Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ascension Day (observed)

“Men of Galilee, 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sunday on which we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord is from the first lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of Acts. Dear friends in Christ, Theophilus is an odd name. Now, perhaps when you compare it to many of the other names that you find in Scripture it doesn’t seem quite so strange, but on the other hand you aren’t going to run off and name your child Theophilus. Maybe your dog, but probably not your kid. But despite its oddity, Theophilus is an important name. Some theologians believe that this was the name of Luke’s benefactor, the one who provided the means for him to write his Gospel and the book of Acts, his ‘sponsor’ so to speak. Others say that this is a generic name by which Luke addresses all Christians. Theophilus literally means either ‘lover of God’ or else ‘one loved by God.’ Either way, such a name is an apt description of Christians. Not only are we those who love God, but we love God precisely and only because He first loved us. So, whether Luke is acknowledging his sponsor, who happens to have a cool name, or he is using a generic name for you and me, we can place ourselves right there in the first verse of our text.

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Those loved by God who are assembled here today, Luke is referring you back to the story of Jesus. He is the one who records the account of Christmas with all of its beauty, shepherds, angels, and all the rest. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, he records the teaching of Jesus, teachings that make it increasingly clear that it wasn’t Jesus’ intension simply to inspire Christmas cards, but instead to rid the earth of sin. It was His job to cleanse fallen creation, to take on Satan directly and crush Him underfoot, to make all things new. He did that through His proclamation and through His miracles- every person He restored to health was another part of creation made new once again. And He did this for you, because He loved you. You are those who have been loved by God, you are all Theophilus through the work of the Son. But His work was not yet complete.

Those beloved by God, Jesus Christ came for an ultimate and final cleansing, He came to deliver you from the clutches of sin. Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen.” His last instructions were about the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus marched forth to fulfill His Father’s will, to fulfill His love for you. For on Good Friday, He was taken up upon a cross, He was hung there to die, to be mocked and humiliated by men and abandoned by God. He was taken up high above the people so that all may see the price that He paid for us. My friends, each and every one of you is a Theophilus, one loved by God, one loved by Christ. He loved you so much that He willingly took on death, hell, and Satan, conquering them by the cross. There He wiped every sin out, on that day all the earth was cleansed. The death of Jesus delivered you, me, and all people from our sin, with His blood we are cleansed, our debt is erased, and the gap between God and man is closed.

But if Christ remained in the tomb, we would still be in our sins, and so Luke boldly declares: “To them He presented Himself alive after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Christ came to the disciples alive, resurrected, in victory over the grave. He gave them the proof they needed to take this proclamation of victory out throughout the world, so that all people might say: Alleluia, Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia! You have been loved by God because Christ rose for you, He rose to give you life, He rose to give you victory, He rose to point to our resurrection on the Last Day. He rose, and for forty days He dwelt with His apostles, His friends, eating and drinking the foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.

And now that time was almost over. The twelve disciples had spent three years with their Lord, and many perhaps even knew Him before that time. They had shared everything with Him, good and bad, the teachings and the opposition, and they all had the terrible memory of abandoning Him on Maundy Thursday. They had traveled with Him literally to death and then were witnesses of His triumph over the grave. But now they weren’t quite sure what came next. You can imagine the disciples thinking, “This can’t last forever, something is going to happen.”

That thought prompts a question. “So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus had to be waiting around for something, and it seemed quite logical that He was preparing for His final military campaign. They were looking forward to having Him walking with them as they gloriously and victoriously conquered the world. But there is a problem- Christ has not promised such things: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
Instead, He leaves us, rising into heaven until a cloud covers Him. Now our hopes are dashed. Christ is gone, He is up in heaven, far away, disconnected from us. We are now truly and honestly alone. That is why the disciples stand there and look. “And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’” By all appearances, Jesus has left us. Sadly, on Ascension Day, that is the opinion of too many Christians, even you and I are tempted to think that way as well. Jesus is simply a far away figure, someone who lived and died a long time ago, but now has little bearing on our lives. Isn’t that how we often live our lives- as if Christ is far away? And then to have a truly ‘spiritual’ experience, we must then climb the ladder to heaven and meet Him there. Our Collect for today even teaches this: “may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him.” If Jesus has locked Himself away in heaven, and it is up to us to ascend to Him, we are doomed. How can we keep the faith, how can we love God, if He has left us? Our hearts cannot come to Jesus, they cannot ascend to Him, because they are full of sin and corruption, the corruption that has filled us since our birth. If Ascension Day is goodbye, then we are left without hope, we are left alone!

Jesus responds to this dilemma in an unexpected way. He points us to a promise He had made many times before: “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.” Then He leaves. “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.” In a moment, Jesus is gone. He is no longer visibly present, and as the angels tell the disciples, He will not be again until He returns. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” But my friends, those who are loved by God in Christ, Jesus is still present. He has told us how right in our text. It is now the work of the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus to us. That is why Jesus points us over and over to that promise. The disciples are worried that Jesus was going to leave them, and the promise for you and me today is that He is closer to us now than He ever was during His life on this earth.

“For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, and He came for the express purpose of bringing Jesus to His people. Jesus loves you and me so much that He did not leave us on this earth, but instead He comes to us through the work of the Spirit each and every day to strengthen our faith and forgive our sins, to deliver the very benefits of His death and resurrection directly to us. Christ is still present among us, only in a different and much more wonderful way! The two angels asked the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” We do not stand gazing into the sky to look for Christ, we do not have to bring our hearts and minds to heaven as the Collect wrongly says today, but instead Christ comes to us, and He comes bearing His gifts and bringing His grace near to us. He comes in the Word read and proclaimed; He comes in the Lord’s Supper, where He dines with us as He dined with the disciples. He comes as the crucified and risen one, with His arms open in blessing, washing us clean from our sin and giving us life everlasting.

For that is the great message of this day. The entire Jesus, body and soul, His human nature and His divine nature, have been enthroned in heaven, to sit beside God forever. And through His death, the first taking-up of Jesus, this second taking-up points to our future. As those who have been loved by God, loved so much that He was willing to shed His very blood for you and me, we will join Christ with our renewed, restored, and resurrected bodies on that final day. Christ redeemed and enthroned our human nature through His death, resurrection, and Ascension, reversing the corruption that occurred in the garden. What we have to look forward to is the visible presence of our enthroned Lord forever!

And so we wait for that day. This characterizes our entire Christian life. Christ’s visible presence has ended for now, and we await His return as the angels promised: “This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” But yet our Christian waiting is different than any other kind of waiting in this world. For we wait with the promise that Christ is among us right now, that He comes to us each and every day bearing the gifts He won for us, that He is intimately in communion with us in Lord’s Supper, that He joins us with Him in our Baptism. He comes to us and sustains us as we wait, until we see that day of ultimate victory. May the Lord sustain each and every one of you on this pilgrimage, as we wait for the promise to be fulfilled, Amen.

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