Bought With a Price

(Psalm 47Jeremiah 32:1-151 Corinthians 6:19-20)

The situation was grim. The Babylonian armies were closing in on Jerusalem; barring a miraculous deliverance from God, it was only a matter of time before the capital city, the city of the Temple of God, fell—and God had made it very clear that no deliverance was coming. Through Jeremiah, in fact, he had promised Zedekiah the king that he would be captured and taken to Babylon to face King Nebuchadnezzer, and there was nothing he could do to avoid it; any effort he might make to fight Babylon was doomed to inevitable failure. That prophecy, by the way, that Zedekiah quotes here is found in Jeremiah 34—the book is not arranged in chronological order—and the details of the prophet’s imprisonment are relayed in chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah was originally locked up for leaving the city, on charges that he was deserting to the Babylonians, which tells you how bad the situation was; but though the king transferred him to a sort of protective custody in the courtyard of the guard, he refused to set him free, because Jeremiah refused to give him a better word from God. So Jeremiah remained in custody, in a doomed city, held there by a doomed king, as the Babylonians closed in and the country fell into their hands.

It was a dark day indeed; not the sort of economic or political climate that tends to encourage things like buying property. And yet, it was in just these times, with the country dying and its independence hanging by a slender thread, that God said to his prophet, “Your cousin’s going to come and ask you to buy his field back in your hometown of Anathoth, because you’re his kinsman-redeemer. Buy it.” To explain this a little bit, “kinsman-redeemer”—the Hebrew word is go’el—is an important legal term. We’ll talk about this more later when we look at the story of Ruth, in which this plays a major part, but a go’el had several responsibilities. Most basically, under the Old Testament law, land had to stay within the family—every tribe and every family had been given its share of the land, and you weren’t allowed to permanently deprive your family of part of that inheritance by selling it outside the family—so if a person had to sell part of their inheritance, part of the family land, to make ends meet, a close relative who had the necessary resources would act as a go’el, a kinsman-redeemer, to buy the land and keep it in the family. That’s the role Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel wants him to play.

Now, under ordinary circumstances, that would be a completely reasonable thing to do; but these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because Jeremiah’s in prison, the country’s being conquered, folks are already being taken off into exile—what on earth is Jeremiah going to be able to do with that land? Nothing, that’s what. He might as well take his money and throw it over the walls of Jerusalem into the valley of the Kidron for all the good buying that land will do him, because he’s never going to see a single benefit from his purchase; what’s more, from a human perspective, it seems likely that no one else will, either. What’s the point in upholding the law and keeping the land in the family when the family’s about to be dragged off to Babylon? What are the odds they ever come back? From the world’s perspective, somewhere between slim and none. And if they don’t, who cares who was last to own a field at Anathoth anyway?

And yet God tells Jeremiah, “Buy the field”; and so when cousin Hanamel shows up and says, “I need money—buy my field,” Jeremiah buys it. I imagine Hanamel was surprised, but that didn’t stop him from going through with the sale. Jeremiah pays seventeen shekels of silver—whether that was a fair price or not, we don’t know, since we have no idea how big the field was or what it would normally have been worth—and goes through all the proper forms of purchase; then, at God’s command, he has the documents of sale placed in a clay jar and sealed so that they will last for generations. At a time when most people would have been buying stock in Babylon, Inc., Jeremiah invests in the future of Israel. Of course, this isn’t his own idea, but God’s; it isn’t really a business transaction at all, it’s an acted parable. Jeremiah buys the field as an act of faith, as a sign of God’s promise that the exile won’t last forever—that against all earthly odds, the people of Israel will return home, and they will once again buy and sell homes and fields and vineyards; in God’s time, someone will benefit from Jeremiah’s purchase of that land. It won’t be Jeremiah—he won’t live to see it—but someone of his blood will. His investment, ultimately, is in the faithfulness of God to keep his promise.

In a way, that’s what Jesus did, too. There’s a form of biblical interpretation called typological interpretation—we see it used in the Bible itself, especially by Paul—which looks for parallels and links between events in the history of God’s people and the facts and truths of God’s redemptive plan in Jesus Christ; in the standard language, the original event is the type and the truth to which it points is called the antitype. You have to be careful reading the Bible in this way, because it’s easy to go too far; but as we see in Paul’s letters, properly used, it can help us as we seek to know God and to understand his ways. Such, I think, is the case here.

Jeremiah’s purchase of the field is a type of what Christ did for us. Jeremiah was in the city of the Temple of God, Jerusalem; his home, Anathoth, was occupied territory; he bought a field in occupied territory as a sign of God’s promise that he would reclaim that territory and his people would be restored to their home in it, and preserved the deeds in a clay jar to bear witness to that promise. In the same way, Jesus left the heavenly temple to buy a field in occupied territory—the field of our flesh; in our flesh, he bought the title to our flesh, to our very lives, with his death. We have been bought with a price. In his resurrection, gave us a sign of God’s promise that one day he will reclaim this territory and restore us to our proper home in it. And in his ascension, he took the clay jar of our flesh up into heaven with him, carrying that title deed, holding that sure hope of the fulfillment of God’s promise where nothing this world can do can get at it, or keep him from returning to fulfill that promise.

