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“The Exaltation of Our Lord”
Philippians 2:9-11


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—September 25, 2011

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

In today’s Epistle Reading, the Apostle Paul beautifully describes what we call the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Christ’s humiliation means that although from the moment of his conception he is both fully God and fully man, during his earthly life he voluntarily set aside his divine prerogatives and did not always or fully use his divine power. Paul puts it this way in 2nd Corinthians, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

It was necessary for our Lord to humble himself in this way for your salvation. Your sins cried out to God for punishment, and it was God’s own Son who answered that cry. “Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was made man.” He humbled himself to be born and to live as a human. He humbled himself to obey the law perfectly on your behalf. He humbled himself to suffer and die as a sacrifice for your sins. As the book of Acts says, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name... Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

The stages of our Lord’s humiliation recorded in the Creed are like steps down to the lowest point: “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

Today, we climb up the steps of Christ’s exaltation, which Paul describes in our text from Philippians: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

We begin climbing up the steps of our Lord’s exaltation as recorded in the Creed at what seems to be a surprising place: “He descended into hell.” Now, wouldn’t you think that descending into hell would be part of our Lord’s humiliation, not his exaltation?

Christ’s descent into hell is actually mentioned only one or two times in the Bible. It is not described or explained in great detail, but from the verses that do mention it we get a picture of Christ’s descent into hell that makes clear it was not at all a matter of suffering or punishment or humiliation, but a part of his triumph over Satan. Peter says, “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Christ’s descent into hell was not a punishment he endured. When he cried out from the cross “It is finished” that meant his sacrifice was complete. In his life and death he suffered the full punishment for our sins. And it was on the cross that he experienced the pain of hell—separation from God—at the moment he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Christ’s descent into hell occurred sometime after his death on Good Friday and before his bodily resurrection on Easter Sunday, when he went in spirit to the realm of Satan, not to suffer punishment but to proclaim his victory over Satan and his followers. Martin Luther says they were having a great big party in hell because they thought they had won the ultimate victory. But Christ came to hell itself and crashed their party with the proclamation of HIS ultimate victory over sin, death and the Devil.

It was customary in ancient warfare for the conqueror to go right to the capitol city of those he had defeated, and there to flaunt before them his triumph with victory parade. That is what Christ did in his descent into hell. Paul puts it this way in Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Peter says, “He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” The preaching of Christ in hell was not a preaching of repentance or a second chance for those in hell—it is too late for that. Instead, Christ went right into Satan’s stronghold and proclaimed his ultimate victory and Satan’s ultimate defeat.

The first step of Christ’s exaltation: “He descended into hell.”

The second step: “The third day he rose again from the dead.”

This is a rubber stamp that says “Paid,” which an office would use to stamp on a bill after you have paid off what you owe. On the bill that you owed for your sins the resurrection of Jesus Christ is God the Father’s stamp that says “PAID,” in full. Paul puts it this way in Romans: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God the Father’s announcement to the world: “I have accepted my Son’s sacrifice as payment in full for the sins of the whole world.”

The second step of Christ’s exaltation: “The third day he rose again from the dead.”

The third step: “He ascended into heaven.”

The Book of Acts says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] showed himself to [the Apostles] and ... appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” At the end of this forty day period of special instruction and preparation for their mission of evangelizing the world, Acts says that Jesus led them out to the Mount of Olives and there “He lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” That is the moment pictured in a stained glass window above our Baptismal font.

After some thirty-three years in this world, Jesus was going home in triumph. His earthly mission was fulfilled. He came from the Father, he returned to the Father; he came from heaven, he ascended into heaven. The cycle was complete. As the Gospel of John says, “The time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.”

The third step of Christ’s exaltation: “He ascended into heaven.”

The fourth step: “And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

Christ’s enthronement at the right hand of God the Father is a figure of speech with symbolic significance. In the ancient world the man who sat to the right of the king was given power and authority to rule. An example of this in the Bible is Joseph, who was made ruler over all Egypt. We still have the expression “right hand man.” So, Jesus’ enthronement at the right hand of God the Father means symbolically that he is ruler over all things. As Peter says, “[He] has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

The last few weeks in preschool chapel we’ve been singing the old spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” a song the children really love.  It is specifically God the Son, exalted and enthroned at the Father’s right hand, who rules over all things. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians, “[God the Father] 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 title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the Church.” “He’s got you and me, brother, in his hands. . . He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

Even though Jesus ascended into heaven, he is still at work here on earth as our Prophet, Priest, and King. As our Prophet, Christ is still preaching and teaching, no longer in person but through his called representatives and through his Word. As Jesus said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [my] name to all nations.”

As our Priest, Jesus is our Mediator, our go-between, who intercedes on our behalf with God the Father. As Paul says, “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 constantly pleads to God the Father for our forgiveness, and also for help and blessing with our problems and our needs. He promised, “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray with faith in him as your Savior. The reason God the Father will always answer with blessing prayers made with faith in Jesus, is that Jesus himself pleads with God the Father for us. He pleads for us not on the basis of our own merits, which are not deserving of anything good, but on the basis of his perfect, immeasurable merit, to which God the Father will always give heed. That is why Jesus taught us to pray in his name.

As our seated King at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus rules over the entire universe, as he said after his resurrection, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And in a special way he rules over the Church, all believers on earth and in heaven, as Paul says, “Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

The fourth step of Christ’s exaltation: “[He] sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

The fifth and final step: “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

For nearly 2,000 years the exaltation of Christ to the right hand of God the Father as the ruler over all things has been a matter of faith. But, Revelation says, “Behold, he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him.” Christ’s Second Coming to judge the world will be the pinnacle of his exultation, because at that moment everyone, even those who reject him as their Savior, will nevertheless be compelled to acknowledge him as the Son of God, the King of Kings, and the Judge of all. Those who trusted in Christ in this life will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord with joy, to their salvation. But those who rejected him in this life will finally confess this truth with sorrow, only after it is too late to escape damnation. By this confession they themselves will acknowledge the lightness of the judgment passed upon them. As Paul says in our text, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

During his earthly life, Christ wore humility like a veil covering over and concealing his divine power and glory. You remember how the Gospels tell us that when the disciples arrived at the empty tomb on Easter morn they found the strips of linen Jesus’ body had been wrapped in lying there empty. Like those grave clothes which were cast aside and left behind, after he had achieved our salvation the veil of humility which he wore in this life was likewise cast aside and left behind. That is the meaning of “The Exaltation of Our Lord.”

Amen.

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