Clyde Beatty was a famous lion tamer when I was young. He always entered the lion cage with a pistol, a whip, and 4-legged wooden chair. The reason for the whip and pistol seemed obvious, but why the chair? Recently I heard that he said the whip and the pistol were only to get the big cats attention; the chair was the most important thing. Clyde would hold the chair by the back putting the four legs in the face of the lion. The lion would try to focus on all four legs but couldnt, and this put the big cat into a sort of paralysis. Isnt that true for us? While focus is very important in school, work, and sports, when we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, we end up in a stupor.
But many things call for our focus. Family calls for it. Individuals in the family call for it. Work demands it. Your health even calls for it sometimes. Dont get me wrong. All of these are legitimate concerns. All of these are important; I can even ratchet them up a painful notch or two. All I have to do is put the word Christian in front of them. Being a Christian parent, employee, citizen or person, thats really important. Thats got to be what God wants. Off you go to the Christian bookstore where there will be a multitude of books devoted to these subjects.
If you make the trip, youll end up in one of two places. Self-righteously content with yourself that you have achieved the Christian life youve focused on, or youll end up with Martha: anxious and troubled about many things and accusing your Lord for not caring about you. This is the way of the Devil. He takes legitimate needs and makes them the focus; we might even say the compulsion, the addiction, the gotta have. Remember how he put before Jesus in the Great Temptation: bread, protection, the salvation of the world? All of these were legitimate, but none of them were a legitimate focus above all else. No, the Word of God was.
In the Ascension what does Jesus call us to focus on? In the Acts account we read, Jesus presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs. Luke writes this. He was a 1st century medical doctor. Proof is a 1st century medical term for that symptom which shows definitively that a patient has a particular disease. Dr. Luke tells us that Jesus had the definitive symptom that proved He had the disease life.
You were at the cross on Good Friday. You heard Isaiah say that His face was so badly marred that it didnt even look human. You saw His back whipped to shreds. You saw His face swollen from beatings. You saw the nails holes and spear wound. You heard Him pronounced dead. Dr. Luke testifies that this very same body was raised from the dead. You know how it is in the movies when theyre about to look into a coffin arent you always afraid of what you might see? Jesus appeared in the upper room, by the sea, on the road and it was always the same body they had lived with for 3 years, not mangled, not bloody, not bruised. It was glorified but it was the same.
Focus on the resurrected body of Jesus, not your body or even the bodies of others. There are just too many to focus on. As laudable as that goal might be, youll only make yourself dizzy. Focus on the body of Jesus, particularly His hands. He wants you to do that: As He was ascending, were told, And lifting up His hands He blessed them. This is the only time in all of Scripture they were told Jesus lifted up His hands. We know from the Thomas incident that the nail holes were plainly visible. Focus on those nail pierced hands. The wounds will never close over, never heal, never disappear.
Focus on the nail pierced body of Jesus physically going up into heaven. The other times Jesus left them after Easter He just disappeared. He didnt walk over a hill, go out of sight, or sail away. One moment He was visible the next He wasnt, but not this time. This time the same Body born of Mary, with nail holes He received while paying for the sins of the world, is carried up into heaven bodily, physically. One moment He is on the Mount of Olives with the disciples; the next He is rising from the ground till the cloudy presence of God welcomes the physical body of Jesus into the heavenly places. Ephesians 4:10 goes on to say He ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
You could focus on your dying body. You could focus on a dead body. You could focus on your living body or that of someone else. Like the lion your head could swim as you focus on this one, on that, no on this one. Focus instead on the Body of the risen Jesus ascending into heaven and on what that means for day to day life.
The first thing it means is that flesh and blood can go to heaven. This body that you know so well; so wrinkled, so aged, so diseased, so sinful can go into the realm of God, of angels, of holiness, and happiness. While all religions have some kind of afterlife very few think flesh and blood can go there. Plutarch said it was contrary to nature to send the bodies of even good men to heaven (Lives of the Nobel Romans, 24). Cicero said, Nature would not permit a body of earth to exist anywhere except upon earth (Augustine, City of God, 22, 5).
