Sermon for the Festival of Ascension

by Adolf Hoenecke
translated by Benjamin Reichel

Ben, currently completing his first year at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, translated this sermon in connection with the American German Lutheran Writers elective in 2009. This translation was also selected as the scholarship-winning translation for that year. It is published for the first time now so as to appear in an issue close to the Festival of the Ascension, on which occassion Hoenecke first preached it.

The Gospel of St. Luke 24:49-53

[Jesus said,] “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

In Christ, dearly beloved!

King of Honor, Prince of Vict’ry,
High exalted now you reign.
Your great majesty and glory
Heav’n is too small to contain.
I see you ascending higher.
I see you at God’s right hand.
I see the whole angel choir.
“Glory!” shouts the holy band.
How then could I not be kneeling
And my heart no joy be feeling
When the hosts of heaven sing
At the triumph of my King? (AMJ, 2010)

So rejoices one of our hymn writers over the ascension of Jesus. We rejoice along with him. We rejoice also that our King triumphs! But we are glad all the more because it is certain that once we rejoice with him, we will also triumph one day in heaven. That is the hope which saves us. For we would be the most miserable people on earth if we hoped in Christ only for this life. Our hope goes out to eternity. Our final destination is not earthly and temporal, but rather it is heavenly and eternal. The ascension of Jesus holds before us our final destination; and it is rightly comforting because at the same time it also assures us that we too will achieve it.

And so then may this be our meditation for the strengthening of our faith’s hope:

Following Christ to heaven is our final, sure destination.

  1. Christ has gone up to the Father, so that he might make true the promise of the Father;
  2. Christ has gone up to heaven, so that he might take heaven for us;
  3. Christ has gone up from his people, but he has left behind richest blessings for the attainment of our eternal destination.

I. Christ has gone up to the Father, so that he might make true the promise of the Father.

Our Savior gives this comforting piece of information about his ascension not only to his disciples, but also to us. He says to his disciples, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised.” This surely means nothing other than the Savior said to them, “I am about to go to the Father, as I have already told you, and it must happen so that I can also send you the Comforter, the Spirit, whom the Father already promised through the prophet Joel, for otherwise he would not come to you. But if I am gone to my Father, then I will send to you the promised Spirit and make the promise of my Father true, real, and fulfilled.” This has also happened, and we will soon celebrate the great festival of Pentecost, where the great joy is indeed that Jesus has sent the promise of the Father, which is the Spirit, and in so doing fulfilled the promise of the Father, and he has surely done it.

How could it happen that Jesus, our brother according to the flesh, could make the promise true and send the Spirit, the highly beloved God? Now, it is because Jesus, through his ascension, sat down at God’s right hand and now governs equally with the Father. He does what the Father does. He rules in the same might and power, he sets everything in its place and being; whatever God the Father wants and has promised to us poor sinners, Jesus does. And there are now even more promises besides the great promise of the Holy Spirit, which was given to the disciples and to us all; in particular what God ultimately intends for us as a father intends for his children. That is, we are God’s children and so it is bound and promised that we should be heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with Jesus. And what do we consider here to be highly comforting? Certainly this highly comforting piece of information from Jesus about his ascension: “I am going to my Father and your Father so that I may send the promise of the Father to you. That is, so that with might and power I may make everything true for you, fulfill it and put it into effect until you come to the inheritance with me. Then for this reason also I went to heaven that all God’s undertakings, all God’s counsels and promises concerning you shall go forth through my hand, I who sit at the right hand of God.” What shall we, what can we conclude solely from this? Indeed, that we will certainly come to the inheritance and therefore also come up to our Father, and that we will attain our ultimate eternal destination. In short, we can conclude that we will come after our Savior into heaven. How could one therefore still doubt this? God’s promises are indeed certain. He does not break them. All God’s promises are “Yes!” in Christ, and are also “Amen!” in him. Jesus has gone into heaven. And he is now the firstborn among the brothers. Just as it happened with him, the firstborn Brother, so shall it all happen with us brothers through faith in him. But there is more! He has ascended so that he may make God’s promise true. And in a powerfully glorious way he has already truly sent the promised Spirit. Thus he makes all God’s promises certainly true. This has made an end to all uncertainty. It is, so to speak, to be grasped with our hands, so that we come after Jesus to heaven and so that we achieve our final eternal goal.

