The Ascension of Our + Lord (Observed), May 12th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Rising Above – Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11, 2 Kings 2:5-15
Because more than any other book, the Bible speaks of life as it truly is, we this morning once again enjoy a happy confluence of events, as our day for recognizing our graduating High School Seniors coincides with the Christian festival we observe today, the Ascension of Jesus. Both events are exciting and inspiring, also both unique, one time events in the lives of the main characters. Both are full of promise, a promise we all are eager to partake in, the promise of rising above. At the same time, both events are frightening, full of the unknown, and so also full of fears, even if nobody wants to speak them out loud.
And that is life, isn’t it, the desire to rise above, to reach better things, and yet a desire always beset by fears and worries and doubts about the unknown, about our future? Life is like that, even when outwardly everything seems to be going well, but especially when troubles are mounting.
Perhaps your job is going to change. Maybe you don’t like your job. Maybe your job, or your boss, doesn’t like you. Or maybe your job is just no longer needed by the economy. Either way, you face a job change, and you want to rise above. But there are applications and interviews, competition, and no guarantee you’ll find the job you want, or even a job that meets your needs, as the bills pile up. You look forward to a future with a better job, but you’re worried that you might never find it.
Perhaps you’re sick. You want to rise above. Indeed the doctors suggest if you can just do this or that, have this surgery, take this experimental treatment, or maybe stop eating or drinking this or that, your future health could be better than it’s been for years. But if you don’t, well, then, you could die…
Perhaps you’re alone, and lonely. You’d like to rise above, to enjoy the love and companionship and joy that comes from being close to people, but this requires you take some risks, change some habits, maybe heal some wounds that you inflicted on people over the years, or wounds that people have inflicted on you. You’d like to rise above and get past the things that continually keep you from sharing love with people, but you’ve really been hurt. And maybe in return you’ve really hurt others. Maybe deep down you’re angry, and also ashamed, and so finding love and friendship seems impossible.
Or maybe you’re graduating from High School, with your whole life ahead of you, but at times it feels more like you’re being set adrift on a raft. You’ve been given a bunch of gifts on your raft, but you don’t really understand how you’re supposed to steer, and the current is picking up and you think in the distance you hear the sound of a waterfall. You want to rise above, to meet your potential, to go and do all the great things everyone says you should do. But you realize you don’t really want to or even know how to wash your laundry or cook a meal for yourself, let alone know what you want to do for the rest of your life.
The eleven Apostles faced a similar set of doubts and fears, as they peered into the clouds where Jesus disappeared. Christians, as we hear in the collect of the day and the hymns for Ascension, are to day by day keep their hearts and minds fixed on Jesus, who has risen above. We are to rejoice and worship God continually, because in Christ the victory is won for us. In His rising from the grave and in His rising to the throne of God, we have the promise that we too will one day rise. So, we should always look to the future with joyful confidence, a joyful confidence which then should flavor our lives, moving us to love and serve and rejoice with others here, today, and every day.
But this is hard to do. It seems we must somehow daily rise to joyfully meet Jesus, but sin and troubles still cling to us, our own sins, the sins of others, the state of the world, the way that evil and foolishness have free course amongst mankind. Sin and trouble surround us, while goodness and wisdom are a rare and fleeting dream, occasionally seen, but hard to hang on to.
Doubts plague us, because denials of the teaching of Christ are always being thrown in our face. “Anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution is ignorant and backward, and shouldn’t be allowed to raise children.” So say the popular and important people in our society. And they say a lot more. “Human existence is just a random chance, and God is not real.” “Christian virtue and morals are really just a trick to enslave people, and no religion has done more to hurt people than Christianity.”
These and a thousand other charges are hurled against your faith every day, and you are supposed to rise above them using an old book, some stodgy old songs, and some catechism by a guy named Luther, which you buried in a box a long time ago. You’re supposed to rise above by remembering a Baptism you don’t remember, and by observing a strange ritual involving a bit of bread and wine. All of this you are to do praying for the help of a God who has left the scene, ascending into heaven, apparently leaving you to make your own way.
It is hard to rise above, in life, and even more so, in faith. The lies of Satan and the world, only a few of which I just listed, can be overwhelming, and very convincing. Some of them even rise from our own hearts. They are convincing because they build upon an even more fundamental lie, the lie which infects each of us, the lie which, sad to say, is taught all too often from Christian pulpits. This is the lie that says you can rise above, if you try hard enough, that you can (and must) do what it takes to reach Jesus.
