Forty days ago, we celebrated the Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning. Today, we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension to reign again in heaven. In ten days, on the fiftieth day of Easter, we’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost—a Greek word that literally means “fiftieth.” These three feast days, in this celebratory season of Easter, are best understood together as a unity. Much like the Great Three Days of the Paschal Triduum before Easter Sunday are a best experienced together, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost form a unity that that tells a complete story of our restoration to full relationship with God in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. We do a pretty good job of celebrating Easter—obviously. And most people get that Pentecost is a big deal. We can’t forget to wear red then. (Shameless plug!) But the Ascension somehow often gets overlooked.
Perhaps it’s because it’s always on a Thursday, in the middle of the workweek, but whatever the case, it’s critical to the complete picture of what God is doing for us when we say that he saves us, or that he restores us to right relationship with him. As we go into the sermon tonight, I challenge you to listen with fresh ears. What does the Ascension mean? Why is it important? What does it mean for you? If someone were to ask in you to explain in easy-to-understand terms why the Ascension is a big deal, what would you say? Why does the Ascension matter after all?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Emanuel—we all know what that means, right? What’s it mean? “God with us.” That’s right. “Emanuel,” in Hebrew, means “God with us.” We in this congregation especially know what it means…It’s our name. It’s also a name for Jesus. When the Prophet Isaiah foretells the birth of the Messiah, he says, “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emanuel,” God with us. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we sing that beloved Advent carol, “O come, O come Emanuel” in anticipation, and as a prayer for the coming of Christ—both as an infant once in Bethlehem as fulfillment of the promise given by God through the prophets, but also as a fulfillment of the promise of Christ given to us before his ascent back to the Father, the very event that we remember today.
We know intimately what this name “Emanuel” means—”God with us.” But what does it mean for us today, as we celebrate Christ’s ascent back to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God? Today’s first lesson, as if to drive the point home, makes it clear that Jesus is no longer with us once he ascends into the sky—”as they were watching,”—that is, as the disciples were watching—”he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” He departed from them. In John’s gospel, already on the day of the resurrection, Easter morning, Jesus tells Mary flat out that he will be returning to his Father. The Ascension is a given for Jesus, and it’s a time when he will leave us.
Anticipating this, Jesus tells us he will not leave us “orphaned”—such a great word, really. He will not leave us orphaned. He will not leave us unaccompanied, without protection, or bereft of care. We won’t be left to fend for ourselves because the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will come from on high and be our Strength and Guide. And yet—we know the Holy Spirit doesn’t come til Pentecost. So in the meantime, Jesus is gone, and we’re left seemingly alone. Does the promise of Emanuel, does the promise of “God with us,” does that somehow change with the Ascension?
“For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human”—we confess that every Christmas Eve. It’s the message of Christmas. God gives up everything that it means to be God and enters into the complexity, the trouble, the difficulty, the sorrows of humanity. Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be taken advantage of for himself, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness for our sake. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
“For us and for our salvation” Jesus did these things. For us and for salvation, he came down from heaven. For us and for our salvation, he preached the good news, healed the sick, made the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear. For us and for salvation, he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. For us and for our salvation, he was raised to life again. And for us and for salvation, he ascended back to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.
In his return to glory, Jesus doesn’t simply go as a spiritual being. Jesus returns as simultaneously divine and human. Jesus ascends to heaven the same way he came to us—both fully God and fully man. In heaven, in our Lord and our God, we have one who knows the extent—to the point of death itself—what it means to be a limited human being. Jesus was tempted like we are. Jesus laughed like we do. Jesus cried like we do. Jesus got sick like we do. Jesus had family and friends like we do.
In all ways, even in death, Jesus is like us. And Jesus takes our humanity back with him to heaven, completing the work of salvation begun at the incarnation, at the moment of his enfleshment in Bethlehem as an infant in a manager. “From God’s heart the Savior speeds,” the Advent hymnist writes, “back to God his pathway leads; out to vanquish death’s command, back to reign at God’s right hand.” In heaven, in Jesus, we have one who loves us so completely, so dearly, so deeply, and so broadly, who brings back to the seat of glory the fullness of humanity. This is what Jesus means when he tells us he goes to prepare a place for us. He goes to make everlasting life open to us fully and completely. We limited though we be in our human likeness, will be highly exulted with him in glory everlasting—just as he in his human likeness has been exulted to the glory of God the Father.
That’s all well and good, but that still doesn’t help us make sense of what it means to speak of Jesus as our Emanuel, our “God with us.” It would seem that for all intents and purposes, on the Ascension Jesus leaves us. God is not with us. On this day, we ritualistically blow out the Paschal Candle to signify in our worship that Christ has departed from us. He’s no longer here, but has returned to heaven. Back to reign at God’s right hand…
When we blow out that Paschal Candle in a few moments, does that mean that God has abandoned us?
When Jesus returns to heaven, does our world fall into darkness?
Did the light of Christ that we joyfully celebrate the night of the Easter vigil—does it cease to pierce through the night of doubt and sorrow, sin and death?
Does the Prince of Darkness win the day on this Ascension Day?
By no means! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
And on this day, Christ charges us with a solemn mission, a charge. We are his witnesses. We are the ones who take up the mantle, as Elisha took up the mantle of Elijah, as Joshua took up the mantle of Moses—we are to take the mantle of our teacher, our friend, our Lord. We are the witnesses Jesus now sends out to do his work. First to Jerusalem, then to all Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. That is—first in our own lives, our homes and close relationship, here at this parish, then to our community, Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Ashby, Leominster, and then everywhere and anywhere we go—be it Boston, Worcester, Pensacola, Seattle, or Rahden in Germany.
Wherever we go, we are to bear Christ who has so illumined our lives, and shine his love on everything and everyone who yearns for it. Light is not diminished when it is shared, but instead increases in intensity. The same is true for love and the presence of God. We are the light of Christ. Let your light shine before others, that all may see your loving deeds done to glorify God our Father who is in heaven—beside whom Christ, the light of heaven, sits enthroned and reigns forever ever, bearing within himself the fullness of our humanity as well as his own divinity.
God hasn’t abandoned us. Christ hasn’t abandoned us. He has readied us to be his hands and feet in the world. To be his heart. To love as we have been loved. God is with us in our soothing touch, in our healing words spoken in love for those whom Jesus came to save. For us and for salvation, Christ Jesus came down from heaven, equipped us to be his witnesses, to be his holy embodiment for the sake of the world he came to save. For us and for salvation, he goes up to heaven, and fills us with power from on high to shine his light of love—in our homes, in our community, and everywhere we go.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.