In this world, we’re under foreign occupation by the powers of sin and death; even those of us who follow Christ still fight the strong pull of sin in our lives, and our bodies still die. While we live, some of us do well under that occupation, but even then, that’s subject to change at any time; at any time, we could lose all that we hold dear. But we have this hope: this will end. The Babylonians, if you will, are not going to be here forever. The day will come when Jesus will return in power, the forces that occupy this world will be swept away, and everything, including us, will be remade new, and all will be as it is supposed to be. The people of God will live in the land he has promised us, and at the name of Jesus every knee will bow to our proper king, and everything will be, finally, right.

Search and Rescue

(Psalm 24Ezekiel 34:11-16John 14:1-7)

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it”; the world, and those who live in it, belong to him. In the Hebrew, just to make the point as clear as possible, the opening words of the psalm are “The LORD’s”; we might render that, “The LORD’s, the earth is.” It’s an emphatic statement of the truth that is the foundation of everything else, all other truths, everything we believe: the Lord God rules over everything that is, because he owns all of it. There are no other claims to ownership, and no other claims to authority, that can stand against him; all such claims are secondary. The only valid earthly powers are those which God has established, which derive their authority from his authority, and they’re only fully valid as far as they acknowledge his authority and conform themselves to his will. As for our claims to ownership of this, or that, or the other thing, all are temporary, matters of convenience only, not reality. God owns everything always—he merely lets us use some of it for a little while, and he holds us accountable for how we use it. We are stewards, managers caring for someone else’s property, nothing more.

On what basis does God make such a sweeping claim? On the best basis of all—he made all of it, including all of us. We sometimes describe people as “self-made,” but in truth there’s no such thing; everyone is God-made. In our laws, we recognize intellectual property rights, through such things as copyright law; if you write a book, or a song, or a computer program, that’s yours, and you have the right to control what’s done with it, unless you sell those rights. You also, of course, have the right to profit from it, and anyone who deprives you of that profit without your consent is a thief and may be prosecuted as such. In a way, we might think of the universe as God’s intellectual property, because all of it began existence as a thought in his mind, and came into being when he spoke the word; nothing of anything would exist otherwise.

Now, one could scarcely blame such a powerful God if he didn’t care tuppence about us one way or the other. After all, to take a human analogy, how many human authors actually care about all the characters they write? The Scriptures make clear, however, that God does care about us, and indeed that he created the world primarily in order to create us, so that he could invite us into the circle of his love. Unfortunately, we fouled that up, rebelling against his authority and breaking our relationship with him; and so while God still seeks to draw us close, now there’s a problem. 

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?” writes the psalmist, “And who shall stand in his holy place?” Who is fit to enter the temple, the place on earth where God made his home, and to stand in his presence? It’s an important question, with a daunting answer: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who don’t put their trust in what is false”—this might refer to idols and idol-worship here; it might also mean “falsehood,” and thus people who trust in lies and dishonest schemes—“or swear deceitfully.” This is a description of a person who is innocent of wrong against God and against other people, who is committed to truth and free of any sort of deception, and who worships and serves God alone. That is the kind of person who is welcome in the presence of God.

Now, does that describe anyone you know? I’m sure you can think of people who are a lot like that, at least some of the time, but do you know anyone who’s all the way like that all of the time? It’s a high standard. In fact, it’s impossibly high. No one can live up to that. That’s why in the Old Testament, there was the whole sacrificial system we talked about last week; people sacrificed animals to pay the price for their sin, a few sins at a time, so that they would be pure enough for God for a little while. But that was only a temporary system at best, and a limited one, enabling people to do nothing more than go to the Temple to worship God from a distance; to get closer, to actually enter the presence of God, was still impossible, for all but the high priest once a year, and not even the high priest could do so with confidence and peace of mind. The barrier between us and God had been breached, but it still stood; to restore the relationship sin had destroyed required more. It required a permanent solution.

