Ascension: The Lord has Gone Up!

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lessons: Psalm 47:1-9, Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Hymns: LSB 491, 492, 548, 493, 768

Today we are observing the Ascension of our Lord. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended into Heaven, as today’s Scripture readings teach. The fortieth day upon His resurrection was this past Thursday. Ascension is a joyous time, for we recognize that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, where He reigns.

Yet, some look at the Ascension as a bit anticlimactic, especially when compared to other feast days in the Church Year. At Christmas, we celebrate our Lord’s birth and His glorious entrance into this world. At Epiphany, we hear the Gospel is available not just to the Jews, but to people throughout the world. On Maundy Thursday, we celebrate with Christ His institution of the Lord’s Supper. On Good Friday, we observe our Lord’s death as THE means by which our sins are atoned. At Easter we celebrate His resurrection from the grave and His victory over sin, death, and the devil.

But the Ascension? When Jesus goes up to Heaven? What’s so wonderful about that? Do we really want Him to leave our presence? Do we really want to see Him go up into Heaven? Wouldn’t He be better off here? Wouldn’t we be better off if He stayed?

That’s what the disciples figured. The Scriptures record ten occurrences in which the risen Jesus reveals Himself to the people. He had proven that He indeed rose from the dead. In the disciples’ mind, now that Jesus got the whole sin, death and the devil thing over, shouldn’t Jesus “Restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It’s as if they were saying, “OK, Jesus. You’re the Messiah. We’ve been waiting centuries for You. You showed You are the Messiah because not even death could stop You. You rose from the grave. You demonstrated Your victory. Now, do what we all want You to do. Be our King. Rule over us. Set us free from the Romans and all foreign powers. Restore our kingdom. Make us the world superpower.”

They still hadn’t figured it out. Jesus didn’t come to establish a reign here on Earth. He didn’t come to establish a government. He didn’t come to make one group of people better than the rest.

So when the disciples asked Jesus if He would restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus basically responded by ascending to Heaven. That left them with the clear answer: No, He would not restore the kingdom to Israel. Israel’s purpose had been fulfilled. They were the chosen nation to bear the Messiah in the Promised Land. Now that Jesus had come—and now that Jesus accomplished what He came to do—Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation is complete. No longer is there a need for a Temple. No longer is there a need for a chosen nation.

God made this clear 40 years after Jesus ascended into Heaven. In the year of our Lord 70, the Romans attacked Jerusalem, ransacked it, and leveled the Temple. The curtain had already been torn into two on Good Friday. Now the Temple was destroyed.

From the surface, all of this would make Ascension Day even more of a downer. But if you think about it, this all gives us even more reason to be filled with joy at the Ascension of our Lord and to sing praises.

How so? Well consider these things. The purpose of Israel and the Temple is fulfilled. They are no longer needed. While Promised Land over in Israel today bears historical significance, it is no longer needed for God’s work of salvation. For before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Then they will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout the Holy Land, and even to the ends of the Earth. This means the Gospel is not limited to a certain group of people. This means the Gospel is now available to you—so that you can become a child of God and receive everlasting salvation.

Had Jesus remained to be the Israelite King, He could not have reigned the whole world. Instead, His reign would have been limited. But now that He has ascended, He sits at the right hand of the Father. He reigns to all eternity and in all places. Jesus is not just known as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. His kingdom is threefold—the Kingdom of Power (the whole universe), Kingdom of Grace (His church here on Earth), and Kingdom of Glory (His church in Heaven).

If Jesus reigned on earth, His kingdom would only be a portion of His kingdom of power and His kingdom of grace. But His kingly office encompasses far more than this, as it is written, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10).

You see, Jesus has indeed ascended bodily. He now fully uses all His divine attributes as the Man Jesus Christ. He is not limited to time and space. He is omnipresent, as we just heard.

And this is comforting, for Jesus has not left us alone. We rejoice that He is still present, as He said. He declared “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20) and “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He is present in His promises. He is present in His Word. He is present at Baptism. He is present in the Divine Service. He is present in Holy Communion.

Therefore, even though Christ has ascended, He is not gone. He is here. He remains our Immanuel—God with us. For that, we “shout to God with loud songs of joy” (Psalm 47:1).

But unfortunately, we tend to forget His presence among us. We think we can get away with sin as King David attempted, as long as we don’t get caught or as long as the pastor doesn’t know. We pretend that we get little out of the Divine Service, not even recognizing His presence. We don’t want to take Communion too often, because we forget the reality of His presence. We don’t approach His throne of grace with reverence and awe. We don’t honor Him when we’re in His presence. We plop down in our pews and carry on a conversation with our neighbors as if we’re in a bar. We seek entertainment, rather than God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament. Ultimately, all of this shows our disregard for Christ and His Ascension. Repent.

For the risen Lord comes to you that you might share with Him in His Ascension and in His divine majesty. We are with Christ and He is with us. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-7, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” It is also written in Colossians 3:2-4, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Your very existence—your eternal well-being is kept secure in the ascended Jesus. He is with you always.

Because Jesus has ascended, He could now send His Holy Spirit, as He promised. They only had to wait ten days. Then the Spirit would come on Pentecost. The Spirit would guide them into all truth.

You’d think Jesus would be a little worried since the disciples did not realize the real reason why He came. They wanted Him to restore the kingdom to Israel. You’d think He say, “Uh oh. They don’t get it yet. I guess I can’t go to Heaven yet. I need to stay back and teach them some more. How many times do I need to teach them until things finally set in?”

But no, Jesus was comfortable with ascending into Heaven. And the reason is simple: He was not leaving them alone. He’s sending the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth to direct their hearts and their thoughts. The Spirit would guide them to proclaim God’s Word in its truth and purity and properly apply Law and Gospel. The Spirit would give some the ability to perform miracles. The Holy Spirit would inspire some to write the New Testament.

This same Spirit is at work today in His Church—even here in our midst as the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments are administered.

The angels who were present when Jesus ascended told the disciples that Jesus will come back in the same way Jesus ascended. From Psalm 47:5 we heard He went up with a shout and a trumpet. 1 Thess. 4:16 teaches Jesus will return with a shout and a trumpet. Acts 1:9 says Jesus went into the clouds. Mark 13:26 teaches Jesus will return from the clouds. Acts 1:10 reveals the presence of angels at our Lord’s ascension. Mark 13:27 and 1 Thess. 4:16 teach angels will be present at our Lord’s return.

When Jesus returns, He will judge the living and the dead. And He will grant unto you, O Christian, eternal life. He will do it because He bled and died for you on the cross. He took away your sins. He washed you in Holy Baptism. As a forgiven child of God, your verdict on Judgment Day is this: that you are not guilty—you are set free. And you shall abide with Him forever.

And so, we gather today to observe the Ascension of our Lord and sing praises to our King (Psalm 47:6). For “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (Psalm 47:5). Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen