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The Christian life revolves around its Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Or at least it should. Jesus Christ is the center of our life, or at least He should be.
As we make the annual revolution around the life of our Lord, we notice that there are several events that we stop and make a big deal out of – just like we do with our own life when we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. These are particularly DEFINING EVENTS.
Some of the defining events in the life of Christ are Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. Yet, what we sometimes fail to realize, is that among the significant events in the life of our Lord, there are not just 3 but 5. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, His ASCENSION into heaven, and then there’s one that hasn’t happened yet, His 2nd coming.
The first three we wouldn’t think of missing and the fifth one sells lots of books. But it’s easy for the Ascension of our Lord to slip by hardly noticed. The attendance at the Ascension Day service on Thursday is all I need to say about that.
The result of our lack of attention to the Ascension of our Lord is a heavy dose of misunderstanding about it. I have a hunch that we think that Christ’s work began on Christmas and ended on Easter, and now that He’s got the mess on aisle 5 cleaned up there’s no more need for Him to hang around any longer, so away He goes.
So this morning I’d like to point the finger at three, common MISUNDERSTANDINGS of the Ascension of our Lord to see if we can’t clear them up and better appreciate the significance of this DEFINING EVENT in the life of our Lord.
I. His Presence
The first common misunderstanding of our Lord’s Ascension has to do with His PRESENCE. Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, where is He?
The misunderstanding is that since He has ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, therefore He isn’t here anymore. We think of “heaven” as a place “up there” somewhere, and that’s where Jesus is now. “He sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty…”
And so, where does that leave us? Well, it leaves those of us who are still ‘down here,’ on our own. Which I’ll add, the ‘old Adam’ in us is just fine with. It gives us a bit more freedom to do what we want to do without worrying that we’ll accidentally bump into Jesus somewhere along the way.
As long as Jesus is ‘out of town’ and ‘up there,’ we’re free to run things ‘down here’ as we please. We may try to sanctify that thought by thinking that this is why He’s left in the first place. He trained and equipped His apostles to do the work He wants done ‘down here,’ and now He trusts us to do the right things in the right way on His behalf. One day He’ll come back and hand out rewards and punishments, but until then, we run the show as best we can.
So let’s put some understanding to this misunderstanding. In ascending into heaven, Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere that He hasn’t always been, because heaven is not a ‘place’ as we think of ‘place.’
God is Omnipresent. He is everywhere. So His right hand is everywhere. That Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father means that He is everywhere. It’s just that now, He’s not visible like He was for 33 years.
But just because He can’t be seen doesn’t mean He’s like an absentee landlord who expects us to do the upkeep and maintenance and send Him our offerings.
Jesus promised His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans but would come to them and be with them always, that He would never leave or forsake them. And so His ascension is not His leaving His church to fend for itself.
In fact, quite the opposite. His ascension means that He is present with His church, and with the whole creation, in an even greater and more profound way than when He was visible. Seeing has far too many limitations. The cloud hides him from the disciple’s sight. But Luke is careful not to say, ‘he left them.’
In ascending, Jesus withdraws His visible presence to establish His greater sacramental presence. Now His presence among us is not bound by the limitations of sight or the confines of space.
So let’s get rid of the idea that Jesus is not present here or anywhere in this world because He’s ‘up in heaven.’ He is present among us. And even though He has paid us the highest honor of being His stewards, nothing happens that He Himself has not directed. As we heard Paul say, “[The Father] has put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Eph. 1:22-23)
The place where we actually physically bump into Him is in His Baptism and His Supper. We actually physically hear Him speaking when we hear His Word. Here are the specific places where we can identify His presence among us with His love and mercy and grace, doing what He does – forgiving our sins and renewing or lives.
II. His Humanity
So if the first misunderstanding that we have about our Lord’s Ascension is His PRESENCE, a second misunderstanding has to do with His HUMANITY.