What it required was something unprecedented, and to that point unimagined, in human history. The human idea of religion always boils down in the end to us seeking God, which casts us in the role of independent agents using our own wisdom and strength to find and please whatever deity we identify; but the biblical picture is a very different one, indeed. So far from portraying us in this light, the Bible shows us as sheep, dumb fuzzies so focused on the grass we’re eating that we’re forever wandering away from God. Not only are we not capable of pleasing God on our own, not only are we unable to earn his favor, we aren’t even capable of guiding or protecting ourselves properly—we need his guidance and his care. We aren’t making our way toward heaven, we’re lost on the open hills, unsure which way is home, or how far we have to go to get there.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t up to us; if we’re like sheep who’ve wandered away from the flock, our God is a good shepherd. Even after sending his people into exile as a judgment for their sins, scattering them by his own hand, he still promised to gather them back to himself and bring them back to their own good pasture. This he did, by his own hand, coming down himself as the man Jesus of Nazareth to seek and save the lost, to gather in the lost sheep of Israel—and not only of Israel, but through them, the whole world. He didn’t sit up in heaven waiting for humanity to work its way back to him, which is what the religions of the world expected; instead, he came down to us, going out on the hills as the good shepherd in a search-and-rescue mission to find his lost sheep, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, and to strengthen the weak, fulfilling the promise he had made through Ezekiel.

And then he went home, to take the next step in that process. Note Jesus’ words in John 14—his promise to his disciples isn’t based on what he’s taught them so far, or even on his crucifixion and resurrection, but on the fact that he’s going to leave them. It’s his going away that makes the fulfillment of his promise possible.

Note why he goes. First, he says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” a place in “my Father’s house.” There are two aspects to this. One, from his place at the Father’s side, he would continue to prepare his disciples for their place in heaven, in the kingdom of God, through the Holy Spirit; this is the transforming work of God that we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks, which is the Spirit’s job. Christ, being human, could only be in one place at a time, but the Spirit can and does work in all of us at once, making us ready for our place in the kingdom. Beyond that, though, Jesus also returned to the Father’s side in order to make room for us there, to make a place for us. Some of that we talked about a few weeks ago, that in bringing our humanity into the presence of God, Christ made it possible for us to enter his presence in our full humanity; he made a place for us in that sense. Beyond that, we don’t know what exactly Jesus means by this, what exactly he’s doing for us in this respect; but we know his purpose, that he is making a place ready in heaven for each and every one of his people, that none of us might be left out.

Second, even as he goes to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house, Christ goes before us to make the way there. Jesus tells his disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going,” and Thomas immediately shoots back, “No, we don’t. We don’t even know where you’re going—how can we know the way?” There’s the tendency here, as later, to pile on Thomas a bit for his question—sort of a “there goes Doubting Thomas again” reaction—but if you stop to think about it, he’s just being honest. The disciples know roughly what Jesus is talking about, but at the most basic level, they don’t know where he’s going, and they don’t know how to get there—because they can’t. None of us can, on our own; no human being is capable of knowing how to get to where God is, much less walking that road. It’s beyond our capacity. Thus Jesus responds to Thomas by saying, essentially, “Yes, you do, because you know me, and I am the way.” The only way to God the Father is through Jesus, who is the truth incarnate—the only visible revelation of the God who is the goal of the journey—and the only source of the true life possessed by all who stand in the presence of God. And so Jesus goes ahead of us, returning to heaven, in order to be the way for us to enter heaven as well.

The key in all of this is that when Jesus ascended, when he returned to heaven, he wasn’t leaving us, he was leading us, going ahead of us to prepare our way, to show us the way, to be our way. That’s why he says, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, there you may also be”; and that’s one reason why he sent us his Spirit, as the agent through whom he leads and guides us in this life, on the way toward the kingdom of his Father. Remember, “the earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it,” and he’s actively at work in all of it—and that includes speaking to us and guiding us.

Most basically, of course, and most importantly, God speaks to us through the words he inspired, which include the record of the life he lived for us on this earth; it’s through the Bible first and foremost that Jesus leads us by his Spirit, as he continues to speak to us by his Spirit through these words, and he will not say anything that contradicts what he has already said. But that’s not the only way he speaks to us; it’s not the only way he guides us. He speaks through us sometimes as we talk with each other, making us agents of his wisdom; sometimes he may speak truth to us through people outside the church; he touches our minds and hearts through his creation, the natural world; and sometimes he speaks to us directly, in the back of our minds and the quiet of our hearts. I’ll never forget one time I was absolutely furious at someone—a couple someones, actually—and in my mind I heard Jesus say, “Show them grace.” I knew it was God, since it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, and I protested angrily, “They don’t deserve it.” To which he responded, “I know. That’s why it’s called grace.”

To be sure, it’s not always easy to recognize his leading—though that time was pretty obvious—but even when we’re not sure how or where Christ is leading us, we can always trust that he is, and that he’s good enough at what he’s doing that he won’t foul it up. We simply need to spend time reading his word, since it’s the main way we come to know him and recognize his voice, and in prayer—not just talking to him, though that’s important, but spending time being silent, listening for his voice—so that we learn to know him when he speaks; and we need to learn to expect him to speak, because he is at work leading us by his Spirit every day, in every moment. Christ came down to seek us out in our sin and rescue us from the power of death, and he’s busy right now bringing us home; and what he starts, he finishes. Period.

