“Ascension Day, the Forgotten Festival” (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)
Welcome to the Forgotten Festival! Today is Ascension Day, or, as it’s more properly called, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. But there is reason to call it, as I say, the “Forgotten” Festival. Because even though Ascension Day is classed in the church year as a major festival, which means it’s a day for all churches to hold the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, the sad fact is that in recent decades many congregations and many Christians have forgotten all about celebrating this important festival.
It used to be that you could go to any Lutheran church–or any liturgical church, for that matter, Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran–and they would have Ascension service on this day. But with the decline of Christian culture in our country, it’s pretty hard to find churches that are having service today. And where you do, it’s usually only the hardy few who turn out. You see, by definition the Ascension of Our Lord always comes forty days after Easter, which means it always falls on a Thursday. And it’s hard enough these days to get people to come to church on a Sunday, let alone on a Thursday.
By the way, there is another major festival in the church year that likewise has fallen on hard times, and that is the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany is twelve days after Christmas, thus it always falls on January 6, which means it almost always falls on a day other than Sunday. Besides which, early January is cold and dark, and that cuts down even further on attendance. So I guess we could say that Epiphany and Ascension are the two Forgotten Festivals.
But happily, we do not forget these festivals here at St. Matthew’s! And today, being Ascension Day, I want you to know why we do not forget this day. For the Ascension of Our Lord is a wonderful, marvelous event, deserving of a day all its own. My goodness, the fact that Christ “ascended into heaven” even rates a line in all three of the ecumenical creeds! Tonight, then, I want to tell you why we remember and rejoice in the Ascension of Our Lord.
And the reason–or one of the reasons, at least; there are several–one reason we remember and rejoice in this festival is this: The Ascension of Our Lord tells us that Christ is working in and through his church by the ministry of the gospel. The accounts of the Ascension that St. Luke gives us, both at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of Acts, show Christ preparing his disciples for the mighty ministry that the church will undertake once he ascends.
The risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples a number of times during those forty days from Easter to Ascension, and it says he was “speaking about the kingdom of God.” Jesus had been training his disciples over the past three years, but now he takes them to the next level. They had a lot to learn. They hadn’t really “got it” up to this point. Oh, they had heard and seen a lot from their master during those years, but it hadn’t really clicked yet–especially the part about him having to suffer and die. But now the light bulb comes on. “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” it says. Now they will understand how it all fits together.
Jesus tells them: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” All of the Bible, all of God’s plan for humanity, is focused on the suffering Christ. Not a glory Christ, but a suffering Christ. Because that’s what it would take to accomplish God’s plan of salvation. It takes the suffering and death of God’s only Son to atone for our sins and achieve our salvation. Nothing less would do.
You could not pay for your sins. You could die on a cross a thousand times over, and you would not even pay for your own sins, let alone the sins of the world. But Christ could, and he did. His holy blood shed on the cross, his perfect righteousness credited to your account, makes the perfect sacrifice to atone for all your sins in God’s court of justice. And with sins paid for, peace with God is made, death is overcome and conquered. And so on the third day, that is, on Easter, Christ rose from the dead, in victory. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the very heart of the gospel. This is what Jesus wants his disciples to be preaching, and so, before he ascends, he impresses the centrality of this upon them.
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name.” You see, it’s not just the bare events themselves. It’s what they mean for us, how they are applied to us. The death and resurrection of Jesus are preached for the purpose of repentance and forgiveness, so that we would repent and believe and receive.
First, repentance. The proclamation of God’s word of Law accuses us and condemns us as sinners. God is calling us to repentance, to mourn our sinful state, to turn from our sins, and to give up on our empty self-justification. But the proclamation of God’s Word at that point is not yet complete. The Gospel then needs to come and raise us to life. We hear the life-giving word of what God has done for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit works faith in our heart, and we receive the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. This is the Gospel, this is the good news, and it is for you!
“Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name,” Jesus says, “to all nations.” Note that, “to all nations.” Not just to Israel, but to the Gentile nations also. That is something that the apostles, all of whom were Jews, would need to get used to. So Jesus is preparing them for that here before he ascends.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, his “learners,” so they can be his apostles, his “sent ones.” He will be sending them out on a worldwide mission when he ascends, and he wants them to be ready. The teaching goes on right up until the moment he ascends. There’s still some “not getting it” in their heads. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Well, no, boys, it’s not like that. Don’t worry about the exact time. It will happen when it happens. And the kingdom is not just for Israel. It’s bigger than that, a whole lot bigger.”
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” “Yes, you who have been with me all this time, you who have seen and heard so many things, now I will be sending you out to more than just the house of Israel. This gospel I have entrusted you with is for the whole earth, every nation. God will be saving people from every nation through your apostolic ministry. That’s been his plan all along. That is how his kingdom will come.”
Now this might seem a daunting task. It is. The disciples might want to shrink back in fear, especially with their master now “going away.” What will they do without him? But they won’t be “without” him, really. He will be with them, all the days, to the close of the age, even though they will see him no longer.
And before he ascends, Jesus assures them that he will give them that the help they need: “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And again he says: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
Ascension Day is forty days after Easter, but it is also ten days before Pentecost. And here Jesus is promising his disciples that he will pour out upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which he would do ten days later on Pentecost. Ascension points us to Pentecost and the Spirit’s empowering of the church’s ministry.
The Spirit will work through the apostolic preaching to deliver God’s forgiveness to people, to bring people to faith in Christ, and to keep them in that faith. It’s still happening today. You yourselves are being given forgiveness, you yourselves are being strengthened in your faith, even here tonight, as this life-giving gospel preaching comes into your ears and Christ’s very body and blood come into your mouth.
My friends, your ascended Lord has left nothing out. He has arranged everything in the church to deliver to you the forgiveness of sins and to keep you strong in the saving faith. Not only has he won your forgiveness and salvation by his death and resurrection, but his ascension shows that he has not left us on our own in these latter days before he returns. Jesus has not gone away and forgotten his disciples. Rather, he has ascended into heaven for the very purpose of being with his people all around the world, in all times and at all places. And he does this in and through the church’s ministry.
Brothers and sisters, Ascension Day tells us that our Lord Jesus Christ is working in and through his church by the ministry of the gospel. For this reason, the Ascension of Our Lord really is a most wonderful festival.
So should we call Ascension Day the “Forgotten” Festival? Well, even though much of the church may have forgotten this festival, the good news is that Christ our ascended Lord has not forgotten his church! Remember and rejoice in that!