I have trouble even imagining it. I can picture it like a special effect in a movie. I have no problem there. The Disciples are walking along talking with Jesus, and all of a sudden He begins to rise up in the air. Okay, He was standing still at that moment, blessing them, but still . . .. I can see the special effects - I have seen them in the occasional old movie, complete with bright lights and soft focus and cheesy music, but to actually witness it still gives one pause. What must it have been like to be there and watch?
We do not know if Jesus was still speaking as He ascended. We have no information on how quickly He rose into the air, or how high He was before the cloud hid Him from their sight. All of our best imaginings are just guesses, usually based on our wishes of how it would have been. All we really have is a short account and the knowledge that Jesus was taken from our sight on that day. Ever since then, we must walk by faith rather than sight, just as it says in 2 Corinthians.
And that is entirely the point of the Ascension. Jesus ascended to remove His visible presence from the Church so that it could live by faith and not wait to see. Of course, there have always been those in the Church who do not want to walk by faith alone. They want to see with their own eyes. They are the sorts of people who invent the vision, the mysterious, out-of-the-way appearances, the miracles that no one can really verify, but everyone is supposed to just accept as real, and the new revelations throughout the ages. We have the visions of Mary and the crying statues, the bleeding paintings, and what-not.
Jesus warned us that such things would follow - that people would cry out that "Here He is!", but that we were not to listen to them, or even go look. We are supposed to live out the lives God gives us, and do the work He places in our lives to do - all to His glory. He promises that when He returns, He will do so in a way that no one will miss or mistake. Rather than searching for a sign or for His coming quietly in a corner, somewhere, we are to expect Him at any time, and be busy about living in the confession of the Gospel.
Jesus understood human nature better than anyone else. He knew we would want to see, sense, hear, taste, and whatever. He planned His Word to satisfy our ears and the Holy Supper to satisfy our need to touch and taste and sense. But He knew many would want more, so He took His visible presence away. He did not leave us, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst." He is with us always, as He promised, just not open to our senses to perceive. That task He has left to our faith.
You see, if we could see Jesus at any time, we would need to see Him all of the time. People would say, "Why listen to the Pastor? Let's go hear Jesus." Because Jesus is not here to be seen and heard in His person, due to the Ascension, we must seek Him where He has promised to be. If you want to hear Jesus, you want to gather and listen to the faithful pastor preach. His voice is the voice that God has chosen to use to speak to you in each community. Each faithful pastor is the voice of Jesus in His congregation.
Again. If you could see Jesus, you would need to see Jesus to accept that your prayers have been heard and answered. You might satisfy yourself with prayers about things you consider less important when Jesus was not there, but for the critical and vitally important issues of your life, you would need to see Jesus listening and nodding, and hear His answer to be satisfied. Since the Ascension, however, none of us has ever had that experience, and we have no reason to expect it, so we pray in faith and the possibility of seeing Jesus does not get in the way. We must trust His promises that our prayers are heard and answered, and believers do!
Jesus took His visible presence from us to make faith possible, and to remove the stumbling block of sight and sense verification from the faith. Someone might ask, "How did they have faith while Jesus walked the earth?" The answer would be in the short-term and unique nature of those circumstances. They had to have faith that Jesus was the Son of God, that He had the abilities He actually possessed, and that His will was for their good and welfare. If Jesus had been a visible, tangible fact of life for two thousand years, that sort of faith would be established as knowing by constant experience, while the sort of faith that simply trusts God's promises would likely be overshadowed by the expectation of experience. Just consider the technological things we take for granted today that were hardly dreams a generation or two ago! We human beings become jaded very quickly!
In the wisdom of God, faith works best where it does not require constant verification by the test of the senses. We must believe that the one who preaches faithfully preaches not only his words but the very Word of God, that he who administers the gifts of God does so as His hands among us. When we pray, we must trust that God is faithful to the promises He has spoken in His Word to hear our prayers and answer each one of them. And when we gather together, we believe His Word that He is actually there among us, even though we cannot see Him, hear Him move about the room, or feel His presence with our senses. In other words, we walk by faith, and not by sight.
So, the Ascension serves us by serving the cause of faith as contrasted with sense. We must say, "I believe", because we cannot say, "I see Him." The Ascension also reminds us that the day of seeing Him is coming. One day, we will again see Jesus. He will come and divide all of mankind up into those that are His and those that rejected Him, and we who are His shall see Him and rejoice and shall never be deprived of that sight again. On that day, we also will be able to say something like, "Wow! What a thing!"
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.