During the summer of 1985 the movie “Back to the Future” was released and I saw it in the theater. The movie told the fun story of how a high school student named Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, was accidently sent back to 1955 in a time machine made out of a DeLorean automobile by his friend Emmet “Doc” Brown. There, he accidentally interferes with the moment when his mother and father meet. Instead of his father, his mother ends up having the hots for him.
It soon becomes clear that this change in the past has threatened McFly’s existence in 1985. Marty and the younger 1955 “Doc” Brown must then work both to make sure Marty’s parents end up together and also that he is able to use the time machine to return to 1985 using a lightning strike as a power source.
The movie was hugely successful – it had the fourteenth highest domestic gross profit of all time. It wasn’t hard to understand why. The story tapped into 1950’s nostalgia and developed the always intriguing potential consequences of time travel. Michael J. Fox was at the top of his game playing a role that was perfect for him. And the story involved the theme of teenage love, as Marty’s awkward teen father seeks to gain the affection of Marty’s pretty teen mother, played by Lea Thompson – a theme with which I identified as a geeky fifteen year old.
Marty successfully gets his parents together and returns to 1985. There he finds that his interaction in 1955 has changed things for the better. All is well as McFly is reunited with his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker. And then the movie ends as Doc Brown arrives in the time machine and tells McFly that he and Jennifer must come with him to the future to fix a problem caused by their children.
It was the invitation to a sequel. And so in the fall of 1989 my best friend and I went to see “Back to the Future II.” The movie itself fell far short of the original. But that wasn’t the reason that we left disgusted when the movie was done. It turned out that the convoluted plot didn’t bring the story to a close. Instead the movie “ended” with Marty McFly trapped in 1955 and Doc Brown sent back to 1885. What was not known in that time before the internet was that they had filmed two movies at once. Back to the Future II simply set up Back to the Future III, which was released in the spring of 1990. I was so put off by the fact that I was expected to see another movie to know how the story turned out that to this day, I have never watched Back to the Future III.
In our Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord we encounter something that is quite similar. We hear about the ascension of Jesus Christ as the Gospel comes to a close. However, we aren’t told anything about what the ascension means. We hear about the “promise of my father” and about being “clothed with power from on high” but we aren’t told exactly what this is. In fact the end of the Book of Luke is setting up the sequel, Luke’s second volume – the Book of Acts. And so if we want to understand the ascension in Luke, we will have to look ahead to the sequel.
The Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord is firmly fixed in the resurrection of Easter. In fact, if we only had the Gospel of Luke we wouldn’t know that there was a span of time between the resurrection and the ascension.
Jesus has appeared in the midst of the disciples and has demonstrated to them that it really is he – that he has risen bodily from the dead. They think they are seeing a ghost or spirit, so Jesus responds, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then to prove the point he eats some fish in front of them.
Next Jesus the risen Lord talks about the past and the future. First, he gives them insight into what had just happened. He says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”
Our Lord tells them that his suffering, death and resurrection fulfilled the whole of the Old Testament. And then he turns to the future and adds, “…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” The message about Jesus will be one of repentance and forgiveness because Jesus gives forgiveness to repentant sinners.
Next we hear, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Jesus is carried into heaven and when we finish the book the disciples are blessing God in Jerusalem.
Quite often, that’s where the Church leaves things. We confess in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that Jesus “ascended into heaven.” We state the fact of the ascension - but that’s about it. And you can see this reflected in the number of people who show up for an Ascension Day service – and in the fact that quite a number of Lutheran churches don’t even have a service today.
However, Luke doesn’t view it that way. He begins his second volume – the Book of Acts – with another account of the ascension. There we learn that the “power from on high” for which the disciples are to wait in Jerusalem is the Holy Spirit.
The Day of Pentecost arrives in chapter 2, and as Peter explains what is happening he says, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Peter says that the ascension of Jesus is his exaltation to the right hand of God. The ascension of Jesus demonstrates that he is the Lord. Jesus, who had completed the saving mission set forth in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms, receives exaltation in the presence of God the Father. And as such, he is the one who has poured out the Holy Spirit.
For now, we don’t see Jesus in the way the disciples did on Easter. Instead, we have the Means of Grace. We have God’s Word, read and preached. We have the water of Holy baptism. We have the words of Holy Absolution. We have the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar. At times we may be inclined to think that this is not enough; that we need more.
However, the ascension of Jesus Christ declares that this is not true. It is not true because these are the means by which Jesus, exalted to the right hand of God as Lord, is at work. Jesus, the Son of God has given them to us, and God the Father has exalted the Son in the ascension. We may struggle in trying to express it adequately, but Scripture is clear that the exaltation of Christ brings something new. St. Paul described this when he referred to “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The Means of Grace are now the means by which the exalted Lord forgives sins and strengthens us in the faith.
And those same Means of Grace are now used by the Spirit whom the ascended Lord has poured forth. Jesus ascended into heaven, and in that exaltation he has now poured forth the Spirit – his Spirit, the Holy Spirit – to bring the benefits of his work. Because he has poured forth the Spirit, the Means of Grace are the instruments by which Jesus creates and sustains faith. They are the means through which his Spirit is at work in our midst – and as we have been hearing Jesus say in the Gospel lessons from John during the last few Sundays, this is in fact better for us than Jesus being present in the way that we might want.
The Lord has ascended and has poured forth the Spirit. And these facts declare to us that the end has begun. They tell us that we are in the Last Days and they urge us to look with hope and eager expectation to that day when the ascended Lord will return. In the third chapter of Acts Peter says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
Because Jesus has ascended we can now look forward to the restoration of all things. We can look forward to the day when the risen Lord will return and transform our bodies to be like his. We can look forward to the day when he will renew his creation and make it very good once again. We can look forward to the day when there will no longer be any misunderstanding about what good news it is that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven.