The 19th century novella, Flatland, is about a man from a 2-dimensional world finding a 3 dimensional one. He goes from his land where only length and width exist to one where length, width, and depth does. The Ascension of our Lord brings us too to another dimension. It frees us from being tied to the ground where as Simon and Garfunkel told us: “A man gets tied up to the ground/ He gives the world its saddest sound.”
This other dimension is, like the introduction to the original Twilight Zone, one of sight and sound. Remember how the kaleidoscope of black and white images moving in different directions could disorient you, make you feel this other dimension of sight and sound? Sci-fi does this when it shows a world of 2 moons or 3 suns. Horror movies do this when they show you children crab walking up walls or across ceilings. Creature features do it by showing a normal looking human who blinks with eyelids that close horizontally. Scripture gives indications to our eyes of another dimension where the laws of physics or even reality don’t bind the true God. Elijah is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha makes an iron ax head float. Jesus walks on water. And our text, “As they were looking on, Jesus was lifted up.” “Jesus parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Chesterton said that our dreams don’t mean anything. They only show by the bizarre things that happen there is a greater reality behind the physical (Defense of Sanity, 118-21).
The disciples for 3-plus years knew the normal reality of Jesus physically parting from them many times. But after His resurrection, Jesus ‘popped’ in and out of their lives. He wasn’t in the locked upper room; then He was. He was sitting across the table from the Emmaus couple. Then He vanished. Suddenly He’s on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. So Jesus had appeared and disappeared naturally and then supernaturally. In the Ascension He disappears physically in a supernatural way. Luke uses one word to describe the Ascension as Jesus being lifted to tippy-toes and then slipping free of “the surly bonds of earth.” The angels use another word to describe it which means be taken away even violently (Nicoll, 2, 57). That’s how it looked and felt to the disciples. So, is the sound of this other dimension sighs, gasps or is it as Handel thought the “Hallelujah Chorus”? It’s both. In heaven there is singing; on earth there is sighing.
Yes, this other dimension that the resurrected Jesus shows us in His ascension is of sight and sound and it’s of holy angels and fallen men. The fallen men are stupefied by what they see; if we’re not it’s because we’re not seeing what they did. A Man, like us, being lifted up into the skies and received into the same cloudy presence that accompanied the OT Church in the wilderness, dwelled above the Mercy Seat, and came down at the Transfiguration to take Moses and Elijah back to heaven. “While they were gazing” is a word used by doctors like Luke for “a peculiar fixed looked” (Hobart, 76). This is the 1,000 yard stare of a fixed blanked looked. At Dover Airbase, Maryland, graves registration personal are relieved of the duty of identifying remains if they’re found starring blankly. The apostles are doing this. They don’t even know angels are there. Hunnaeus’ painting on the cover is wrong; the angels aren’t in the air but on the ground next to them.
Reality is fluid where God meets man, where heaven meets earth, where a Man is crowned Lord of all heaven and earth. You get invisible angels from heaven standing visibly on the ground. And the Man Jesus being taken visibly from earth into the Cloudy Presence of Heaven. As you’re transfixed by this, unable, unwilling to try, to process this, “Boo”! Angels are standing beside you speaking of a new reality. “This Jesus whom you regard as ripped away from you into heaven will only return this way when He comes again.” Why are you staring up into heaven? Look for Jesus elsewhere. Remember how in the empty tomb on Easter, the angel says, “He is not here. He is risen.” Well now angels say this in connection with the visible body the disciples knew for 3 or so years and which they knew on and off for 40 days. You won’t know Him this way again until He returns on the Last Day. Another clue about this other dimension the Church steps into on Ascension is given on Easter morning. Jesus says, “’Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’” (Jn. 20:17). You can’t cling to Jesus until after the Ascension but how? Jesus is removed visibly, dramatically, and permanently from the earth. Or is He?
You saw the Christ Candle put out in the reading of the Gospel. That’s an ancient practice and it’s the opposite of the following story. In 1715 Louis the XIV of France died. He called himself ‘The Great’. He made the infamous statement, "'I am the State!'" In death he lay in a golden coffin. To dramatize his greatness orders had been given that the cathedral should be very dimly lit with a lone candle by the coffin. Thousands waited in hushed silence. Then the bishop came in, stretched out his hand, snuffed the candle and said, "'Only God is great!'" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 168). By snuffing the candle the bishop said something about the greatness of the departed king. We snuff the candle to say that the presence of Jesus with His Church is different after the Ascension. His presence is ascended not ended.
