended. Let me give you a simple example: One of the blessings of the ascension is that we do not know what Jesus looked like. There is no description of Him in the Bible. The best we have are a couple of prophecies that suggest that Jesus was not going to be a real attractive person, physically. There is one description of Him in history, by Josephus about twenty years after the Ascension, working from rumors and legends. He said that Jesus was taller than average, and He had a piercing, high pitched voice that could be clearly heard at a distance, and that His hair was blond or light brown, lighter than normal for His society. But even that description is historically suspect - it may be true, and maybe someone added it at a later date. We do not know.
I think it was deliberate on the part of God to leave that space blank. Now all men can accept Him. Race and other outward defining characteristics don't get in the way. Orientals see Jesus as oriental. Blacks often picture Jesus as black. Us white folk imagine Jesus to be white. Slaves can imagine He looked like them, while their masters picture Him looking just like them. They can endow their mental image of Jesus with many of their own characteristics because no one knows any different, and Jesus did come to be one of us! Jesus ascended out of our sight to assist our faith. Nothing about His physical appearance can strain our faith. We don't know what He looked like, so we can imagine whatever His inward qualities suggest to us. What matters is not what looked like, but what He accomplished on the cross for us all.
When you think about it, the Ascension just makes sense. Jesus took His visible presence away from us so that we might believe that He is always with us! If you could see Jesus, on T.V., or if He made occasional appearances among us, then you would want and need to see Him with your own eyes to believe that He was here! You would not want to pray without seeing Him or hearing His voice. You would struggle to believe that His body and blood are really present in the Sacrament before us tonight, if you could see Him standing over there. How do you know I am here? Because you can see me. How do you know when I am not present? You look around, you listen carefully, and if you cannot detect my presence, I must not be there.
Jesus is here, tonight. He attends all of our worship services. He comes to our Bible classes and Congregational Assemblies. He hears our prayers personally, and answers them personally. You know that song about Santa Claus, "He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good . . ." It is true -- about Jesus. He promised it, Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.
Strangely enough, we can more easily trust His Word because we can't see Him. Since we cannot see Him at any time, we know that we cannot expect to see Him when He is present. So, not seeing Jesus doesn't mean He is not here. We have to decide the matter on the basis of His promise.
We can honestly say that Jesus is really present in this Sacrament for our forgiveness and blessing and strengthening because we don't anticipate being able to find Him with our senses. He wanted it to be so that we would walk by faith, and not by sight, or any other sense. On our altar tonight, Jesus is bringing us His body and blood for our cleansing and blessing and salvation. How do I know? Because Jesus said so.
And He is present in the Word preached. If the pastor proclaims the true Word of God in purity and honesty, the voice you hear is not the voice of the pastor alone. It is the voice of Jesus. It is not His natural voice - it is, nevertheless, the voice which He has called, through your calling of a pastor, to be His voice here, among you, speaking His holy and saving Word to you, in your ears.
Jesus also ascended to send us the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies His holy people. It is by the Holy Spirit that we are empowered with the power to do His works and preach His Word, and be His witnesses throughout the whole world - which means right here where we live as well! Sometimes, in our words and actions we do not confess Him well. We sin, and we hurt one another, and we make a confession of sorts which does not speak of His love or His grace or His goodness. But then we have opportunity to also confess to the world His forgiveness for those who repent of their sins and confess them, as you will do tonight, and come to Him for pardon. And we have the power to demonstrate by our own humility and faith the peace of sins washed away and consciences cleansed by the power of Jesus Christ Himself. Isn't God good, that even when we sin, He turns it into the opportunity to show His goodness, grace, and love!?
Jesus also ascended to help us keep it fixed in our mind that Jesus is coming again. He is going to be coming in the clouds. He will come visibly, and with great glory - just as the Disciples watched Him go. They will be here on that day, too. The angel promised them that they would see Him return just as they had witnessed Him depart! Of course, that means that Jesus ascended to guarantee us that we will rise from our graves at the end, unless we still stand on earth alive on that great day! Jesus is coming again, and not in secret to rapture a precious few away, but suddenly, visibly, and with great glory, and all of mankind will stand before Him and see it happen and glorify God.
And those of us that believe will be rejoicing in our salvation. And let me be clear on this - all of those who trust in Jesus Christ will be rejoicing on that day. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Assembly of God believers, even a few of us Lutherans. All of those who place their hope in Jesus Christ alone, and only such as trust in Him, but every single one that truly believes - without regard to their labels on earth - will stand before Christ in glory and joy and everlasting life. The others will see, too, and they will glorify God, but their joy will be muted by the knowledge that they could have trusted, that they had heard, that God had preached and spoken, sent men and entire churches to find them and win them - but they chose not to trust God. They will glorify God, but in the face of eternal damnation, we will glorify God with great and unending joy and celebration in salvation.
And that is why Jesus ascended. The Ascension does not means that Jesus is gone, but that He is among us. It means that we can look for Him in the Sacrament, and listen for His voice in the voice of the shepherd He has called for us to be His voice. It means that He is listening to every prayer. It means that Jesus is at work through His Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. And finally, it means that Jesus is coming again, and we are going to rise from our graves to that salvation long promised, prepared on the cross and at the empty tomb, and proclaimed to you tonight, and every Lord's day.
At Christmas, we sing the song of the angels - Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among men with whom He is well pleased. At Easter we speak to one another the ancient hymn of praise about the resurrection - He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! On Ascension day we sing the ancient hymn of the Christian church, recorded for us by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:16, And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Beheld by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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