Christ Our Great High Priest

(Deuteronomy 33:8-10Hebrews 7:23-8:2Hebrews 10:19-25)

One of the problems with being Protestant is that most of us don’t understand priests. We don’t really know who they are, or what they do, or even what the whole priesthood thing is about—the whole idea is unfamiliar to us. One reason for this, of course, is that we aren’t Catholic (though a few of us used to be), and so we don’t have priests. We know the Catholic church down the street has a priest, but for most of us, that’s just external knowledge, not a matter of experience; while we know that the pastor there has the title “priest” and is addressed as “Father,” most of us don’t really know what that means, because it’s never been a meaningful part of our lives. Never having had priests, we don’t understand priests.

That being the case, though, it also needs to be said that even that would only get you so far, because Catholics don’t understand priests the same way the Old Testament did. There are some clear similarities, I will grant, but also some very real and significant differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the whole sacrificial system—to my knowledge, no Catholic priest has ever sacrificed so much as a pigeon, let alone a cow. This is no criticism of the Catholic Church, but it does mean that even understanding the Catholic priesthood is of limited value in understanding the Old Testament priesthood.

Which is unfortunate, because if we don’t understand what the Old Testament is on about, we’re going to have a hard time understanding a fair bit of the New Testament, and most especially the book of Hebrews. There’s some pretty important stuff going on here, but so much of it has to do with the priesthood and Christ’s priestly role that if you don’t understand priests, you’re not going to understand Hebrews—and that would be a real loss, for Hebrews has a lot to tell us about what Christ has done for us that we don’t find in the rest of the New Testament. Among other things, and of particular importance for the purpose of this sermon series, Hebrews is quite important in helping us to understand the meaning and significance of Jesus’ ascension.

Now, it isn’t possible to find one text that says, “This is why we have priests, this is what they’re for, and this is what they do”; to really lay things out, we’d be here a long time reading chunk after chunk of the Old Testament, and while I’m sure you all (and particularly Dr. Kavanaugh) would be patient with me, I don’t want to push it. But this little bit from Deuteronomy, from Moses’ blessing on the priestly tribe of Levi, captures the essence of the priestly role, if you look at it closely. In verse 10, you can see the two parts of the priest’s work, and the two directions in which that work moved. First, “They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law.” This is the work of representing God to Israel, of teaching them the will and the ways of God and proclaiming God’s word to them, and this part of the job we know; it’s the same thing, in essence, as I’m doing right now. So that, we’re familiar with.

But then take a look at the second half of that verse: “they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” This is the work of representing Israel before God. The biblical term that gets used of the priestly role is “mediator.” We see that going one way in the task of preaching, as the priest (or the pastor, for that matter) mediates the word of God to the people of God—God speaks through the one who preaches rather than speaking directly. In the act of sacrifice, however, we see that mediation going the other direction. The people of Israel couldn’t go directly to God to ask forgiveness, because their sin got in the way; they had to go through the priests, and so they would bring their offerings of animals and grain to the priests and the priests would then offer them to God on behalf of the people. Every sacrifice was a prayer, and it was a prayer you couldn’t pray yourself; the priest had to pray it for you, because they were the only ones who were allowed to do so. They were sort of professional holy people—you might even call them professional pray-ers.

Now, obviously, our relationship with God works very differently. You all can pray for yourselves and for each other, by yourselves or together. When you sin against God, you don’t have to come to me and have me pray for you in order for you to be forgiven—you can do that yourself. When you have a need, I’m certainly glad to pray for you, but God will take care of you whether you ask me to pray or not—his action isn’t dependent on me one way or the other. I’m not a priest, I’m just a pastor. Or rather, I am a priest, but only in the same sense as each of you is a priest, that all of us who belong to Jesus are called to be priests to each other in the name of Christ.

This is a huge change from the way things were back in the Old Testament, and the reason for that change is much of what the book of Hebrews is talking about. Again, we could have read a lot more from Hebrews than we did this morning—it’s a book that rewards deep study—but for the moment, I just grabbed a couple key passages to highlight the key ideas here. The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as the great high priest, the one who fulfills and completes the whole priestly system and thus brings the need for earthly sacrifices to an end, replacing them with something better. How did he do that? Well, first, he lived a perfect, sinless life—a life completely and unfailingly in accordance with God’s will. As such, he had no need to offer sacrifices for himself, for he had committed no sin for which he needed to atone; being perfect, he was therefore able to offer a perfect sacrifice. Second, that’s exactly what he did—he offered himself, his own blood, on our behalf as the sacrifice for our sin; he offered for us a sacrifice of infinite value, one sufficient to cover all our sin. In this way, in his death on the cross, Jesus made all the other sacrifices—the daily offerings, the sin offerings, the guilt offerings, and so on—unnecessary; he died once for all, and that was enough for everything.

