Clouds of Glory
I don't think any other losing general gets the favorable press that Robert E. Lee does with the exception of perhaps Napoleon who even though Wellington won at Waterloo we still refer to it as Napoleon's. Military historians of both North and South document some of Lee's epic blunders, yet their biographies if not glowing are favorable. Jesus ascended triumphantly into heaven after, in the eyes of the world, losing big time on Good Friday. Yet figuratively and literally clouds shroud His glory. Clouds of Glory is the latest biography of Lee's life. I think incidents in his life can pierce the clouds that shroud Christ's Ascension and give us a new appreciation for what this Holy Day is all about.
Luke's eyewitness account of the Ascension says, "Jesus was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight." A good many Bible translations have the more accurate translation of the "cloud received Him." "Hid" makes it sound like Jesus ascended like a hot air balloon and the eyewitnesses could see Him until He reached the height of the clouds. No, this was no ordinary cloud.
This is the Cloudy Presence that led the Old Testament Church in the wilderness. This is the Cloudy Presence that descended on Mount Sinai. This is the Cloudy Presence that dwelled above the Art of the Covenant in the Old Testament tabernacle. This is the Cloudy Presence that came down to the Mount of Transfiguration and took Moses and Elijah back to heaven. This is the Cloudy Presence that God Almighty wraps Himself in so flesh and blood men might not be consumed by glory unimaginable and unbearable.
Here's the Goosebump part. Today we celebrate a flesh and blood Man being welcomed into that cloudy glory that is the visible indication of God's presence. Today we celebrate flesh and blood no different than yours being able to go into heaven, into the very throne room of God without being burned up, without being melted, without dying of fright.
True enough on Transfiguration we saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus and the cloud did whisk them away, but there was no mention of a welcoming party. Besides Moses and Elijah came from heaven to begin with. Jesus starts where we do, and He is welcomed. I don't know what you think of when you hear Handle's Hallelujah Chorus. Some think of the Birth of Christ; some think of the Resurrection, but it was written by Handle for the Ascension. This is what is being sung as the cloud received the flesh and blood Man Jesus into heaven. As True God Jesus had always been in heaven. According to John 3:13, read it for yourself, He never had left. But now that flesh born of Mary is welcomed into clouds of glory.
The real Goosebumps start to pop when you realize it's you being welcomed today. You're being welcomed into the Cloudy Presence of Almighty God; you're being welcomed by choruses of angels shouting "Hallelujah!" You're being welcomed as a king into the ranks of the King who rules over all things. No Goosebumps, huh? You don't believe me. Well it's a case of mistaken identity.
In Lee's biography Clouds of Glory, Robert E. Lee, Junior's earliest memory of his famous father is at the age of 5. The elder Lee had been away from home for 22 months down here in our parts fighting the Mexican army. Lee surprised the waiting family because he missed his train. Let the son tell the rest. "'After a moment's greeting those surrounding him, my father pushed through the crowd exclaiming, Where is my little boy?' He then took up in his arms and kissed not me, his own child [dressed] in his best frock with clean face and well arranged curls, but my little playmate Armistead! I remember nothing more of any circumstances connected with that time, save that I was shocked and humiliated'" (158).
That's what happened to you that is if you have been baptized into Christ and therefore have been clothed with Him as Ephesians 3:27 says. Jesus ascended into heaven today but the Father rushed to hug you, that is if you have been bodied and blooded to Jesus in Holy Communion. As the angelic shouts of "Hallelujah" gradually die down, you start to hear a murmur among the angels. "However much like Him she is!" "He looks just like him says another." And you look around you wondering who in the world they are talking about, but it would be more accurate to say who in heaven's name they are.
I'm jumbling pieces of the story that you every-Sunday people know well, so well that you pass right on by them. I've said there was a case of mistaken identity, as Lee mistook a ragamuffin friend for his clean faced, immaculately dressed and adorned child, so God the Father has done in your case. Jesus in the One clothed in holiness; Jesus is the unblemished one; Jesus is the One who was to be welcomed by the Cloudy Presence, but in a case of mistaken identity you are. But Jesus is not, as Lee's son was, shocked and humiliated. To explain why not, we have another case of mistaken identity.
