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Sustained by Jesus’ promise to return

Jesus ascended and started a new chapter for us, his disciples. While we do his work here, we treasure his promise to return.

John A. Vieths

Ten years ago we took our oldest child, just a 14 year-old girl then, a thousand miles away from home to prep school. After a weekend of unloading luggage, working through registration lines, attending orientation meetings, and gathering for the school’s opening worship, the time came. We all went to the car. We talked, somewhat uncomfortably, about schedules and whom to contact and when we would see each other again. We knew what was coming next: saying good-bye. There were hugs and tears. Then hugs and tears again. It was time to stop delaying. It was only making it harder. I told my wife to get into the car. I began to drive away. In the rearview mirror were my daughter and a friend, crying, watching us go. They didn’t move until we were out of sight. I don’t know how long they stayed there, looking down the street after our car had disappeared, before they finally turned and went to start this new chapter in their lives.

It’s not hard to understand why it took some time for Jesus’ disciples to leave the Mount of Olives on the day he ascended. The angels didn’t ask them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” because they were confused. It was a gentle way of telling them that it was time to go, time to start the new chapter in their lives.

The angels’ urging came with a promise. “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus has promised to return, and that sustains us in this long wait while he is away.

Unchanged by time

Time has a way of changing us, sometimes for the better, but not always. Time also has a way of changing our relationships. No doubt you have known the awkward moments when you meet up with a friend or family member after long years apart. Something seems unfamiliar. Sometimes pauses and short silences punctuate the conversation. As you get reacquainted you sense different views, different values, a different person than the one you remember. Something has been lost.

That is not a worry while we wait for Jesus to return. “This same Jesus” is coming back, not a different one. He “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He “loves me every day the same,” we learned to sing as Jesus’ little lambs. That is still true. It will be true on the day he returns. He once came and loved us all the way to the shameful cross and an ugly death. The same love brings him back to raise our bodies and take them home to live with him.

Time also has a way of aging us, and with each passing year our powers fade. By the time we reach the end we are often just a shadow of the person we were in the glory of our youth. The reality of the slow but certain changes become troublesome to us. But time has no such effect on Jesus while he is away. It cannot reach him there. He is no longer bound by earthly time, aging, sin, and death.

Visible for all to see

The disciples watched the mighty Victor over sin and Satan ascend from the Mount of Olives to claim his heavenly throne. He will appear in power and glory undiminished on the day he keeps his promise to return. Visually, he will return in even greater glory than he left.

Then, finally, our long wait of faith will be replaced by sight. Then we will see what now we can only believe. Even now his cross asserts that all our sins have been forgiven. His resurrection seals the promise and makes us doubly sure. But who can see their sins forgiven? We don’t see them fall from our bodies like dust shaken from our clothes.

“Your iniquities have separated you from your God,” Isaiah once warned (59:2). That, we might think, is a truth about sin we can see. After all, haven’t we been separated from Jesus for nearly two millennia? Doesn’t our world seem more godless as more people abandon all that is good and wholesome? A vast canyon appears to stretch between us and the Almighty.

Still, Jesus has left us with promises that not all things are as they appear. “You who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “Surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). God has reconciled us and brought us near. Sin is not keeping us apart, in spite of the apparent separation. Invisibly, Jesus is still here, still with us. For now, we take God’s promises on faith.

At Jesus’ return, we will see. The apostle John already gives us a little glimpse of what will be. Those who once were soiled with sin “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Those to whom God once seemed so far away “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence” (Revelation 7:15). Cleansed of sin, we will see God face-to-face and live in his presence with glorified bodies.

Ready to take us to heaven

So we look forward to the room waiting for us in our Father’s house and cling to Jesus’ promise, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).

Have you ever met anyone famous? Are you the kind of person who wouldn’t wash your hand for a week if you shook hands with your idol or hero? My personal encounters with the rich and famous are limited—a couple of retired NFL hall-of-famers, a relative of a well-known politician. Our meetings were polite, but brief. I’m certainly not going to be invited for dinner anytime soon.

However, the most influential person in all of world history, the founder of the world’s biggest world religion, the Creator of the Universe and Savior of the human race holds out more than a dinner invitation. He has prepared a room in his Father’s house, the most magnificent home ever imagined. Better than having a luxurious place of our own somewhere down the road, all alone, we will live at home with him, surrounded by the love and laughter of the great extended family of faith reunited in his presence. He will move us in permanently. He promised to return to take us there himself. The time is drawing near.

That makes our waiting now a little easier to bear. The days outside, the days away, the days of work and travel are almost over. Jesus will come back soon. His promise keeps us going until he does.

John Vieths is pastor at Grace, Norman, Oklahoma.

This is the final article in a four-part series on Jesus’ ascension and the work he continues to do for us.

