Date: May 14, 1931
And while they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. – Acts 1:10
SOME of the most tragic of all human experiences have been the moments of farewell, the leavetakings of great leaders from their followers. We think of Socrates, philosopher and teacher, drinking the hemlock potion and then vainly endeavoring to banish the despair of his moaning disciples. We remember Alaric, the Goth, who sacked the city of Rome and utterly destroyed the power of that empire, only to be buried at dark midnight beneath a riverbed, while the screams of slaughtered slaves and the shrieks of sacrificed horses mingled with the funeral chants of his lamenting followers. We recall Savonarola, the lone monk who tried to stem the tide of worldliness in Italy, but who, crushed by the churchmen of his day, left his helpless adherents these last words, uttered on the gallows as his body broke in a convulsive snap, “Christ has suffered much for me.” Or, more recently, we are reminded of Lenin, dictator of Red Russia, piteously helpless in his last moments, bereft even of the power of speech, entangled in a network of intrigue, surrounded by jesting physicians, dying in a tortuous agony, as the reins of the godless power that he had created slipped from his nerveless grasp. We think of these and other valedictories to life given by leaders in human affairs whom men may revere or revile, and we agree that their farewells, tinged with failure as they all are, have left a numbing and depressing sorrow in the lives of their followers.
But today is the anniversary of the glorious ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and tonight, as we dedicate these moments to the memory of that marvelous exhibition of His divine power, we shall behold the most wonderful, the most blessed farewell in the teeming annals of history, a departure which brought joy instead of sorrow, hope instead of despair, victory instead of defeat.
It was not quite six weeks after His bodily resurrection on Easter that Jesus appeared to His disciples for the last time. Although their risen Lord had made nine distinct appearances to human eyes and had been touched by human hands; although some of the disciples had walked with Him and talked with Him, all this had not cured the Eleven of their doubt and unbelief. So, revealing Himself once more to strengthen their faith, He leads His wondering followers out of the city gates along the road to Bethany. Familiar scenes unfold themselves as they walk together for the last time. Now they are crossing the Kidron, the stream over which Jesus had passed on that memorable Thursday at the beginning of His suffering; now they are opposite Gethsemane, the olive-shaded garden, whose shadowed recesses beheld that agony too intense for human comprehension; now they are at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the little hill east of Jerusalem, immortalized in the reverent memories of Christendom by the long nocturnal vigils that Jesus held on its wooded slopes as He poured out His heart to His Father; and now they have ascended the slopes of Olivet, and the journey, the last journey, is ended. Gazing upon the world in the lingering glance of farewell, perhaps riveting His eyes for a moment in the direction of the Place of Skulls, Jesus utters His last words to His disciples. He lays upon their conscience the royal commission to go into all the world and “preach the Gospel to every creature”; He strengthens their questioning souls with the promise of everlasting companionship; He raises His hand in a last blessing, and even as He pronounces this benediction, He is taken up, silently, but gloriously, and a cloud receives Him out of their sight—a divine climax to a divine life.
Now, no one can thoughtfully read the account of this majestic departure without realizing that it exerted the most profound effect upon the life and the faith of the disciples. We read that these same eleven men, who after the death of their Lord had concealed themselves behind locked doors, the very men who in this hour of parting, asked in human ambition when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, were transformed and that “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Instead of hiding in dejected sorrow, they were, as St. Luke assures us, “continually in the Temple, praising and blessing God”; for the Savior’s departure is the only farewell in history that has been attended by such happiness and that has exerted such salutary effects.
Tonight, under the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit, I want to tell you that this ascension of Jesus must have the same effect in our modern lives. Although it occurred nineteen long centuries ago; although it took place in a small and politically insignificant country, separated by mighty oceans from our shores, that ascent to heaven and Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father has a most direct and decisive bearing upon every one of us in this 1931st year of grace.
WE MUST SEEK THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE ABOVE.
We read the words of our text, “And while they beheld, He was taken up”; and we see that in accordance with the plain prophecies of the Old Testament and in harmony with the repeated predictions of Jesus Himself the resurrected Christ did not remain on earth. The religion that He gave to the world, the grace that was offered to men by His resurrection, finds its glorious culmination,—not on earth, not in the temporal affairs of men, not in the institution of an earthly reign, which would remove sorrow and want and sickness and all the other ills to which the flesh is heir,—but in heaven, in the spiritual joy of an everlasting life that lives beyond the grave.
It is this truth, that Jesus is enthroned in the glories of heaven, that needs frequent and emphatic repetition in our materialistic age, when men try to despiritualize religion, to remove it from the realm of the soul, and to make it serve the body. Christ’s last and sacred commission to His followers is to preach the Gospel, to tell all men in all lands and in all ages that Jesus died on the cross,—not to give them social distinction nor to assure them of success in their business nor to offer culture and cleanliness,—but, thank God, to take away their sins and to bestow upon them Heaven’s blessings.
But when American churches feature sermons on such topics as: “Is Mussolini the Man of Destiny?” “The Meaning of Dimension,” “The London Naval Treaty,” “Psychometric Reading”; when people go to church to hear addresses on the minimum wage, the adequate housing of the poor, the regulations of moving pictures and dancehalls, the benefits or the defects of the Volstead Act; when Sunday-school children have the few moments of each Sunday which should be devoted to their spiritual life taken up with lessons that tell them how to keep the streets clean, how to avoid forest fires, and how to become junior traffic policemen,—you will agree with me when I say that the tragedy of modern American church-life is this, that too frequently it gives the body preference over the soul, that too often it has permitted the priceless spiritual privilege of saving souls to be side-tracked and vitiated by political activities, by social ambitions, by industrial programs.
