May 25, 2017 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Old Testament, a cloud was often a sign of God’s presence. The cloud revealed something of God’s glory precisely by covering it. This, by the way, might be related to the covering of crosses at Judica. In any case, just before the first manna in the wilderness, Moses records that “as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.” (Exodus 16:10, ESV). Before the giving of the Law, it happened again: “The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” (Exodus 19:9, ESV). All in all, this cloud thing happened a lot. A cloud was seen and the people knew that the Lord was with them, that He was there to feed them and speak with them. Chief of all the clouds was the pillar of cloud, which did not depart, and which led them through the wilderness. Again: the cloud meant that God was present, was with them.
In the Gospels, a bright cloud overshadowed Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. They were in God’s presence there on the mountain and the Voice that comes from the cloud tells that they should shup up about making tabernacles to stay there and listen to Jesus. They wanted to hide on the mountain. But Jesus is not stuck on that mountain. Even in His humiliation, He moves through creation. He will go with them to the place of Sacrifice and that is how He will lead them out of the wilderness of their sins. That is why they should listen because Jesus isn’t tied to a single place and because He goes to His death on purpose and for their good.
The Lord also describes His return on the last day as coming on a cloud. He says that all the tribes of the earth “will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30, ESV)
All this should inform our understanding of the cloud that Luke records in Acts at the Ascension. Jesus was lifted up a bit from the earth. He didn’t rocket off into outer space. He was lifted up a bit from the earth, hands with marks from the cross extended in blessing, maybe in cruciform shape, and then a cloud took Him out of their sight. It didn’t take Him away. He didn’t depart. The cloud means that God is present, that He is with us. Jesus didn’t leave at the Ascension but the mode of His presence changed.
He is now present with us in a greater way than He was in the pillar of cloud or in His humiliation or in His appearances after the Resurrection. There are two important aspects here. First, He ascended into heaven, to rule the Universe, as a Man. His Divine nature didn’t take over. He is one Christ, true God and true Man. He wasn’t always true Man. He became a Man at the time when Herod the Great was King of Judah. Since then and forevermore He is and will be a Man, born of the virgin, with her DNA and blood, dead on the cross, and alive out of the grave. When He ascends and rules not just the earth but all of creation as a Man, He elevates the duties first given to Adam in the garden, who only ruled the earth. He opens heaven to all human believers. Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Victor over sin, death, and Hell, is a Man and His home is our home, prepared for us.
The other important aspect that we should note in this is that now that His humiliation has ended, He is not denying Himself as a Man. There has been a change. From the time of His conception until His resurrection, He denied Himself, as a Man, the full and constant use of His Divinity. If He had not, then He could not have suffered, been tempted, and been killed. Now that it is finished, He no longer denies Himself. As a Man, He fully and always uses all of His Divine rights and attributes. That means that the Man Jesus is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.
His exaltation, this state of fully and always using His Divine attributes as a Man began already at the Resurrection. That is probably why they had trouble recognizing Him. He changed. He still has the marks left by the cross. He still has the Body born of Mary. He is not someone different and He didn’t turn into a ghost or an angel, but He is not the Man of Sorrows, without form or majesty. He is majestic. He is the King of Judah, of Israel, and of all the Gentiles and all of the kings of the earth must lay down their crowns before Him.
The Ascension is the fulfillment of His exaltation. He removes His visible presence from the disciples because it not fully appropriate for His Divinity. That is because He is not simply located there with them as though He were still in His humiliation. That is why His post-Resurrection appearances are a bit wonky and He won’t stay put. He is now present everywhere and He is not denying Himself. He is more than a King, our Man is God.
The Ascension is really the announcement of His Sacramental presence – not simply that He is omnipresent according to His Divinity now shared by His Humanity, but that He has created something new, something closely related to the pillar of cloud that led them out of slavery. He is with us in a new way. For He has instituted and promised to give His Body and Blood in bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. The Body and Blood that He gives us is His Divine Flesh, born of Mary but not denied the Divine attributes. It is His living Body and His life is in the Blood. We don’t consume it but it consumes us and makes us part of Him. This presence is a miracle akin to the Incarnation itself and there is nothing equal to it all of creation.
The Lord ascends then, or is taken from our physical sight, that we would not doubt that He is at the right hand of the Father and at the same time bodily present for us according to His promise in the Sacrament of the Altar. He is not stuck in Bethany the way that we are stuck in Ft. Wayne. He can be and is in more than one place at a time and even in more than one way. For He is everywhere that He promises to be and without division or distraction or lessening who and what He is.
The cloud took away His visible presence that we and the disciples would know that God with us in a new way so that we would look not with our eyes but with faith and we would not tie Him to a certain locale or people, but would see Him in the places that He promises to be: in His Word, in Holy Baptism, in the Absolution, in His people, and in the Holy Supper. Thus the angels say to the disciples: “Why do you stand here looking at the sky?” Go do what He told you to do. He is with you. He will bless you. He will feed and forgive you. Those who you baptize and teach, He will baptize and teach, and they will be His disciples even as you are and He will be with them even as He is with you. That is what the cloud means. And then, at the right time, on the last day you will see Him again, again in a cloud, and a new age will dawn, and that will be the last change.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.