 

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Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 103, Number 8
Issue: August 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Jesus has secured the universe

All things are under the power of Jesus, even when they seem to spiral out of control. Everything he does is for our benefit.

John A. Vieths

We crave security from the moment we are born. Infants find it in their mother’s arms. Toddlers and preschoolers look for it in a blanket or a stuffed animal. The older we get, the more we look to the acceptance of friends or classmates for a sense of security. As adults we hope to find security in landing the right job or making the right investments.

The concept of security takes another twist for soldiers fighting a war. When they move forward, they speak of securing first an area, then a city, and finally an entire country. These things are “secure” when there is little threat of the enemy launching a successful counterattack.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he had secured more than a strategic crossroads, or a city, or even an entire country. He secured the universe. The whole thing was and is under his power, for his people.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described Jesus’ position this way: “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every names that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God has placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (1:20-22). It’s hard to imagine a description of more absolute power. Jesus has “all things under his feet.” When an ancient conqueror invaded new lands, defeated the king, and claimed the territory, he sometimes stood on the neck of the defeated king, literally putting him “under his feet.” It was a public sign of total domination.

Not everything under Jesus’ total domination was fighting against him. The forces of nature have always served him. Nor does he humiliate those whose hearts he has conquered by faith. He led those hearts to surrender through love rather than violence. Still, Paul’s picture makes an emphatic point: All things are under Jesus’ power. From where he sits in heaven, Jesus has complete control of the universe and everything in it.

Things still seem to spiral out of control

Is that hard to believe? Many things challenge this faith. Every day it seems as though the forces of evil are gaining the upper hand. In just a few years we have seen sweeping

changes in how most of America—even “Christian” America—views gender, sex, and marriage. Do any of us believe that we will reverse it? Fundamentalist Islam is said to be growing faster than Christianity worldwide. It spreads its message of oppression and violence faster than Christians can spread God’s forgiveness and love. Visible Christianity crumbles from the inside as church after church caves in to secular culture, gives up its biblical heritage, or joins hands with those who worship gods that don’t even exist. Does that look like everything is under Jesus’ power? Can we really say that Jesus has secured our little planet, much less the entire universe?

The apparent contradiction often strikes closer to home. If Jesus is actively running the show and he claims that he loves me, why does he let my son land in the hospital or allow a host of other problems come just when we need help? That’s how my Savior runs things!?

The temptations at this point run in a number of different directions. We can sit and sulk and feel sorry for ourselves. We can get mad and complain that he isn’t being fair. We can declare open rebellion and try to wrestle him for control of our lives and the world. We can simply despair that he loves us at all.

Jesus is head over everything for the church

None of those responses lead us anywhere good. They cannot improve our situation. Worse yet, they undermine our faith. They cut us off from Jesus just at the time we need him most. The truth remains that Jesus is in power. He has secured control of the universe. The answer to our trial of faith is not found in greater demonstrations of Jesus’ power. Rather, we find the answer in his promises and in his love. Paul made it clear that Jesus secured the entire universe for us, his people. “God has placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.”

For a moment, look away from how he has been running our lives. Look at how he ran his own. Why did he leave heaven and become one of us? He wasn’t improving his own living conditions. He did it to save us. Why did he expend so much of his time and energy healing the sick? He was not padding his own pockets like some who sell promises of a miracle today. He was showing genuine compassion and mercy. Why did he spend time with the outcast, the sinners, and the poor? He was not building his personal social standing. He sincerely wanted them to be his people. Why did he let enemies use him as a punching bag, shred his back with whips, and nail him to a cross? He owed no debt to society. He did it because he loved us, the church, and gave himself up for us to make the church “a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). Jesus has always been for his people.

That didn’t change when he returned to heaven and secured the universe under his power. God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church. It’s true his own living conditions improved immensely when he returned to heaven, but he hasn’t forgotten us. Once he gave it all up for his people. Now he has taken it all back, but still for his people.

I may not understand why he runs the world the way he does. But then, I don’t have to. I don’t understand why he suffered hell for an unappreciative, self-centered sinner like me, either. It is enough to know that whether he is making the ultimate sacrifice or securing and running the universe, he does it for me and for you and for everyone else who belongs to him by faith. In the end, everything he does will serve and benefit us.

Blankets and teddy bears, popular best friends and hefty bank accounts can’t give us lasting security. Jesus can. He has secured the entire universe under his power, real security for the people who know his love.

John Vieths is pastor at Grace, Norman, Oklahoma.

This is the third article in a four-part series on Jesus’ ascension and the work he continues to do for us.

 

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Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 103, Number 7
Issue: July 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Out of sight, but not out of mind

After his ascension, we do not physically see Jesus. But he always sees us and never forgets us.

