“A hymn of glory let us sing! New hymns throughout the world shall ring. Christ, by a road before untrod, ascends unto the throne of God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” (LSB #493:1)
Old man Moses led the people of Israel down a dead end road. They came to the edge of the Red Sea and that’s as far as the road went… at least as far as they could see. There was no turning back because hell itself was right behind them, riding on Pharaoh’s chariots. Israel was terrified, and rightfully so. For they were about to be rounded up like cattle and herded back the way they had come to be slaughtered without mercy.
What they do not know… because they could not see it… was that there was another road… actually not 'another road… but the road they were on continued much further than they could see. Presently it was covered in deep water.
But when the Holy Spirit hovered over this deep, just as He hovered over the deep in the beginning… and when He breathed on it, and the mighty, rushing wind blew across it, He “gathered the waters under the heavens into one place and the dry land appeared.” (Gen. 1:9).
A low and behold… there was a road… “a road before untrod…”, a road that God had laid across the floor of the Red Sea “in the beginning…” just for HIS PEOPLE to journey on.
Israel, by a road before untrod, journeyed from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from bitterness to bliss. And as they stood on the other side of the sea, they fulfilled the words of our Psalm this evening, “clap your hands all you peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.”
But of course, the “clapping hands, and loud songs of joy” didn’t last long. What? A day, a week, not much more. Before long they were “grumbling” and “complaining.” As they continued their journey, they walked along a road that HAS BEEN TROD by every man, woman and child since Adam and Eve. It’s the road that we ourselves have laid across God’s good creation… and have paved with our sin. Every single one of us has been down that road. It’s the road that leads to slavery and bitterness and death and ultimately Hell.
And that would be the end of the road for all of us… if God had not laid another road for His people to trod. It is a road that no one would have ever have known was there unless the prophet revealed it to us. “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness…It shall belong to those who walk on the way; (catch this) even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. (That should make us all feel better!)
No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it… but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:8-10).
This is the road that the John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness of our sin, directs us to pack our bags and prepare to travel. “A voice cries: “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is.40:3-5).
This “highway,” as glamorous as it may sound, leads right to the suffering and misery and death of Golgatha and the Cross and the Grave. It does not detour around the slums and ghettos of life but goes right through the middle of them. And it is Jesus Christ alone who sees this road clearly and who walks this “road before untrod.” And He has calls His Israel to walk behind Him. “Come, follow Me.”
And all those who followed Him…, the new Israel…, were terrified and rightfully so. Their new Moses led them down a dead end road that ended at a Tomb carved out of rock. And hell itself was closing in on them and they are about to be rounded up like cattle and led to the slaughter without mercy.
But what they didn't know… because they couldn't see it… was that this was not THE END OF THE ROAD. On the 3rd day, God showed His people a road that He had laid from the creation of the world. “A road before untrod” until Jesus Christ trod it on Easter Sunday. A road that leads from slavery to perfect freedom, from death to eternal life, from bitterness to joy to the full.
And you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are on that road. This is the road that is paved, not with gold or silver but with the holy and precious blood of Jesus Christ, which makes it the 'Way of Holiness,' because Jesus Christ is holy, and His blood makes sinful men and women like you and me, holy.
This is the road that was opened up for you to travel on… when the road that you were born on… came to a dead end at the Red Sea of your baptism. God opened this Sea of Death… by His Holy Spirit… and you heard the mighty rushing wind that blew across it… “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And He brought you through the water … by the road that Christ Jesus laid when He was baptized in the Jordan River by John.
This is not a “road before untrod.” By the grace of God, many saints before us have already trod this road. And by His unfailing love and mercy, many more will continue to trod it. And with each individual crossing, the people of God fulfill the words of our Psalm this evening: “clap your hands all you peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
This road that runs through Holy Baptism is the “Highway of Holiness.” And this is where it leads.
“Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands, He blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Behold, the road that God Himself has laid from the creation of the world. None of us would have ever seen it if Christ our Lord had not revealed it to us by traveling on it, before our eyes. This is the road that leads from this world to heaven…, which is not the ‘dead end’ as some say it is, but the ‘ever-living end’ that God promises it is.
It is a peculiar thing I think, that in all four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Easter Sunday…, not once is there any mention that those to whom Jesus appeared… responded by “clapping their hands,” or “shouting to God with loud songs of joy!” The closest we come to any hint of joy on their part, is in St. John’s gospel where, while they are huddled together in fear, Jesus came into the room and showed them His hands and side, and John writes, “Then the disciples were ‘GLAD’ when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:20). That is as close as the disciples come to “joy” on Easter.