And then third—and here’s where it gets a little foreign to our normal way of thinking, even as Christians—he took that sacrifice into the Holy of Holies, into the very presence of God. You see, under the Old Testament system, the most important day was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That was the day, once a year, when the high priest offered the prescribed sacrifices for the sin of the nation—all of it—and then brought the blood into the Holy of Holies, the place of the presence of God on earth, and sprinkled it there, presenting it to God. In the same way, Christ offered himself on the cross as the sacrifice, rose from the dead, and then ascended into the very presence of God to present his sacrifice to the Father. You can see this in Hebrews 9:11-12: “When Christ came as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” It wasn’t enough just to offer the sacrifice, you had to present the sacrifice to God—and this, Hebrews tells us, Jesus did in his ascension, returning to the throne of God as our high priest who offered the sacrifice which has redeemed and purified us forever and always.

Now, I’m sure that sounds strange and foreign to many of you—we just don’t think that way in this day and age—but it’s important. It’s important because it helps us better understand what Jesus did for us, but no less because it helps us understand what he’s doing for us right now. I think many of us tend to have this idea that Jesus came down to earth, did his thing, then left and turned the work over to the Spirit, and that he’s just resting right now until it’s time for him to come again. But Hebrews gives us a very different picture: Jesus is our great high priest, and he is at work now in that role on our behalf. What were the priests? They were the ones who presented the prayers of the people to God. And Jesus? Jesus is doing the same. We pray, and the Spirit of God carries our prayers to him, and he presents them to the Father, interceding on our behalf, pleading our case for us. When we pray, then, we do not pray alone, or relying on our own merits—Jesus prays with us and for us, and we rely on his merits. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name; indeed, this is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.

And this is why, as Hebrews 10 says, we have confidence to enter the heavenly sanctuary—the holy place, the presence of the living God—by the blood of Jesus. In the great temple in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was separated off by a thick curtain, a curtain that divided the small part of the world that contained the presence of God from the rest of the planet; at the time of Jesus’ death, that curtain tore in two, from top to bottom, because that separation was over. In his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus opened a way for us through the curtain, into the presence of God. Because Jesus ascended to the Father’s side, we are free through the Spirit to approach the holy and almighty God of all creation and present our prayers to him through his Son, our high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, in full assurance of faith.

Now, we’ve grown used to that fact, but in truth, it’s an amazing gift; though familiarity has dulled our eyes and ears to just how incredible this is, prayer is no small, safe, domesticated thing. Those of you who were here for my installation last Sunday afternoon will recall my friend Wayne quoting the writer Annie Dillard; it’s one of my favorite passages anywhere outside the Bible, one I think he first heard from me. For those who weren’t here, listen to what she has to say:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Prayer is nothing less than that. It is having the sheer nerve to stand before the one who created everything that is just by speaking, and whose will keeps everything going, and say, “Daddy, I want to talk”—and to do so in the complete certainty that he does, too, and that in fact he will not take offense, because he loves us that much. When you really think about it, this is an incredible gift—who and what are we, to be given such a privilege?—and so Hebrews urges us not to take it lightly, but instead to take advantage of it! Draw near to God in prayer, in the certain faith that your prayers are heard—no prayer ever bounces off the ceiling, or gets lost in the background noise, because Jesus takes every one and presents it to the Father on our behalf. God may not always give you the answer you want, but none of your prayers are ever ignored, and none go without any answer at all—and even though he doesn’t always say yes, God takes our prayers into account in everything he does. Stand firm in your faith, hold fast to this hope; Christ died and rose again for you and now intercedes for you before the throne of God, and therefore your salvation and ultimate victory is sure, regardless of what that may come along the way. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Ascended into Heaven

(Isaiah 25:6-10a1 Corinthians 15:20-261 Corinthians 15:42-44a, 51-57)

“Heaven” is one of those words that when you say it, people think they can stop listening because they already know what you’re going to say. When we die, our bodies aren’t us anymore, and our immortal souls go up to heaven where we watch over the people we’ve left behind. Add in the usual clouds and harps and pearly gates, with St. Peter standing outside them behind a lectern with a huge book—and what on earth did poor Peter do to get stuck with that, anyway?—and you have the basic picture that floats around in the back of most people’s minds; that’s what “heaven” means to us.

I’m here to tell you I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t believe I have an immortal soul, and I don’t believe it’s going up to heaven when I die, and I most especially don’t believe any of us in this room will be playing harps—except for Elly, since she plays it now. (If you want to tell me heaven would be a place where I’ll play bassoon well enough that it will still be heaven for everyone else, we can talk about that, but I’m no harpist.) Obviously, if by “heaven” you mean the place where God lives and is fully visibly present, yes, I believe in that, but I don’t believe in heaven as most people think about it; and the reason I don’t is because the Bible doesn’t either. The Bible, instead, promises us two very different and very much greater things: the resurrection of the dead, and the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus didn’t come to Earth just to save our souls, he came to redeem us as whole human beings, body and spirit; indeed, he came to redeem his whole creation, not just us. God isn’t in this just for souls, as if he’d be happy to let the rest of the world he made go to rot; he’s in this to take it all back.

