It will probably not surprise many of you that I spent my teen years listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Among the things that I enjoyed and still remember about that show was the weekly tag line: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars!” That sounded so exhilarating and, back then, even doable. But life as we know it is far more challenging. To keep your feet firmly planted is easier said than done, and stretching for the stars is pretty futile.
So it has seemed to me, at times, that the Ascension of Our Lord might feel like a bit of a mockery, or even a discouragement, in the midst of sin and death here on earth. It is one of the five great Feasts of the Church Year, ostensibly a time of joy and celebration. And you have heard again the Word and promise of your Lord, that He is with you always, even to the close of the age. Yet, the Ascension seems to demonstrate what you often feel, that He has gone away and left you behind.
That is how it feels. You can’t see Him. He and His presence are hidden and elusive. You confess that He is risen from the dead, but you often don’t experience the Resurrection in this mortal coil, in this poor life of labor. Although you know and confess that your sins are forgiven by the Gospel of Christ Jesus, you find that you are still plagued by sin and death in yourself and in the world.
Day after day, you do what you should not, and you fail to do what you should. You speak such poisonous words against your neighbor and behind his back. You are quicker to hurt than to help. You struggle with all manner of sins within your heart and mind, and in your words and actions, even where and when you know better. And your sins, within and without, separate you from the Lord your God, like a great chasm affixed between yourself and heaven, which you cannot cross.
Your sins weigh you down. The guilt and the shame, the consequences of your wrongdoing, the separation from God who is alone your Life. Your sins weigh you down, they drag you down into the depths of darkness and despair, until at last they bury you. For the soul that sins shall die.
You cannot shake it off. Trying harder does not release you from your sin. Recommitting yourself to doing better is good and right, even necessary to this body and life, but it will not save you. It does not make you righteous, even if you do succeed in improving your behavior (for a while). The very struggle it requires goes to show how deeply ingrained sin is within your heart and soul.
Your flesh is weak. Your mind cannot stay focused on the things of God. Your sinful heart is not charitable. You are not faithful and believing, but faithless and unbelieving. You keep on sinning.
You cannot return to God, not by your own reason or strength. Nor by all of your best efforts. Nor could you abide in the presence of the Lord your God, even if you were somehow able to reach Him on your own. You can’t do it. Not apart from Christ. And not apart from the Holy Spirit.
If you were somehow to burst into the presence of God, to enter the Holy of Holies — apart from Christ and His forgiveness, apart from the sanctification of His Spirit — you would be consumed by a fire more fierce and terrible than anything you can imagine here on earth.
And yet, it is that same Lord God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who raises you up from the dust of the earth, from death and the grave, and stands you firmly in His presence. He places the stars of heaven in your hand, even as He takes you into His own hand in mercy, love, and peace. He breathes the Breath of Life into your body and soul through His forgiveness of all your sins.
God the Father opens His mouth and speaks forth His Son, the Lord Jesus, in the Flesh. And by that Word of Christ Jesus the Father breathes the Holy Spirit upon you in peace. He thereby closes the gap between you and Him. He draws you to Himself, clothed in the beauty of His holiness. You are righteous in His sight, for Jesus’ sake, and He does not cast you away from His presence.
He brings you into His Holy City. He brings you into His own House, into His Home and Family. He adopts you to be His own dear child, a beloved son or daughter. He gives to you His Name.
So it is that the God and Father of your dear Lord Jesus Christ is now your own God and Father in Him. And He is not too busy for His children. He does not make promises and fail to keep them. He does not lose His temper and lash out in reckless anger. He rather loves you at all times. He guards and protects you from all danger and delivers you from all evil. His discipline is not harsh but wise and gentle. He speaks to you and teaches you with patience and in peace. He hears and answers your prayers in mercy. As often as you fail and fall short, He forgives. And as often as you get yourself lost, He goes out and finds you and brings you back home to Himself in Christ.
Your God and Father in heaven does all good things for you in Christ, His Son. As He is risen from the dead and has ascended into heaven, so His Body, the Church, is raised from the dead and seated at the Right Hand of God in the heavenly places. Where your Head is, there you are, also.
The Lord Jesus Christ is not far away. He has not gone away and left you behind. He is still closer than a brother, He is more faithful than a mother. He has bound Himself to you, and you to Him, so that everything He has accomplished is yours. It is given to you in His Body of flesh and blood. For He became like you, conceived and born of St. Mary, in order that you should be like Him.
It was fitting that God should accomplish salvation in this way, by causing the Savior of all men to become true Man, to bear their sins in His Body on the Cross, and to suffer in their stead; and then raising Him from the dead, giving to Him the Name that is above every name, and exalting Him to the highest heavens. All of this in His own Body of flesh and blood, so that His Body, the Church, should likewise be exalted in Him, and given that very Name which is God’s own Name.
He has done the same for you, as well, in the waters of your Holy Baptism. All that He has done for you in His own flesh and blood like yours, He has given to you there by His Word and Spirit.