It happened to the same son of Lee. It was at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. Commanding General Lee rides up to an artillery battery back from the horrendous front. It had been badly bloodied loosing many men and horses. Lee ordered the commander to take the uninjured men and the remaining guns back to the front. He didn't greet, didn't acknowledge, didn't even recognize that one of those battle weary soldiers was his own son (159).
I know this case of mistaken identity happened 14 years later in Lee's life but it is crucial to the formation of Goosebumps that you understand this happened first theologically. You are the one who was in a battle not just for your life but for your very soul with Sin, Death, and the Devil. You deserved to be in this battle. You brought this battle on yourself. Why just today just think of how many sins big and small, gross and silly you're guilty of? Just think of how many sins you have willingly committed, defended, and now can't forget, and though you shell them with excuses and promises to do better, the Devil fires back with the wrath, judgment, and death now and forever that you deserve.
The idea of artillery battles is to put so much more ordinance, more shells on the enemy that he can't keep up, and you couldn't. You the guilty, shamefaced, sinner tried to fire back, but were no match for the death and judgment the Devil rained down on you for your sins, so you retreated. That's where General Lee rides up, but instead of ordering you back to the front. He orders Jesus. He sends Jesus to the front who had never sinned, was not guilty, deserved not to die, and who the Devi had no power let alone piece of. And Jesus goes.
You know how Jesus fights the battle? He puts on your uniform dirty and stained with unmentionable sins. And rather than man the cannons to fire back. He stands up on the burm in front of the cannons, spreads His arms, and all the cannons ever made fire at once unleashing as they do all God's wrath. And they fire and fire and fire until the Man Jesus exhausts the wrath of God in the hands of the Devil. You deserved to go back the front, but God sent His Son, and this really was no case of mistaken identity. God the Father knew who Jesus was, and God the Son wanted to go.
Now can you see how, why the cloud of glory can receive you and what glory must be in this cloud? Perhaps not. For this we'll go to Roman times. When a Roman general won a significant victory, the senate could authorize a triumph. This was a parade in which the conquering general would bring in all the riches his victory had acquired for the Roman treasury and he would march in the leaders he had conquered dressed in all their finery.
This is what you should see happening today. On Good Friday was the battle when Jesus took down Sin, Death, and the Devil by paying for the sins of the world and by dying the damned death the world deserved. Easter was the announcement of His victory over Sin, Death, and the Devil for all people everywhere. Ascension is the triumph.
See over there is Sin. See how ugly, how powerful he looks, yet he is in chains, no longer able to enslave you. See Death marching behind him still snarling at you, still looking like he could carry you away forever without a moment's notice, but he is muzzled by the forgiveness of sins. Where there are no sins; there is no death. Your sins are forgiven by what Jesus did, so muzzled Death can't, won't swallow you. Last comes the Devil. See that proud, powerful spirit toothless now as an old lion having no laws or death to threaten you with because Jesus kept the former and died for the latter.
But wait there's more. Every triumph has riches. What are the riches Jesus brings into heaven? What on earth could heaven be enriched by? By you. Jesus says elsewhere " People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God." Blood bought souls, sinners as guilty as you redeemed for everlasting life are His riches. From every nation, every occupation, every place in life come the redeemed, see yourself in that number unless you don't believe the Father picked up you instead of Jesus; unless you believe you're still at the front fighting for your salvation.
When a Roman had his triumph it is popularly believed that with him in the chariot he had a slave to whisper repeatedly in his ear, "All worldly glory is passing." But the only proof we have of this is from the church father Tertullian who lived 160220. He tells it a bit different. "Even when, amid the honors of a triumph, he sits on that lofty chariot, he is reminded that he is only human. A voice at his back whispering in his ear, Look behind thee; remember that thou art but a man'" (Apology, xxxiii,4, ANF, III, 43).
Get my point? Jesus has no slave, no angel, nobody whispering in His ear because He is more than a Man. He is God in flesh and blood. His glory isn't passing away. It's forever and ever and then some. See Him right now in that chariot. Wait. That's you! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20150517); Acts 1: 1-11