The ascension makes this clear, and underpins what Paul is saying about the resurrection from the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, because it shows us that Jesus’ resurrection was no temporary thing. He came back to life as a flesh and blood human being—albeit one whose body could do things that ours can’t—and when he left, he didn’t leave that body behind and go back to heaven as a spirit; he returned in the body, as a human being. That shows us what God is about in our own redemption. To raise us as spirits and leave our bodies behind would leave death with some measure of victory in the end; and it would devalue the world God has made, the world which he pronounced good. God isn’t interested in letting either of these things happen. Rather, his intent is to absolutely undo all the damage done by our enemy when he led Adam and Eve into sin, and absolutely destroy all powers opposed to him, leaving them no scrap of accomplishment at all. The absolute destruction of all death, and the absolute victory of all that is life, under the rule of Jesus Christ our Lord is what we have to look forward to—nothing less.

This is why, if you flip over and look at the last couple chapters of Revelation for a minute, you’ll see what it promises: a new heaven and a new earth, an entirely remade physical world; and at its center is the holy city, the city of God, the new Jerusalem. This seems odd to a lot of folks—indeed, by comparison to most human myths, it is odd—and I know a few people who object to the idea of living in a city for eternity. I don’t think that’s what Revelation is getting at, though; rather, I think the point of the new Jerusalem is this, that when God remakes the world, he won’t simply undo everything we’ve done. As the French theologian Jacques Ellul notes, “The city is . . . our primary human creation. It is a uniquely human world. It is the symbol that we have chosen.” This does mean, in part, that it’s “the place that human beings have chosen in opposition to God.” That’s why, in Scripture, cities are never really seen as positive places, and oftentimes are presented very negatively. But in making the center of the new creation a city, God is taking our works into account, and redeeming the works of our hands, turning the center and hub of our fallen civilization into the center of his perfect reign. This tells us that the good that we have made, the good things we have built, the honorable works of our hands, will not be swept away in the final judgment; even as God will redeem and perfect us, so too will our accomplishments be redeemed and perfected. The gifts God has given you, and the good things you do with them to his glory, will also be saved.

Of course, that redemption and perfection are an important part of the picture. The great relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, the late Dan Quisenberry, once quipped, “I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer”; but if that tends to be drearily true in human history, it will not be true at all of the new creation. We will be raised in our own bodies, but our bodies will be different in kind. Now, they are perishable; our bodies erode, they wear out, they catch diseases, they break, they fail, and we die. In the new creation, they won’t be subject to any of that; they will be imperishable, what Paul calls “spiritual bodies.” Flesh and blood as we know it now cannot endure the glory of God, it cannot stand up to the brightness of his presence; it’s too frail and flimsy and shadowy a thing to breathe the air of heaven. It must be made new, remade, along with the rest of creation, in order to be solid enough and real enough to stand in the very presence of God. So too the works of our hands, those things we have forged out of our own hard work and the raw materials God has given us; that which is worthy will endure, but not as we have known it, for it too will be remade by the hand of God.

This is the promise of the gospel—the promise we see realized first in the resurrection of Christ, whom Paul calls “the firstfruits,” the first harvest, “of those who have died”; as the first one to be raised from the dead, as the one who went before us to show us the way, he shows us the new life that waits for us. We will be raised from the dead, not merely as we are now, but as he is, and the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and the power of sin in our lives will be no more, forever and ever and ever.

Now, as a side note, people have wondered and argued how this all fits together, and they’ve come up with a lot of different ideas; I should probably tell you how I understand this, and I’ll borrow from Paul and say “I, not the Lord,” and you can make of it what you will—but this is what makes sense to me. I believe, when it comes to the point of Christ’s return to this earth and the resurrection from the dead, that we all get there at the same time, regardless of when we leave. I believe that when Jean Illingworth and Susan Bertschai and Sara’s grandparents and all those whom we love who have died closed their eyes for the last time, it was just a blink, and they opened them again to find Jesus raising them from the dead in their new bodies; and I believe that those of us who die between now and that time, they found us right there beside them, blinking and rub-bing our eyes and staring at last into the face of Jesus our Lord. Some have called that idea “soul sleep,” but I prefer to think of it as time travel—the moment of death is the moment of resurrection, in God’s perspective, even if it doesn’t look that way to us now. As I say, you can make of that what you will, you can believe it that way or not, it doesn’t matter to me; that’s just how I best understand it. All that really matters is that however it makes sense for you, that you don’t let go of any of God’s promise to you.

