Ascension Sunday: 1 Cor. 15:12-28

In the days of the prophet Elisha, the King of Syria was at war with the northern tribes of Israel. But Elisha frequently knew ahead of time the movements of the armies of Syria, and he would warn the king of Israel. This happened a number of times before the king of Syria became convinced that there was a traitor among his cabinet of advisors or generals. But even they knew what was going on, and they told their master that Elisha was a prophet who might even know what you said in the privacy of your own bedroom. So the king found out where Elisha was staying and sent a great army of horses and chariots and surrounded the city where Elisha and his servant were. When Elisha’s servant woke up in the morning, he saw the great army surrounding the city, and he said, ‘Alas, my master – what shall we do?’ But Elisha answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And he prayed and said, “Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kgs. 6:8-17).

Where is heaven? Where is heaven? We often ask what heaven is like. What is it like in heaven? What will it be like when we die? But perhaps an equally or more important question is: Where is heaven? And actually, I think answer the question where, goes a good ways toward answering the what.

The answer of the Bible, as illustrated in stories like this one with Elisha and his servant and the armies of Syria, is that heaven is here. Heaven is not far away, on the other side of the galaxies. Heaven is close by, nearby, all around us. But we can’t normally see it. The problem isn’t that heaven is far away. The problem is that we are like the servant of Elisha, and we can’t see it though the heavenly presence of God is all around us.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, fire didn’t shoot out of the soles of his feet. He didn’t blast off like a human rocket into outer space (as cool as that might sound). Luke says He was taken up, but He also says that a cloud received Him and He was taken from their sight. Remember other events like this: Enoch walked with God, and then he was not for God took him. Or God’s heavenly presence in the burning bush and the cloud and fire leading Israel out of Egypt, coming to rest on Mt. Sinai, and then later the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle and temple. Or Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. Or Stephen who gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. We gesture upwards, we look up, we lift up our hands and hearts, but the heavenly presence of God seems to break out in various places at various times all around us. Heaven is above us and all around us. Heaven seems to overlap with earth in some sense.

In the beginning, God created the world, and Adam and Eve would walk with God in the garden. If you had asked Adam, Where is heaven? He wouldn’t have understood the question. Walking and talking with God in the Garden of Eden was heaven. He was in the presence of God, in perfect fellowship with God. Heaven and earth mingled together in harmony. But notice that it was centrally located in the fellowship between God and man. When man ruled the world under the blessing of God, heaven leaned heavy on the world. The glory of God pierced through creation at every point. When man walked and talked with God, heaven and earth were married. Perhaps angels walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. Perhaps angels would have taught Adam how to build boats and sail down the rivers looking for gold and treasure. Perhaps the angels would have been visible to the naked eyes of Adam and Eve, signaling the clouds and stars and wind, orchestrating their dances.

But something awful has happened. Adam and Eve disobeyed, and their eyes were opened. But instead of seeing God more clearly, instead of heaven and earth drawing closer, their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked and they were ashamed. Guilt entered the world. Fear entered the world. And they hid themselves from one another and from their God. Instead of walking with God, they hid from Him. Instead of unending life, now death would come. There would be pain in childbirth, thorns and weeds would grow, and now Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden, out of the presence of God, down into the world. And so the whole human race and creation with us were plunged into darkness. The curse of death and sin and suffering was not merely a matter of bad habits. It was not merely a matter of personal offenses. It was a cosmic fall. The whole world careened out of joint, out of orbit. It skipped a beat, and heaven was no longer visible, no longer in harmony with this world. To be dead in sin, to be under the curse of death, to be enslaved to the forces and powers of the devil and demons – all of these are ways of describing the whole world warped, bent, leaning away from the God who made it, leaning away from His presence, His glory, His word, His power. It’s a great darkness, a blindness that doesn’t allow us to see rightly, truly the way heaven is meant to mingle with this world.

This is because God created man and woman to rule the world. With Adam and Eve and all their descendants far from the presence of God, there was no man at the helm, no captain of the ship, no King on the Throne. And the Bible says that when Adam listened to the voice of the serpent, in some sense, Satan, the Great Accuser became the prince of this world. God was certainly not dethroned, but man certainly was. And in his place stood a fallen angel. The Bible calls him by many names: the prince of the power of the air, the strong man, the god of this age, and in places like Job and even in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, we see him wielding significant power and authority, though certainly not an exhaustive power and authority. But this great curse, this great darkness, this great shadow fell over the world. And we could no longer see heaven. We could no longer see the glory of God but for mere fleeting glimpses.

