So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.” 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. 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? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” ” (Acts 1:6–11, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There they stood on the Mount of Olives gazing up into heaven. For all they could tell Jesus was gone. A cloud took him away. I think they were wondering what to do next. Of course Jesus told them,
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (v. 8)
But how could they possibly do that without Jesus? As they were standing there with their mouths hanging open in wonder the angels appeared. “Hey, why are you looking up there? You’re looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Look for him, instead, where he has promised to be. He’ll come again just like that. You’ll see him that way again. But for now, he’s giving you something else.” The disciples were there standing in two great promises. First, the angels tell of the promise of Jesus coming again. We Christians stand with the disciples in between. Jesus came first in the womb of the Virgin. He completed all that was necessary for our forgiveness. His life lived for you and me. His death died for you and me. His resurrection too for us. Everything is done. He goes into heaven and is coming again to bring it all to its conclusion; a world without sin and death and pain and sorrow. That’s the joy of the Ascension. That is the ultimate joy of those baptized into God’s name. We are his children, adopted through Holy Baptism by God putting his name and promises on us with water. We live our lives looking forward to Jesus’ glorious return, just as he promised.
To put some flesh on the second promise of the Ascension we turn back to St. Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel reading for today. Jesus promises the disciples what they’ll be doing.
“…repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Jesus] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” (Luke 24:47-49, ESV)
The Good News of Jesus is going to go out from Jerusalem. They are witnesses of these things; the forgiveness of sins that Jesus has won. They saw his life. They saw his miracles. They heard his teaching. They saw his death. They were witnesses to his resurrection. When he promises they know it is true. The one who can rise from the dead can do whatever he promises. The disciples are the ones sent with this Good News the forgiveness of sins won by Jesus. And they do not go alone. Jesus’ Ascension comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He is the promise of the Father. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus promise to be with us always is true. He is with us in God’s Word and worship, in Bread and Wine and Water. Creating and strengthening faith in Jesus, through the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
These are the two great promises of the Ascension and we confess them in the Apostles’ Creed when we confess the story of Jesus:
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
Jesus sits at that right hand of God. As one of my seminary professors says, “The right hand is what you use to do things.” (Norman Nagel, 2010) What God is doing right now in the world he is doing with his right hand, Jesus. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus gains forgiveness for you. His “It is finished” on the cross restores your broken relationship with God. He takes your sin, your deserved punishment into the grave, and rises to your new life. He is active and working right now in your ears, on your wet head, and in your mouth. In fact, this means that Jesus is closer now than he has ever been. It is what Jesus did on the cross, delivered. In these means, the spoken word, water, and bread and wine, he delivers forgiveness to you.
It’s as Luther confessed in the Small Catechism:
What benefits does Baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. (Small Catechism, The Sacrament Holy Baptism)
What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. (Small Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar)
There is nothing more practical than the daily remembering of the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ. Every day we sin. Every day we live with the knowledge of broken relationships, broken promises, and broken dreams. Every day we struggle with the knowledge that death waits for us. It is ours because of sin. But we live every day also in the promises of the Crucified One, the Risen One, the Ascended One, the One Who is Coming Again to be our judge. For those who are his children, Jesus’ return is not a day of dread or fear. We already know the Judge. What God promises is already true. Jesus is already, right now, our judge. He has declared us “not guilty” through his cross, his word, and his sacraments. We are his forgiven children now. We can only be lost from him if we reject his promises to us, wanting to be our own savior. We look forward to his return, because then we will see him, just as the Ascension angels promised. We will be with Jesus forever. This great Ascension joy compels us to live differently. Forgiven sinners forgive sinners. We forgive those who sin against us and strive to live our lives according to God’s will.
This is the joy of the Ascension. There is no question as to why the Christian church has celebrated this as one of the highest festivals of the church year. We rejoice in Jesus coming the first time, in flesh and blood for our forgiveness. We rejoice in the message passed down to us through the Apostles; repentance and forgiveness of sins, proclaimed beginning at Jerusalem and ending in our ears. And we rejoice in our Lord’s second coming as our judge, our Savior. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.