Text: Acts 1:1-11
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my cycling friends indicated in a message thread last night that he was going to ride some Ft. Roots repeats today. This means that he was going to head over to Paul Duke Drive just across from Riverview Park and ride the road all the way up to the back gate of the VA, ride back to the bottom and do it again. This is an exercise that we’ll sometimes do in order to prepare us for longer climbs on longer rides. I commented that it was rather appropriate to climb on Ascension Day. I don’t think anyone got my joke. I would ask you all tonight if you know what significant day in the Church year today is, but that would be a rather silly exercise, wouldn’t it? After all, you’re here. It might be possible that you didn’t think about today being the Ascension of Our Lord before you either saw on the church calendar for the month or before I announced the service on Sunday, but the point is that you’re here. Sadly, in spite of the significance of this very high feast on the church calendar, most of the world, in fact, most of Christendom forgets all about. Nobody gets the day off from school or work because of Ascension Day. The majority of Christian congregations, not even the ones that follow the Church calendar, have a service today to celebrate the occasion. Even our pews here tonight are largely empty because priorities lie elsewhere.
We are gathered here tonight for just that purpose, though. We recognize the significance of the Ascension of our Lord. And today, perhaps more than ever, we need this day. We need this celebration of Christ ascending to the throne of his Father to sit at his right hand.
We need Ascension Day because we so often find ourselves staring into heaven just as the disciples were, wondering what is going to happen next. We stare up into heaven because looking at the things that are happening all around us makes us not want to look at anything down here on earth. The world seems to spin out of control morally. And so we stare up into heaven asking God “How long will you let this complete and utter nonsense go on?” The disciples were wondering if Jesus was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. They wanted everything to go back to the way it was when everything was perfect. Or least when they thought it was perfect. That’s what we all want, too. Somehow, someway, we’d like God to make everything like it was back when it was perfect. Whatever our definition of perfect is anyway.
There are a couple of things that can be said about this. No how much better we might think things used to be in our world or in our country, they were never perfect. When removed from a situation, we tend to look back on it more fondly than it actually was when we were experiencing it in real life. The truth is that sin has always been around us. Maybe the moral decay of society wasn’t as “in-your-face” as it is today, but it’s always been there. The hearts of men have always been full of evil thoughts and intentions. The same can be said for the disciples’ desire for the restoration of Israel. The truth is that Israel was always living up to its name. They were always struggling with God, falling into the worship of idols and moral decay of their own.
But, in addition to that, Jesus has warned the disciples, and the warning passes down to us as well, that the world will not receive the people of God kindly. Our Gospels readings over the past few Sundays from John have shown us this. Jesus tells his disciples that the world will hate them. The world will persecute them. In the world they will have tribulation. And in the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from John 16 Jesus tells the disciples that they will be “put out of the synagogues” and “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Indeed all of these things happen to the disciples in a rather short amount of time following his Ascension.
These words could just as easily be directed toward us. The world hates us. Just look at how the world responds when you try to espouse the teachings of the Word of God when it comes to social issues. The persecution that we face in our land is quite minor, to say the least, right now, but we know it will likely get worse. Look no further than terrorist attacks by Muslims and others around the globe to find Jesus’ words about those thinking they are offering service to God by killing Christians coming true right before our eyes. Yes, we, like the disciples, stare into the heavens and ask God, “How long? How long until you will reestablish your kingdom among us?”
The disciples misunderstood what the kingdom of God was all about. This is clear from their reaction to Jesus’ Ascension. The angels who address them re-focus them. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” Jesus had told them what to do. They were to wait for the Holy Spirit to come to them to clothe them with power from on high so that they could be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. And so the kingdom of God is tied directly to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Even with all the stern warnings that Jesus gives to the disciples, he comforts them with the reality that the Holy Spirit is coming. This Holy Spirit will remind them of all that Jesus has done and said to them. The kingdom of God is not some earthly utopia that can be found on a map. The kingdom of God is found where the Holy Spirit is living and active working through the means of grace. These means of grace deliver to us the gifts of Christ won for us on the cross in his innocent suffering and death.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come. We pray this prayer, knowing that his kingdom comes even without our prayer. We can be assured of this because God establishes and sustains his kingdom through the means of grace. So we don’t look for God’s kingdom by staring to the clouds and wondering when it’s going to come down to us. No, we look to Holy Baptism, where we are clothed in the robes of Christ’s righteousness. We hear the words of the Absolution where our pastor, standing in Christ’s stead, forgives our sins. We eat and drink the body of and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. All of these things establish the kingdom of God and sustain us in that kingdom. We don’t have to stare into the heavens looking for it. It’s right here, right now.
None of this would be possible if Christ had not ascended. From the right hand of God, where Christ sits, he exercises his power over all of creation. He sends pastors to proclaim the message of salvation, he intercedes for us before his Father in heaven, and rules and protects His church, and governs over all the world for the benefit of his church.
His promise holds true. The risen and ascended Lord is always with us in Word and Sacrament. We can’t bank on much of anything that this world has to offer, but we can count on that. And we can be assured that he will come again just as went into heaven. On that day we will go the way that he has gone. On that day we will be delivered from this valley of sorrow to himself in heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.