Therefore our way also here on earth can make us not err. How then do we make our way to the heavenly goal? Only how Christ leads. Quite often according to the way which our text pictures in the words, “But you shall remain in the city of Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Remain in Jerusalem—that is of course the city of the murderers of Jesus, the haters of the members of his household. Therefore, there would be sore days in Jerusalem as long as they remain in that city. When the disciples preached Jesus after they had been clothed with power from on high, it can be said they were full of sweet wine. But the disciples did not remain in Jerusalem forever, that is true. But their way remained the way of the cross. Jesus leads no other way. Here it says, “He led them once more out to Bethany.” Yes, yet again to the Bethany called “The House of Affliction.” Jesus led his own disciples there consistently, but to remain there at this time. Will we not be happy with this? Do we want to have it better than him? You hear now, the Lord himself went up from Bethany. You know it well that he first humbled himself, then he was exalted; first he was the most despised and poorest of all, then he went up to heaven. Yes, so everything is right in this way. This is in no way strange, since the way of the Lord is certainly the correct way for us. Wherever he walks, so surely we walk. No, it is no strange way, but rather it is the correct, straight way. It is the universal, Christian way. All who want to live a godly life must suffer persecution and pass through affliction into heaven. It is not an unprofitable way, the one which leads through the cross, but rather it is the true, healing way. Therefore do not let this surprise you, but understand this uprightly during affliction: that Jesus made the gracious promise of God your Father true for you. Those whom God loves, he disciplines. And when he disciplines, he offers himself to his children as the true Father. Following Christ to heaven is therefore also certainly our final goal, because

II. Christ therefore went up so that he might occupy heaven for us.

Because Christ has ascended as our Savior, one must understand and believe that this is the great main point. In the text, it is said in completely simple terms, “And he went up to heaven.” We believe it. But we can form no proper image from it with our blind, short-sighted understanding, even if we hear more than just this from Scripture: He was taken up to heaven. He was suspended aloft to heaven. The disciples could follow with their eyes, for a good amount of time that he was hovering. Finally a cloud took him away from their sight. Therefore it was said for us also in Scripture that Jesus was not only lifted up in the clouds, but that he went up above all heavens and that he ultimately sat at the right hand of God. But we have no description of all heavens, although God through Paul tells us of a third heaven. And though we know that the sitting at God’s right hand means nothing other than Jesus took his place in the majesty of the divine government, nevertheless we can make no complete image of the splendor of this majesty. We believe in the ascension of Jesus and we rejoice also that the same thing is certainly an inexpressibly great splendor of Jesus. But we still cannot now, nor ever, make a right image for ourselves. However, one must not think that a person could not also rightly have the joy of the Ascension festival, or that no one could rightly be able to enter into the majesty of the ascension and thus not be able to feed and refresh his heart. This, dear brothers and sisters, is indeed not the main point with the ascension of Jesus according to the Bible, that one receives from the majesty of the ascension itself such a correct, glorious picture which is pleasing to the eyes. If this were the main point, the loving God would have made certain for us a much more splendid description of it in the Bible.

