At Christmas celebrated God the Son coming down to us and taking on our human flesh and blood. In Lent and Holy Week we celebrated Jesus’ descent into suffering and death, humbling Himself further, to rescue us from sin and give us life with Him. On Easter Sunday, and for several Sundays since, we have celebrated His rising to life again and His victory over the grave.
On Thursday, May 13 we will celebrate Jesus' enthronement, His victorious reign, and our abundant life in Him as we celebrate The Ascension of Our Lord at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Jesus' exaltation began when He descended into hell and continued with His rising to life. But it did not stop there. Jesus' Ascension completes His Father's mission to accomplish our salvation.
Sad to say, though, Jesus' Ascension doesn't get as much attention as do Christmas or Easter. Perhaps it's because we celebrate it on a Thursday. Why a Thursday? In our hectic world we want a pretty good reason for adding yet one more thing to our frantic schedules. We're so frazzled from shuttling the kids to school and sports and juggling our own schedules that a Thursday evening is prime time for "vegging out" in front of the "boob tube."
Why celebrate Jesus' Ascension on a Thursday? Because it marks 40 days after Jesus' Resurrection. After He rose from the dead Jesus remained on earth 40 days (see Acts 1:3), teaching His apostles and others what His dying and rising meant (also read Luke 24 and John 20-21). Jesus had to put all the puzzle pieces together for His followers—what kind of Savior He is, what kind of life He gives through His Gospel and Sacraments, and how they were about to be sent out to teach others.
Another reason Ascension Day may not be a big deal is that we've lost its meaning. We may think that once we've celebrated Easter, we've finished the salvation story. But that's like leaving a baseball game at the seventh inning stretch! Your team may be ahead by one point on the scoreboard, but you haven't seen the exciting conclusion. Your favorite player may yet hit a grand slam to clinch the victory. To echo Paul Harvey, Jesus' Ascension gives us "the rest of the story."
On Christ’s Ascension…
On Christ’s Ascension…
The Formula of Concord says: "Now He has ascended to heaven, not merely as any other saint, but as the apostle testifies (Ephesians 4:10), above all heavens. He also truly fills all things being present everywhere, not only as God, but also as man." (FC, VIII, 27)
What does this mean?
First, Jesus' Ascension means that His work of saving all people is done. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, "It is finished." When He ascended into heaven, Jesus showed that everything for our salvation is accomplished. Our eternal life with God is a "done deal." Love came down at Christmas, accomplished forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation on the cross, rose victorious over death, and then returned to God the Father. Jesus finished His journey. Our life with God, now and into eternity, is safe and secure. What a comfort when doubts annoy, temptations assail, and sorrows come crashing in!
Second, Jesus' Ascension means that a perfect human being has entered heaven and sits at God's right hand. We can try all we want to get to heaven on our own steam, but we cannot get there. The people at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) tried to get up to heaven, but their pride was their downfall. We try to impress God with our good lives, but then our pride leads us to ruin too. No human being can enter God’s glorious presence and live. Until now! Jesus not only breaks the bonds of death, but He also opens the barrier between God and human beings. Our ascended Lord gives us the hope of entering God’s glorious, eternal presence.
Third, Jesus' Ascension means that He rules over all things. Without this step in Jesus' exaltation, we in the Church would wander through life aimless and scared. Terrorist attacks, political scandals, or economic bad news would lead us to despair. We would vainly try to create some kind of heaven on earth. Without Jesus' Ascension, we might think that we should mould and shape the Church like a wax nose—make it look and act differently with every passing fad of "popular" teaching.
But with Jesus' Ascension, we have peace. Jesus rules all things for the good of His Church. Everything from terrorist attacks to church struggles to personal tragedies takes on new meaning. Jesus uses everything—even the conflicts and wars, even our personal trials and stresses—to strengthen us in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Nothing is out of Jesus' gracious control. He works it all for the good of His people.
Faith comes by hearing…
How does this good, Biblical teaching of Jesus' Ascension help us in faith and life? Why is it important for the Church to hold on to Jesus' Ascension as one of its prime teachings?
First, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit for His followers. While Jesus goes away from physical sight, He does not leave His Church. He promises to be with her "in, with, and under" the work of the Holy Spirit. In John 14:26 Jesus says, "He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." In John 15:26, our Lord says, "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me." Jesus promises the Holy Spirit who, in turn, keeps our focus on Him.
Then in Acts 1:9 we read, "When He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight." Notice: this key verse does not say that Jesus is gone! The great joy of the Ascension is that while Jesus may be out of sight, He is not out of mind, and He most certainly is not absent. He's still with His forgiven, precious people!
Here's an illustration. A mother and her six month-old baby are playing together on the living room floor. Mom has to get up and go into the kitchen. The baby looks around but doesn’t see Mom. She starts to fuss, fearing that she is alone. What does Mom do while she is in the kitchen? She speaks. She speaks so her baby can hear her: "It's alright, my dear. Mommy's still here." The baby is comforted. How? Not by the visible presence of Mom, but by hearing her voice.
That's what the Ascension of Jesus means for us Christians. A cloud hid Him from the disciples' sight, but He was not absent. Instead, Jesus comforts His disciples, then and now, with His voice. So Jesus' Ascension teaches us something very important: the Church does not live in the time of seeing, but in the time of hearing. Faithfully hearing the Word of God read, preached, and sung is the most important thing any Christian can do in life. As St. Paul says, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).
Based on this clear, comforting Ascension teaching from the Bible, we in the Church must, and can, trust our ears more than our eyes. Too often our eyes lead us astray. If pews look empty, we despair and don't trust Jesus' eternal care for His Church. If pews look full, we gloat and pat ourselves on the back for how we ingeniously brought people into "our" church. Instead of relying on our eyes—and the common, worldly standards of success and failure—our Lord calls us to rely on our ears.
After all, the more we hear the Gospel of Jesus' gifts of forgiveness and life, the more we are comforted and strengthened in faith. The more we hear the Gospel, the better equipped we are to give "a reason for the hope that is in [us]" (1 Peter 3:15).
Supposedly Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was once asked about a preacher who had distracting mannerisms in the pulpit. The upset church member complained to Dr. Luther, "I just can't watch him and get anything out of the sermon." Dr. Luther replied, "Well, then, take your eyeballs out of their sockets, put them in your ears, and listen!" Jesus' Ascension ushers us into the time of hearing God's Word. After all, hearing God's life-giving Word is the fountainhead of our life with God.
So, set aside Thursday, May 13 to attend the Divine Service. When Jesus ascends to God’s right hand, so do we. And Jesus promises to rule all things for the good of His body, the Church. As we sing in the Ascension Day hymn:
On Christ's ascension I now build
The hope of my ascension;
This hope alone has always stilled
All doubt and apprehension;
For where the Head is, there as well
I know His members are to dwell
When Christ will come and call them.
(Lutheran Service Book, 492:1)