Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon for the Ascension of Our Lord (observed May 16, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

"Jesus, Our Pioneer" (Luke 24:44-53)

Throughout history, there have always been those brave pioneers who set off to explore and find new places for people to settle down and live. For a moment, let’s just think of an imaginary pioneer, heading out to explore a part of the world where no one from among his own people have ever travelled.

All packed up and ready to depart, this pioneer lays down his packs one last time. He turns to speak to a gathering of family and friends who have come to say farewell. These may be the last words he ever says to them, so he gives his words the gravity that this moment calls for. He speaks words of love and tenderness to his dear wife. He gives a message of wisdom and a charge of responsibility to his eldest son. He admonishes his children to love and obey their mother. He promises his family and community that he will do everything in his power to return one day to bring them with him.

And so, this explorer blazes the trail and eventually finds suitable land to farm and live. Years go by, and his family and friends have heard nothing from him. “Is he still alive?” they ask. “Has some wild animal torn him to pieces? Did he encroach upon someone else’s land and they didn’t take kindly to him doing so? Or has he simply forgotten us?”

One day, in the distance, a man with a familiar stride approaches. He’s a bit hairier than he was before, not only on his face, but also in the animal pelts he wears. The wife recognizes her husband. The children recognize their father. They run to him and embrace him. They express their love for one another. And then, the pioneer proceeds to paint a pastoral picture of what’s in store for them in the land that he found for them. It’s time to start packing and getting ready for a new life in a new land. Others in the community are invited to come, too.

Jesus Our Pioneer

You might say that Jesus is our “pioneer.” In his Ascension, he blazed the trail to heaven for us. His life, death, and resurrection won for us a place there. He went ahead of us to prepare a place for us and will return one day to take us to be with him. Remember his words to the disciples in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3) The angels on the Mount of Olives reminded them of this fact, too: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)

When we consider the Ascension of Christ, who is True God and True Man, we see how in him our own human nature has been elevated and exalted. United to Christ by baptism and by faith, it’s as if we are already seated with him at God’s right hand. Here’s how the hymnwriter puts it in one of the hymns we’ll be singing during Holy Communion:

He has raised our human nature / On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places, / There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; / Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord’s ascension / We by faith behold our own. (LSB 494.5)

See Jesus, your pioneer, go before you into heaven, and know that you, too, as one united to him by baptism and by faith, will ascend there one day, too.

Reminder about the Message

The two men who encountered the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus had hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles of Jesus what had happened. As they were recalling the events, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples and the others gathered with them. That’s where our Gospel lesson for today picks up. Knowing that he was about to ascend into heaven, Jesus gives them some of his last words. It’s as if he wants to make sure the disciples “get it” right before he departs. He gives them a reminder about the message.

First, Jesus makes it clear to them one more time that the Scriptures in their entirety point us to him. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you,” Jesus said, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (v44) It really is all about Jesus.

Next, Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (v45) The New Testament Apostles of Jesus are the inspired interpreters of the Old Testament Scriptures. When they write about what the Old Testament had to say about Jesus in the New Testament, we ought to take their word for it and not question it. They were given understanding by Jesus himself. We can trust what they say. And we can pray that our Lord would open up our minds, too, when we sit down to read or listen to the Holy Scriptures, that he would give us an understanding and believing mind and heart.

Finally, Jesus points the disciples – and us – to the centrality of the cross and the empty tomb and what their central message should be. He said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” (vv46-47) Repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. That’s the message of Christianity. Not helping us to live a better, more healthy, successful, prosperous life … Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Not giving us another set of rules to live by … we already know we haven’t done so hot with a certain set of 10 “rules.” Not improving the world to the point where we manifest the kingdom of God in this life … Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) None of that, but rather repentance: being sorry for our sins and turning in faith to Christ Jesus who paid the price for our sins at the cross … and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name: that your sins against the holy God have been blotted out by the perfect, holy, shed blood of the Lamb of God nailed to Calvary’s cross. By faith, his righteous life is credited your account.

Reassurance about the Power

As his Ascension drew near, Jesus also wanted to give the disciples a reassurance about the power that he would give them. He says, “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (v. 49) Also, in today’s reading from Acts, Jesus said, “But 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.” (Act 1:8) This was the promise of Pentecost. Ascension was 40 days after Easter. 10 days later, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. We’ll talk more about this next Sunday, which is Pentecost Sunday. The Spirit was certainly present and active before the day of Pentecost. But here, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit was given to the Church in a way he had not yet been given. The disciples (and all believers from then on out) were given the Holy Spirit to believe and to boldly proclaim the Gospel message. That same Spirit poured out on Pentecost is poured out here each time baptismal water is poured over a sinner’s head, each time you hear the word of absolution pronounced to you, each time you come to this altar to receive the precious gifts that are placed in your hands and in your mouth. And that same Spirit empowers us with faith to believe and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. That same Holy Spirit empowers Christ’s Church to continually witness to his saving grace to the ends of the earth today.

Revelation of Authority

The last point I want to make today is that in the Ascension of Jesus, we have a revelation of his authority. Jesus gave the disciples a blessing. He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. A cloud received him from their sight (Acts 1:9). Recall how the cloud was a sign of God’s glory and presence, just as the cloud appeared to the Israelites in the days of the Exodus, and just as a cloud enveloped Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.

In his Ascension, Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God. This is not a physical place in heaven, but rather it is a position of power. All rule and authority have been given to him. In today’s Epistle reading from Ephesians 1, St. Paul prays that his hearers will know “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his 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.” (Eph 1:16-23) Sometimes, things in this life seem out of our control. Anxiety and worry overwhelm us. That’s when it’s good to look to our Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus and know that he is ruling and reigning for the good of his Church … for YOUR good … and that nothing ever happens that is out of his sight nor out of his control. Even the rotten things that happen to us, we have the promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) Your Ascended Lord will keep that promise for you.

And it’s not like our Ascended Lord Jesus is far off in heaven. His visible presence has been removed, but he is still very much present with us. He promised us “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) He promised us, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt. 18:20) And you, his Church, are “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:23)

Jesus’ Ascension was not the last word. He has not forgotten us. We are not left with our Lord being silent. He still speaks to us through his Word today.
And because our Lord Jesus has ascended to the place of all rule and authority and fills all in all, it’s not hard for him to be present at every altar where his body and blood is offered to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all our sins.


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