As Christ has thus drawn near to you, given Himself for you, and given Himself to you, so has He drawn you to Himself, and bound you to Himself in heart, mind, body, and soul. Thus, by faith, even now, you live and abide with Him. That is where your life is, hidden with Christ in God. And on the Day of Judgment, your body also shall be raised and glorified with the Glory of God.
That is the truth. But I know that it is hard to believe it, because it is impossible to see it for now. It is hidden from your eyes, and you do not feel it in your experience of life on earth. It is elusive.
Even so, do not gaze wide-eyed into the heavens. Do not look for the Lord Jesus in the clouds of the sky, nor in the bright shining stars of outer space. Rather, find Him, receive Him, lay hold of Him, and worship Him, by faith, in the ways and means by which He has promised to be with you.
“Remain in the City,” He says. “There you shall be clothed with Power from on high, for there I shall pour out the Promise of My Father upon you.”
That is to say, it is right here that you find Him and receive Him, in the midst of His Jerusalem. His Church on earth is the holy City in which you are cleansed and clothed and strengthened and sustained by the Word and Spirit of Christ, by the washing of the water with His Word, and by the gift of His Body and His Blood. Here you receive the Holy Spirit in the Word of Holy Absolution. Here you are enlivened by the grace of God, unto the resurrection and the life everlasting in Christ.
Not up in the sky, but here within His Church on earth is where the Cloud of God’s Glory abides. Thus does the Lord Jesus come to you here, in the same way that He was taken up into heaven.
As He once led Israel out of Egypt and through the desert by a Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night, and as that same divine Cloud rested on Mount Sinai, as it filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem, so does it fill the Temple of His Church wherever in the world the Word of Christ is preached and His Sacraments are administered in His Name.
As Israel was baptized into Moses in the Cloud and in the Sea, so are you baptized into Christ by the water and His Word. And as the people ate the Manna in the wilderness and drank the water from the Rock, so are you fed with the Flesh and Blood of Christ in His Sacrament of the Altar.
As the Cloud and the Fire were the visible manifestation of God’s glorious presence with Israel, so are His Word and Sacraments the means of His grace and His glory here with you. And these means of grace are not elusive. The water, bread, and wine are not hidden from your sight. True, the world cannot discern what they are or what they mean, but the Lord has told you by His Word: “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” “This Is My Body.” “This Is My Blood.”
By and with these tangible means, by the Word of Holy Absolution, and by the whole Ministry of the Gospel, the Cloud of God’s Glory envelopes you, as it filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and as it surrounded Christ Jesus, His Prophets and Apostles, on the Mountain of Transfiguration.
So it is that God the Lord is with you. Lo, He with you always, even to the close of the age. And thus are you glorified with the very Glory of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen — a Glory that is hidden from the world, as Christ is now hidden from your eyes — and yet, it is the Glory of God.
And as He is here with you in the divine Glory of His Gospel, so are you seated with Him at the Right Hand of God the Father in heaven. That is not “up there, somewhere, over the rainbow.” It is, indeed, wherever Christ is. And if He were not there, then heaven itself were void and bare.
It is the presence of God. It is the bosom of the Father. It is the Holy of Holies where God dwells, and where His people dwell with Him in Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son. For Christ is your Anchor behind the veil. He is your Head, and you are His Body. Wherever He is, there you shall be also. He has prepared a place for you by His Cross and Passion and in His Resurrection and Ascension. If that were not the case, He would have told you. But now He has prepared a place for you.
In the Old Testament, the sacrifices were offered so that the incense would be acceptable to God. Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the people, that the incense of their prayers might ascend into heaven as a pleasing aroma, and that they should likewise be acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.
Now it is the case that Christ Jesus has arisen as your Incense. He is the Sacrifice of Atonement for your sins, and for the sins of the whole world; and He is the sweet-smelling Incense of your prayers and intercessions. He has risen and ascended like Incense before His God and Father in heaven, that you and your prayers should likewise be received, accepted, and pleasing before Him.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, He absolved the world and reconciled the world to Himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them. There is no sin that can separate you from God, if you are in Christ, His Son. There is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus. For He has borne your sins and suffered your death — and yet, He has also arisen and ascended to the Right Hand of God. His crucified and risen Body are the Father’s resounding “Yes” and “Amen” to all of your needs.
That is how sure and certain your forgiveness is. And that is how sure and certain your life and salvation are. And that is how sure and certain it is that, right here in this holy City, in this Temple of God — in this Body of Christ, His holy Church — at this Altar from which the very Son of God feeds you with His Flesh and Blood — you dwell with Him in the House of the Lord forever.
His Cup overflows, and His Table is filled with a great Feast, a joyous Feast, for you and for the many. His Table and His good Gifts are not far away and out of reach, like the stars in the sky, but He has drawn near to you and prepared His Table before you by His Word. He has planted His feet firmly on this holy ground, the same Lord who dwells with the Father, far above all the stars in the heavens, who ever lives to make intercession for you. Hear what He says. Receive what He gives. Be with Him where He is, right here. For this truly is the House of God; this is the Gate of heaven.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.