We understand the meaning of Christmas. The Son of God who is always fully God, took on our humanity when He was conceived by Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. On Christmas, God became Man. He didn’t stop being God, but also became Man. He became the GOD/MAN.
For some reason, we have the idea that when He ascended into heaven, He quit being MAN and went back to being just GOD. As though when He ascended into heaven, He took off is humanity and hung it up in His Father’s house like a worn out suit, because He doesn’t need it anymore.
I have a hunch that a lot of this comes from our misunderstanding of our own humanity and the fact that we are pretty uncomfortable with our own bodies. Today, the body is considered such a non-essential part of our humanity that ultimately is simply disposed of.
Even among those in the Church who should know better, the common belief is that when you die, the body’s purpose is over and done with – real life is contained in the soul and ‘spiritual life’ is all that really matters. We think so little of our body that we subject it to all kinds of abusive, immoral, mistreatment.
So if that’s true for us, how much more is it true for Jesus? Why would He want a physical body to lug around with Him in heaven?
But the Son of God Himself comes down from heaven to take on our physical nature. And the truth is, He’s not a bit uncomfortable with it. In fact, He wears it quite well, even without sin.
So, let’s get rid of the idea that the INCARNATION OF OUR LORD ended with the ASCENSION OF OUR LORD. Luke doesn’t say that there was a body left behind on the mountain or that fell from the sky when the cloud enveloped Him.
Jesus assumed the throne in His humanity, as one of us. He came down from God to bring us to God. He left the royal throne to become Man, and as Man He died, rose, and ascended to bring humanity back to God.
When Jesus ascended to glory, humanity ascended to the same glory in Him.
• Only as the GOD / MAN can He mediate between God and Man, and intercede for us, and bring His precious blood, shed for us, to the Father’s throne of grace.
• Only because He has a body can He continue to give us His Body and Blood for us in His Supper. If He has no physical body in heaven, then He has no real body and blood to give us for the forgiveness of our sins in the Supper.
III. His reign has not begun yet.
So, the first misunderstanding has to do with His PRESENCE. The second with His HUMANITY. The third common misunderstanding about the Ascension of our Lord has to do with His REIGN on earth.
Many mistakenly think that the reign of the ascended Lord has not yet begun but will begin sometime in the future. The popular ‘Left Behind’ series has left us with this doozie.
The idea is that Christ’s rule hasn’t yet begun but it will kick in some time in the future when He will reign for a thousand years. In the meantime, this world is being ruled by who-knows-who, but not Jesus Christ.
The truth however is that Jesus Christ reigns over the whole creation NOW, just as He always has from the beginning and always will as long as there is a world to rule.
He is active, ruling over the whole creation which He has redeemed and renewed by His blood. He is at work IN THE WORLD,
• gathering His church,
• proclaiming His kingdom,
• sending His Spirit,
• praying for His church,
• interceding for sinners,
• mediating between God and Man,
• offering up His sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary for the sin of the world.
Even as we speak, Jesus is ruling this world and all of the kingdoms of this world whether they realize it or not. Granted, there are times when, by all appearances, it seems like He is not reigning over things. Things don’t go the way we think they should go if God was actually in charge. But by faith, we know that He is and that He is working all things for good for those who love Him. For now, His power is made known in weakness and the world counts His wisdom as foolishness. But that doesn’t mean that He is weak or that He is a fool.
We need to get rid of the idea that we are still waiting for Jesus begin to exercise His authority and run this show the way we think it’s supposed to be run and relax and rest assured that the Captain is at the helm steering the ship along its intended course to its intended destination, the destination which the Son along with the Father and the Spirit set for this world before it began.
Jesus Christ is ruling all things NOW, and when He comes again, it will be the end of the show. And we will see it all, and understand everything perfectly. No more misunderstandings. We will see that He has been present among us all along, in the fullness of His divinity and humanity, ruling over all things by the “immeasurable greatness of His power.”