The main point with the ascension of Jesus is that we understand properly these two things: as what has Jesus gone up to heaven, and what shall be accomplished with his ascension? Now, as what has he gone up? The answer is: he has gone up as our Savior. Therefore now it is the same with his ascension, as is with his entire person and all his work, his entire humiliation until his death and then his entire exaltation to the throne of divine majesty. He himself with everything is ours, given to us by God. A Son is given to us. For us the Savior is born. God gave his Son to the world. His holy birth in our nature is our new birth. He is the firstborn brother; we are all his younger brothers. In his death we have died, and in his resurrection we are resurrected. His ascension is ours. What now is accomplished with this? The answer is: For us he occupied heaven. He is sitting on the throne so that he may rule over us unto salvation and that we may rule with him later. That is all divine truth and truly God’s teaching concerning Christ and his ascension. Listen again to Ephesians 2: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” These words are indeed clear and distinctly sufficient that Jesus has indeed gone up as our Savior, and to our great joy has taken possession of heaven for us, for the assurance that we may take possession of heaven unhindered someday. That is also what Peter is talking about with a happy heart when he speaks of the imperishable inheritance of Christians and says that it is being kept in heaven. It is sure for us, he wants to say. Certainly! Our Savior has indeed ascended so that he might take heaven already for us, with its entire splendor as our heirloom and inheritance, and in the meantime hold his hand over it. Yes, consider it rightly (how a person must consider it according to Scripture) that Jesus does everything on our behalf and in our place as our head and forerunner, so that we ourselves are placed in heaven according to his divine gracious will and right. Indeed, what more shall be said to make us certain that following Jesus into heaven must be our final destination? Here indeed is the greatest certainty:

You, Christ, up to the heav’ns ascend
A place for me preparing
That I eternity may spend
Your home in heaven sharing.
You go, my Savior, to the sky
That there above I too may fly.
In this I am delighting. (AMJ, 2010)

Indeed:

Go forth, what matters time to me,
For I’m now in eternity,
Since I in Christ am living. (AMJ, 2010)

Therefore we must also hold fast solely to Jesus as our Savior. Otherwise, dear brothers and sisters, no blessed ascension to heaven will be given to us. Our splendid heavenly right depends on Jesus; we have it only in Jesus! We have it only and can only someday enjoy it if we have and retain Jesus as our Savior. As God in his grace has given Jesus to us as our Savior, so must we in faith take him and retain him as our Savior, and with him our right in heaven. Yes, we now sit already with him in heaven, ruling over sin, misery, need, and death. We are, so to speak, already highly exalted over everything, in the sense that:

Since I with him have died and then been buried
And with him been raised from the dead
So must I be with his ascension carried.
The body must go with its head.
Over sin, law, and death he is me raising.
And here I stand on Zion’s Mount.
Though down below are world and devils crazing
They cannot reach this higher ground
Since Christ ascended in a vict’ry glorious
Amid his hosts I too now stand victorious. (AMJ, 2010)

How happily should we now do this as well:

Remember always Jesus, who,
After your suff’rings bearing,
Ascended up to heav’n for you
A place to be preparing,
Where forever you shall be
And his splendor you shall see.
For such great love be thankful. (AMJ, 2010)

How happily, how thankfully shall we remember Jesus in faithful memory and faithful hearts, and thus hold fast to our heavenly right. How happily and thankfully, because God did not call on us to earn the heavenly right, to torment us with fruitless works, but rather he gave Jesus to us as a gift to be our Savior. God allowed him to take possession of blessed heaven for us as our good inheritance and now says, “Cling only to Jesus as your Savior so that it may not be for nothing, but that he may also take heaven for you and so that you may truly enjoy your possession in heaven.” But look! How little impact this has on people, to hold fast to Jesus! How little does it happen! He will be left neglected, forgotten, and it will be left undone. Why? Because most people only take the world; they want to acquire and retain everything which the world gives. How great is the misunderstanding that a person only concerns himself with a perishable inheritance and not with one which is imperishable. How great is that misunderstanding! A person always thinks that he has made for himself heaven on earth. But he has only made a hell for himself. Rejoicing, I praise you people, you who have the knowledge from above and hold Jesus in your memory and in faith of heart, and now through him are already in heaven. This beautiful song for Christians has worth for you:

They walk on the earth yet in heav’n they’re abiding.
They feel only peace while they torments endure.
They powerless are the world safety providing.
They conquer in battle though weak, frail, and poor.
They undergo troubles,
Their joy only doubles.
They look on the outside as if they had died when
They have still the life of true faith strong inside them. (AMJ, 2010)

Can you remain like this? Indeed by all means! You only need to know, once again, that you will take heaven after Jesus, in which there has been no doubt up until now and there still is no doubt. Because

III. Christ has arisen from his own people, but he has left behind richest blessings for the attainment of our eternal goal with our own departure from this world.

