Today is Ascension Day: 40 days after Easter Sunday—the day we remember Jesus’ exaltation into heaven above all power and authority in heaven on earth. It’s an immense and endlessly meaningful event. But today I’d like to put in the context of an ascension that didn’t happen.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Humans have always wanted to ascend; always had a sense that we were made for higher existence—a life closer to heaven. The desire was there right from the start when the devil was able to entice Eve with the prospect of becoming more “like God”. It’s there in the collective attempt break into heaven at Babel. The impulse shows up in the hubris of Nebuchadnezzar and Herod (Dan 4; Acts 12:23).
And the desire is still with us. We see it today in flights of cinematic fancy which give humans superpowers or life among the stars. It’s at work in the science-fiction dreams of transhumanists or the grim science-fact realities of drone warriors who rain death from above. And, more quietly, the desire for ascension murmurs in the heart of everyone who is in pursuit of their dream—chasing a real life of fulfilment, freedom, recognition or creativity. We all want more. We all want something higher and better.
The desire for ascension murmurs in the heart of everyone who is in pursuit of their dream—chasing a real life of fulfilment, freedom, recognition or creativity. We all want more. We all want something higher and better.
But we don’t want God. In our folly or sin we want the good things of the world without the One who gave them to us. The despot wants to rule—which is what humans were made for—but he doesn’t want to rule under God. The artist wants to rejoice in the glory of creation and the acknowledgement of her gift—nothing wrong with any of that—but she doesn’t necessarily want to honour the God who gave them to her. The rest of us, pining for that dream job, new car or phone or body or whatever, keep setting our hopes on the minor graces of life that we must surely know can never really satisfy us.
We are, all of us, striving for ascension-lite. We settle for too little. We are bought–off cheap. We aim too low.
But not Jesus.
Satan’s Dodgy Deals
In the moment of his temptation Jesus is approached by Satan, the patron saint of bad deals and shoddy substitutes. He invites the Bridegroom of the last wedding feast to settle for stones changed into bread. He challenges the heir of heaven, to prove himself with a David Copperfield-style trust-fall off the temple. Finally—just as he persuaded Adam and Eve to trade in life with God in Paradise-central for thorns thistles and a guilty conscience—Satan tries to persuade Jesus to trade in “all authority in heaven and earth” for a bit of raw political power. Sure it won’t be a heavenly rule (the best Satan can offer is a “high mountain”) but it will be ascension-lite: fast and easy; no need for any more fasting or suffering or being tortured to death on a cross for other people’s sins.
Jesus refuses it all. He doesn’t want rock-cakes, he wants to learn the lesson that God wants him to learn—the sustaining power of God’s word (v4 c.f. Deut 8:3). He doesn’t want his insecurities salved by easy miracles that twist God’s arm—he wants to let God be God and wait for his timing. And he definitely doesn’t want to be Satan’s sherif—he wants to please his Father and share the real life and power promised to him.
And we know the outcome. Because he didn’t grasp after a rebellious DIY equality with God—because he was willing to go down to the grave instead of up—God gave him a real ascension:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.
Let’s thank God that Jesus didn’t settle for ascension-lite. If he had, the world would have been lost and we would still be in our sins. The best we could ever hope for would be an endless string of earthly things that would never satisfy us.
But Jesus has really ascended. He has cut a hole through floor of heaven and been enthroned with our God. And because of that we can go there too. Our longings can find their true end in the presence of our Father.
But Jesus has really ascended. He has cut a hole through floor of heaven and been enthroned with our God. And because of that we can go there too. Our longings can find their true end in the presence of our Father. Our real life life is in heaven:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Jesus’ Ascension and Ours
What does ascension mean to you? You know the right answer—true living is about knowing God—but if you’re like me (and I bet you are) then your affections are are always drifting back to lesser ascensions. You keep looking for a real life in things and achievements and merely earthly relationships. There’s nothing wrong with earthly goals. But the real ascension that Jesus calls us to is so much greater; so much more permanent and worth having.
Jesus, our Lord and Brother turned away from ascension-lite so he could give us a real ascension with him. Somehow, says the New Testament, we are already there: raised with him and seated in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6); amongst innumerable angels in festal gathering (Heb 12:22).
Let’s pray that God would help us to live in the light of the Ascension. Not for ascension-lite.