The Ascension of our Lord (Observed): Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness

Lessons: Psalm 47, 2 Kings 2:5-15, Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Hymns: LSB 491, 492, 493, 495, 768

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      Forty days after our Lord Jesus rose triumphantly from the dead, He ascended into Heaven. Forty days from Easter Sunday always falls on a Thursday. This past Thursday was the actual Day of Ascension. The Church considers this day to be a high feast day, right up there with Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter. In fact, some countries still have Ascension Day as a public holiday in which most workers get that day off. That remains true in Germany, despite their much lower rate of Christianity and church attendance. Another holiday that has gotten lost in our modern world is Epiphany, which is the “Gentile Christmas” and falls on January 6. We would do well to observe both Epiphany and Ascension on the days when they actually occur. An ancient service that has gained traction in recent years is the Easter Vigil. I love that we normally have it. But I must admit that I’ve come to the conclusion over the past few months that we should be emphasizing a recovery of Epiphany and Ascension over a recovery of the Vigil. Keeping all three would be best. After all, do we not agree with the psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go into the house of the Lord’?” (Psalm 122:1).

      OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s consider today’s Gospel, as recorded in Luke 24. It begins when Jesus is with a group of disciples. Right before our reading began, Jesus demonstrated to the disciples that He had risen bodily, for He ate some broiled fish in their presence. Then Jesus emphasizes the truth of the Old Testament, saying, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). In fact, Jesus opens their minds to the Scriptures, for the Bible testifies of Him. You see, the Scriptures hold before your eyes your Savior. The Scriptures, from the beginning to the end, serve as a revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And what that means is that our focus is to remain on Jesus as the Christ. We cannot move past Him and His saving work.

      Yet Satan wants us to think, “I know what the Pastor is going to say. Can’t he move us past Jesus to other topics, like how to live our lives? That way his preaching will be more relevant.” Or Satan wants us to believe, “Jesus lived in His context some 2000 years ago. We live in our context today. What worked for the people then doesn’t work today. Therefore, let’s put our attention on saving the environment, ending poverty, or accepting all viewpoints and all walks of life.” These lies of Satan appear very pious, for they both attempt to bring about improvements in this life. But both end in failure, for when we omit Christ from Christianity, we have lost the hope of eternal life and, with it, any improvements in this life and the life to come.

      Another important point we can learn from Jesus is that He approves of what is written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Sometimes people attempt to pit Jesus against the Scriptures. They’ll say, “I know the Bible says that, but did Jesus teach it?” In doing so, they’re trying to water down the Law or even dismiss it. But since Jesus has approved of the entire Scriptures, we cannot pit Jesus against Scripture. The Bible is divinely revealed, does not contain errors, is always true, and it is entirely God’s Word.

      Jesus then demonstrates how it is written in the Old Testament that the Messiah would suffer, die, rise from the dead, and ascend into Heaven. You chanted the prophecy of Christ’s ascension in Psalm 47, which serves as today’s Introit and Gradual. And yes, even the Old Testament prophesied the death of Christ and His resurrection. The Old Testament spoke of the reason for these events—to cancel out our sin and to acquit God’s people on the Day of Judgement.

      That’s why Jesus continues, saying, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Until Jesus returns, two things are to be preached in Christ’s name: repentance and forgiveness. For we are all sinners. We have all failed to keep God’s perfect demands. Therefore, repentance needs to be proclaimed to us all. And we need to be willing to hear it. We need to hear that God calls on us to plead guilty of all sin, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.

      Years ago, a woman was upset with some matters involving her church and stopped attending. After a couple years went by, she showed up for church and asked her pastor if she could take communion. He said, “Yes, if you are repentant of all your sin.” Instead of hearing the pastor say yes, she heard a giant no and left in anger. She was not willing to hear the preaching of repentance.

      Many are so afraid of how people will react to the preaching of repentance, they ignore the sin, hoping that it will magically go away. This is particularly common with cohabiting couples. Sometimes the whole community knows they’re cohabiting except the pastor. They don’t want him to know so they don’t tell him. Why? They don’t think the cohabiting couple will respond well to the preaching of repentance. Sometimes you can even find Missouri Synod pastors who refuse to preach repentance on matters like this. They ignore certain sins to avoid controversies within the congregation. So, instead of giving those who are caught up in ongoing, unrepentant sin what they need, they are denied the preaching of repentance. And when they are denied the preaching of repentance, they are also denied the forgiveness of sins which grants them eternal salvation.

      Let’s make this crystal clear: without repentance, there is no forgiveness. And with no forgiveness, there is no salvation.

      So, then, what is repentance? Our Lutheran Confessions put it plainly, “To repent means nothing other than to truly acknowledge sins, to be heartily sorry for them, and to stop doing them. This knowledge comes from the Law. It is not enough for saving conversion to God if faith in Christ is not added. The comforting preaching of the Holy Gospel offers His merits to all penitent sinners who are terrified by the preaching of the Law. The Gospel proclaims the forgiveness of sins, not to coarse and self-secure hearts, but to the bruised or penitent (Luke 4:18). The preaching of the Gospel must be added so that the repentance may lead to salvation and not to the Law’s contrition or terrors (2 Corinthians 7:10)” (FC SD V 8–9).

      When God the Holy Spirit works repentance so that we acknowledge our sin, are sorry for them, and stop doing them, then we hear the beautiful salve of the Gospel—the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ on the cross. All repentant, Jesus-believing Christians are truly forgiven. Their sin is taken away. Now, repentance does not mean we must enumerate every sin, for we do not know them all, as it is written, “Who can understand his errors?” (Psalm 19:12).

      Hear these comforting words from Psalm 103:10-12, “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Had Jesus not come into this world, this forgiveness would not have been granted to us. But since Jesus shed His innocent Blood as the payment for all our sin, we Christians are totally acquitted of all sin. We are declared by God to be not guilty. There will be no charge against God’s elect on the Day of Judgment, for it is God who justifies (Romans 8:33).

      This preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel. For Jesus didn’t just pay for the sins of those who would turn out to be extra holy, but Jesus paid for the sins of the entire world. Jesus is not ashamed of you and your past sins. He is not ashamed of your present temptations. Jesus paid for them all on the cross. He declares you to be innocent of them. He draws you to Himself and receives you into His Kingdom. He grants you eternal life and salvation.

      Then as we heard in our Gospel, Jesus led the disciples out to Bethany, which is the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He blessed them and then He was carried up into Heaven. They worshipped Him and were filled with great joy.

      You would think they would be filled with sorrow, since Jesus had ascended and seemingly left their presence. But they were filled with joy. This actually fulfills the words of Psalm 47 which invites those who consider the Ascension of our Lord to sing praises. Their joy stemmed from the forgiveness of sins, from the reality that they could go where Jesus ascended, from the reality that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father where He reigns over all, and from the reality that Jesus is still present through the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and His omnipresence. Similarly, we did not hear of sorrow when Elijah was received into Heaven, either. Instead, the people saw the spirit of Elijah was on Elisha. Elisha would continue what Elijah was doing. In the same way, Jesus prophesied that the Holy Spirit would come upon the Apostles. They will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The Holy Spirit would continue the same work of Jesus through the men Jesus sends.

      That means the same Spirit is at work today. He raises up men for the ministry who continue to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, showing how the Scriptures reveal our Savior Jesus throughout the Bible. Through this, you come to the knowledge of the Son of God, you are also brought to your knees in repentance, and you are raised up in Christ’s grace with the forgiveness of sins. All of this is yours through Christ. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt. 11:15). Amen.

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