Up, up Jesus goes where no man ought to be able to go. My view of heaven and earth, man and God, human and divine, of reality and spirituality are all shaken. This other dimension is not merely one of sight and sound, of holy angels and fallen men, but of Jesus’ blessing and joyful worship. And it starts in Luke 24. As soon as Jesus led them to Bethany, “lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He was blessing them, He was parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Here only says Scripture, Jesus lifted up His hands. I’m sure He did it many times, but only here the Holy Spirit records it. When Jesus lifts up His hands, we know the nail holes that were visible after the resurrection are seen. Those nail holes are physical proof that the suffering, damning, and dying the world’s sins deserve, yours especially, is finished. Those nail holes shut the mouth of the Devil, the World, and your own Flesh. They testify that the one who man and God testified never sinned died in place of sinners. Not just died but suffered and died. Not just suffered but was damned then died.
Go ahead try to pick up your sins or sinfulness with those nail pierced hands of the Man who is God. Go ahead reach for your lust, your misbelief, your unbelief, your sins against God and others. Go on pick them up. You can’t. All your sins run through and out the holes in His hands. More than that these hands are here blessing you. Remember the illustration of an armless statue of Jesus blown off in war? The law lesson is that Jesus has no arms here on earth, so Christians are His arms. Here’s a better illustration. The Venus de Milo has no arms. It smiles and pities but has no arms to aid. It has sympathy but no power to help. "Many a time human love stands helpless, armless, impotent to aid. But in Jesus we have One who is not only matchless in beauty and grace, but who is mighty to save" (1,000 New Ill., 142). His hands reach down even now all the way down to you.
Those hands bless us on earth, but look where they’ve gone. “Up into heaven.” Those nail-pierced hands prove that God the Son drained the cup of wrath that God the Father willed Him to; those nail-pierced hands that prove Jesus really died, and now lives again, are in heaven. And they aren’t just sitting there. Hear Luther on this: "Christ did not merely take our guilt upon Himself one time only and 'pay with His suffering' for us. He comes forward daily for us before God 'as a faithful, merciful intermediary, savior, and unique priest and bishop of our souls.' Because He 'offers and shows His body and blood...before God daily, on our behalf, we may obtain grace'" (Peters, Creed, 195). The early Church described it just as graphically. When the wrath of God is about to break out against our sins, the Son jumps before the Father with His hands raised and says, “Remember Father; I was already punished for these sins.”
But don’t leave these wonderful truths of the nail-pierced hands, the blessedness of Jesus to sinners in heaven. His hands, His arms, His body and soul are at work here on earth. The apostles don’t stand where the ascension took place just gazing. No, taking Luke’s two accounts together: Jesus’ blessing led them to worship there and the angels’ words led them back to Jerusalem with great joy and into the Temple on earth to worship the God of heaven and earth. Before Jesus ascended He promised them power when the Holy Spirit would clothe them with power from on high. Well, they don’t seek it inside themselves. They don’t seek it in prayer, mediation, let alone diet or exercise. They seek it from God and where did God promise to meet His OT church, the Temple. And the New Testament’s Church’s temple is where? Rev. 21:22 tell you, “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Jesus said as much in His earthly ministry. The NT Temple is His Body.
Your interface with this other dimension of forgiveness, of everlasting life, of overcoming Sin, Death, and the Power of the Devil is right where it was for the apostles. In Jesus who came to them in Waters that forgive sins and rebirths into everlasting life. We meet Jesus where He promises. He said He was the Bread, the Water, the Light and Life of the world. He also said His Word is Bread, living Water, Light and Life so in His Word Jesus comes to us today. And like some wormhole, some portal, some opening to another dimension, Jesus gives His Body as Bread and His Blood as sweet wine in Holy Communion. No longer as payment for sins, but as proof of forgiveness, as Food and Refreshment for body and soul. And when He appears on earth again in Bread and Wine, the Church confesses He brings not just angels and archangels but all the company of heaven with Him. No wonder the Church that sees this wonderful dimension bows and kneels before it because this ground, that we sometimes gets tied up to, looks different, is different when our Lord is here with us again bodily. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension Sunday (20210516); Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-11