A SERMON ON ASCENSION DAY

This sermon, preached in Basel Prison in 1956, is reproduced from Deliverance to the Captives. See p. 65 of Prayer and Preaching.

O LORD our God! Our father through thy Son who became our brother!

Thou callest us: `Return, you sons of man! Lift up your hearts! Seek what is above!' With these words thou hast summoned us this very morning. Here we are, each one with his life which is not his own, but wholly thine, wholly in thy hands; each one with his sins, great and small, which only thou canst forgive; each one with his sorrows which only thou canst transform into joy. Here we are nevertheless each one also with his own secret hope that thou wilt prove to be his almighty and merciful God.

We all know that only one thing will please and honour thee-earnest asking for thy Spirit, earnest searching for thy truth, earnest longing for thy help and guidance. We also know that even these can only be thy work in us. Wake us up, 0 Lord, that we may be awake!

Grant that everything we do in this hour be according to thy will, when we pray and sing, when we speak and listen, when we partake of the Lord's Supper. Grant this request to all that join us today in celebrating the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, even the bedridden in the hospitals, the mentally disturbed of our local institution, the countless crowd of those unaware that they themselves are prisoners, are sick or disturbed, and perhaps have never heard of thee as their comfort, their hope and their redeemer. Shed thy light upon them and upon us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Look up to him, your face will shine, and you shall never be ashamed. PSALM 34.5

My dear brothers and sisters, 'Look up to him!' This is what we commemorate on Ascension Day : the urgent invitation, the permission and the command, the freedom we enjoy as Christians and the obedience that is expected from us to look up to him, to Jesus Christ, who lived for us, died and rose again. He is our Saviour who watches over us like an older brother watches over his younger brothers and sisters, yet in his protection is also their example and their master.

He is above, in heaven . We are below, on earth. When we hear the word `heaven' we are inclined to think of the great blue or grey sphere arching over us with its sunshine, its clouds and its rain, or of the even higher world of the stars. This is what we may have in mind right now. In the vocabulary of the Bible, however, this 'heaven' is nothing but the sign of an even higher reality. There is a realm above and beyond the world of man, which is lost to our sight, to our understanding, to our penetration, and even more to our dominion. It is way above and beyond us. In biblical language heaven is the dwelling place, the throne, of God. It is the mystery encompassing us everywhere. There Jesus Christ lives. He is in the centre of this mystery beyond. Of all men, he alone went there, all by himself, in order to be there and from there, from the throne of God, the Lord and Saviour of us all. Therefore : Look up to him!

To 'look up' alone would not do. 'Chin up!' we are wont to say to a friend in distress. You may have heard this 'chin up!' yourself. But this is somewhat of a problem. Could it not be that above and beyond us, in heaven, we are confronted with a stark and merciless mirror, reflecting our own human affliction? We might see once more the wrong done to us by our neighbours and the wrong done by us to them, but now magnified and projected into the infinite. We might see our guilt, our inner anxieties and our outward affliction, all we call fate, and finally death itself. All these could be included in the mystery beyond, in heaven ! This heaven would lie like a dark cloud over our heads, or like one of those dungeons where they used to keep prisoners in centuries gone by, or even like a coffin lid, burying us alive under its weight. Does anyone wish to look up there? No, we'd better forget about such a menace from above ! But what is the use of trying not to think of it if it is nevertheless real? Things could even be much worse. God himself could be like this heaven : a Holy Being, rightfully turned against us, a sinister tyrant, the very enemy of mankind, or perhaps simply an indifferent God who willed for unknown reasons to set us under this cloud, under this dungeon, under this coffin lid. Many of us, even all of us in our desperate moments and years, hold on to this mental picture of heaven and of God. No, `look up' by itself would be no help at all.

