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“I Am with You Always”
Matthew 28:20


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
The Ascension of Our Lord—May 13, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

What a rollercoaster it had been for the disciples for the past few years, and especially the past few months.  Just a few years ago most of them lived a quiet existence as fishermen on the idyllic Sea of Galilee, and Matthew was a tax collector there.  But, then, a former carpenter turned rabbi from nearby Nazareth entered into their lives and changed them forever: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  At once they left their nets, their boats, their tax collector’s booth, their communities, and homes, and families, and followed him.  As Peter later said, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Luke says, “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God, and the Twelve were with him.”  For three years he taught the Twelve, preparing them for the mission he gave them in this evening’s Gospel Reading: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [my] name to all nations.”

But, they misunderstood his mission.  They thought he had come to be an earthly King, an earthly Messiah, an earthly Savior from their nation’s enemies, the Romans who occupied their land.  On the way up to Jerusalem for that final Passover they were excitedly going up this mistaken rollercoaster.  They thought Jesus would now start a revolution, kick out the Romans, take over the country as King Jesus, with themselves helping rule his new kingdom.  But, then the rollercoaster came crashing down, when instead he was crucified, dead, and buried.

But, that wasn’t the end of their rollercoaster ride with Jesus.  For, on the third day he rose again from the dead.  They were lifted from the depths of dark despair to the heights of unbelievable ecstasy.  Luke says that when the risen Lord appeared to them, they were filled with “joy and amazement.”

We celebrate Ascension Day today on the fortieth day after Easter because the opening verses of Acts tell us, “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”  For forty days they were high on the rollercoaster again, but then on Ascension Day they came crashing down, as the Lord they loved once again was taken from them.

Our lives too are often rollercoasters like the disciples.  I’ve been pastor here for eight years, and the house across from the church on Bison Trail is now for sale for the fourth time in those eight years.  Many people ride the corporate rollercoaster of expansions and contractions, hirings and layoffs, reorganization and relocation.  A week ago today investments had an unprecedented and unnerving rollercoaster as the market crashed 1,000 points in just a few minutes and then swung back up again.

And we have many rollercoasters in our personal lives, and the lives of our loved ones.  The joy of marriage ends in the pain of divorce.  Cancer is in remission, but then comes back again.  The excitement of birth, and the tragedy of death.

Before he ascends into heaven, Jesus reassures his beloved disciples that even though he will not be with them in the same way as the past three years, and the past forty days, even though, as he said, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” yet still he will be with them, always:

“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus is with you, through all the ups and downs on the rollercoaster of life.  Although he has “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” as we confessed in the Creed, he is not a distant, other-worldly God.  He is concerned about you and your everyday life.  He is with you always.

That is unique to our Christian faith.  Islam, for example, does not even have personal prayer, like we think of in Christianity.  The so-called prayers recited five times a day in Islam are not any kind of personal pleas, but rote recitations in Arabic that many don’t even really understand.  There is no opportunity in Islam to bring your personal problems and needs and concerns to a God who cares about you.  For, the false god Allah is portrayed in Islam as a distant, other-worldly god, who really doesn’t care about you, and your life, and your problems, needs, and concerns.  Allah would never say “I am with you always” because he does not care about or get involved in the personal lives of his followers.

It’s the same with Buddha, Confucius, Hinduism, and all false religions, and the false gods and teachers they revere.  None of them would say, “I am with you always.”  Either they just don’t care about their individual followers, and their lives, and problems, and needs, and concerns; or, like Mohammed, and Buddha, and Confucius, they are dead and gone, incapable of hearing or helping their followers.  They did not claim nor even want to have an ongoing interest in their followers’ lives.

Paul says in 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.”  Christianity is unique in teaching that Jesus both cares about us and is interceding for us with his heavenly Father.   

He is interceding for you, first of all, for your forgiveness.  As John says, “If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Jesus is interceding with his heavenly Father on your behalf to forgive all your sins, because he gave himself for you.  Your sins are all forgiven on account of his atoning sacrifice.  “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.”

Jesus is also interceding for you on behalf of your personal problems, needs, and concerns.  “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.”  “Come unto me, all you who are weary and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”  John says, “This is the confidence that we have in approaching him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”

As Christians, we take for granted what the founder of our faith assures his followers, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  This assurance of a personal, loving God is reflected in our hymns: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all your sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! . . .  Have we trials and temptations?  Is there trouble anywhere? . . . In his arms he’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there.”

The famous poem “Footprints” is all about Jesus walking with you throughout your life, especially in your toughest times.  There’s even a Broadway musical number that says, “I’ll walk with God, I’ll take his hand; I’ll talk with God, he’ll understand.”

But, you could never have a hymn or a poem or a song like that in any other religion.  For, the assurance of a personal, loving God, who cares about you and is with you always, is really unique to Christianity.  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  What a precious promise that for you as you ride the rollercoaster of life.  

Jesus is with you always.  With you in good times.  With you in bad times.  With you when you fall, to forgive your sin.  With you through the love and fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  With you through prayer.  With you in his Word and Sacraments.  With you this evening in his body and blood.

And, finally he will take you to be with him in the house of the Lord forever.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms. . .  I am going there to prepare a place for you. . . I will come again and take you to be with me.”

The book of Hebrews assures us, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’  So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’”  Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which we celebrate this evening, does not mean that he is a distant, other-worldly God.  He cares about your life, your problems, your needs and concerns.  He hears and answers your prayers.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Amen.

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