Along with the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the most ancient confessions of faith have always also insisted that the ascension of Jesus into heaven, to be seated at the right hand of the Father is essential to the gospel, essential to the good news we declare. But in order for us to be able to declare it as good news, it must be for us good news.
Whenever a people as a whole are reluctant to share the gospel, embarrassed to proclaim the gospel to the world, we must ask whether it isn’t because we’ve gotten bored with the news. Or sometimes it’s just because we didn’t know how good it was.
There are a number of ways we could run with this, but I want to focus on just one. And that is that the ascension of Jesus is good news because it frees us from the tyranny of looking for our god here. This world is full of slavery and lies, and the fundamental source of all slavery and lies is the grasping for security and safety and salvation somewhere, somehow, here and now. Stuff, money, sex, prestige, beauty, health, power, and there are even idols in our good deeds: salvation through rigorous prayer times, long Bible readings, perfect liturgies, family devotions, parish groups, morning prayer, mercy ministry, reading theology books, going to conferences, or sending your kids to classical Christian schools or homeschooling. All good and fine things, gifts of God to be cherished and enjoyed in their place: but if we find our security, our comfort, our joy in them rather than seeing them as the gifts of Jesus to us and for us, then we are substituting something for Jesus. You’re making something else your god, something else your savior. But if Jesus ascended into heaven, then this is good news because it frees us from the tyranny of looking for our god here. It frees us to enjoy life, to receive the gifts of God, to share the abundance of God freely, gladly, because our God is not here.
At the end of the gospels, angels show up repeatedly, and they are all saying the same thing: He is not here; He is alive; You will see Him soon (Mt. 28:6-7, Mk. 16:6-7, Lk. 24:6-7). Women come to the tomb, disciples come to the tomb, and the angels are the first to proclaim this gospel, this good news: He is not here. Then again after Jesus ascends into heaven, it’s the same message: Why are you looking into heaven? Jesus is not here; He will come again. Jesus said plainly during His ministry that it would be better for Him to go away so that His disciples could receive the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit who would lead them into all truth, convict them of sin, and teach them what to say, making them powerful witnesses of the resurrection. They are going to become like those first angels: witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. So it’s no accident that when Jesus sends the Spirit at Pentecost, it comes as fire resting on the heads of the disciples. The Spirit comes and transfigures the disciples, making them glow with the heavenly presence of Jesus. When Steven is on trial, he is filled with the Spirit of Jesus and glows like an angel, like the face of Moses when he had been with God on the mountain.
The apostles and all disciples who have received the Holy Spirit glow like angels, messengers appointed to proclaim that He is not here, He is risen, and He will come again. He is not here. We are angels commissioned by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us to announce this good news. He is not here.
In some sense, every worship service occurs at the empty tomb of Christ. And all our songs and all our prayers and all our lifted hands and all our breaking of bread are bound together in this one announcement: He is not here. And this is glorious. This means that I am not God; you are not God. The water is not god, the bread is not god, the wine is not god, the prayers are not god, your children, your money, your life and health and jobs are not god. Because He is not here. He is risen. He has gone into heaven. And He will come again.
This announcement that we celebrate tonight frees us from the tyranny of needing to find our god, our savior, our safety, our security somewhere here. Instead, the Holy Spirit transfigures this world through this announcement: Jesus bled and died for your sins and for the sins of the world, He rose up again victorious over death and Satan, and He is not here because He has ascended into heaven as the rightful King of this world. And through the instruments of the Word and water and bread and wine and ultimately all of creation, He saves us. He saves us because they all declare: He is not here, I’m not Him. But they all bear His glory, His workmanship. And that is one of the principle ways they become grace. Water is grace, wine is grace, sunsets are grace, spaghetti smeared faces are grace all because they are not in themselves God. They are just gifts of the one true God. And when we receive the gifts with thankfulness, they are grace for us. And we enjoy them simply for what they are because they are not gods; they’re just grace. And by the working of the Spirit, they seem to laugh and beam and teach us to say: He is not here. He is alive, and He will come again. And this is good news, wonderful news, and it is our salvation and the salvation of the world.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.