An Ascended Jesus Leads to Ascending Prayer
You thought we were finished with our Advent/Lent study of prayer. Sorry, an ascended Jesus leads to ascending prayer. We said as much in the Collect, "Even as we believe Your only-begotten Son, to have ascended into heaven, so may we also in heart and mind ascend and continually dwell there with Him." When we pray in Jesus' name that's what we're doing.
Prayer flows from the Ascension because having an ascended Jesus means we can hold on to him everywhere we are. This wasn't the case when Jesus visibly walked the earth. If you were in Jerusalem and Jesus was in Galilee, you could not hold on to Him. Now you can, no matter where on earth you might be.
Hebrews encourages us to do this when it says hold fast our confession. Jesus is our confession. We can hold on to Jesus wherever we are because He is present wherever we are. He is not dead and buried in one place. No, He has risen and passed through the heavens to the throne of heaven and earth. From there He sees us wherever we are. The verse before our text, Hebrews 4:13 speaks of Jesus, saying, "No creature is hidden from His sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him."
An ascended Jesus means we can hold on to Him wherever we are. This wasn't the case with even a risen Jesus. Do you recall the strange incident with Mary Magdalene on Easter morning? Jesus came up to Mary in the garden. She didn't recognize Him at first, but did when He called her name. "She turned and said to Him, Rabbi!' Jesus said to her, Do not cling to Me, for I have not, yet ascended to the Father.'" When Jesus visibly walked the earth, people did cling to Him; but they couldn't do it that way in His resurrected state. Something had changed. Jesus' words to Mary say not only "you can't cling to Me because I haven't yet ascended to the Father," they also say, "You can cling to Me once I do ascend."
The Ascension changed something. The liturgy for today expresses that. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, the Christ candle that has burned since Easter is snuffed out. This doesn't mean Jesus has died to us. It means that Jesus is present with us now in a different way. Actually, it's in a better way for now He is accessible for holding and praying wherever we may be. And Jesus told us where we could reach Him.
On Easter evening He made Himself known to the disciples where? In the Breaking of Bread. We not only have, hold, and pray to Jesus in the Breaking of Bread we call Communion, but we eat and drink His Body and Blood. In Galilee, Jesus gave His Baptismal command and immediately promised, "I am with you always." If in Baptism, you put on Christ as Paul says, then in your Baptism He is always with you. Again on Easter evening, He promised the apostles, "Whoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." So, when the penitent comes to the pastor and says, "Dear Pastor hear my confession"his ears are a stand-in for Jesus', and the forgiveness he gives is not his but Jesus'.
Jesus having ascended means He is accessible to us everywhere on earth. His ascending to the throne of heaven doesn't mean He abdicated one here on earth. Jesus still holds court today. We're in it right now. The Words we speak back and forth in the liturgy are His words. The Water that connects us to Him and to each other is His. He still sets a royal table around this altar. His coming to us in Water, Words, Bread, and Wine brings forth prayers from us. His Word and Sacraments strike the drum of our heart and prayer is the sound they make.
But not just Jesus' accessibility brings forth our prayers, so does His sympathy. Hebrews says Jesus sympathizes not with our sufferings, but our weaknesses. He doesn't condemn us for the fact that we can't believe as we should, do as we should, or think as we should, He sympathizes with us. Though He lived this life perfectly, our King knows what our life is really like. Ever tried to tell a problem to someone who doesn't, can't or won't sympathize with your weaknesses? You quickly stop, don't you? Knowing Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses, leads us to pour out our hearts.
Even when we are confessing our sins, our struggles, our falls, He encourages us to keep on talking. How can that be? He's perfect; what does He know of sin, of tempting, of stumbling and falling? Hebrews tells us He was tempted in every respect as we are yet without sin Most times we are tempted we sin in our hearts. We can't imagine being tempted and not sinning at all. Jesus was able to. But that doesn't mean He didn't feel the burn, the yearn, the ache of temptation. Don't think Jesus never felt the ache that pleads it can only be soothed by giving in. He did feel it, and so you can go to Him with you aching temptations, and He'll understand.
