The monarchy in England is a remarkable anachronism. Those who are part of the monarchy have massive wealth and live a life of incredible privilege. And yet they have no real political power. They are treated as celebrities in England and in the United States, and yet they can’t really do anything. They are mere figureheads – symbols that somehow represent continuity with the past in a present that has passed them by.
Perhaps no one better summarizes the position occupied by the English monarchy than Prince Charles. The son of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles is the heir to the English throne. This is a position that he has held now for … sixty seven years. Queen Elizabeth is eighty nine years old. This means that for his entire life, Prince Charles hasn’t just been a figurehead. He has been a figurehead in waiting. It isn’t just that he has been a symbol with no power. He has spent his whole life waiting to become a symbol with no power.
Charles had a very brief career in the Royal Navy from 1971 to 1976. Since leaving the navy his life’s work has been one of various charitable groups and arts organizations. He has promoted organic farming and pursued his love of polo. To be honest, the only thing he is really known for - apart from the fact that he is a prince – is that he was married to Lady Diana. In a marriage of two very ill suited individuals he was completely eclipsed by his wife.
Prince Charles hasn’t really done anything. He has spent his whole life waiting. Most likely sometime in the next ten years, when he is in his seventies, he will take his place on the English throne. And when he finally does so he will have no power.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. This day is about an enthronement. It is the day when we rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father. Yet unlike what will be the case for Prince Charles, this did not take place after a career of doing nothing but waiting. And unlike the English monarchy, he did not take his place in a position – in a status – with no power.
This evening our text briefly summarizes what happened during the forty days between Easter and Jesus’ ascension. We learn that our Lord presented himself alive to his followers by many proofs, appearing to them during the course of those forty days. It is easy to move on into the weeks after Easter and forget about this fact. The risen Lord didn’t just appear to the women on Easter morning. He didn’t just appear to the disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of Easter. Instead they saw him on multiple occasions in multiple places. They saw him Jerusalem and in the north in Galilee. He left absolutely no doubt that he had risen from the dead.
We learn in our text that during this time he taught them about the kingdom of God. He taught them about how he had fulfilled God’s promises and how he had brought God’s saving reign by bringing forgiveness from sins and defeating death. And he promised them that there was more yet to happen. Our Lord told them to remain in Jerusalem and to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Forty days after Easter when they had come together, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now we often hear these words as if the disciples were completely clueless about Jesus and his work. But actually their question is framed by the Old Testament promises. And in fact, Jesus doesn’t correct the content of what they have said. Instead, he clarifies the timing as he says, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. But he was going to do it in a different way than they expected, because Israel was going to be bigger than they expected. Jesus had carried out the saving work to make this possible, and now he was going to be exalted in order to set it into motion.
We learn that as they were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In the ascension, Jesus is glorified and exalted as he takes his place at the right hand of the throne of God. Unlike Prince Charles who hasn’t really accomplished anything, Jesus Christ was enthroned after carrying out the Father’s saving plan. It was necessary for him to suffer and die on the cross for our sins and then to rise from the dead. As Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” It had been necessary, and Jesus had done it. Because of his saving death on the cross and resurrection from the dead you have forgiveness.
But the glorification of Jesus involved more than just resurrection. It involved the withdrawal of his visible presence as he was enthroned at the right hand of God – as he took on a status and function befitting the King of kings. On the day of Pentecost Peter said, “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.”
The angel Gabriel had said to Mary about the son she would conceive, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Now, God the Father had done this, but in a way that went beyond anything Mary could have imagined. As Peter said on Pentecost, “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.”
Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father. Your Lord has been glorified because of his saving work. And part of that exaltation is the fact that he is the now the giver of the Spirit of God. In ten days we will celebrate this fact at the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus has poured forth the Holy Spirit to apply and extend his saving work to all people. He has done this to create an Israel of God that fills the whole world – an Israel of God that includes you.
Our reaction to all of this is that we don’t really want the ascension. We don’t want Jesus to be absent from our perception. And we don’t want to wait for Jesus, who was taken up from us into heaven and will come in the same way as he went into heaven.
Yet to think in this way is to ignore what the ascension means for Jesus. It is the culminating event of his saving work. It is the event in which God the Father exalts him as the One who successfully carried out his will. And it is the event in which Jesus takes on the mighty role of sending the Spirit.
And because the ascension is about Jesus, it is also about you. Jesus is exalted as the One who carried out the Father’s will to save you. He takes on the mighty role of sending forth the Spirit in order to create and sustain faith within you.
That is what Jesus is doing right now as the ascended and exalted Lord. This brings us comfort in the present. And yet at the same time the angels’ words at the ascension also give hope for the future. The One who ascended will return. The One who really rose from the dead, really ascended. And the One who really ascended, really will return.
Jesus will come again. And the ascension of the risen Lord teaches us that when this happens, everything will be different. He will come, not as the incarnate One who can be killed, but as the immortal Second Adam who comes to share this immortal bodily existence with us. He will come, not as the humble baby in the manger, but as the exalted Lord who rules with divine power.
He will give us a share in his resurrection and renew this creation so that it is very good once again. He will give us a future that only he can provide – a future that is worth waiting for.