I say that because, unfortunately, that’s all too easy to do. There’s a real tendency to spiritualize this which goes back before the beginning of the church; it’s a tendency which found its most significant expression in the movement known as Gnosticism. If you read The DaVinci Code, you’ll probably remember that the characters in there talk a lot about Gnosticism, though the author, Dan Brown, actually knows very, very little about it, and so presents a completely screwy picture. Gnosticism, I think it’s fair to say, was rooted in two basic impulses. One is the desire to be superior to other people, in this case by being able to say, “I know something you don’t know”; the other is the desire not to have to take the body seriously. For some, that was because they hated the body and all its limitations, and wanted to get free of it, to become more than human; as our science advances, that same impulse is starting to show itself in the work of scientists who talk about “enhancing” our bodies, and dream of a “post-human age.” Others, however, didn’t want to have to take their bodies seriously because they wanted to be able to do whatever they pleased with them; they wanted to be able to get drunk, get high, eat too much, sleep with whomever they could get into bed, and generally indulge themselves, while still being “spiritual.” Two very different reasons for the same basic claim: that the body is unimportant, that only the spirit matters.

That kind of thinking has been a continuing problem for the church over the years; the church keeps getting rid of it, and it keeps creeping back in. People find it easier to believe, and not always for bad reasons, and so they drift into thinking this way without ever really realizing that it’s less than what God promises us. But it is less, because our bodies aren’t unimportant, and they aren’t incidental to who we are; we exist as body and spirit together, and our bodies, though fallen and subject to sin, are beautiful and precious; certainly, to live forever in bodies that aged and fell ill and broke down would be no good thing, but to leave them behind forever would be no good thing either, for it would make us less than ourselves. That’s why God promises to raise us, whole, from the dead, in imperishable, incorruptible bodies, because our bodies are part of us, and every part of us matters to God, in every aspect of who we are and what we do.

This means that what we do with our bodies matters, because our bodies are sites of God’s redemption; his Spirit is alive and at work in our bodies as well as in our spirits, for they are inseparably woven together, to remake us into the people he created us to be. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and why he tells the Corinthians that they need to watch what they do with their bodies, because there are no merely physical acts. Every act is spiritual, because every act that affects our bodies—food, sex, exercise, sleep, slipping and falling, getting back up—every act affects our spirits, and we won’t be leaving these bodies behind. They’ll be transformed when God makes all things new, but they’ll still be our bodies, and what we do with them matters, to us and to God.

To some, this might not seem like good news, but I think it is; it’s the good news that because Jesus ascended into heaven in the body, as a human being, there is room for us in our full humanity in the presence of God. There is no part of us God will not re-deem—no good thing he will not purify, no bad thing he will not transform. There is room for us in the kingdom of God as whole people, scars and all, because he has re-deemed us as whole people, scars and all; when the kingdom comes, even our scars will no longer bring us pain, or shame, for they, too, will be the marks of the redemptive work of Jesus in our lives.


(Psalm 110Acts 1:1-11)

How many of you have ever heard of Ascension Day? Anyone know when it is? Nothing unusual there, most Protestants don’t; these days, I’d guess most American Catholics don’t know either. For those of you who don’t know, Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, forty days after Easter, a week and a half before Pentecost; this year, it’s the first of May. It’s the day on which the church remembers Jesus’ ascension into heaven—at least, theoretically; in my experience, most churches and Christians don’t. Oh, sure, when we say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed in church, we say, “He ascended into heaven,” and I think most of us believe it in a vague sort of way; which is to say, I think most people who affirm that Jesus died and rose again would also affirm his ascension, but have no sense whatsoever that it matters. To us, it seems more like a clerical detail than anything else. Jesus left, but he didn’t die, so, OK, he just sort of took off and disappeared, instead. If anyone came along and said, “No, no, he didn’t ascend into heaven, he just did thus-and-such,” we wouldn’t think it was all that important; we don’t think this matters.

The thing is, though, it does matter, because the ascension is important—quite profoundly so, in fact. It’s no mere afterthought to the resurrection, nor is it just a footnote to the work of Christ on the cross; rather, it’s the necessary completion of that work. Without the ascension, the resurrection is incomplete; it’s only in the ascension of Christ that all that he accomplished in the resurrection is truly fulfilled.

Now, I’m sure that seems a strange thing for me to say; it’s certainly not the way we tend to talk at Easter, or the kind of thing we usually say about the resurrection of Christ. There’s good reason for that, because the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the central event of human history, and it’s there that the saving work of God was accomplished; we don’t want to do anything to take the focus off that truth. However, if in emphasizing the resurrection we forget about the ascension—as we too often do—then we risk losing much of the meaning of the resurrection as well. It’s only in strongly affirming that Jesus ascended into heaven that we can truly say with the people of God throughout the ages that he is risen from the dead.

