Up-Up and Hurray!


The sermon title “Up-UP and Hurray!” is a shameless parody of the 1967 hit by the 5th Dimension, “Up-Up and Away” and doesn’t fit the seriousness of this occasion, but it does capture the intensity and mounting joy. It’s hard to picture the other 2 reality-changing events in Jesus’ life: His incarnation in a virgin’s womb and His resurrection from the dead, but the Ascension? You can picture that. Jesus “left them and was taken up into heaven”. “He was taken up before their very eyes.” Up, up, up Jesus ascends and then He enters the Cloudy presence and it’s warp drive; everything is different in heaven and on earth. Hurray!

Ascension shows that the Pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales, was wrong and St. Paul right. Thales lived circa 600 B.C. Think Daniel’s time in the OT. He said, “All things are full of gods.” This is the teaching of all sorts of religions from Hindu to Muslim, from Greek Mythology to Native Americans. There are demigods, demiurges, Jinn, or half-gods. Under the supreme God they control everything from weather to harvest and interact with men for good and evil. Ralph Waldo Emerson who left Christianity for what he called true religion is famous for saying, “When the half-gods go the gods arrive.” C.S. Lewis corrected that. "Better say, ‘When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain.’ Left to themselves they either vanish or become demons” (The Four Loves).

The Biblical truth is that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our science. Two things: Notice the appeal to “science” that sellers of everything from mattresses to allergy remedies to physical fitness make. “Science says” is the mantra that magically open sesames people’s brain and pocketbooks. When Hamlet tells Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, where Shakespeare wrote philosophy, moderns write science. There are more angels and archangels, more Seraphim and Cherubim, more Powers, Rulers, and Thrones between here and heaven than any science can see, measure, study, or count. But not a one of them is a half-god and everyone of them is beneath the Ascending God who has feet and sends them to minister to us who our heirs of  His salvation (Heb. 1:14).

So, the True God arrived and didn’t leave the ministering spirits who had pretensions of being half-gods alone. Here’s how Paul describes that confrontation. Col. 2:15: “having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Col. 2:13-14 tell you how, “When you were dead in your sins…, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross.” As a Man, He took your sins on Himself and then offered His perfect life as a sacrifice to be nailed to a cross winning the right as a Man to rule over all things. And our Epistle adds: Jesus ascended, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” So rather than Thales, “All things are full of gods”, Paul says in Eph. 4:10 that Jesus ascended in order that He, God in Flesh and Blood, should fill all things. As 12th century Theophylact said, “'As before He had filled up all things by His divinity, He might now fill all things, by rule and operation, in His flesh" (Krauth, Con. Ref., 815).

Up-up away we go. Sing with Rita Coolidge 10 years later, “You love has lifted me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before.” That would be Christ’s love for us, so don’t snuff the candle: That’s the conclusion of a Concordia Seminary professor in 1995. He said this was an ambiguous ritual that communicated the wrong thing. Christ is still the Light of the World. His light didn’t go out when He entered heaven. Indeed it got even more diffused, shined into every nook and cranny of the universe. He said that instead of snuffing out the Christ candle, we should light many more (H. Moellering, “An Ambiguous Ritual?”, Concordia Journal, January 1995, 3). Think about it. That is exactly what happened on Pentecost. The Ascension of Jesus sparked the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and at least 12 tongues of fire were kindled.

Jesus does say in the Upper Room that it’s better for Him to go away, to ascend: He says in Jn 16:7, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” Now when Jesus walked this earth, He was only present with His divine and human nature at one place at a time. He could only preach and teach one place at a time. With His Ascension things are kicked into warp speed, hyperdrive. He’s wherever His Word and Sacraments are used. His Divine and Human Nature are in every Baptismal font, on ever Baptized person. His forgiving word contains all of Him, God and Man. His Communion all around the world at millions, perhaps billions of places, is a communion of His Body and Blood. That’s not snuffing out light but multiplying it. That’s not lighting one candle rather than curse the powers of darkness; this is Harry Potter-like lit candles hanging all over the world not just tonight but every night.