Jesus has flesh and blood just like ours. He hears prayers and reigns over all things in that flesh and blood. He won the right to rule heaven and earth as a Man by living a perfect life as a Man. He took on flesh and blood to enter the arena against sin, death and the devil who had already struck down Adam and Eve and us too. Temptation not to trust God came, but Jesus didn't give in. Temptation to misuse the name of God came, but Jesus wouldn't do it. Temptation to ignore the Word of God and live for and from something else came, but Jesus didn't do it. As true God, Jesus always reigned and ruled, but He won the right to do so as a man by a holy life.
Jesus lived the holy life, not for His sake but for your sake. He did it because you never could. He did like you do when you take over a project from a child who just doesn't have the ability to do it. But there's more. If men, women, and children were going to go to heaven, not just their temptations had to be overcome without sinning; their sins had to be paid for. Not only did Jesus take over our project called the 10 Commandments because we weak children could not do them, Jesus took the punishment us miserable, obnoxious brats rightly deserved for our sins.
The fear of death that creeps up on you because you know you're a sinner. The shame you see that should come upon you because of your sins. The pain, the rejection, the utter damnation that your sins deserve at the hands of the holy God, Jesus went through, suffered, endured. Jesus said, "No Father, don't punish him; punish Me. Don't make her die for her sins; make Me. Don't send them to the depths of hell; send Me." And so, the Father did. Now every single one of those sins you feel so keenly and even the ones you don't, Jesus paid for. "It is finished," Jesus cried on Good Friday. "Yes it is," the Father answered by raising Him on Easter. And today Jesus ascended as a Man to the throne of God in heaven.
An ascended Jesus leads to ascending prayers because Jesus ascended for good. I don't mean once and for all, but for your good. Jesus told the disciples before Good Friday that it would be better for them if He did ascend. This text, particularly the last verse, tells us why: Jesus established a throne of grace in heaven from which mercy and grace ever flow.
Elsewhere in the Bible God's throne is called one of Glory and one of Majesty. Apart from Jesus keeping the law for you and paying the debt you owed for breaking it, all God's throne could be is one of Glory and Majesty. That would encourage glorious and majestic people to pray, but not sinners like us. If it was only a glorious and majestic throne, then Satan and your own conscience would be right when they whispered, "Who are you to pray? You're not glorious enough to ask that. Why should God hear the prayers of a un-majestic sinner like you?"
But with the God/Man Jesus on heaven's throne, it is one of grace. You can with confidence draw near to a throne of grace. You know what you need to draw near with confidence to a throne of grace? Sins, weaknesses, failings. You need problems you can't solve. Sicknesses you can't make better. Situations you have no idea what to do with. You need thorns in the flesh, problems in your life, and fears in your heart. Do you have these? Then you have what it takes to come to the throne of grace with all boldness and confidence.
The Book of Revelation shows lightening, thunder, and fire going out from God's throne. That doesn't encourage praying but running. But since we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, what does Hebrews say comes from the throne: mercy.' Some of you may have no idea what that means. Mercy doesn't mean as long as you do better next time it's alright. Mercy doesn't mean as long as you tried your best its okay. Mercy doesn't mean as long as you didn't do anything too bad it can be overlooked. Mercy is what the blind man got who had nothing but blindness. Mercy is what the tax collector got who had nothing but sins. Mercy is what the man got who had nothing but a demon.
You can come to Jesus' throne because mercy is what awaits you there, but not just mercy, "grace to help in time of need." If you're overwhelmed with what you can't do, if you're overcome with how badly you've messed things up, if you're just sure you ought to be damned right on the spot, you are in need, and Jesus has grace for you in this time of need. He has grace not instructions. Grace not goals. Grace not just another chance.
And now we've come full circle. Where does King Jesus sitting on His throne of grace distribute grace for sinners? Not in the emotions you feel during intense prayer because sometimes those emotions are conflicting. Not in your heart that feels better because you have prayed because sometimes you don't feel any better. The grace you seek, the grace you crave, the grace you pray for is found in the Means of Grace. God's grace is on you in the waters of Baptism. It's in your ears in Absolution, and you eat and drink it at this altar. And you know what all this grace leads to? More prayers ascending to the ascended Jesus. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20060525); Hebrews 4: 14-16