When God blessed the disciples, he also blessed us. As the Lord departed from his disciples in his ascension, he blessed them: “He lifted up his hands and blessed them.” What kind of a blessing did he give them, I wonder? Now, dear brothers and sisters, he gave them the one great blessing which includes everything and contains everything in which a person is only truly blessed, and the entire world shall be blessed. That is Jesus himself, our dear Savior. He is indeed the seed of Abraham, about whom it is written: “In your seed all families on the earth will be blessed.” Here has Christ with his departure most affectionately and most sincerely shown his love for us into eternity. And as the disciples stretched their hands to him with affectionate glances and loving words, they saw him spread his arms above them and understood that this meant: “You are mine—I am with you and all my people. You are in me, and I am in you until eternal joy and happiness are yours.” And see what the blessing produces, with the Lord’s departure and his ascension: They worshipped Jesus and then they turned back to Jerusalem, to the angry and hostile city. With anxiety, I wonder? No! Indeed with joy, with great joy! And did they now sit, perhaps happy yet secluded just like on Easter, in a closed room? No! They were always in the temple glorifying and praising God, and did so in complete openness before the people, so powerfully was the blessing of Christ with them.

But you ask, “How is it that Christ has blessed us along with them?” Now, they did not keep the blessing for themselves, but rather the loving Savior gave the Holy Spirit to them after this, so that they now might proclaim the blessing in Christ's name fully and completely, rightly and purely, intact and genuine and blameless through the preaching of the Gospel, and thus spread it into the whole world. This is the word we still have, and moreover also the precious Sacraments. Now see, the word of the Gospel and the Sacraments is the blessing which the Savior left behind for us in his departure as he went to heaven. And is this blessing of Word and Sacrament therefore not something powerful for the attainment of our heavenly goal? Oh truly it is! The main point is straightforward and remains the same: namely, that we cling to Jesus as our Savior, because our salvation depends on him—Word and Sacrament indeed accomplish this. The dear Gospel testifies about Jesus, teaching you about him. Yes, it plants faith within you and preserves that faith in you. It is written throughout the apostles that we should believe and also remain in faith, and that we depend through faith on Christ as our Savior, as the shoot depends on the vine and as the member depends on the head. Hear now what the apostle John says about this: “Just as what has belonged to you from the beginning remains with you—that is, the dear Gospel—so do you remain with the Son and with the Father.” Oh surely what a precious blessing of our dear Savior is the Gospel, because it keeps us with him in the true faith. And who among us would not wish, therefore, that we not only gain the forgiveness of sins and righteousness through worthy consumption of the holy Lord’s Supper, but indeed also be bound in the closest way with our dear Savior so that it truly means: He is ours and we are his.

Therefore there is no doubt that we will reach our final destination. There is indeed everything which is necessary in the blessing which the Lord left behind for us with his ascension, expressly prescribed in the word of the Gospel and the priceless Sacraments. It is only necessary that we make use of this blessing, so that it cannot fail that we remain in the faith, remain in Christ, and go after him into heaven. Therefore let us, before all things, do what we hear concerning the disciples at the end of the text: “They were always in the temple and praising God.” Yes, let us at least every Sunday be in the temple, in God’s house. And if we do not always have church everyday, then we have the dear Bible at all times. If we read with devotion then we too are always in the temple. If we do this, then it surely will not fail that we pray to Jesus also in true faith and that we are, and may remain, in him through faith. What shall separate us then from heaven and our final destination? Trouble and tribulation? No, we will go through this vale of tears with joy. He is indeed with us all our days; yes, he in us and we in him. Yes, you need only the blessing with which he blessed you at his ascension, and your ascension is and remains certainly yours. It cannot fail. The priceless Gospel must achieve in you that purpose for which the Savior gave it to you. Hell may rage against you; you are able to be comforted in the hope of the ascension, and thus your soul may be comforted.

My soul, do not be frail or faint.
Let go of each last worry.
Forget about this moment’s pain.
Before long we shall hurry
And leave this vale of tears behind.
In heaven’s halls great joy we’ll find.
There Jesus shall us comfort. (AMJ, 2010)

Amen.