But to look up to him, to Jesus Christ - this is our help ! He is over us. He is in the centre of that encompassing mystery. He is in heaven. Who is Jesus Christ? He is the man in whom God has not only expressed his love, not only painted it on the wall, but put it to work. He is the principal actor who has taken upon himself and has overcome our human affliction, the injustice done by ourselves and by everybody else, our guilt and anxiety, our fate, even our death. These evils no longer threaten us from above. They are below us, even under our feet. He is the Son of God, who was made man in our likeness, who became our brother, in order that we may be with him children of the Father, that we may all be reunited with God and may share in his blessings : in his severe kindness and in his kind severity, and lastly in the eternal life for which we are meant and which is meant for us. This Jesus Christ, this mighty man, this Son of God is in heaven. And so is God. In the face of the Son the face of the heavenly Father is made to shine.

'Look up to him!' This means : Let him be who he is, above us, in heaven. Acknowledge and believe that he is up there and lives for us! Keep firmly in mind that he intervenes with all his power in your behalf, but keep firmly in mind also that you belong to him and not to yourselves. Say very simply 'yes'. Say that he is right and wants to make things right for you, indeed has already made them right for us all. Is this an exaggerated claim? Has he really made things right for all of us? Even for the most miserable, the most afflicted and the most embittered of human beings? Yes! Even for the most grievous offenders? Yes! Even for the godless-or those pretending to be godless, as may be the case with some of your fellow-prisoners who declined to be with us this morning? Yes! Jesus Christ has made things right for them and for us all. He is willing to do it time and again. To look up to Jesus Christ means to accept his righteousness and to be content; not to question any more that he is right. This is the message of the Ascension : we are invited to look up to him, to this Jesus Christ, or, to use a more familiar expression, to believe in him.

'Look up to him and your face will shine!' What an announcement ! What a promise and assurance ! People, very ordinary human beings, with illumined faces! Not angels in heaven, but men and women on earth ! Not some lucky inhabitants of a beautiful island far away, but people here in Basel, here in this house! Not some very special people among us, but each and every one of us! Might this be the true meaning of the promise? Yes, this is the true meaning. But is this the only real meaning? Yes, this is the only real meaning. Look up to him, and your face will shine

When a man, any one of us, obeys this imperative and looks up to him, to Jesus Christ, a momentous change takes place in him. The greatest revolution is unimportant by comparison. The transformation cannot be overlooked. It is manifest, quite simply, in so much as he who looks up to him and believes in him, here on earth, here in Basel, here in this house, may become a child of God. It is an inward change, yet it cannot possibly remain hidden. As soon as it occurs, it presses forcefully for outward manifestation. A great and enduring light brightly dawns on such a person. This light is reflected on his face, in his eyes, in his behaviour, in his words and deeds. Such a person experiences joy in the midst of his sorrows and sufferings, much as he still may sigh and grumble. Not a cheap and superficial joy that passes, but deep-seated, lasting joy. It transforms man in his sadness into a fundamentally joyful being. We may as well admit it : he has got something to laugh at, and he just cannot help laughing, even though he does not feel like it. His laughter is not bad, but good, not a mockery, but an open and relaxing laughter, not a diplomatic gesture as has recently become so fashionable in politics, but honest and sincere laughter, coming from the bottom of man's heart. Such light and joy and laughter are ours when we look up to him, to Jesus Christ. He is the one who makes us radiant. We ourselves cannot put on bright faces. But neither can we prevent them from shining. Looking up to him, our faces shine.

Dear brothers and sisters, why is it then that our faces are not bright? If they were, we would feel fine, would be glad to live uprightly and contentedly in spite of adversities, wouldn't we? Just because we would feel fine, we would be radiant. But something more important has to be considered here. If the light, the joy and the laughter of God's children really pressed for outward manifestation and became visible, our fellowmen around us would notice it in the first place. Don't you agree with me that such a change would make a quite definite impact on them? It would be a sign that there are different and far better things in store than they are wont to see. It would give them confidence, courage and hope. They would be relieved, as we have been relieved this last week by the sun after a long winter. Why relieved? Because such a bright face would be the reflection of heaven on earth, of Jesus Christ, of God the Father himself. What a relief that light would be for them and for us ! Do we not all together long for its appearance?

