Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At first glance, it’s kind of strange to celebrate Jesus’ ascension. “Yay! Jesus is gone!”? I mean, imagine you’re one of Jesus’ disciples. You’ve been with Him for three years, following Him around the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, and everywhere in between. You’ve seen Him perform miracles, cast out demons, even raise the dead. Just a month and a half ago you had one final meal with Him, ran away as He was arrested, and saw Him killed by being crucified- hung on a tree and left for dead. You saw Him buried in a borrowed tomb. A few days later, You heard some incredible news- Jesus rose from the dead- He even showed up in person to prove it to you! For the next forty days, He’s been with you again, teaching you, filling your mind with understanding, showing you all throughout scripture that was just happened was supposed to happen. It all came about just the way it needed to. But now, forty days after the resurrection, He’s gone again- taken up into heaven even as He was still talking to you. Gone. Again.
So why do we celebrate? Why do we gather together and remember Jesus leaving his disciples again? That’s what we’ll be looking at in our time together this morning. There are many answers we could give, but we’re going to limit ourselves to four. Four reasons why we celebrate Jesus ascension today.
We’ll start this morning with Paul in our Epistle reading this morning. Paul has just finished greeting the Ephesian church and in our verses this morning, he thanks God for the people and uses that thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about all of God’s work that we can be thankful for. In passing, Paul mentions God’s great might seen when He raised Jesus from the dead “and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.” At Jesus’ ascension, He returned to the Father and took His rightful place at God’s right hand.
Now, this does not mean that God the Father is sitting up in heaven with His hand stretched out and Jesus sitting on it. Rather, this is a royal, powerful image used to describe Jesus’ authority in physical terms. It goes back to times of king and queens- to sit on the king’s right hand was to sit next to him, to have the place of honor, to give aid, counsel, and advice whenever the king needed it. So being seated at God’s right hand is just about the most powerful position anyone could have. That’s where Jesus ascended to- a place “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
It’s there, at God’s right hand, that Jesus works for you as Prophet, Priest, and King. As Prophet, Jesus speaks God’s Word to you. What He has heard from the Father, he sends to you throughout the pages of Scripture. Do you want to know what God’s will is for your life? Read your Bible. There, Jesus speaks to you God’s Word. At God’s right hand as priest, Jesus intercedes for you. Just as the priests in the Old Testament were the go-betweens of God and man, so Jesus takes on that role. What you want the Father to do, simply ask in the Son’s name. There, at God’s right hand, Jesus fights for you to get you what you need. There, He also serves as King. Jesus rules over all of creation. He made it all and it all belongs to Him. Jesus is King not only over creation in general, but over your life in particular. You are not your own. You belong to Him. Therefore, honor Christ with all that you are. With Jesus as your king, you will want for nothing, but He will give you more than you could ever hope for or imagine.
With Jesus’ ascension, Jesus goes also to prepare a place for us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus spends several chapters telling His disciples what’s going to happen. He’s going to leave them. But don’t be afraid, Jesus says, because I’m going away for your good. In John 14, Jesus tells His disciples, “I am going to prepare a place for you.” His going is not because Jesus’ time is up, or that He’s bored of Earth, or even just because He wants to go back to heaven. Jesus ascends to Heaven to continue God’s work, to continue His plan of salvation for you.
That plan of salvation has been in works from the beginning. From before the moment of Creation, God knew mankind would sin, He knew He would send a flood, He knew David would be king, that the nation of Israel would be led away into exile, and that Jesus would enter this world in an animal’s pen in a backwater town in Roman-occupied territory. It was the plan from the beginning that Jesus would die, on the third day rise, and forty days later, ascend into heaven. There, God’s plan continues with Jesus working to prepare a place for you.
Now, what that actually looks like, I don’t know. God’s act of creation isn’t incomplete, and yet it seems that Jesus is still actively creating a place for you. My best guess is that, since Scripture speaks of a new heavens and a new earth, that’s what Jesus is working on. For now, when we die, we go to heaven to be with Jesus, but that’s not our final resting place. There’s more that God has in store for us- heaven and earth united again, a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the place that Jesus is, at this very moment, preparing for you.
A couple chapters later, in John 16, Jesus continues to tell His disciples why He needs to go away- He needs to leave so that the Holy Spirit can come. Listen to Jesus’ words, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.” Now that’s about as crazy a statement as I’ve ever heard from Jesus’ lips! “It is to your advantage that I go away.” We tend to think that if Jesus were just here, that would fix all the world’s problems. If we could only figure out who Jesus would vote for… If only Jesus could tell that person what’s right or wrong… If only Jesus would come and perform another miracle or two and post it online for the world to see… Then, people would believe!
And yet, Jesus seems to tell us the exact opposite. He’s finished what He set out to accomplish on earth, He’s played His part in God’s plan, and it’s time for the next step- it’s time for the Holy Spirit to come and do His thing. It’s the Holy Spirit’s role now to come and to help us understand all that Jesus said and did, what it means, and how it impacts my life today. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes you a Christian- who calls you by the Gospel, gives you understanding through the Word and Sacraments, and who sets you apart for the Church and keeps you there. The Holy Spirit continues to live and move and act in your life today. His work is clear, if only you are looking for it. He who has eyes to see, let him see.
Sometimes I wonder if we don’t disregard Jesus’ statement here and sweep it under the rug because we have a hard time believing in the Holy Spirit. The Father has the tangible act of creation that we can and do interact with all the time. The Son has the very visible work of salvation, that we always focus on, and rightly so. But the Holy Spirit? Well, yeah, he does some stuff I guess. We tend to take His work, pass it along to “God” in general, and then pretend He doesn’t exist. But the Holy Spirit is actively at work right now, through this sinner, to proclaim God’s Word to you. He’s at work every time a child is baptized at this font, and every time you remember your baptism. He’s at work when we gather around the table and receive the gift of Jesus’ body and blood. He’s at work in this congregation whether we’re gathered for worship, for a board meeting, for a food truck, or just drinking coffee and talking after the service. This is the Spirit’s work today. And it’s all made possible by Jesus’ ascension into heaven and His sending the Spirit to you.
And finally, we celebrate Jesus’ ascension because we too will one day ascend into heaven. Our opening hymn this morning summarizes the scripture very well, “On Christ’s ascension now I build the hope of my ascension.” This is probably another entire sermon in and of itself- maybe next year’s. But throughout the Bible, the New Testament in particular, we see that Jesus unites Himself with His Church so that where He goes, we will follow. Jesus was born- we too are born. Jesus was baptized- we too are baptized. Jesus died- we too will die. Jesus rose physically, bodily from the dead- we too will one day rise. So far, I think we’re all on the same page, but I think we can keep going. Jesus ascended into heaven and we too will one day ascend into heaven.
Let’s look one more time at today’s epistle reading- it’s on page 976 in your pew Bibles in case you want to follow along. We’ll look at the last two verses. “God put all things under Jesus feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Jesus is the head of His body, the Church, you and me, all of us gathered together. Jesus is your head.And just like the head is attached to the rest of the body, so are you attached to Christ, who is your head. The head can’t go someplace if the body doesn’t go with it. Jesus ascended? You too will ascend.
And that’s why we celebrate. In Jesus’ ascension, He takes His place at God’s right hand, He goes to prepare a place for you, He sends the Holy Spirit, and He lays the trail that you will one day walk down. Jesus’ ascension is indeed a day to celebrate. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell