Why Snuff the Candle Now?
Did it bother you when the acolyte snuffed the Christ candle during the reading of the Gospel? You know we're pretty careful about that candle. We don't lite it till Christmas Eve, and even on Good Friday when we're snuffing out 7 candles to show the suffering and death of Christ, we don't put out this candle. It is carried out lit at the end of the service signifying Christ wasn't overcome by Satan on Calvary. Then we carry it back in on Easter morning, still lit. But today, Ascension, we snuff it. Why now?
We observe the ancient practice of snuffing the Christ candle to show that the Man Jesus doesn't walk on earth like He did before. This is what the disciples were to learn from the ascension too. For 40 days Jesus had popped in and out. One moment they were alone in the upper room and the next He was visibly there. One moment they're fishing on the Sea of Galilee and the next Jesus is standing on the beach. In the blink of an eye He was there, and in the blink of eye He was gone. He wouldn't walk away, ascend out of sight, or leave a room. He would just be gone. But not this time. When Jesus ascended into heaven they saw Him go visibly, physically away. They watched Him go till the cloud of God's glory enveloped Him. Things are different now. No more would Jesus pop in visibly. No longer would they hear His voice, see His face, touch His body, smell His sweetness, taste His freshness.
Actually the change in the relationship happened at Easter. Do you remember how Mary Magdalene grabbed hold of Jesus and He said, "Stop clinging to me?" Things were different now. Jesus wasn't going to be visibly present all the time for people to cling to, to touch. But before the change is final Jesus gave the disciples 40 days of physical proof that He had risen, and in those 40 days He weaned them off having Him visibly present. Then He ascended leaving angels in His wake saying that the Jesus they had seen visibly go into heaven they wouldn't see again visibly till He returned on the Last Day.
We snuffed the candle so we might learn what the disciples did. We aren't going to see Jesus visibly till Judgement Day. We aren't going to hear words from His lips. We aren't going to feel His hand on our shoulder. He isn't going to walk into my sick room, my sorrowful house, my troubled office visibly and say, "It'll be all right." But that's what we expect. That's what we want; no, that's what we crave. And we're disappointed, devastated, or disbelieving when it doesn't happen. Our faith is shaken when some skeptic, atheist, or unbeliever chides us for believing in an invisible Jesus. I remember in college when I saw a picture of a Soviet poster with a cosmonaut boldly proclaiming: "I've been all around this earth and I've seen no God, no Jesus up there." That shook me up.
It shouldn't have. I was wrong to expect Jesus to be visibly present so that the cosmonaut could have seen him. I am wrong to expect to feel Jesus' reassuring hand on my shoulder or hear comforting words from His lips. The Man Jesus doesn't walk down here like He did before. But the Man Jesus does reign and rule over all things in heaven. That's why we prayed in the Collect that "we may also in heart and mind ascend and continually dwell there with Him."
If you want comfort, strength, assurance, don't gripe about Jesus not being down here where you can touch Him and see him. Go to where Jesus is now on the right hand of God, and realize what that means. Saying Jesus is on the right hand of God isn't the same as saying He's in the temple. The "right hand of God" according to Paul in Ephesians 4 is "far above all the heavens," and, says Paul, Jesus is there "that He might fill all things."
When Jesus visibly walked this earth, the Man Jesus was only at one location. He couldn't simultaneously be teaching in Galilee, healing in Capernaum, and raising the dead at Nain. The Man Jesus could only be at one place at one time. But at the right hand of God the Man Jesus is everywhere. He's in Texas and in Moscow. He's at the bottom of the ocean and at the top of Mt. Everest. He's in your bedroom, classroom, and hospital room. He hears politicians plotting; He sees families grieving; He is present everywhere all the time.
The Man Jesus being at God's right hand means He is as close to all people as you are to that pew. How comforting; the Man Jesus knows and is a part of everything that happens to me in all areas of my life. There's not any part of it that He doesn't intimately share with me. But being on God's right hand not only means Jesus is closer than an arm's reach away, it also means He's farther above me then the angels. Paul said, the Father made the Man Jesus sit at His right hand "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion."
"Rule, authority, power, and dominion" are names for ranks of angels. Paul says in Ephesians 6 that we don't struggle against flesh and blood but "against the rulers and powers." Then Paul defines them as "the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." In Colossians 1, we read that Christ created all things visible and invisible "whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities." In the 2nd chapter we're told that on the cross He "disarmed the rulers and authorities." 1 Peter tells us that the Man Jesus having ascended means "angels and authorities and powers" have been subjected to Him.
Do I need to go into Scripture and show you how the evil angels mercilessly persecute God's people seeking to bring disease, destruction, disaster, despair on them? Do you think Job is the only one whose family was ever touched by an evil angel? Do you think Ahab is the only person to hear from a lying spirit, the woman in Luke is the only one to be bound by a sick spirit, or Saul the only one to be troubled by an evil one? Get real people of God! These spiritual beings are more your enemies than any flesh and blood ones you might have.