We should get the simple truth straight, dear friends. We are in the world not to comfort ourselves, but to comfort others. Yet the one and only genuine comfort we may offer to our fellowmen is this reflection of heaven, of Jesus Christ, of God himself, as it appears on a radiant face. Why don't we do it? Why do we withhold from them the one comfort of mutual benefit? Why are the faces we show each other at best superior looking, serious, questioning, sorrowful and reproachful faces, at worst even grimaces or lifeless masks, real Carnival masks? Why don't our faces shine?

Let me say only one thing here. It could easily be otherwise. We could greet each other with bright faces! We could comfort each other. We, here, today! Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom for man to comfort his neighbour. 'He who believes in me,' says Jesus Christ himself in another Scripture passage, 'out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.' This happens when we look up to him. No one has ever looked up to him without this miracle happening. No one who gets slowly used to looking up to him has failed to glimpse light around him. The dark earth on which we live has always become bright whenever man looked up to him, and believed in him.

'Look up to him, your face will shine, and you shall never be ashamed. ' I just mentioned the 'dark' earth. Reading the newspapers, looking around at the world and into our own hearts and lives, we can't possibly deny that the earth is really dark, that we live in a world to be afraid in. Why afraid? Because we all live under the threat of being put to shame, and rightly so. This would not only imply that we have blundered here and there, but that our whole life, with all our thoughts, desires and accomplishments, might be in truth, in God's judgment and verdict, a failure, an infamy, a total loss. This is the great threat. This is why the ground shakes under our feet, the sky is covered with clouds, and the earth, so beautifully created, darkens. Indeed we should be put to shame.

But now we hear the very opposite. 'You shall never be ashamed.' What I would like to do, dear brothers and sisters, is to ask you, each and all, to get up together and like a choir repeat: 'We must never be ashamed!' Each one would have to repeat it for himself and lastly I would repeat it for myself : 'I must never be ashamed!' This is what counts. We shall not be, I shall not be. ashamed, not when looking up to him. Not because we deserve to be spared the shame! Not even because our faces shine when raised to him. Our radiance will be and must be a sign that we will not be put to shame. It is an evidence of the relationship established between God and ourselves. And this is the power of the relationship : what is true and valid in heaven, what Jesus Christ has done for us, what has been accomplished by him, man's redemption, justification and preservation, is true and valid on earth also. The Father does not put us, his children, to shame when we look up to Jesus. In consequence we, his children, may never be ashamed. This we may know, this may be our strength, this may be our life, if only we look up to him, fearlessly and brightly. May each one repeat in his heart : 'Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name ! Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not all his benefits; who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.' With these words let us go to the Lord's Supper. Amen.

0 Lord, our God! We are grateful that all is as we have tried to say with our weak words and to hear with our weak ears. Our praise of thy name will never cease, because thy mercy and truth are without end, and are always greater and more glorious than we may ever express or grasp.

Bring about the first fruits of thy spirit in our hearts and lives, and in all we shall think and say and do today and tomorrow! Grant us to be faithful stewards of thy gifts, making good use of the time which thou hast given to work for its fulfilment, for thy glory and our salvation!

Continue to have mercy on us and on all men, on our families, on all the suffering and tempted, on the authorities of this town and country, on civil servants, teachers and students, on the judges, the accused and the sentenced, on the pastors and their congregations, on the missionaries and those to whom they are privileged to proclaim thy truth, on the Evangelicals in Spain and in South America and on their misguided oppressors. Where thou dost not build through thy word, Church and world are built in vain. Let thy word run its course and reach many. Let it go to all men with the power to shine, to heal and to win which it has whenever it is rightly preached and received in the power of thy Holy Spirit.

`Our Father ...

Chapter 6 Table of Contents Appendix 1