They are right in this sense. When Adam and Eve fell they were thrown out of the abode of God. Flesh and blood became fallen, corrupt, sinful by nature. It couldnt exist where God was anymore than water can exist with super hot temperatures. But God wanted to redeem human nature, human bodies, not just our souls. So He sent His only Son into the world as a Man to live under all the Laws God had given to mankind. All the dos, donts, have tos, and musts Jesus did in our flesh and blood. There wasnt one law, one requirement, one had better that Jesus didnt do in His flesh and blood for our flesh and blood.
Jesus was the perfect Man, Woman, Child, but to redeem us not only did the Law that accused us have to be kept, the Laws punishments had to be suffered. Jesus did that too in flesh and blood. Flesh and blood were guilty; flesh and blood would have to pay. So Jesus went to the cross the guilt of all men bearing. No, sorry wasnt good enough; no, I did my best wasnt good enough. To pay in place of us, real flesh and blood would have to suffer and die. To pay for a whole world of flesh and blood people, well no one less than God could afford that.
And Jesus did pay it, and because He did God the Father can welcome flesh and blood back into heaven, back into fellowship with Him. The gates of heaven must swing open to welcome the flesh and blood of Jesus. They cant swing shut on Him. Focus on those gates swinging open and Jesus striding confidently in and know that Scripture says that Jesus is in heaven now as your Advocate and Intercessor.
As much as you might not like lawyers in general, if you ever get in trouble with the law, particularly if you really are wrong, youll be very glad to have a lawyer. He is in the only one in the courtroom who will take your side for sure. The judge cant; the prosecutor wont; the jury might. Hear Jesus in heaven advocating that God the Father do more for you than you ask or even think. Here Him advocating not what you deserve but better, not justice but mercy, not for this or that temporary blessing but for an eternal one.
Im not sure how much difference we should see between Jesus as Advocate and as Intercessor, but I think we should see both in the earthy way of the early church. When people sinned, they pictured Jesus standing before the Father with His hands raised (Remember the nail wounds.) saying, Remember Father I died for these. What keeps the wrath of God from striking us down when we sin for the umpteenth time in deed, word, or thought? Its Jesus putting the nail holes that prove He paid for our sins before the Father in heaven.
But focusing on the crucified yet risen Jesus in heaven means more than we have an Advocate and Intercessor before the Father. We have a Man, like us, ruling heaven and earth and Hes on our side. Ive struggled through the years to convey all that this means. Let me try a new tack. Jude was the brother of Jesus. Judes grandsons were brought before a Roman tribunal. Rome was afraid of these men because through Jesus they had a natural claim to the throne. When the Romans saw by their dress and hand calluses that they were laborers and not royalty, [They] were dismissed with compassion and contempt (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 236).
You are not grandnephews of the King of kings; you are brothers! You are sisters! On earth, it is true; you may be plain, ordinary, even lowly, but in heaven its another matter. In Jesus, you are the apple of Gods eye; He sees your name engraved on the palms of Jesus hands. You may well be dismissed by this world with pity and contempt for a heavenly benefit that is no earthly good, but that is not how you should see things. You should switch the focus as Attila the Hun did at the royal palace of Milan. There was a picture showing the Caesars on the throne and Attilas ancestors prostrate at their feet. Attila commanded a painter to reverse the figures, so his ancestor was on the throne and the Romans were supplicants (Ibid., 521).
Switch your focus because of Ascension. In Jesus we reign and rule now; in Jesus all things not just health, life, and angels but sickness, death, and demons must serve us. But I dont want to leave you starring up into heaven as the disciples were on Ascension. While they were thus focused, 2 angels appeared and said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? Then what happened? They were continually in the temple blessing God. They switched their focus from the heavens where Jesus had disappeared to the church on earth.
The Body and Blood of Jesus that forgives you, intercedes for you, and rules over all is found at church for you in the Baptismal waters that touch your skin; in the forgiving words that vibrate your ear drums, and in the Body and Blood of Jesus you eat and drink. Though there are 3 things, the focus is one, on Jesus, on earth in Words, Water, Bread and Wine promising you He is advocating and interceding for you in heaven right now. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20100513); Acts 1: 1-11