If your team wins the World Series, or the Super Bowl, or the NBA championship or the Stanley Cup, you don’t turn off the TV as soon as the game is over. Instead, you bask in the moment and keep watching for the trophy presentation. In baseball and basketball the trophy is usually presented in the locker room, where the players are often drinking and dousing one another with champagne. In the NFL they bring out a stage and as confetti and streamers fall all around, the Lombardi Trophy is presented to the owner. In the NHL the winning team is presented with the Stanley Cup and players take turns skating around the rink holding the Cup above their head.
In these circumstances, the victory has been won. But that would be hollow if the team never received the trophy. The exaltation – the public confirmation and pronouncement of the championship occurs in the awarding of the trophy.
That is what we are celebrating today on this fortieth day after Easter. On Good Friday Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. He died and it looked like all was lost. But then on Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead. In his resurrection Jesus defeated death and began the resurrection of the Last Day. By his death and resurrection our Lord won the victory over sin, death and the devil. And now today, in the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, we celebrate Jesus Christ’s exaltation as the risen Lord who has carried out the Father’s will for us.
In our second reading today we hear Luke’s account in the Book of Acts about the ascension of Jesus. Now the ascension of Jesus probably should not have come as a complete surprise. In the last several weeks’ Gospel lessons we have heard Jesus tell the disciples about how he is going to depart, but also he is going to send them the Spirit. In fact, Jesus went so far as to say that it was better for them if he went away. Jesus had said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
Yet at the same time, can you really fault the apostles? After all, Luke tells that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” On occasion after occasion the risen Lord appeared to the disciples and taught them about the kingdom of God – the reign of God. We hear about a whole list of these in 1 Corinthians 15. Imagine how exciting that was – to have the risen Lord present as he taught about the reign of God that had arrived in him!
We learn in our text that the disciples asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Now sometimes their question has been used to show that even after the resurrection, the disciples were still sort of clueless. That really isn’t fair.
If you were a Jew living in the first century A.D., and you had before you the Christ – the royal Messiah descended from David – who had risen from the dead, you were going to think that the time of God’s restoration of Israel had arrived. The Messiah was present in obvious power and glory and the resurrection of the dead had started in him. A reading of the Old Testament prophets would indeed lead you to believe that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel was at hand.
However, in our text Jesus tells them, “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.” Our Lord says that it’s not for them to know the timing. Instead, they need to look forward to the power they will receive when the Holy Spirit comes upon them – a power that will enable the disciples to be Jesus’ witnesses all over the world.
Then Luke tells us: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Jesus ascended before them. He withdrew his visible presence from the Church. He returned to the Father. But Jesus ascension isn’t only about “going home.” This becomes clear when Peter preaches on Pentecost.
On that day the disciples did receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. At that event Peter proclaimed to the crowed, “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.”
On Pentecost, Peter declared that the dramatic outpouring of the Spirit was proof that Jesus is the exalted One. He had not just died. He had not just been raised from the dead. But as the One who had carried out the Father’s saving will, he had also been exalted. In fact, this exaltation was a fulfillment of Scripture. Peter went on to explain, “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.”
Now you may ask: “Why did Jesus need to be exalted?” Yet the answer is really quite simple: Because he humbled himself for you. The Son of God entered this world in the incarnation as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. St Paul said about this, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross. He was numbered with the transgressors for you. In doing so he won you forgiveness. And then on the third day God’s Spirit raised him from the dead. He began the resurrection that will be yours. But even resurrection was not enough for the Lord who had humbled himself. And so in the ascension God exalted the Son and seated him at his right hand. The One who had not exercised all of his authority in order to serve us, now possesses all authority in heaven and earth. God the Father has declared him to the One who has won the victory – the One who now gets the final word. As Paul went on to say, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Now our problem with the ascension of our Lord is that this is not what we want. It is a classic example of those times when God’s way of doing things is not the way we would do them and therefore we are just not happy. We, of course, want Jesus here in a way that we can see him. Never mind that Jesus said it was better for him to depart and send the Spirit. Never mind that he kept his word on Pentecost by sending the Spirit who is the continuing presence of Jesus with his Church – the Spirit who calls people to faith through the Gospel around the world.
And our reaction to the ascension also reveals our self-centered character as sinners. Jesus ascends and is exalted by the Father. It is an event that is about Jesus. And since it doesn’t seem to be about us, we are prone to ignore it. Good for Jesus – but really, what’s in it for me?
In our text we learn that when Jesus could no longer be seen, two angels said to the disciples, “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.” On the Feast of the Ascension, God reminds us about where his plan leads. Jesus is now the exalted Lord – victorious; seated at God’s right hand; exercising all authority. And he will return visibly in a way that so that every person will be compelled to acknowledge this. He will vindicate his people – all who have believed and trusted in him in the midst of a world that says there is no truth.
And when we think more about the ascension of Jesus Christ, we find that there is indeed something going on here that is about you. In the incarnation, the Son of God took on our humanity without ceasing to be God. He became true God and true man. In his resurrection, he emerged with a transformed body that can never die again. None of these things ceased to be true when Jesus ascended. Jesus Christ has taken redeemed and transformed humanity in the presence of God the Father. He is your forerunner. He has shown you what your future is, and it is not that of a soul floating around in heaven. Instead it is a resurrected bodily existence in the presence of the triune God. This has already begun in Jesus, and it will be yours too when he returns on the Last Day. Because, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”