To counteract all this, Ascension Day comes to remind us that Christ has been taken up from the earth, that His is a spiritual kingdom with a spiritual program and a spiritual blessing. He who in the days of His flesh refused to accept earthly power has left temporal dominion and civil authority to no Church and to no individual or group of individuals within any Church. He who told His disciple, “Put up thy sword,” teaches us by His victorious ascent that the weapons for the spreading and the protection of His kingdom are heavenly—His Word and His Sacraments. He who refused to yield to popular clamor and be crowned as king tells His Church today that “the kingdom of God cometh not with outward observation,” so that we can say, “Here it is,” or, “There it is,” as one points to the boundaries delineated on a map and says, “Here is Canada, and there is Mexico.” No, He who answered Pilate’s cynicism with the uncompromising “My kingdom is not of this world” tells us, “The kingdom of God is within you,” in the soul that has been convicted of its sin, that has heard and believed and trusted the Gospel of God’s boundless grace in Christ.
The message of Ascension Day, then, especially to you who have permitted your soul life to be dwarfed by care and worry, is the appeal of the great apostle: “Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” And the remarkable blessing which ensues is this, that, when men humbly and reverently thus keep first things first by seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all else is added to them. All the fine and ennobling forces that improve the outward aspects of life and make the world a better place in which to live and to die, all the civilizing and cultural influences, which are the by-products of Christianity, all these are offered to men by Christ as they are offered by no human agencies.
WE MUST FIND A PLEDGE OF GOLDEN PROMISE.
When we ask again, “Why did Jesus ascend to the Father?” He tells us in His own words, “In My Father’s house are many mansions,” beautiful, spacious havens of joy and rest and peace, the unnumbered dwellings of a blessed eternity. Remember, he adds, “I go to prepare a place for you.” And when in soul-deep yearning for the unspeakable blessing of that new Jerusalem we venture to ask, “For whom?” He repeats, “For you”; for “where I am, there shall also my servant be.” This pledge gives me the privilege tonight to send broadcast through the confines of this mighty nation that golden, glorious, supreme promise of the ages, that Christ today ascended to the highest heavens to prepare a place for you who serve Him in love and gratitude; for you who believe in Him as the Beauty of God incarnate, as your Redeemer; for you who trust in Him as the “Friend that never faileth.” Here is the promise of Heaven’s truth, “I go to prepare a place for you”; and in these words Jesus speaks to you for whom life otherwise holds little happiness; to you who feel yourselves crushed by poverty and loss; to you who linger on in the wearisome siege of incurable diseases; to you at whom men point the finger of scorn; to you who write me that the barriers and obstacles in your lives are so overpowering that you wonder how much longer you can really carry on. To every weary and heavy-laden soul in my audience tonight Christ gives this promise,—and never let any powers of earth or hell tear it out of your hearts,—“I go to prepare a place for you.”
Think of what this means for your own farewell to life. Instead of sinking down into the fatalistic delusion of annihilation after death; instead of accepting the destructive theories of modern Spiritism, which paint the hereafter as a place of dark, depressing surroundings and influences; instead of facing eternity with the blank question-mark of modern philosophy and modern skepticism,—after nineteen long centuries you can be strengthened by the divine assurance that Jesus, victoriously and everlastingly enthroned in eternity, will vitalize in your life after death His rich promise of eternity, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” To you who in faith can understand and believe the spiritual meaning of the visible ascension of Christ which the Church celebrates (or should thankfully celebrate) throughout the world today, life, instead of ending in a shriek of unholy despair, will close with the peaceful anticipation of the immeasurable blessings that await you in the happy reunion with the ascended Christ in paradise.
We are told in our text that a cloud received our Lord out of the sight of His apostles; and in our lives there may be many and varied clouds that would interpose themselves between our Savior and us to obscure the foregleams of the heavenly mansions. There is the haze of doubt and uncertainty that rises from the unbelief so rampant in our day; there is the smoke-screen of modernistic delusion by which the verities of our faith disappear in the black barrage of human speculation. There is the heavy pall of sorrow and personal misfortune that prevents tearful eyes from directing their gaze upward to the hills whence cometh their help. There are the storm clouds of sin, heavy with their rumbling thunders, flashing with the lightning that stabs our conscience. But the eyes of faith can penetrate all this enshrouding gloom; and for you who pray, as the blind man on the Jericho road, “Lord, open thou my eyes,” there is the divine promise that your vision will be strengthened, that the Sun of resplendent glory, the everlasting Word of promise, will dissipate these misty clouds. And with St. Stephen we shall behold the heavens opened by Christ’s redemption and see Him, the Son of Man and the Son of God, sitting at the right hand of the Father, enthroned in the immeasurable majesty of unlimited eternity—our God and Savior.
Did you ever stop to realize that Christ could have remained on earth, that He could have continued His visible presence among men to lead the victorious forces of His Church on from triumph to triumph and to employ the miracles of His divine power to extend the Kingdom? But what a tremendous challenge there is in the fact that Christ has ascended and that we have the privilege of perpetuating the work for the salvation of immortal souls in His name, in His stead, and with the assurance of His abiding presence! For, though Christ has ascended, yet—wonder of wonders!—He is with us in His Word and with His power, not only for three years, as during His ministry on earth, not only for thirty-three years, as in all the days of His flesh, but, by His sacred promise given in the hour of His departure, “unto the end of the world.” Through all the storm and strife below, through all the pain and anguish on earth, through all the disappointments and anxieties here in time, Christ is with us. His presence—praise be to God!—shall abide until He returns to take His children (among whom, pray God, every sin-born soul listening in tonight may be numbered) to the realms of that happy homeland of the soul where in a higher and nobler light we shall see Him face to face. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.