The truth is, you can’t do it. You can’t rise above to reach Jesus.
You can rise above in many things. We pray that all this year’s graduates will find a good path for themselves, get the training or further education and the job they need to succeed in this life. We pray that they and all people will make good health choices, and learn to get along with family, friends and neighbors, find a a good spouse and a good career, to lead productive, long, happy lives. And you can probably do that. It will take some effort, maybe a lot of effort, but most of you can and do make a decent go of it. People can rise above in this life, so commencement speakers always challenge the graduates to dream big and make dreams come true.
Well, that’s fine advice, for this life. People can make a good life in this world, and it doesn’t even depend on your relationship to Jesus. Now, don’t misunderstand me: God is the source of every good in this world. But He showers good things on the faithful and the wicked. You can even ignore Him and still live a pretty comfortable life, probably, if you work hard, and nothing too bad happens to you. Yes, you can rise above in this life, unless something really bad happens to you.
Which leaves me in the strange place of, in a sense, hoping bad things will happen to you. You see, without troubles in this life, you and I may think we can rise above to God just like we can rise above to a better life, now, here on earth. Now, I don’t want bad things to happen to you, or to me. But even more, I don’t want any of us cut off from God, forever. So we need to be brought to repentance, by God. God must again and again bring us to repent of this most basic false teaching, that we can rise to God. We all need this repentance throughout our lives, so that we stop imagining we can save ourselves, stop thinking we can rise above to God. Unfortunately repentance, the turning away from sin and self-righteousness, most often happens when bad things happen, for these bad things are what it takes to make us realize we cannot rise above. God never wanted any evil in the lives of His children, but we chose sin. And so God now takes the bad things that happen to us and uses them for our good, making us look for rescue. God does this to make us recognize our inability to rise above to reach God. For if we think we can make it on our own, we will not hear the Good News of the Ascension.
The Good News of the Ascension is that Jesus has risen above, for us, in our stead, so that in Him, with Him, through Him, we too will rise. The Good News that lifts us up is not that God has merely given us a chance for a good life in this world. Rather, the Good News is God in Christ has given us eternal life in everlasting glory, by the forgiveness of our sins.
We should not be so surprised that the things of Christ are hidden and seemingly weak in this world. Jesus did not come to give us better lives in this world, but rather to save us from this sin-wrecked world, to save us from our own sins, to lift us up out of this broken existence to Himself in glorious perfection. And so, the very things which the world mocks the most are in truth the very things God graciously works through to raise us up. That dusty old book the Bible is the very Word of God, declaring the unchanging reality, the unchanging promise of His plan and action to save us from sin and death. Through the Word of Scripture, God the Holy Spirit not only teaches us about Christ and His salvation, but He also gives us Christ and His salvation.
Those stodgy old hymns are precious and good, whether you like the tune at first or not, because they set to memorable melody the very truth that the Holy Spirit gives us in the Word. If a hymn says something different than what Christ has said, then it is not worthy to be sung by Christians, even if the tune is wonderful. But if a hymn sings Christ in truth and purity, then you and I will grow to love it, because through it, God loves us.
That Baptism you can’t remember, way back when? Your memory is not the one that really matters, for God the Father remembers your Baptism, the day when God put His Name on you, the day when the Judge of heaven and earth declared you to be His son or daughter, the day when the Holy Spirit bound you to Jesus forever, to His Cross, to His Resurrection, and also to His Ascension.
That strange little meal of bread and wine? Christ by the power of His Words of Institution gives you His Body and Blood to eat and drink, hidden under the bread and wine, but truly present, because the Almighty Lord says so. The presence of Christ’s Body and Blood make the Supper the Holy of Holies, heaven on earth, awesome and joyful, a mystery of grace and love, for you.
Elijah did not rise above to God. Elijah was carried into heaven by the fiery chariot the Lord sent for him. God’s Word and Sacrament, delivered to you as you gather with His Church, these are your chariot to carry you above. All of these God gives you, to sustain you and remind you that you need not rise to Jesus, He comes to you. He came for you, to live and die and rise for the forgiveness of your sins. He comes to you, hidden in words, water, wheat and wine. He will come again, riding the same clouds that received Him into heaven, coming to gather all the faithful into His eternal glory. Come Lord Jesus, come, Amen.