In this story Death swallows every thing and everyone. In the early years men lived for hundreds of years, but one by one, death conquered them all. Their bodies disintegrated, to dust they returned. Darkness always came. The light always went out.

This is why for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is such a big deal. Paul has heard that there are some in Corinth who say that while Jesus might have risen from the dead, that doesn’t mean anyone else will or that anyone else needs to. Paul has heard that some say that the resurrection is already passed or that isn’t really that important or it doesn’t really matter.

But Paul understands that the resurrection of Jesus was not a random miracle. It wasn’t merely God flexing His supernatural powers, showing off His repertoire of tricks. It wasn’t like Jesus came doing a bunch of magic tricks like a fireworks show, and the resurrection was the grand finale at the end. As great as fireworks shows are, and as glorious as some grand finales are, when the fireworks show is over, the sky remains dark. It’s still black. Darkness still covers the world. You see, if the miracles and life of Jesus were like fireworks exploding the in night sky of the Old World held in darkness, the resurrection was an explosion of light that managed to launch a new sun into orbit. The difference is that when Jesus rose from the dead, centuries of Night time came to an abrupt end. At the end of that fireworks show it was suddenly Morning and completely New Day was dawning.

In other words, for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the answer to the great cosmic curse. The gospel – the appearance of God in this world as a man walking among us, talking to us, a man we can see and feel and touch – this takes us back to the Garden, back to Eden, back to Adam and Eve. This is heaven breaking back into this world. This is the glory of God revealed in a way that we can see again. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. We see flashes of heaven in the Old Covenant. We see flashes of glory breaking out, but for the most part, we are like the servant of Elisha, and we can’t see the glory. It’s too bright. We are blind.

The gospel isn’t merely a “spiritual experience.” It isn’t a story you tell yourself merely to make yourself feel better, a sort of calming fairy tale, a bed time story to keep away the bad dreams. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus means the resurrection of the whole world. When God created the world, heaven was joined to earth in Adam and his family. The glory of God, heaven itself poured out of the fellowship of God with man. As long as God and man walked together, as long as a man ruled the world with God, there was no death, no dying, no growing old, no sin, no betrayal. But under the curse of sin and death, there was only darkness. A man might be resuscitated here and there. You might have someone stop breathing for a bit, go into a deep coma for a bit, and then come back out of it. But these, however miraculous they may have been, were not resurrections.

Resurrection, by definition, is the defeat of the power of death. Resurrection means going all the way down into the heart of death, down into the earth, dead as dead can be. And then from that point, from that nothingness, from the impotence, from that point overcoming the darkness for ever.

This is why Paul insists that the resurrection of Jesus necessarily means the resurrection of all men. You can’t have the resurrection of Jesus and no general resurrection of all men. If there will be no resurrection of all men, whatever happened to Jesus, it wasn’t resurrection (15:13). If all men will not rise, then Jesus was not really dead. And if Christ is not risen, this gospel that Paul and the other apostles are preaching is empty and worthless and their faith is empty (15:14). In other words, Paul says he would be a liar (15:15). If the problem is the entire world gone wrong. If the problem is death. If the problem is the grave swallowing, swallowing, always swallowing up life and light and joy, it does absolutely no good for one man to do an isolated magic trick and someone cheat death. If Jesus just got lucky, then there is no gospel. There is no good news. It’s still dark out. It’s still Night Time. And we are still in our sins (15:16-17). If all Jesus did was give us warm, happy thoughts for a few a years before we get checked in to our nursing homes to slowly fade into oblivion, then the gospel is worthless, and we are a bunch of fools (15:18-19).