Thanks be to God then that the rulers, authorities, powers and dominions are beneath not just God the Father but beneath God the Son who is clothed in your flesh and blood. We flesh and blood beings are no match for these spiritual, beastly beings. But Jesus, the flesh and blood Man who is God, is. He rules over them right now. He says, "Go" and they go, He says, "Come" and they come running. He says, "Do this," and they say, "Yes my Lord," as they do.
Paul says they are under Jesus' feet. The image here is of an ancient throne room where the defeated enemies of a king were brought in and thrown on their face before him so the king could put His feet on their necks one by one. God is a Spirit; He has no feet. God in Christ does. These spiritual beings are under the feet of a God who has two feet and ten toes. Now this Man who is God is surely on the side of those He died for, those He suffered for, those He had His feet nailed to a cross for: that would be all those who have feet and toes. Do you? Then be assured the Man Jesus has His feet on the necks of evil angels just for you.
With all things under His feet, the Man Jesus is able to control not only the age to come when demonic beings will be banished to hell but even this age when they roam about seeking someone to devour. That means the stock market, world events, and local politics are all under His feet and control too. The Gay and Lesbian coalition really doesn't control all things, neither do republicans or democrats, the U.N. or the U.S., holy angels or evil ones. All things in your life right down to doctors, co-workers, family and government are under the feet of the God who became a Man to die for your sins so that as a Man He might rule for your benefit.
But there is a problem. All this takes place where you can't see it going on. Sure you can ascend to heaven in heart and mind and see by faith the God-Man ruling, but you live down here. You need Jesus down here. Well we didn't snuff the candle now to indicate that Christ is no longer here at all but to show that He is among us now in a different way.
The Church, according to Paul in our text, is "the fullness of Him who fills all in all." What a weird statement. The Man Jesus, whom the highest heavens can't contain now that He's ascended, is contained in the Church. In two Sundays, we'll celebrate Pentecost, the day the ascended Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on His Church. So where we put out one flame today, on Pentecost we celebrate Jesus, by the Spirit, lighting many flames in His Church. The church is where the single flame of Jesus now burns in a holy roar.
We crave the presence of Jesus here and now, the peace, the joy, the love, the healing, the forgiveness that are His. That's why we're prone, as Jesus said we would be, to run to wherever people say Jesus is. "He's in the Spirit," so we chase after the Holy Spirit. "He's in your heart," so we turn in towards our hearts to look for Jesus. "He's in miracles," so we run after faith healers. "He's in visions," so we run to psychics or our own dreams to see Jesus. This is wrong. We can find Jesus only where the fullness of Him is, the Church, which is His Body here on earth. The Church is where you go to touch, to hear, to see, to smell, to taste Jesus. The Church is what you grab onto if you wish to hold on to Jesus in this life.
Does that startle you? It shouldn't. What did Jesus say while He walked this earth? He said to the apostles, the first pastors, "He who hears you hears me." And He said to them right after His resurrection, "Whoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven." You want to be forgiven of your sins by Jesus? Go to where Jesus put His forgiving word on earth not in your heart but in His church.
Do you want to see Jesus? He said to His people while still walking this earth visibly, "Where two or three are gathered together in My name there I am in the midst of them." He says in Ephesians and Corinthians that the Church is His body. Want to see Jesus? Look about you at the Body of Christ. Don't go running off to Fatima or Medjogorie or some other place where people are claiming to see Jesus; He's right in front of your eyes right now.
But you want to touch Him. Where on earth today does Jesus get close enough to touch? He says in Romans that in Baptism you are buried with Him. That's pretty close. He says in Galatians that as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ. That's pretty close. He says in Ephesians and 1 Peter that you were washed by Him in Baptism. That's very close. You can't wash someone without touching them. You want to touch Jesus? Get in touch with your baptismal waters. He's that close.
But that happened long ago for most of us. Where can we touch Him here and now? You know where; the place where He gives you His body and His blood. How much clearer could our Lord make this? You desire to touch, to taste, to smell the sweet, fresh Jesus Christ. You crave the forgiveness, strength, love, and peace His bodily presence brings. In Communion He puts His body right into your body, right into your hand, right into your mouth!
Jesus walks and talks on earth today not as He did in the first century. He walks and talks on earth today in Churches where His Word is correctly taught and His Sacraments correctly administered. By all means, ascend to heaven in your heart and mind to see how Christ has all your enemies under His feet, and be comforted that the Man who is God, Jesus Christ, rules the cosmos on your behalf. But do not miss His feet down here on earth. But they're not here in the way they were. He won't be among us that way till He returns visibly on the Last Day. The candle is snuffed for now. However, don't think that a different presence means less of a presence. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are all called holy because they are filled with the very real, very holy presence of Christ Jesus Himself. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension (6-1-00) Ephesians 1:16-23