Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sermon: Ascension - 2018

9 May 2018

Text: Mark 16:14-20 (2 Kings 2:5-15, Acts 1:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
It is that time of year, of caps and gowns and Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” of Valedictorians and Salutatorians and speeches that are too long.  We watch in amazement as High School students, now adults, make their way to university or into marriage and grown-up jobs.  We are stunned to see college students cross the stage to receive degrees of advanced study.  Seminarians likewise take a more stressful walk to find out where the church is sending them to serve in the Lord’s vineyard.

The Feast of the Ascension is just such a time of change, dear friends.  And it is an important transition.  The most central piece of art in our sanctuary is the statue of our blessed Lord.  It represents Jesus ascending to the Father with His hands raised to bless the church, His feet leaving the blue ball that is the earth.  The Ascension follows Easter, represented by the window to the left, and precedes Pentecost, represented by the window to the right.  And our Lord ascends above the holy altar, where the successors of the apostles continue in the Word that the Lord has given His church.

Our forebears of a century ago understood the importance of the Ascension when they placed the ascended Christ at the center and above our altar.

For the ascension of our Lord marked a transition in the life of the church.  The students of our Lord, that is to say, His closest disciples, matriculated and graduated, after three long years of seminary studies under the Rabbi, the Master, the Professor, and they are now being sent, that is to say, “apostled”: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”  No longer will the lips of Jesus herald the good news, but now the mouths of the men whom the Lord has called into the office of the holy ministry.  The mouths are different, but the proclamation is the same.

For “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, and whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  Jesus is no longer physically preaching and absolving.  For He has passed this sacred work on to the apostles to carry out this work in His name, by His authority, in His stead, and under His command.

No more will we hear words from the mouth of Jesus casting out demons; but now it will be the mouths of those called to speak in Christ’s name.  No more will our Lord preach directly to Jews and Gentiles, but now it will be missionaries who will speak in the diverse tongues of those from around the globe, preaching on the Lord’s behalf.  No more will it be the Lord directly contending with serpents and poison, but now it will be the flesh of those who are called and ordained who will struggle against evil.  No more will we see Jesus lay hands on those in need of forgiveness, life, and salvation, but rather we will see the Lord deliver these priceless gifts by the hands of those to whom He has delegated this authority.

“And they went out and preached everywhere,” says the evangelist, “while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.”

The Lord did not abandon the disciples.  Rather He chose to work through them and with them in a different way, for they have graduated to go to work, with hands and feet and mouths, to do the work the Lord has given them to do: to baptize, to administer the Holy Supper, to absolve, and to preach.  To evangelize and to visit, to admonish and to comfort, to proclaim in season and out of season, the good news that our Lord indeed died on the cross and rose again, that He forgives the sins of all who are baptized and who believe, and that the Lord has sent the Holy Spirit to the church to guide her into all truth, to protect the integrity of the proclamation and to continue the missionary zeal of the work of making disciples of all nations.

Our Lord laid out this pattern in His last spoken words to us on this earth: “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.”

The Holy Spirit indeed came at Pentecost, empowering the apostles to go out and carry good news.  They filled Jerusalem with this good news and with signs.  They fanned out into Jewish Judea, and also into Gentile Samaria, and indeed, as St. Paul evangelized the Mediterranean and the other disciples ventured even further outside the boundaries of the empire, the whole world was to hear this proclamation – even as preachers centuries later would board ships with the explorers into new worlds and unchartered territories – including this hemisphere that we now occupy, including this very building that stands as an icon and temple of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What a responsibility the Lord lays upon His recent graduates!  It’s little wonder that they are standing around at first, “gazing into heaven,” so that the angels had to goad them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”  They need to get on with the work that He has trained and called them to do.  For our Lord will indeed return.  As the angel said, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”

He will return to end our struggling in this fallen world.  He will return to banish Satan into hell.  He will return to relieve us of the sin that still clings to our Old Adam.  He will return to raise our lowly bodies into glorious bodies, incapable of death, incorruptible, and unsullied by sin.

He has accomplished this renewal of our flesh and our world by means of His cross – and His cross is the very thing that we proclaim, the very reason the apostles had to stop gawking at the clouds and get to work.  The cross is why seminarians continue to be sent into pulpits and altars around the world.

We have continued this proclamation since that day when our Lord ascended, and we will continue until He returns.  We carry out our work – whether we are preachers of the Word or hearers of the Word – during the span of our lives and in the places to which we are called. 

The torch is passed from master to disciple, from teacher to student, just as Elijah passed his cloak to Elisha, who received a double portion of the Spirit.  Prefiguring our Lord’s ascension, Elijah, the righteous preacher and prophet of the Word, was himself taken up.  The prophecies concerning the return of our Lord suggest that Elijah will return and will finally die in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ before the Lord Himself returns triumphantly.

So, dear brothers and sisters, we don’t stand staring into the sky, nor do we panic and head to the mountains with every rumor of war and every earthquake.  Our Lord told us to stand up straight, hold our chins up, and await His coming.  The angel told us to expect His return, and to get to work.

We have a mission.  We have a message.  We have a world to save through the proclamation of the Good News.  We are light in the darkness; we are life in the midst of death; we are love in the coldness of sin and decay.  And Jesus has not abandoned us.  He continues to work with us, confirming the message by the accompanying signs: Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion, and Holy Preaching. 

As our Valedictorians and Salutatorians are quick to remind us, this is not a season for termination, but of commencement.  Every day is a new beginning as we carry out the holy work given to us by our risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who has triumphed at the cross, at the tomb, at the Mount of Olives, and in all the world! 


Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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