This was posted on the pericope list that I help manage; it gives some thoughts on Ascension and what it means to us.
I thought it interesting background for the laity as hopefully you find your way to your church for the Ascension service this Thursday!
At the end of the post are two podcasts from Issues, Etc. regarding Ascension.
What does the Ascension mean for us?
Let’s view Jesus’ ascension by viewing what ascension has meant, Biblically, in the past.
Enoch walked with God. It doesn’t say that he ascended; but given our idea of heaven being ‘upward’ it is easy to see how Enoch’s “translation” from this world to God’s heavenly kingdom is treated by some, (like the hymn-writer of LSB 494), as an ascension to God. Even so, Enoch walks with God, not because he was without sin in his lifetime, but because his faith was in God; and arguably, this mention, preceding Abraham helps us to see that it is faith in God that saves–which the Letter to the Hebrews points out (chapter 11, of course).
Moses certainly walked with God, literally, and had faith in God; but he has the distinction of God burying his earthly body on the mountain which overlooked the promised land. Joshua, who takes up the task of leading Israel into that promised land, will prove himself a worthy leader, like Moses; but despite his faithfulness, he is not buried by God or lifted up on high. That does not make him second-rate with God; it only underlines the immense ground-breaking work that God did through Moses.
Generations later, we hear about the prophet Elijah. Elijah is the prophet who brings the Word to Israel, a rebellious people, whose hearts had left the Lord in a swamp of apathy. He proclaims the Word with power and in the face of violent opposition. Elijah is not without his sin, of course; but more importantly, he is not without his faith. God chooses to exalt this humble servant by causing him to be swept up in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire. Elijah was so distinguished as a servant who faithfully kept the faith. God chooses to honor this servant in this way–even as he passes the mantle of service on to Elisha, who will serve in an excellent way, but will not get a send off like his predecessor. Does Elisha lack the faith or faithfulness of Elijah? No; but the ascension we see that God rewards Elijah for the extremely difficult work of confronting evil and pushing listless souls off the scrap heap to be retooled with the hammer of God at the fiery forge of faith.
What do the above have in common? They completed their work faithfully and were received to God’s presence in a remarkable way.
The ascension of Jesus to heaven is similar in that regard, isn’t it? Jesus had presented the Word of God powerfully. He had resisted all temptation, without sin. That, by itself, is worthy of ascension into heaven.
I find it interesting that in the Islamic faith, the prophet Mohammad leaves this earth in the same way, ascending to heaven at the temple mount in Jerusalem. For this reason, as I understand it, Islam lays claim to that bit of real estate and have built the “Dome of the Rock” on that very spot, which has ever since kept the Jews from rebuilding the temple, because that would be the spot for the Holy of Holies. (A monument to God’s wisdom and sense of humor: to block the continuing heresy of Judaism with the heresy of Islam, its greatest arch-enemy.)
Anyway, the reason I mention this is to point out that Islam (as I understand it) does not reject the life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus into heaven; they do not even reject the sinlessness of Jesus. In fact, to them, the ascension makes perfect sense: Jesus ascended into heaven because, like Mohammad after him, he was a good prophet, worthy of this honor. What they reject vehemently, is that all of Jesus’ accomplishments were and are the basis for our life with God. (That is why, technically, Islam is really the rebirth of gnosticism, which embraces the Jesus who was “in” with God, but was not the Son of God who brings us salvation. If you want to see what gnostic Christianity would be like, without Jesus as Lord, you might well look at what Islam is today.)
Again, I think it’s somewhat important to see what the ascension stands for on the one hand, and how unique the ascension of Jesus is on the other. The uniqueness is that Jesus ascends (as Scripture states) to the RIGHT HAND of God, the position of power and authority. He is there as the Mediator we will ALWAYS need, this side of heaven. He is the reason for our acceptance, the reason for God to hear our prayers, the reason for our eternal salvation, the reason for our faith, the reason for our life. (Note: key word = reason for = basis) That cannot be overlooked. Without Jesus at this point, we would have Jesus as a nice person, a noble warrior for God, a model for us to follow. But without Jesus at the right hand of God, we would still be in our sins.
Perhaps the title of such a sermon about the Ascension might be: Similar, but Very Different-Thank God!
The malady for the sermon might be that we tend to overlook the ascension of Christ as being JUST a thing of honor, a proper conclusion to a life that suffered hell on earth. His reward, his piece of cake, his gold watch, for years of faithful service.
The point, as mentioned, is to see the Ascension as Jesus coming to his rightful place of authority and dominion in heaven, after having won the victory over sin, death & the devil. For, as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians (2), Jesus humbled himself to achieve our salvation; that means he laid down his full rights as God to assume our human nature and he laid down his mortal life, in its mortal form, for our salvation: he died for our sins. But having achieved our salvation, with his resurrection and ascension he is exalted to the fullness of his divinity at the right hand of the Father. He had the power to lay his life down and the power to pick it up again, for so he was granted this of God, so that by it we would forever have forgiveness, dominion, and peace, in Jesus’ name.
Click here for more posts on Ascension.
And here’s a podcast from Issues, Etc. on the Ascension from 2009 with Dr. Richard Shuta of Concordia University-Ann Arbor, MI:
Or from 2010 with Dr. Norman Nagel of Concordia Seminary-St. Louis, MO