Isaiah 57:15 + Acts 1:1-11 + Mark 16:14-20
We can’t overestimate the importance of this day, of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus. Just as Christmas would be useless without Good Friday, and Good Friday without Easter Sunday, so it would all be useless without the work Jesus continues to do in the world, now ascended into heaven and seated on His throne at the right hand of God.
As we said a couple Sundays ago, if Jesus had remained bodily on earth, then the Gospel would have remained in one place, and Jesus would be far away from us. But that was never God’s intention. It was His intention that the Gospel be preached in all the world, “to all nations,” “to every creature,” not by His own mouth, but by the mouths of those whom He sent. And yet they would not go out alone. They would never be alone. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” He told them. And as Mark concludes his Gospel, “they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word.” So Jesus’ Ascension doesn’t put Him farther away from us. It puts Him closer. Much closer.
Sometime after the resurrection and before the ascension, Jesus gathered His eleven apostles on a mountain in Galilee and commissioned them to “preach the Gospel to every creature.” Mark and Matthew tell of the same event. Matthew puts it this way: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” Jesus intended His Gospel for everyone, everywhere. No one on earth is left out. All are to hear the Gospel.
And what is the Gospel? Sometimes we use John 3:16 to summarize it. Here in Mark 16 we have another simple, beautiful summary: He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. See how beautifully Scripture agrees with itself! Over and over gain the Gospel is proclaimed. All men are sinners. But Christ died for all and rose again. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.
So salvation doesn’t depend at all on works. Not, “He who lives a saintly life,” or, “He who tries his hardest,” or, “He who earns God’s favor will be saved,” but “he who believes and is baptized.” Sinners are saved by faith in Christ, who died and rose again for us, by baptism, which is the sign and seal of the faith worked in us by the Gospel. That’s it. Where there is faith in Christ, there is Christ taking away sins and conquering the devil. But no matter how good a life someone thinks he has lived, “he who does not believe will be condemned.” Faith in Christ means you’re judged by His deeds, and your sins are covered under His blood. Unbelief means you’re judged by your own deeds, and all your sins cry out against you.
That’s it, the simple Gospel that has been proclaimed and is still being proclaimed in every corner of the earth, that God has sent His Son as the sacrifice for sin and now wishes to save everyone who believes in Christ and is baptized in His name, while He wishes to condemn only those who will not believe in His Son.
Once Christ had given the content of the Gospel to His apostles, as well as the command to teach and to baptize and to administer Holy Communion, His work in bodily form on earth was finished, and so, forty days after His resurrection, Jesus was taken up into heaven before the very eyes of His disciples, and He sent His angels to tell those men of Galilee to stop looking for Jesus on earth, to stop gazing up into the sky to try to see Him. No longer are we to look for Jesus on earth, except in the preaching of the Gospel. There He hides Himself. There He works with us and through us. There He accompanies us and sends His Spirit to build the Church. He has not left us alone. He just doesn’t want to be seen as an earthly King, setting up an earthly, carnal, political kingdom, but as the King of a spiritual kingdom that comes spiritually when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
Now, as for this “sitting at the right hand of God,” that’s a big deal, too. The Psalmist foretold it in the eighth Psalm, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet. That Psalm is about Jesus, who was made low for a little while during His time of humiliation on earth, but now has been exalted above every name to have dominion, lordship over the universe. Or as Psalm 110 says about the Christ, The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies! Jesus isn’t sitting idly up in heaven. He reigns at the right hand of God and rules in the midst of His enemies.
You understand what that means? It means that, while the non-believers of the world go around mocking anyone who still actually believes that Bible stuff, while ISIS murders Christians, while the world around you appears to be crumbling, Christ is actually defeating His enemies and ruling over His Church. It’s not for us to see. It’s not for us to figure out. It’s for us to believe. When you realize that your Redeemer, the very One who died for you and has called you by the Gospel into His eternal kingdom, the very One who has proven His love for you, is ruling over everything that happens in this world, you really do have nothing to fear. You really do have no reason to become discouraged or to despair, because nothing can happen in this world against the will of Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God. Things may look out of control, but nothing is actually out of control.
The festival of the Ascension means nothing to the world. There is no national holiday to celebrate the Ascension, at least not in this or in most countries. If anything, the Ascension of Christ gives the world the false idea that Christ is far away, and that they are the ones who are really in charge of this earth. But Christians know the secret of the Ascension—that Christ is now present in His Church in every place throughout the world where His Gospel is purely taught and His Sacraments rightly administered, and that Christ is the One governing every event of this world for the good of His body, for the good of His Church. And He will continue to reign, and to build His Church, soul by soul, until that job is done, too. Then He will come again in the same way His disciples saw Him go. Until then, rejoice in the Christ who is present with us in the Gospel. And rejoice that Christ, your Lord, reigns as King over all. Amen.