Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

Mark 16:14-20; Acts 1:1-11; 2 Kings 2:5-15

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is a most unfortunate fact that The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord has become neglected and all but forgotten among most Christians today. Undoubtedly, that the Feast never falls on a Sunday, but always on a Thursday in the middle of the week, is a significant contributing factor to its neglect. And yet, The Ascension of Our Lord is one of the three most important Feasts and celebrations in the Church’s Year of Grace, just as important as are Christmas and Easter. Indeed, our Lord’s Ascension is the ultimate goal of His Incarnation, which the Church celebrates at Christmas, and is the completion of our Lord’s work begun in His Incarnation. Likewise, the Ascension is Jesus’ coronation as King over heaven and earth, which the events of Holy Week and Easter prepared the way for. When Christ ascended in glory to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, He began His reign over heaven and earth, and now He fills all things, thus fulfilling His Great Commission promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
If Jesus had not ascended, then the fruit of His death and resurrection would not be fully realized for us. For, not only was Jesus raised up from death in His true, fully human, flesh and blood body, but He ascended back to His Father in heaven in that very same true, fully human, flesh and blood body. This is as significant as it is astounding, for, up until Jesus’ Ascension, no man could see God and live. Sinful man could not stand in the fullness of God’s glorious presence, but he would be destroyed in God’s holiness and righteousness. Indeed, that is why Isaiah despaired of his life when he beheld the glorious vision of God on His throne in heaven saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” That is why every man or woman who had an encounter with one of God’s holy angels was stricken in fear and had to be reassured by the angelic messenger, “Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God.” Truly, as the preacher to the Hebrews confesses, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” However, now, in Jesus, a true, fully human, flesh and blood man stands in the fullness of the glorious presence of God and is not destroyed, but shares in God’s glory, holiness, and righteousness. And, you and I, the Church of Jesus Christ, His body and Bride, also stand in God’s glorious presence in and through Jesus. Because of Jesus’ Incarnation, His flesh is our flesh, His life and death are our life and death, His Resurrection is our resurrection, and His Ascension into the glorious presence of God the Father is our ascension into the glorious presence of God our Father. As Jesus is God’s Son, so in Jesus are we God’s adopted sons and daughters. Jesus is there, with God the Father in heaven, now, and we, not yet, but when He returns in His Parousia on the Last Day, where He is now, there we shall also be: Where the head is, there the body must also be.
Too many Christians think of Jesus’ Ascension only in terms that He has gone away from us physically and is now with us spiritually through Word and Sacrament. While that is most certainly true, that is not even the half of what is true concerning our ascended Lord. In truth, Jesus is closer to us now than He was with His disciples in the flesh. That is why Jesus repeatedly taught them that it was to their benefit that He go away, for if He did not go, He could not send to them the Holy Spirit, but if He went away, He would send His Spirit to guide them into the Truth. Jesus did not leave us physically in His Ascension, but He ascended that He might fill all things and truly fulfill His promise to be with us always – spiritually, and physically, fully divine and fully human in one person. Thus, once again, the Ascension of our Lord is the fulfillment and the ultimate goal of His Incarnation, that He may truly be with us always.
