Sentences beginning "If only" usually end in regret or longing. "If only I had done this or that." "If only I could do this or that." The Ascension of our Lord visibly into heaven brings to mind several "if only" statements.
If only we had lived when Jesus walked the earth visibly... Since Jesus has returned to heaven nevermore to walk this earth in a visible body, theres no chance we'll find Him preaching and teaching in Galilee. There's no chance that we'll find Him on a lonely Judean mountain top. His visible body has gone from this earth and won't return till the Last Day when the world ends.
If only we had lived when Jesus walked the earth visibly, then we might have heard Jesus preach or teach. We might have heard the inflection of His voice, seen the serenity of His eyes, known for sure He was talking to us. If only we had been alive when Jesus walked the earth visibly, we might have actually heard Jesus preach and teach, but probably not. At that time the population of the world was about 200 million. More than likely, we would have been far away from Him unable to hear His voice
But if only we had been alive when Jesus visibly walked the earth, then Jesus might have prayed for us. He might have interceded for us before the Father bringing our deepest needs, our biggest worries, our secret hurts. Yes, if only we had been alive when Jesus interceded for the sick, the sinful, the dying, then we might have heard Jesus pray for us, but probably not. 99.9% of the world's population never heard Jesus pray for them, and most, even in Judea, never had Jesus pray over them.
Okay, but if only we had lived when Jesus walked the earth visibly, then we might have seen Him reign and rule over all things for us. Nice thought, but probably not. Aside from the fact that most people were nowhere near Jesus, He didn't reign very much. O the Palm Sunday thing was great. And when He healed disease, commanded weather, or silenced demons, I'm sure that was a kick. But that happened infrequently. More often He was chased from town to town, and He was laughed at by kings and rulers.
The regret that we weren't alive when Jesus visibly walked the earth doesn't come from God, and it goes away from Him. It leads to preachers that sound dynamic and powerful like we imagine Jesus to have sounded though no Gospel writer records what Jesus sounded like. It leads to healers who pray over people claiming to do all sorts of miracles though the Bible doesn't emphasize a miracle working Jesus. The regret that you missed the visible Jesus leads churches to emphasize the power, might and earthly rule of Jesus rather than the cross, forgiveness, and His eternal rule.
God's people have always been tempted to regret missing the visible Jesus, that's why for over 1,300 years the Church has prayed the Ascension Collect asking that as Jesus ascended into heaven "so we may also in heart and mind ascend and continually dwell there with Him." Now theres a Biblical longing; theres a Biblical "if only" statement. "If only we would ascend in heart and mind and dwell where Jesus is." Thats what Colossians tells us to do: "Be eager for the things that are above where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Keep your mind on things above, not on earthly things."
If only we were eager for the things above, then we would see that right now Jesus sends out pastors, preaching and teaching through them. From heaven's throne Jesus sends out pastors into all the world, so that His Word might be heard all over the world and not just where He is visibly located. Ephesians 4 says "Jesus ascended higher than all the heavens in order to fill the whole universe. And He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers."
It isn't the words of men you hear when a pastor preaches God's Word. It's the voice of the God/Man, Jesus. Jesus= ministry wasn't ended by His ascension; it was extended. He now sends pastors into all the world to teach everything He has commanded. He promises those hearing them really hear Him. If only we would ascend in heart and mind to heaven's throne and know Jesus has said to me, "Go preach to the people at Trinity. They are to hear My words from your lips."
If only we would ascend with Jesus we would hear comforting, life-changing things. We wouldn't hear someone binding Satan for us, driving disease away from us, or someone just thanking, just praising, or just worshipping the Father. We would hear in heaven according to Romans 8 Jesus interceding for us and according to I John 2 we would hear Him being our Advocate, taking the side of us guilty sinners.
The Ascension account paints a vivid picture of whats going on right now in heaven. Luke tells us specifically that Jesus lifted His hands and blessed the disciples and ascended while doing this. Jesus raised His arms thousands of times, but it's only recorded here that He did. What did the disciples see when Jesus raised His hands? Those nail pierced hands.
Jesus is before the Father right now holding up His nail pierced hands saying, "Remember I suffered and bled for these sinners. For the sake of these wounds, for the sake of My eternal misery on the cross, I want you to do this or that for them. Don't look at their sins dear Father; look at My wounds. Don't look at their hard hearts; look at My pierced one. Don't look at their feet swift to shed innocent blood; look at My bloody ones. Don't look at their hands clenched in fury; look at My open, nail scarred ones, and remember I already paid for what they've done."
If only we would ascend in heart and mind to dwell in heaven with Jesus, then we would see Him reigning and ruling over all things for the sake of His Church. Ephesians 1 says the Father "made Jesus sit at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named. He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church." Heaven and earth are ruled by the Man who gave Himself up for you and even now prays for you. They aren't ruled by a blinding light or an unapproachable God; heaven and earth are ruled by the God who is a Man. He controls all things: the sun rising, the tides flowing, the tornadoes raging, even those doing evil. The God/Man controls all things for the sake of His Church, for you.
That means, any thing from a roaring tornado, to a depressed economy, to infectious diseases, to wars on terror don't catch Jesus by surprise. He doesn't throw up His hands saying, "What can I do?" No, Jesus takes those hands and puts them before the Father; He takes those hands and cradles His Church giving Her shelter till the storm has passed over.
But talk of ascending in heart and mind to dwell with Jesus in heaven is too spiritual for some of you. I agree. Even though Colossians tells us to do it, we can get the false impression that Christianity is an internal, personal thing between us and Jesus. The Gospel reading can correct this. After Jesus ascended into heaven the text says the disciples "returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." Jesus went to heaven; the disciples went to church.
If only we would see that when Jesus ascended into heaven He left His Body on earth. The Church is His Body. They only way to be close to Jesus now is to be close to His Church. The Church is His Bride, so she is the only one who can bear and raise His children. Why am I telling you this? Why am I not speaking this to those who aren't here? One, because they won't let me. Two, because those going to church are the ones Jesus speaks to.
Yes, Jesus speaks to you tonight in preaching. You dont have to wonder what Jesus would say to you if He could. He can and does say what you hear right now. He tells you your sins are forgiven. Your salvation is secure. The continual fretting you do over your failures and sins can be stopped. He tells you that your salvation is all in His hands and not at all in yours.
In church you hear the ascended Jesus not only preaching and teaching but interceding and advocating. Listen to the liturgy and the hymns. Can't you hear the voice of Jesus asking for you, praying for you, begging for you? Can't you hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world asking for your peace? Can't you hear Him asking that despite your sins the Father would not take His Spirit from you? Can't you hear Him before the Father's throne saying, "Remember I died and paid for all their sins already!"
And only here will you hear that Jesus reigns right now. The evening news doesn't report it. TV preachers tell you Jesus reigns if you let Him. The world around you laughs at the idea. But here you hear the 4 living beings gathered around heaven's throne praising Jesus day and night saying, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Armies." Here you hear that Jesus is lining up all things for His triumphal return and your eternal victory.
You saw the Christ candle snuffed when the Gospel lesson spoke of Jesus ascending. You know that signifies Jesus is no longer present the way He was when He walked the earth. But do note; the Christ candle will be lit again when we have a Baptism, and the single candles on the altar are lit whenever communion is celebrated. These lit candles at Baptisms and Communion services indicate something. The Jesus who went away visibly returns visibly in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. If only we are hereto see Him, to rejoice in Him, to use Him. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20090521)