When I was a kid, I was awestruck by the Apollo space missions. President Kennedy had set this audacious mission of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the 1960s. It was an audacious, difficult, and dangerous mission. In January 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 was inside the capsule on the launch pad, running a test with the plan that in the following month they would blast off and be the first three-man mission to orbit around the earth. During the test, they went through the checklist. Inside the tiny capsule were 31 miles of wiring. Somewhere in the 31 miles of wiring, some of the insulation nicked off, and that wire happened to be close to a cooling line. The silver in that wire caused a chemical reaction with the ethylene glycol in the cooling line, and a spark took place, a chemical reaction. The Apollo capsule's atmosphere was pure oxygen, so within seconds flames spread across the ceiling. Roger Chaffee, one of the astronauts, was heard to say, "There's fire in the cockpit," and a few seconds later there were heard cries of pain. All three astronauts died.
When you try to go to another world it is incredibly dangerous.
Two and a half years later, as Apollo 11 was preparing to take people to the moon, President Nixon assigned columnist William Safire to write a speech titled, "In the Event of Moon Disaster." If anything went wrong in that mission, President Nixon would go on TV, read that speech, radio communications to the astronauts would be cut off, they would be left to die, and a minister would commend their souls to the deepest of the deep. But that's not what happened. On July 20, 1969, with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, the lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. Commander Neal Armstrong stepped down the ladder and placed his foot on the gray, powdery surface of the moon. It was the first time a human being had gone to another celestial body. In his now famous words, Armstrong said, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
A few days later when Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific, the USS Hornet awaited them. Aboard the ship was President Nixon to personally welcome them home. They held victory parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They attended a dinner with members of Congress, 44 governors, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. President Nixon gave each astronaut a Presidential Medal of Freedom. What a celebration! The human race had successfully completed the most significant and difficult technological achievement of all time.
And when Jesus Christ accomplished his mission of love and redemption, when he went through the cloud and landed on heaven's shores, all of heaven broke out in celebration. The prophet Daniel was given a spiritual glimpse into that moment. Daniel 7:13-14 says,
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom is one
that shall not be destroyed.
And so today we celebrate the triumphal return of Jesus Christ to heaven, his enthronement at the right hand of God, and the celebration that his mission was successfully accomplished. When a mission is successfully accomplished, there are others who share in the benefits. We saw this recently when Seal team 6 assassinated Osama Bin Laden. Their success enabled 250 million Americans to breathe easier.
And what are the benefits that Jesus shares with us in this victory celebration of his ascension?
Power over sin, death, and the devil
The first benefit that we have as a result of Christ's ascension is power over sin, death, and the devil. Without the mission of Jesus Christ, there is not a lot of hope for you when temptation comes your way. You may be a person of unusual willpower, but even you don't have much hope. But Jesus has come and has shown us that it is possible to be tempted and not give in. He was hated, but he didn't retaliate. Instead he responded to his enemies in love and truth. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet he overcame sin. He accomplished his mission to defeat sin, and he has given us the power of God. His power resides within us so that we can overcome sin. We share Christ's power, and this is a new reality because of Christ's successful mission.
What about death? People are freaked out by death; they try not to think about it. It's a terror to human existence. But Jesus has come and said, I am the Resurrection and the Life. When I broke out of death, I trampled down death. My mission is accomplished. I have overcome death; you don't need to fear it.
Death is not the period at the end of a sentence, it's a comma.
What about the devil? Have you ever experienced the palpable presence of evil in a situation or in a person? You do not need to live in fear of that. Jesus stared down the devil in the wilderness. He overcame him at every turn and he ultimately threw him down and broke his back at the Cross and at the Resurrection. Jesus has ascended in triumph. His mission is accomplished, and he shares his power with you and me. 1 John 4:4 is correct: "He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." You don't need to fear the devil.
Access to Jesus anytime
There are 365 days in a year, and only seven days—less than two percent—are considered principle feasts for Christians. Now you know why the Ascension is one of them. While Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil is significant, there are more benefits. A second benefit that comes to us through the triumphal Ascension of Jesus Christ is that you and I now have access to Jesus anytime, anywhere. When Jesus came to earth he was painfully limited. He came as a baby, and he was totally dependent on two peasants, Mary and Joseph. Just like all of us, he could only be in one place at one time. He couldn't be in Nazareth and in Jerusalem simultaneously. If you were sick, laying on your cot in Jerusalem, hoping for help, you had to wait until he physically came to Jerusalem. But forty days after his resurrection there was a shift.
Let's read about that in Acts 1:8. Jesus was giving final instructions to his followers and he said, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Verses 9 to 11 say,
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
At first Jesus' ascension doesn't seem positive or beneficial; he was taken away. But he was moved into a new dimension. He's been removed from this space-time dimension to a dimension beyond space and time. He is available anytime, anywhere. There is nowhere you can go where Christ's presence, power, and immediacy are not available. There is no time when you will call on his name that he will not respond.
Cell phone companies like to brag about how great their coverage is, don't they? They tend to exaggerate how good their coverage really is. When Jesus was on earth he had a tightly defined geographical mission. He said he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He was called the King of the Jews, and his mission was tightly and geographically focused on the one tiny Roman province of Judea. If you were in Italy, too bad. Jesus' coverage was nothing compared to Verizon. But now, through the Ascension, Jesus has risen up into heaven, and his glory and power extends over the whole world. So you can be in Chicago and call on the name of Jesus. You can be in Nigeria and call on his power. Wherever you are—in the emergency room, on an airplane, or laid up at night with a sick child—Jesus is there for you.