In His Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the eternally begotten Son of God assumed a true and full human nature, “perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh,” as the Church confesses in The Athanasian Creed. The two natures of Christ, His divine and human natures, are so personally united, yet distinct and not confused, that He is truly and fully one person from the moment of His Incarnation, through His life, suffering, and death, and in His Resurrection, Ascension, and coming again in glory on the Last Day. Jesus Christ, our Lord, is God and Man in one person, perfectly, permanently, and forever united as one person. Thus, when Jesus ascended to His Father, our human nature ascended also, and a real and true human man now reigns and rules over heaven and earth in the glory of God the Father and fills all things, at all times, and in all places. For us, Christ’s Church, right now, and until He comes again, this is the greatest source of hope and comfort and peace, for Jesus, who fills all things as both God and Man, surely fills His Church through His Word and His Blessed Sacraments: Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Word, and Holy Supper. Thus, both Calvin and Zwingli were wrong when they reasoned that Jesus could not be bodily present in the Supper because He is bodily present at the right hand of His Father in heaven, and that even if He could be bodily present in multiple locations at the same time, the finite elements of bread and wine and water and word cannot possibly contain He who is infinite. Here we must not cast aside our reason, but we must utilize it and submit it to the Word of the LORD who blessed us with the wonderful and precious gift of reason and believe and trust the Word of our LORD God who gave and preserves in us this First Article gift. For, ultimately, the Incarnation, Ascension, Resurrection, and Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ are great and glorious mysteries and sacraments. What reason cannot, alone, comprehend, faith and trust apprehend and count as knowledge, certainty, and truth.
However, there is another reason why The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord is neglected and forgotten in our day, and it is nothing other than the handiwork of the devil: Popular Christianity follows in the footsteps of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time in turning the Law of God into moralism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ into law. For many Christians, the import of Scripture ends with the death of Jesus on the cross. After all, there He said,  “It is finished,” and that must have been His final word, right? No, wrong! If Jesus’ death were the end of His Word and Promise to us then we Christians, as St. Paul has concluded, are the most to be pitied of all men, for we are still in our sins and are bound to fulfill God’s Law with no hope of justification. As a result, too many Christians view the Scriptures as a rulebook on how to please God and merit His favor. That is certainly the way the Pharisees understood it, believing that they were righteous by their works according to the Law. They did not trust in God’s mercy and grace, nor in Jesus the Messiah, but they trusted in their own works, prayers, rituals, and piety. Satan encourages such thinking today as then, and he delights in distracting your minds and hearts away from Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension and, consequently, from the full meaning of His Incarnation.
In His parting words to His disciples, Jesus reassured them saying, “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.” In ten more days we will celebrate Jesus’ promised sending of His Holy Spirit upon His Church. The Holy Spirit has sealed us in Christ through our Holy Baptisms and has created and daily sustains our faith and trust in Him and His Word and Commands. On the Day of Jesus’ Ascension, His disciples stood gazing up into the heavens, their hearts aching that Jesus had left them alone, but on the Day of Pentecost, their fear was cast away and they were empowered to proclaim the Good News of Jesus before kings and emperors and all the world without fear, even unto persecution, suffering, and death. They had the promised Comforter and Guide, and they had Jesus with them always, and especially and particularly when they gathered together in His Name to receive His Word, His Baptism, His Absolution, and His Supper. In Christ’s Church, through these means, the signs of Jesus’ real and true presence are as active and vital today as they were two thousand years ago: Demons are cast out in the Name of Jesus in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution; the Gospel is proclaimed in all the world in all the tongues of men; the attacks and blasphemies of the Satanic serpent cannot harm us; and those afflicted by the poisonous venom of the devil and sin are healed in Holy Absolution and the laying on of holy hands in Jesus’ stead and by His command.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our King Jesus has ascended back to His Father in heaven. He has not left us as orphans, but He has raised us with Him, not only in victory over sin, death, and hell, but to Sonship and Kingship with Him in His kingdom. He has not left us alone, therefore do not stand idle gazing up into the heavens, or gazing downward into yourselves, but outward towards His kingdom in which we reign and rule with Him. Go and tell all who inhabit His kingdom the Good News and bring them to their King by bringing His kingdom to them – making disciples by baptizing and teaching them all He has commanded. Therefore, how you live and act, what you say and do, matters, for when they hear you, they must hear Him. Do not live as though you are alone, left to your own devices, but live as people who have been set free in Christ, for that is what you are. And, gather here in His sanctuary with all the members of His body, the Church, where He is present, filling the font and the pulpit, your ears and your mouths with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. For, in Him dwells all the fullness of God bodily, and He dwells bodily with you for the life of the world to the glory of His Father and in His most Holy Spirit.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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