That is, of course, a strong statement, and one which requires a fair bit of unpacking, not to mention considerable support; which is the purpose of this sermon series. Over the next four weeks, between now and Pentecost, we’ll be looking at just why that statement is true, and why it really does matter that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. There are several reasons for this, which we’ll be considering over the next few weeks, but they all come down, ultimately, to one key truth: Christ didn’t come just so we could be “saved” in the sense that we get to go to Heaven instead of Hell.

Unfortunately, this is an area in which our particular stream of Christian tradition doesn’t tend to be very helpful. We’ve inherited a legal view of salvation as pardon for breaking God’s law, which unfortunately has tended to be distorted into the idea that salvation is sort of like getting a “not guilty” verdict, so you get to go back home instead of to jail. This is true as far as it goes. Part of what Christ did on the cross was take our unrighteousness and give us his righteousness, so that by his sacrifice our sins could be forgiven—but that’s only part of what he did. Jesus’ purpose, his mission in this world, wasn’t only to make us legally right with God so that we could skip out on going to Hell—it was to make us right with God in order to heal our alienation from God, to remove the obstacle that kept us from having a right relationship with him. This is where the importance of the ascension comes in, because while Jesus’ death and resurrection are the core of that work, the ascension was necessary for its application to us.

Why? Well, first of all, consider what the ascension of Jesus literally means: it means that he returned to heaven as a human being. This was a statement which was incredibly controversial in the early church—that’s why the creeds explicitly affirm that Jesus ascended into heaven, because there was a lot of argument about that point. The reason for the argument is that a lot of people just couldn’t deal with the idea that anything as gross and physical and material as a human body could be in heaven, in the presence of God. They were very “spiritual” people, in the same way as many people nowadays are very “spiritual”—which is to say, they saw “spiritual” reality as very different from, and superior to, mere physical, material reality. They’d be very happy to talk about their immortal souls going to heaven when they died—but the body? Ugh. No thanks. That was just a temporary thing, even a temporary prison, which they believed their souls would eventually escape to live a purely spiritual existence with God, who himself was pure spirit, and therefore superior to us physical beings.

Obviously, on such a view, Jesus couldn’t possibly have returned to the presence of God as a human being—that would defeat the whole purpose, and contaminate heaven. Yet this is precisely what the Scriptures affirm: the first-century Jewish human being Jesus of Nazareth ascended bodily into heaven, and at the end of all things he will return to this earth in exactly the same way. His human body, his human identity, wasn’t just something he put on for a while and then set aside—it’s a permanent part of who he is. The Son of God is still, seated in heaven at the right hand of God, the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew with nail scars in his wrists and feet and the wound of a spear in his side, and so he shall ever be; he didn’t just wear a human suit for a while, he became fully human, and he remains fully human.

This isn’t something we tend to think about very often, but it’s a profound and critically important truth. Jesus took our humanity with him when he returned to his Father; which means that in Jesus, God has taken our humanity into himself. He has not discarded our flesh, nor has he separated himself again from this world we know and love; rather, the stuff of creation is inextricably woven into the being of God. This is why, as we’ll see later in this series, the author of Hebrews can declare that we have a high priest who understands our weaknesses and our struggles. It’s not just a matter of Jesus remembering what it was like once upon a time to be human, powerful a thing though that is; his humanity is not merely a memory from the past, it’s a present reality. He still knows what it is to be human, because he still is human.

Now, to really unpack everything this means for us will take several sermons—don’t worry, I’m not going to try to cover everything in one service—but the most important point in all this, the meaning I want to leave you with, is this: consider just how much God loves you, that he would go to such lengths as this for you. God did something permanent, taking our human flesh on himself for all time, for your sake, and mine. He did that, and he suffered in that body more than any human being has ever suffered, before or since, for you. Where our love reaches a limit, a place where we say, “Yes, I love you, but not that much,” the love of God just keeps going, far beyond where we would expect. No matter how far you go from God, the Father’s love goes farther. No matter how great your sin, it has a limit, and God’s love doesn’t, and neither does the meaning of his sacrifice on the cross; no matter how great your sin, it’s covered.

That’s important for us to remember in our down times, and the times when we’re wrestling with a temptation we just can’t seem to beat, because those are the times when we risk giving in to despair; those are the times that the devil comes and whispers in our ears, trying to convince us that God has given up on us, that he can’t possibly love us anymore after all we’ve done. The fact of the matter is, when you look at everything Jesus did for us, everything he went through to save us, there’s no way that anything we can do can change his mind about that; the very worst we can do is but a small part of the pain he bore for us. He didn’t come down to this earth under the illusion that we’re better than we actually are; he didn’t come down to take just some of our sin, as if there were some things that even he wouldn’t die to redeem. No, he came down here to pay the price for all our sin, to heal all our wounds and carry all our diseases; he came to raise the dead of a dying world, and now he has gone on ahead to prepare our way. Christ has gone up with shouts of joy in order that we might follow him, that we might be invited to live forever in the eternal blessing of the love of God.