Even though you forget to pray to him, he prays for you. You might think, What is Jesus doing in heaven? Down here he was healing, teaching, and doing miracles. What is he doing up there? The Bible says he continually intercedes for us. He is praying for you and for me. You might also be thinking, This situation is too big for me. I wish somebody would pray for me. You've got it! Whatever your need is, Jesus is praying for you.
Some people think Jesus is nice and friendly, and the Father is distant, demanding, and prone to anger. So they want Jesus to lobby for them with this other person who is not otherwise inclined to help you. That's a wrong assumption about God. Luke 11:13 clearly teaches the Father is good: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" The Book of Romans tells us the Spirit also intercedes for us, but it can still be said that it is the special ministry of Jesus Christ to intercede for us. He grew, he sweated, and he sweated drops of blood. He has experienced the troubles of this life. He was tempted in every way as we are. He was spat upon, rejected, and tortured. Whatever hellacious thing life brings your way, it has been dealt to him, and he understands and he prays for you. When we deal with difficult situations, we naturally want to go to somebody who has experienced the same thing. People who are able to relate to us are often the most encouraging to us.
When my wife and I were going through a season when our son's life was spiraling out of control, two of the people who helped us the most was our friends and spiritual mentor Sandy Green and his wife Gigi. They've had a son who has gone through similar things. We didn't even have to explain much because they've been there; they knew what our situation was like. Gigi said something wonderful to me and my wife one day: "When we were going through all this stuff with our son, there were moments when we were so heartsick that I couldn't pray. Friends prayed for our son when I couldn't. Right now there may be moments when you cannot pray for your son, but I am praying for you." We were tremendously comforted by what she said. And right now, before the very throne of God, you have someone who knows what you are going through and he's interceding for you. Anytime, anywhere you have access to Jesus, and he is praying for you. That's amazing.
Destined for glory
Lastly, as a result of Christ's ascension, our lowly bodies are now destined for glory. Everyone I know is disappointed with his or her body to some extent. Some of us want to lose some weight. Some people want a smaller nose or more hair. Others are fighting illnesses.
A friend told me about a New York author who recently launched a website where people can log on and anonymously express their feelings about their bodies. I looked at the site, and no one said they felt great about their body. The site even has a feature for you to click "been there" if you resonate with something someone posted. Here are some of the statements that got a lot of "been there" checkmarks: "I eat when I'm depressed, and then I get more depressed." "I hate everything about my body and often feel guilty because I should be thankful I even have a healthy body. I have no missing limbs, no diseases, no actual faults. I'm tired and exhausted of hating my blessed body." And, "I just want to look in the mirror and be happy." Friends, we have bodies that embarrass us, bother us, and drag us down. They are flawed and they are wearing out. We all are going to die. Is there hope for us? The amazing truth of the ascension is that a human body has entered heaven. A human body has entered glory. A human body will live forever. A human body is forever in the very presence of God.
Some people believe that when God saw our human plight and came to us in Jesus at Christmas, he put on a little human uniform and lived out his human life. And then following the Cross and the Resurrection, he was glad to take it off. That's heresy. For 2000 years, Christians have taught that Jesus went all the way when he took on our humanity. Not only did he take on every aspect of humanity, he took it on forever. One of our own Anglican creeds puts it this way: "Christ did truly rise again from death and took again his body." Furthermore, it says, "With flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature. Wherewith he ascended into heaven and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day."
This shatters the paradigm that many people ascribe to—that heaven is purely ethereal. It's true that angels and archangels and odd living creatures called cherubim and seraphim live in heaven. But we must realize that Jesus, through his ascension, has taken humanity into the presence of God. In the throne room of God, God the Son has a body with scar tissue on it. Jesus is forever at the right hand of God the Father and Jesus has become the working prototype—the first of many people who will carry human bodies into the presence of God.
Right now your body is weak, but one day, like the ascended Christ, it will be strong. Right now your body is disappointing, but someday it will be dynamic. Right now your body is passing away, but in heaven, like the ascended Christ, it will live forever.
In high school we had this thing called superlatives. It worked like this: toward the end of our senior year, the senior student body took a vote among the class for different categories like who is the most handsome, who is the most athletic, who is the most likely to succeed, and so forth. I went to a small high school. They didn't really need to take a vote because everyone knew who was going to win each category. The geeks and the dweebs never got a superlative. Because of the ascension, Jesus has voted that our geeky, awkward bodies are most likely to succeed. Our bodies are going to ascend into heaven and they will be honored in the presence of God. Many people think Christianity is all about ether. But it's actually a physical religion. It honors the body that you've been given by God, and someday you will live with him forever.
Do you see why we celebrate the Ascension? As a result of the Ascension, you and I have lasting confidence over sin, death, and the devil. Because of the Ascension, you and I now have access to the immediacy, the power, and the prayers of Jesus Christ anytime, anywhere. And because of the Ascension, our lowly bodies are destined for glory. The Bible says,
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
Worship him today and rejoice in his benefits. Amen.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,