But “joy” is what Jesus promised they would have. As we have heard over the last two Sundays, while they were still in the Upper Room either during or after the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples, “You will sorrow but your sorrow will be turned to joy.” “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you. Ask that you may receive and your joy will be made full.” (John 16).
Where then is that “everlasting joy that shall be upon their heads” that the prophet had promised and that we would have certainly expect to see in the Disciples on Easter… but that is more realistically nine parts fear and confusion and only one part ‘gladness?’
“While he blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped Him and they returned to Jerusalem WITH GREAT JOY.” “Mega karas.”
And their ‘joy’ did not fade into ‘complaining’ after an hour, a day or a week. “And they were CONTINUALLY in the temple blessing God.” They were fulfilling the words of our Psalm this evening, “clap your hands all you peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For God has gone up with a shout. The Lord with the sound of a trumpet.”
So, why is it… that they receive this “GREAT JOY” that had been promised them, here at His Ascension? Wouldn’t we have expected just the opposite.. when St. Luke writes, “and He parted from them”? “He left them.”
Those are normally, painful words. “I’m leaving you.” “She left me.” “He left his wife and children and went away.”
Isn’t that just what they had done to Jesus? When the band of soldiers burst into Gethsemane and arrested Him, THEY PARTED FROM HIM. THEY LEFT HIM. And to this day, no one ‘claps their hands’ with joy over that.
But here, they understand that as “He parted from them…” as “He left them…” this does not mean “He DESERTED them.” Or “He ABANDONED them.” It means that He is WITH THEM in a new way… no longer visible.. now invisible. “As they were looking on a cloud took Him from their sight.”
He had promised them, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).
Now they understood the impact of those precious words and how they were fulfilled by His ASCENSION. Now, His presence with them would not be limited to the physical confines of time and space as it had been. No longer would He be there but not here.
Now, He will be present whenever and wherever two or three are gathered in His name. Wherever and whenever that may be, He speaks to us through the preaching of the law and the gospel, “I am with you…” “I love you…” “I forgive you…” “I have redeemed you…” “I will deliver you…”
Now, He will be present in the flesh and blood, in and under the bread and wine, on every altar whenever and wherever His Supper is administered according to His Word. “This is my body given for you…” “This is my blood shed for you…”
They understood that He would be present with them in this ‘incarnate’ and ‘invisible’ way, even while He rules the world from the right hand of the God the Father almighty. “And [God] 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.1:22-23).
Present with them at all times and all places from age to age, and governing and ruling the world for the protection and benefit of His people, His HOLY Church. And they were filled with “GREAT JOY”?
The Ascension of our Lord is not simply the afterthought to Good Friday and Easter Sunday that we have sadly considered it to be. It is not to be reduced to the afterglow that follows the great victory that was won for us on the 3rd day. The Ascension of our Lord is part and parcel of the victory itself and cannot be separated from it.
It is crowning moment of the entrance of the Lamb who was slain into the throne room of heaven where the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven, ultimately fulfill the words of our Psalm this evening, “clap your hands ALL YOU PEOPLES. Shout to God with songs of joy! God reigns over the nations, God sits on his holy throne.”
There was a time in the history of Israel, when the Ark of God, the presence of God, was not with Israel. In 2 Samuel, chapter 6, we read that David reclaimed the Ark of God from the Philistines, and as he brought the Ark of God to Jerusalem and the Temple, “[he] and all the house of Israel were making merry before the [Ark of the] Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals… And David danced before the [ark of the] Lord with all his might.”
Here, at the Ascension of our Lord, the Ark of God, the body of Christ, is led into the HEAVENLY JERUSALEM… to the merriment and exuberant of joy of His people on earth… along with the whole company of heaven.
The Ascension of Christ is the place where earth and heaven are joined together forever. It is where the Church that still lives under the cross and in the shadow of death… is united through faith in Christ, to the Church that lives forever under the unfiltered light of the glory of God.
In faith, we eagerly await that day when Jesus will once again travel that road that He has already trod. “This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
“Be now our joy on earth, O Lord, and be our future great reward…
Then, throned with You forever, we shall praise Your name eternally.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” (LSB #493:5).