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“A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” — Sermon for Ascension

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ June 6th, 2011

Sermon on Acts 1:1-11 and St. Mark 16:14-20

 

The Ascension of Our Lord

 

A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing – after TLH 212

Hymn 212, “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing,” is the first of the dozen ascension hymns in TLH. We simply don’t know if it was placed first for prominence or convenience, but it is certainly a fitting portal to the ascension hymns in this hymnal. It is by far the oldest of our ascension hymns, pre-dating the others in this hymnal by nearly 1,000 years. The text was written by the Venerable Bede (AD 673-735), a profound scholar, who wrote on nearly every academic subject. He only wrote a handful of hymns, of which this is probably his best known. The timeless tune is familiar to all Christians, known for its singability, its majesty, and of course its ability to accommodate the repetition of the word “Alleluia.” (Please see your bulletin insert for further reflections on the text, tune, and context of this hymn.) “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” will guide us today as we receive the gifts of Jesus’ ascension.

Stanzas 1–2 tell us who was present at the Ascension. “Christ by a road before untrod” and “The holy apostolic band / [standing] Upon the Mount of Olives.” It was a familiar combination: Jesus and His Apostles. They had seen His life of miracles and teaching, His death and resurrection, and now His glorious ascension into heaven as He sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. What would the Apostles do after Jesus visibly left them? In our Gospel lesson, Jesus “prefaced” the ascension with the promise that the same pattern of His ministry – miracles and teaching – would accompany them after He ascended into heaven. Regarding miracles, the disciples will cast out demons and speak in new tongues, pick up deadly serpents and drink deadly poison, and they will lay their hands on the sick and, though not mentioned here, occasionally raise the dead. The miracles say that God’s kingdom is coming through the Apostles. They say that God will do something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. As someone said, “A religion without miracles has only marginal worth; why bother with religion if you can do it all yourself anyway?” (Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones, 175). Regarding teaching or preaching, Jesus told them to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” He says, in effect, “Go! Yes, be going to Judea, Samaria and Galilee; be going to Brooklyn, Queens, and even Jersey, to tell all the world that Jesus is Lord. Many will reject the good news of salvation. Some will be so offended that they will try to kill you. But preach the Word in season and out of season. And those who believe and are baptized will be saved.”

This two-part plan of miracles and teaching is given to the church of all ages. Jesus has ascended into heaven, where He cannot be seen. The Apostles are long dead and gone, so we cannot see them, either. But the same gifts given through Christ and His Apostles have been handed down do the church through their successors, the pastors, who teach and work miracles in His name. The teaching is the same. On the Law side, we hear the condemning news we are born in sin and bound to die; that we have broken God’s commandments and must repent; and that all who do not repent of their sins and believe the Gospel will die eternally. On the Gospel side, we hear the comforting news that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried; that He was raised on the third day, and that He lives to give us life. And what about miracles? What can God do for us that we cannot do for ourselves? He works the miracle of faith through Holy Baptism. In this sacramental miracle, Christ drives out the devil, regenerates dying sinners, and gives us forgiveness and eternal salvation. Yes, Baptism is a miracle, for here God raises the dead, something we could never do for ourselves.

Stanzas 3–4 focus on what happened in the Ascension. Christ went through a cloud, was veiled from the sight of the Apostles, and received into heaven. And then the angels entered the picture: “To whom the angels, drawing nigh, ‘Why stand and gaze upon the sky?’” Recall that all of the important events in the life of Christ required explanation, a role usually fulfilled by angels. Jesus came from heaven. He accomplished His mission. Now the Son of God goes home. The hymn describes this event as His “noble triumph day.” The Psalmist said, “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (47:5). That is to say, Christ is exalted over His enemies, yes, even over our enemies. He has conquered death by His own death. He has defeated the power of sin, death, and eternal condemnation. He is lifted up and highly exalted, proclaiming the good news of life and salvation for all who believe. It is also written, “Thou hast ascended on high; Thou hast led captivity captive” (Ps. 68:18). Christ has taken our captor, Satan himself, and led him into captivity. Yes, Christ has taken all that haunts us and that dogs us to our dying day – sin and death, loneliness and despair, disease and illness – and led them captive, all to set us free.

And there’s more to look forward to: “Again shall ye behold Him so / As ye today have seen Him go.” How tempting it must have been for the disciples to stare blankly into heaven, wondering what they just saw and what they were supposed to do. But the angels gave them something to look forward to while they worked miracles and preached the Gospel: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Epistle). Christ ascended through the clouds. When the last day comes, He will return through the clouds. See, for instance, the stained-glass depiction of the Ascension, high above our altar. Christ is worshiped by angels and Apostles. He is surrounded with emblems of His life and work, all set in a literal “walk on the clouds.” And as He left in glory, so He will return in glory through the clouds, recalling His transfiguration and other manifestations of His glory in the Bible. And what about today? Has He left us in His ascension? No! For now, He is present with us at this altar, where He nourishes and strengthens us with His true body and blood. That’s why the old German tradition is a depiction of the ascension above the altar. Christ has ascended into heaven. But He has not left us. Rather, He is here every time we eat His body and drink His blood.

Stanzas 5–6 tell us why Jesus ascended into heaven. Hear the rich Gospel in st. 5: “Oh, grant us [there] to tend / And with unwearied hearts ascend . . . Unto Thy kingdom’s throne, where Thou, As is our faith, art seated now.” Christ, our Head, has gone into heaven. Where the Head goes, there the body must follow. We are the body of Christ, members of His own flesh and blood. As He went into heaven, so we will ascend to heaven in God’s good time. Yet even now, we are in heaven by faith: “As is our faith, art seated now.” That’s exactly what we pray in the Lord’s Supper liturgy, isn’t it? “Lift up your hearts / We lift them up unto the Lord.” So Christ is in us through His true body and blood. We are in Him by faith. And together, there is one Head and one body. But tomorrow is a Monday morning. What to do? Jesus has the answer for that, too. St. 6 proclaims God’s provisions for daily living. Christ is our “Joy and strong Defense” and “our future Recompense.” He is our joy in the midst of sorrow, our light in the darkness, and our hope in the midst of hopelessness. He is our strong defense against every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation. And “the light that springs from [Him]” shall be “ours through all eternity.”

Finally, stanza 7 summarizes the entire state of exaltation in Trinitarian terms. The first thing we notice about st. 7 is how it combines the resurrection and ascension of Christ: “O risen Christ, ascended Lord.” The resurrection and ascension belong together. Ascension is celebrated during the fifty great days of Easter, making the two feasts a perfect fit for one another. He rose on the third day, and He rose up by ascending to heaven on the 40th day. And how do we on earth respond? “All praise to Thee let earth accord.” That is to say, let every voice in every corner sing and preach the good news that God is gone up with a shout and the sound of a trumpet, and that He has led captivity captive (Gradual). And did you bother to count the number of Alleluia’s in this hymn? Seven stanzas times seven Alleluia’s = 49, just one short of fifty, the number of the Jubilee year in the OT (Lev. 26:8-22) and the number of days from Easter to Pentecost. So even the numbers in this hymn preach fulfillment, proclaiming the good news that Jesus rose on the third day, ascended on the fortieth, and sent the Comforter on the 50th day.

The Second Collect for Ascension, attributed to the Venerable Bede, summarizes our petitions this day and reaches out toward Pentecost:

“O King of Glory, Lord of hosts, who didst this day ascend in triumph far above all heavens, we beseech Thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us the Spirit of Truth, promised of the Father; O Thou who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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