So, is that seminary professor on to something? Symbols are important. Inaccurate symbolism can lead to inaccurate theology. But I’ve never been one for not putting the Christ-Child in the manger till Christmas, or not having the Magi at Bethlehem when we know they arrived years later. I see room for poetic license in symbolism. But I also know kids are fascinated by candles. How mine would vie to put out the candle after devotions. So are we misleading them? By snuffing the candle do we perhaps unwittingly reinforce the Reformed error that Jesus is now only in heaven and we’re left with just the ministry of His Spirit?  Melanchthon said, already in 1529 that: “It is a sentiment unworthy of Christians, that Christ in such a away occupies a part of heaven – that He  sits in it as if shut up in prison…We are to form our judgments of heavenly things not from geometry, but from the Word of God’” (Krauth, Cons. Ref., 482).

Up-up and away we go, love lifting us higher, and the Ascended Christ pouring out His Holy Spirit over all by Word and Sacrament. Already in the 5th century Leo said that with the Ascension “’all that was visible of the Redeemer has passed over into the sacraments’” (Origins of the Church Year, 70). But still based on the Word of God, I think we may snuff the candle. I agree that with the Ascension things are changed for the better. That a smoldering Christ candle, whisps of smoke going heavenward, is a weak symbol for the reality, but it still reflects an important point. Lewis words about his beloved wife after she died while not about the Ascension apply: "We have now verified for ourselves what so many bereaved people have reported; the ubiquitous presence of a dead man, as if he had ceased to meet us in particular places in order to meet us everywhere" (Grief Observed, 148). Get it? That’s the warp factor. That’s the transition of a Man who didn’t fully use His divine powers as a Man in order to redeem us who now, victorious over Sin, Death, and the Devil, fully uses His Divine powers as a Man to assure us that we’ve been redeemed. And so He is for us literally everywhere.

I think the following incident from John 20 points to a snuffing of the candle to show that something has changed between the Resurrected Jesus and us. Only John records it. We get no definite statement from John that Mary Magdalene actually touched Jesus but Jesus says in John 20:17, “’Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to My brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.'" Can you relate? While I’ve never welcomed someone resurrected from the dead, I have welcomed someone a long time gone. The instinct is to hold them and not let go. Jesus says to Mary: stop clinging to Me, holding Me, maybe even touching Me. But He didn’t say that to the women in Matthew 28 who we are told did grab His feet.

That’s weird. But listen to what He said in John: “Stop clinging to Me, I’ve not yet returned to the Father.” Once He does that she, we, us, can cling to Him. The Cloud that hid Him from their sight is the Cloud that came down and took Moses and Elijah back to heaven in the Transfiguration. It’s the same Cloud that followed the OT Church in the wilderness. It’s the Cloudy presence of God that dwelled above the Holy of Holies. The Cloud marks Jesus being received into heaven as a Man. As true God even when He walked the earth He was in heaven. See John 3:13. Now as a Man He’s in heaven, on earth, everywhere. So like Lewis said, He who at one time could only be met in the flesh in Galilee, Jerusalem, or Perea, we now meet everywhere. Only unlike Lewis, we don’t meet a dead loved one but a living Lord, Brother, and Protector. According to Augustine, now in Word and Sacrament we meet the one who "’protects us from above’” (Peters, Creed, 189). Luther dares Satan to touch a hair on head now that Jesus reigns and rules all things at the right hand of God for our benefit (Brecht, Luther III, 353).

Snuffing candles means something. We blow out candles on birthdays. We light a candle at Baptisms. A Roman Catholic rite from the 9th century is referred to as Bell, Book, and Candle. It was used to pronounce the major excommunication. It included 13 priests holding lit candles. The bishop pronounced the excommunication. Those present answered, “So be it!” Then the bishop and the 12 priests snuffed their candles by dashing them to the ground (www.britannica.com/topic/bell-book-and-candle-Roman-Catholicism). The snuffed candles marked a definitive break not for good but bad.

Our ritual is for good, and in a way emphasizes what a bishop did at the funeral in 1715 for King Louis XIV of France. Louis called himself The Great. He was lying in state in a gold coffin. To dramatize his greatness orders had been given that the cathedral should be dimly lit with just one candle by the coffin. Thousands waited in hushed silence. The bishop entered. Then with his hand he snuffed out the candle saying, "'Only God is great!'" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 168). Up-up away! The ascended Man who is God is great now in a way He wasn’t till today. Hurray! Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Ascension Sunday (20230521); Luke 24:50-53