The Ascension of Our Lord (Observed)
May 20, 2020
Text: Acts 1:1-11; Eph. 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
And He has ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But that doesn’t mean He is gone! What kind of Savior would that be, who just abandons us to the chaos of a fallen world where the devil reigns, and leaves us to our own devices to cope? That would be no kind of Savior for me! And He wouldn’t be for you, either.! The point of the Ascension is not that Jesus has left us. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Now that He sits at God’s right hand, St. Paul tells us in our Epistle that Jesus “fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23; ESV). Remember the promise Jesus made to us in our Holy Gospel on Sunday: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). This is not just a promise of His coming again on the Last Day. It is a promise of His continual coming to us and among us in His gifts. Is that not what He says in the last chapter of Matthew, right before His ascension, as He gives His disciples the gift of Baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and the continual teaching of the faith? “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). I am with you always, this whole time, until the end of the age, when I come again among you visibly. He says it, and He means it!
So Jesus is not stuck somewhere up there, as though heaven is a location however many gazillion miles away in outer space. Heaven is wherever God is. And where is God? Everywhere. And where is Jesus? At God’s right hand. So Jesus is wherever God is, which is everywhere, which means He is with you.
That is actually the point of the cloud. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The cloud. It didn’t take Him away. It hid Him from their sight, from their earthly eyes. Now Jesus’ mode of presence with His Church will be different than it was during His earthly ministry. Now we are to see Him with the eyes and ears of faith in the things He has left us, His Means of Grace, the Word, Baptism, Absolution, and the Holy Supper.
As an Old Testament believer, and frankly even as New Testament believers like we are, alarm bells ought be sounding with the appearance of the cloud. Where do we see the cloud in connection with God in the Holy Scriptures? Here we particularly think of the pillar of cloud that separated the Children of Israel from Pharaoh and the forces that would enslave them, that protected them as they were baptized in the Red Sea (Ex. 14). The pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, which was the very Angel of the LORD (that is, the pre-incarnate Christ!), by which God led the Children of Israel through the wilderness. The cloud that came down upon the Tabernacle (Num. 9), the cloud that descended to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses entered, that God might speak with Moses face to face (Ex. 33). This is the cloud that filled the Temple at Solomon’s dedication as the LORD promised to dwell with His people and be their God (1 Kings 8; 1 Chron. 7).
And where does the cloud appear in the New Testament? At the Transfiguration of our Lord! There suddenly the glory of the Son of God shines through His humanity. Heaven meets earth. The Testaments are joined as Moses and Elijah gather with Peter, James, and John around the beatific vision and presence of Jesus. And what happens? A cloud overshadows them, and they hear the very voice of the Father: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Listen to Him, because that is how He will be present with you.
The cloud is not the absence of God. It is His presence! It is His presence with and for you. The cloud is the Shekinah, the Kabod YHWH, the presence of the Glory of God, hidden from mortal sight, but very much with His people, for His people, leading His people, protecting His people, speaking to His people.
So Jesus is with us, just as assuredly as he was with His disciples in His earthly ministry. It is just that His glory is hidden. To be hidden necessarily means that He is present! You can’t be hidden somewhere if you’re gone!
Now, Jesus fills all in all as St. Paul says, so He is everywhere, what we call in theology the ubiquity of Jesus. But He has promised to hide Himself, to locate Himself in specific places for you, so you can always know where to find Him for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Where does Jesus hide Himself today for you? Don’t look up at the clouds. That is the point the angels are making to the disciples in our reading from Acts: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). What are you hoping to see up there? See, you don’t look for Him now in majestic clouds or glorious sunrises, as beautiful as those things may be, and as much as they lead us to thank and praise God. He is in them, yes, but He is not in them for you, to give you His grace and mercy in the forgiveness of your sins. He is in a sunrise, remember, the same way He is in a hurricane or a tornado (and by the way, congratulations on surviving the great Palouse Tornado of 2020! You’re almost Midwesterners now!).
Jesus is present for you now in preaching and in the Holy Scriptures. He is with you in your Baptism into Him, in the Holy Absolution by which He pronounces all your sins forgiven, and in the Supper of His Body and Blood. These things are like the cloud. He is in them with all His glory, but it is hidden from your sight, under simple, ordinary elements: words and water, bread and wine. This is where you are to look for Him, and where you will always find Him, with all the saving benefits of His death and resurrection, for you, to heal you, to forgive you, to restore you, to save you.
And by the way, when we say He is present in these things, we don’t just mean spiritually. Ever since His incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary, you can’t have the Son of God apart from His human nature. Wherever He is, He is there as God and as Man. To say otherwise would be to separate His two natures, divine and human, and make Jesus into two persons. This is a very ancient heresy the Church has had to battle since the time of the Apostles. No, Jesus is one Person with two natures. He is fully God, eternally begotten of the Father. He is fully Man, born of the Virgin Mary. So Jesus fills all in all, not just as God, but as a Man! And He is with you in His Word and Sacraments, not just spiritually, but in all His fulness, as God and as Man! That means, when you hear His Word, it is Jesus Himself speaking into your ear. When your sins are forgiven in His stead and by His command, it is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ your dear Lord dealt with you Himself, because He is dealing with you Himself. You are baptized into Christ, and that means into His flesh and blood, so that you were really crucified with Him, dead and buried, and you were really raised to new life with Him in His resurrection. And yes, when He gives you bread and says of it, “This is my body;” when He gives you wine and says of it, “This is my blood;” He means it. He isn’t joking around. He isn’t just painting you a picture. He is giving you the real thing, Himself, in all His fulness, bodily, so that He Himself is in you with all the salvation and wholeness of His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. Jesus is never just with you in spirit. The Man from Nazareth who is God’s own Son is with you and for you, always, to the very end of the age. And soon He will come visibly, and the cloud will once again unveil Him for all to see.
In the meantime, stop looking up at the sky. And stop acting as though Jesus is gone! He isn’t. He is with you. With you right now. You are hearing His voice this very moment, hidden under preaching. You are in Him in Baptism and He is in you in His Supper. Heaven comes to earth where Jesus is present in these gifts. And, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, here is the real kicker. He reigns. Seated at the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for you, Jesus rules all things in heaven and on earth and even under the earth. He is the King. So do not fear. He who died for you, lives for you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! And He has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He fills all in all. And all things, bad and good, are in His pierced hands, redeemed and worked by Him for your good and for your salvation. Blessed Ascension Day. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.