John A. Vieths

“Out of sight, out of mind.” When college choices are going to separate them next year, this is what dating high school seniors fear. Their mothers may fear it too, as the high school graduates trade their childhood bedrooms for dorm rooms. Many newly independent young adults forget to call home once in a while.

Will people we care about deeply forget about us when we no longer see each other on a regular basis? We don’t want to drift apart and lose touch. On our Savior’s part, we can put to rest any fears that he has stopped thinking about us now that we can’t see him anymore. We occupy his thoughts constantly. In heaven, he talks about us with his Father every day.

OUR ADVOCATE IN HEAVEN

We desperately need him to have those conversations. “My dear children,” the apostle John wrote in his first letter, “I write this to you so that you will not sin” (1 John 2:1). Life for us after the Lord’s ascension is a struggle against sin. No sermon, no Bible class, not even a letter written by one of Jesus’ own apostles, ever succeeded in putting a permanent end to our sinning.

The apostle John knew this too. He wasn’t laboring under any delusions about how successful his letter was going to be, even a letter inspired by God. He inked the observation: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8). By faith God’s children fight not to sin, but we still lose plenty of contests. Honesty requires us to admit it.

This gives Jesus and his Father something to talk about. In fact, it demands they talk. Some of the terms and names with which we refer to Jesus are terms of endearment, full of love and warmth: Good Shepherd, Redeemer, Lamb of God, my Savior. On that list “defense attorney” may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But this too is part of Jesus’ important work for us now that he has ascended. “If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (2:1). He speaks to the Father in our defense. He is our defense attorney, our advocate, the heavenly lawyer who argues our case in heaven’s highest court.

Jesus never loses a case. His Father finds us innocent every time. Considering the facts of the case, that is a shocking truth. We know we sinned. Jesus knows we sinned. His Father knows it too. But we are found not guilty every time. Why? It is because of who defends us, how he defends us, and where he defends us.

Paul explained to the Romans, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (8:34). Our attorney is Christ Jesus, the Judge’s Son, the Son the Judge loves. We can be sure his arguments are going to receive a sympathetic ear. Our defender pleads his own life and death for us. He served our sentence and paid our debt. His resurrection put an exclamation on the fact that all accounts are settled. And Jesus makes his case for us not from beneath the Judge’s bench, but from his right hand. Here in heaven’s courtroom Jesus speaks with all the power and authority of heaven’s rightful ruler. How could we lose?

A GIFT OF THE SPIRIT

While Jesus pleads our case in heaven, he hasn’t forgotten that we are still on earth. The danger of “out of sight, out of mind” was never really a danger for him. It is a danger for us. And so that we don’t let him slip from our hearts, our minds, and our mission, he has given us his Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit is an important benefit of his death, resurrection, and ascension. “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). We Lutherans don’t think about the Holy Spirit as much as some Christians, but that’s okay. The Holy Spirit isn’t as interested in having the attention on himself as he is in directing our attention to Jesus. Christ reminded the disciples in the upper room: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me” (John 15:26). Jesus promised, “He will glorify me” (John 16:14) and “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I said to you” (John 14:26).

Don’t we know Jesus and what he teaches well enough already? Is there really so much for the Spirit to teach us? What we lack may not be a list of lessons from our Savior’s life. Certainly the Spirit helps us learn and remember his life and teaching too.

Our greater challenge, however, may be trusting and applying the things we do know about Jesus. If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we could do neither. “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness,” Paul wrote the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:14). People who have never heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit can still come to some good conclusions. But “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18) until the Spirit’s power convinces us that it is “the wisdom of God.”

Then we see Jesus and his cross not as one teaching among many in the Bible but as the lens through which all of reality becomes clear. The apostle Paul was not holding out on the Christians in Corinth when he told them, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He was giving them the key that unlocks the meaning to everything! Only with this key can we understand the meaning of our baptisms (Ephesians 5:25-27; Romans 6:1-11), Christ’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), our suffering (Romans 5:1-8; Romans 8:18-39; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), our love and service (2 Corinthians 5:14,15; 1 John 4:7-11), our witness (Romans 10:5-17), our universe (Colossians 1:13-20), and our God (John 14:8-11).

So Jesus ascended, and he gave us the Spirit with his Word—the Spirit who makes our hearts his home, assures us of our place in God’s family, blesses us with gifts for serving, leads us in godly living, makes us bold to tell others about our Savior, and gives power to the gospel we share. But the Spirit doesn’t do this by making himself the star of the show. He does it by keeping our attention focused on Jesus, who may be out of sight but is never out of mind.

John Vieths is pastor at Grace, Norman, Oklahoma.

This is the second article in a four-part series on Jesus’ ascension and the work he continues to do for us.