But that is not what met Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul was not interrupted by a heart warming story about a brave man who someone escaped death. Resurrection doesn’t mean escaping death. Resurrection means conquering death, overthrowing death, defanging death, gutting death, binding death, swallowing up death. Jesus went down into death, down into the grave, down into the darkness and with His own body so destroyed the power of death, that now all those who die in Him merely sleep. They are not lost. They are not gone forever. They are not swallowed into the abyss. They are not forgotten. They are only asleep. Because death has no more dominion over this world. Death does not rule like it once did. Death has been tamed by the Master of this World. Therefore the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of turning back the tide of death (15:20). The resurrection is about reversing the curse that Adam brought into the world (15:21-22). Between the first resurrection and the resurrection of all who are in Him, Christ reigns, putting the entire old, cursed world and its powers under His feet (15:23-25). In other words, at last a man walks and talks with God. And not only does a man walk with God, that man is God walking with us. But what’s so crazy about the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is that now not only has heaven burst into this world, but now this world has also ascended into heaven. In other words, heaven is even closer now than it was in the Garden. Because now we have a Man in glory. We have a man with flesh and bones and hair and a belly button in heaven. He’s sitting next to the glory of God the Father. He is one of us. And He is there for us. And He is there until He finishes the work He set out to do. You see Jesus did not die so that we might die and go to heaven. Jesus did not die so that when we die we may go to heaven. No, Jesus died so that the power of sin and Satan might be broken forever. Jesus died so that our sins might be carried away, paid for, forgiven, so that Satan cannot accuse us though our sins may be many. Jesus died so that when our bodies finally die, they cannot stay dead. Jesus died and rose again, so that death cannot keep us. Death cannot hold us. He died so that we might rest in His presence while watch and wait and cheer His conquest of every square inch of this universe. And the last enemy will be death itself (15:26). Then Jesus will wake us all up. Then He will summon us like a great harvest from all the fields and all the seas and all the dust of the earth. And we will stand up on this planet, in this world with life unbreakable, forever life, eternal life. Salvation is not merely assurance that you will be with Jesus when you die. Salvation is God’s determination to undo death for you and this whole world. Then Jesus will deliver the kingdom to God the Father that God may be all in all (15:27-28).

What does that mean? It seems to mean that God’s plan is to make this world heaven once again. The mission of Jesus, and therefore our goal, our mission, is for God to become all in all. It’s for this world to be shot through with heaven.

Our hope is not to “die and go to heaven.” We are certain that to die in this life is to be with Jesus (Phil. 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:8), but our hope is in the “resurrection of the body.” Our hope is to get our bodies back, indestructible forever. The conquest of death now means that we live our lives free from the power of sin now. We are forgiven and therefore forgivers. This is how God invades our darkness.

The Ascension is God’s affirmation of the goodness of His creation, and His commitment to see it all healed, all restored. There is a physical man in God’s presence now and forever, the beginning of the reunion of heaven and earth. This is one reason why we want a beautiful building of our own to worship in. A building is not absolutely essential to worshiping Jesus, and sometimes in some contexts it’s not possible or advisable. But all things being equal, buildings can be memorials of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We plant bodies in the ground like seeds, waiting for the great harvest. But this is what we do with all of our labor, with the gospel, with our love, with our creativity. When we strive for excellence and beauty and glory, under the blessing of God, our labors can become signposts, pointing into the future when God shall be all in all. This is why you should write poetry, this is why you should play musical instruments, this is why you should bake bread, this is why you should tell your neighbor about Jesus, this is why you should spend time in prayer and fasting, this why you should throw big Sabbath dinner parties and invite your friends and neighbors, this is why you should serve the unlovely, the downtrodden, the mentally handicapped, this is why you should sacrifice time and visit the elderly in nursing homes. This is why you should sacrifice time and money for our new building. Whatever we do it, we do it in the name of Jesus, lifting it up with thanksgiving asking God to make it a place where His glory shines, where heaven breaks out here, where we are joined to the life and love of God more and more.

Lastly, remember how this new world breaks out here: the preaching of the gospel. We announce the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We announce that death and sin have been conquered, and we call the world into this grace. Jesus rides forth throughout the earth conquering His enemies with the sword coming out of His mouth (Rev. 19:15). It’s all about God’s power, God’s word, God’s glory. It’s not about us. It’s not about our reputations. It’s not about our limitations or weaknesses. Jesus is our King. Jesus is our Lord. Jesus is ascended, and He sits at the right hand of the Father until all His enemies are beneath His feet.

Where is heaven? It’s right here. It’s getting brighter every minute of every day. We pray that God’s Kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, Jesus taught us to pray that the earth would become heaven, that the darkness of sin and death would be fully driven away, and in it’s place would shine the light and glory of God forever. And so we also need to pray that God would open our eyes to see the world as it truly is. We need to ask God to show us His glory piercing the shadows. We need to pray for our eyes to be opened so that we can see the horses and chariots, God’s armies surrounding us, protecting us, and see Jesus our King up ahead of us ruling and reigning until all is put right.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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