What's It To Ya?
"What's it to ya?" These can be confrontational, if not fighting words, but I mean them to give you pause. As to many Christians it wouldn't matter much if Christ didn't rise bodily, so to many Ascension is a meh.' For them it's like an arrow shot very high that sticks in its target and stays there. Not for us, the Ascension is like that trail of light behind a large firecracker that will explode into 10,000 sparks.
What's it to ya to have a great High Priest having passed forever through the heavens? First get out of your minds any sort of geometrical understanding. We don't grasp Divine things using geometry but God's Word. The Epistle says Christ has ascended "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion." Earlier in Ephesians God says, "He ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." The Ascension is the prelude to the finale of the Gospel: the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day. The Ascension shows us that flesh and blood, this stuff right here, can pass through the heavens to the abode of God.
Adam's flesh and blood, totally ruined in the Fall, was kept out of Paradise by God's Holy Law which forever condemned it for not keeping it and for not paying what it owed for breaking it. God the Son took on Adam's flesh and blood in Mary's virgin womb. In this flesh and blood, He went where everyman has gone before, into every temptation that has ever made your heart flutter, your mouth water, or your mind race. Jesus went there and yet sinned not, and He did this as our "great high priest."
In the Old Testament Church, the high priest entered once a year into the Holy of Holies bearing the blood of a goat to cover the sins of the people by pouring that blood into the lid of the Ark thereby hiding the 10 Commandments in the Ark that made them all guilty from the cloudy presence of God dwelling above the Ark. Jesus, however, carried His own blood into heaven. Here's how Hebrews 9 describes it: "When Christ came as high priest He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle [His body] that is not made with human hands. ... He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls" sanctified them outwardly. "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, cleanse our consciences."
Jesus redeemed us with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and entered into heaven's Holy of Holies with them and not only paid for all sins but covered them up, and won the right as a Man to sit on the throne that rules heaven and earth. Now that our great High Priest passed through the heavens we can see a Man not a blinding light, a Man not a consuming fire, a Man, a Friend, a Savior, a Redeemer, a Brother ruling all things for our sakes.
The moon landing was 50 years ago. As near as that is to my memory, that is how near the killing fields of WW I were to my grandfather in 1969. I can still feel the excitement, the wonder, the "this changes everything" sense of the moon landing. I wonder now: was the horror, the blood, the mud, and death that palpable to my grandfather in 1969? What does this have to do with Ascension? William Safire, a speech writer for President Nixon in 1969, was tasked to write 2 speeches. One to give if it failed. The opening line of that one was, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay to rest in peace." The speech closed with, "For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind" ("The 1969 moon landing speech that never was", New York Times, July 12, 1999).
Do you see where I'm going? Maybe a joke of sorts will help. A little boy skipping his way home from church is asked by his atheist neighbor, "Why are you so happy?" "I've just come from church and heard about God," says the boy. "Tell you what," says the sneering old man, "I'll give you a dollar if you can tell me where God is." "Mister," says the boy, "I'll give you ten dollars if you can tell where God ain't." God is everywhere. There is nowhere you can point to, imagine, dream, or calculate that God is not. And now since the Ascension wherever you see, place, imagine God you must place Man there too. There is not just "some corner of another world that is forever mankind" but every world, every place forever belongs to mankind for sake of the God-Man who won it for us and claims it now in the Ascension.
Here's the question before you. Do you look at the Ascension as I remember the moon landing or as my grandfather remembered the trenches of World War I? Is Ascension a reminder that you have a God in Christ who sympathizes with your weakness or is it a reminder of what is dark and painful? Is Ascension a reminder of how close God is now to men and how flesh and blood has forever a flag planted in heaven or is it a doleful reminder that Jesus is gone? Sure He sent His Spirit to comfort us and empower us, but our need for touch, for taste, for smell, for our 5 senses to be engaged happens no more. That was only for those who were with Jesus for the 33 or so years He visibly walked the earth. If this is so, then Ascension is like World War I memories for my grandfather memories of what is lost, gone, over with no one to sympathize with him.
But several times Hebrews makes the point that this is not how it is. Our text says: "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses." And Hebrews 2 says, Jesus was made like His brothers in every way. "Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted." Finally, Hebrews 5:2, "He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and misguided, since He Himself is beset by weakness." This is the Faith to hold firmly to. This is the Faith that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature want to knock from our hands. Believe instead that God is unapproachable, far away and uncaring, totally unknowable. It means nothing that God sent a high priest "made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest". It means nothing that He was tempted in every way we are yet without sin. It means nothing that Jesus has forever taken your flesh and blood higher than the heavens; that everywhere you look, imagine, or dream there you can see God for you.
What's it to ya? You're right; it doesn't means anything but everything. The last verse of our text begins with "Therefore" which connects the Ascension of our great High Priest with "Let us come with confidence" Why? Because the throne that rules the universe is one of grace. Charles Wesley's hymn "Arise, My Soul, Arise" captures this: "Arise, my soul, arise, shake off your guilty fears: the bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears He ever lives above, for me to intercede, His all-redeeming love, His precious blood to plead; His blood atoned for ev'ry race, and sprinkles now the throne of grace. Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary; they pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me. Forgive him, O forgive,' they cry, "nor let that ransomed sinner die!"
18th century Charles Wesley was a Methodist. All Protestants see the reality of what Jesus does in heaven because of the Ascension, but for them, the only connection this Ascended Jesus has to earth is by His Spirit or Divine Nature. So like me with the moon landing or my grandfather with World War I it's by our thoughts for good or evil, our conscience clear or guilty that we partake of the God Man. Wrong! Did not Jesus promise to be with us always till the close of the age? Did not He promise where a mere 2 or 3 gather in His name, He is present? You think He meant only in His Spirit or Divine nature? No He commanded us to do Communion "to bring Me back to you." The top white linen on our altar preaches this truth; it connects the 5 wounds in heaven with what is on our altar. On the fair linen are embroidered 5 small crosses which symbolize the 5 wounds of Christ. I don't know about you but I worry, I lust, I hate, I covet, I sin not just in my soul but in my body. I need forgiveness in, on, and over this very body. The Church looks for the resurrection of the body because Jesus left us the medicine to convey His redemption to not just our soul but our body.
So unlike the disciples, we don't look longingly to heaven for a Jesus no longer here. We look to the ascended Jesus in our midst and expect "mercy and grace" literally at the right time. Luther quotes St. Bernard: "'How can I ever become sad and mournful or discouraged? After all, my flesh and blood sits in heaven above. I expect He will not be my enemy'" (LW, 13, 245). More than that; I expect Him to be my friend. But we need more than a 4-year-old's grasp of the Ascension. She explained: "Jesus took His ciples up the hill. Then He raised His hands and blessed them and said, Good luck!'"
I've lived that faith or more accurately misbelief. I have a picture of Jesus. He's standing and it looks to me like He is shrugging saying, "What do you expect Me to do?" When the family was young it hung at the end of the hall. I would come home at night walk down that hall with everyone sleep toward the shrugging Jesus. I was wrong. What is really depicted is the risen Jesus with the redeeming wounds visible. And though in Sallman's Head of Christ and his Knocking at the Door you clearly see the Bread and Chalice of Communion; they are here in this painting but faint. So, I was the one confronting Jesus with: "What's it to ya? What's my problems, my worries, my guilt to you?" The picture preached, "Come to Me in My wounds; I'm here in My Body and Blood on your altar. I'm here in your time and space with mercy and grace in your time of need." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20190602); Hebrews 4:14-16