 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 103, Number 6
Issue: June 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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The good-bye that’s good for you

Jesus ascended and left his disciples behind. That was—and is—a good thing for all believers.

John A. Vieths

“Seems we just get started and before you know it, the time comes we have to say, ‘So long.’ ”

You understand the sentiment. Inevitably, the time must come to say good-bye. Looking back from that good-bye, it all seems so quickly gone. The holidays are over, and the visit must come to an end. After four years of school together, we have arrived at graduation day, and classmates will be headed in different directions. Junior is all grown up now. He has his first job, and it is time for him to start living on his own. After 45 or 50 years in the workforce, you are ready to hang up your spurs and start drawing on your retirement savings.

THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Some farewells are sad. Others can be scary. Jesus’ disciples seemed to feel a mixture of both emotions when he announced his farewell to them at the Last Supper. “Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” Peter asked (John 13:37). “Lord, we don’t know where you are going,” Thomas noted (John 14:5).

Jesus picked up on their concerns. “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). But they were not glad. “You are filled with grief because I have said these things” (John 16:6). After three short years together, Jesus’ hand-picked leadership team was not eager to move on without Jesus visibly at the head.

Their grief was not pure sentimentalism. Humanly speaking, fear seemed reasonable based on Jesus’ own warnings. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18,20). Jesus did not sugarcoat the future they faced after he left. He prepared them for it by telling it the way it was. After he left, following him was going to be hard.

It still is. Does Jesus’ decision to leave seem wise? Sometimes my heart tells me, “No.” Too often keeping our relationship going feels like maintaining a long-distance relationship. More than one affectionate couple has called it quits at the prospect of months or years of nothing but words printed on a page, a phone call from a thousand miles away, or gifts sent as tokens of affection. This takes patience and work.

It’s not wrong that we long to see Jesus face to face. Paul did: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23). That, however, does not mean we can just dismiss the printed words he has left behind. Jesus himself lives in those words in a way no romantic wordsmith every managed to inhabit his script. The signs of his affection Jesus left for us don’t sparkle like gold rings or jeweled bracelets. But baptismal waters cleanse our hearts, and bread and wine pregnant with Christ’s own body and blood nourish our souls. They don’t merely accessorize our exteriors.

Questioning Jesus’ good-bye and his return home isn’t just longing for him. Sometimes our heads think that we have a reasonable case for him to stay. Look at the mess the people he has left behind have made of his church. Look at the gains the purveyors of perversions have won. Look at the defections to atheism and agnosticism so many members of a new generation seem to be making. Look at the mission fields in which the crop seems to be rotting because no one sends and no one goes. “If Jesus were here,” we reason, “he would make this right. If Jesus were here, people would listen.”

Would they? Did they? When he walked among us and fed the masses, they still concluded, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). And many of his disciples turned back and didn’t follow him anymore.

THE COMPLETED  MISSION

Here is the surprising truth about his departure that Jesus shared in the upper room: “Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away” (John 16:7). Jesus’ Ascension isn’t a disappointment for us to get over or a problem for us to deal with. It is a blessing he intends for our good.

One blessing of Jesus’ Ascension is the exclamation mark it places on his completed work. It takes his dying gasp from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and amplifies its truth for our assurance. If he hadn’t accomplished all he was sent to do, he would still be here tying up the loose ends. But there are no loose ends. He fulfilled his mission in every way. That is truly good news.

Since his work is complete, we know that we have a real righteousness, a spotless life of love we can claim as our own. For more than 30 years, Jesus led a perfect life of love and obedience, without a single slip. The writer of Hebrews observed that he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (4:15).

That’s more than a neat trick or a unique talent. There are countless people who can do things that I can’t. I know artists who can draw or paint with nearly photographic accuracy. I’ve met musicians who can reproduce any composition they have ever heard and not miss a single note. I can’t do those things. Here’s the difference between those supremely gifted people and our supremely obedient Savior: Jesus has given his gift away to us all. Our lives haven’t actually become uninterrupted, unspoiled love and obedience—yet. But already we can stand before our Lord with no shame as though love and obedience is all we do, because Jesus’ perfection counts as ours. “Through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). And Jesus’ Ascension leaves no doubt that our borrowed obedience is complete and perfect.

Similarly, Jesus’ Ascension leaves us with no questions about the status of his payment for the sins we have committed. “When this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The result? “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:12,14). Here too there is nothing left for Jesus to do, no unfinished business to which he must attend.

This planet is not the only place from which Jesus serves us. It is not the only place where he could work on our behalf. It is the location of a chapter in the story of his saving mission now complete. Now that he has ascended, there are more chapters in this story for us to explore.

John Vieths is pastor at Grace, Norman, Oklahoma.

This is the first article in a four-part series on Jesus’ Ascension and the work he continues to do for us.

 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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