Ascension Sunday 2009This Lord’s Day is Ascension Sunday, the day we have set apart to commemorate the exaltation of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Ancient of Days. This was the day upon which He was given universal and complete authority over all nations and kings, when He was given all rule and authority, dominion and power. Our Lord’s name is the name which is high above every name, and His is the name that, when spoken, will cause every knee to bow, and every tongue to confess, that He is indeed Lord of heaven and earth. And, as we cannot emphasize too much, or say too often, this is no invisible spiritual truth. It is simply, undividedly, true. This means it is true in a way that makes it true on the most practical levels. It is true when church is over.
"It came to pass also in the twelfth year, in the fifteenth day of the month, that the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and cast them down, even her, and the daughters of the famous nations, unto the nether parts of the earth, with them that go down into the pit. Whom dost thou pass in beauty? go down, and be thou laid with the uncircumcised. They shall fall in the midst of them that are slain by the sword: she is delivered to the sword: draw her and all her multitudes. The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of hell with them that help him: they are gone down, they lie uncircumcised, slain by the sword" (Eze 32:17-21).
One of the visions that the prophet Ezekiel was given was that of a parliament of dead kings, assembled in the nether regions of Sheol—the Greek word for this place is Hades. The prophet was speaking of nations which had had their time of great glory under the sun, but which, inevitably, had descended below to an empty governance of shades and shadows, the empty governance of nothing that mattered. This reality is inescapable—in Augustine’s trenchant phrase, among the nations of men, the dead are replaced by the dying, and however splendid an empire might be for the moment, there is no future for any nation outside of Christ. History occurs on the inexorable conveyor belt of moving time. There is nothing that will shut this conveyor belt off, and so there is no device to allow one nation’s day of glory to be forever fixed. Glory cannot be kept or retained in that way at all. There is no future glory for any king or president, for any nation or people, outside of Christ. So for those who reject Christ, below the earth in the nether regions, we find nothing but wisps of lost glory, and above ground at some future date talented archeologists might be able to find the remnants of an Ozymandian ruin.But contrast this with what we celebrate on this day of Ascension. The Lord Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and He must reign until He has made His enemies a footstool. Of the increase of His government there will be no end. They will not hurt or destroy in all God's holy mountain, and we will render our thanks for this feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, to the Lord Jesus Himself. He has ascended; He has given gifts to men. Because He has given these gifts, we in the Church labor for the advancement of His kingdom, praying for it to come. His kingdom has come, His kingdom is coming, and His kingdom will come. So unbelieving kings therefore descend to nothing. The faithful king has ascended, and He shall reign for ever and ever. The Lord Jesus ascends, and all godless caesars descend.When President Obama was first elected to the presidency, here at Christ Church we began (as the Scriptures require) to pray for him, and for his administration (1 Tim. 2:1-2). This is a duty which we undertook gladly, and which we will continue gladly. Our heart's desire is for God to bless him and his family, to protect his health and his person, and we pray that his soul might be saved at the last day. Our desire for him is entirely for good, and not for evil.But given his views on the life issue, it was obvious that at some point something confrontational was going to have to be said by the Church at large, with the only question being when and how. The clearest and most obvious time for this, as it now appears, is in the time just before our new president’s first nomination to the Supreme Court. Because Justice Souter has now announced his retirement, and the president is working through his nomination process, that time is now. And as providence would have it, at just about the same time, Ascension Sunday has arrived and it is a most appropriate time to set the law of our loving triune God alongside the rules of lawless men in order to have a look at them together.
Remember that the world belongs to Jesus Christ because He has purchased it with His own blood. He did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved. The Lord Jesus is on the throne at the right hand of the Father, and He will remain there until all His enemies are His footstool. In this context, and with these truths in mind, President Obama is preparing to make his first nomination to the highest court in our land. This is a court that for decades has permitted the slaughter of millions for the sake of personal convenience, that demanding Baal of the American consumer. So what does this all mean?The claims of Jesus Christ are inescapably political, and nothing whatever can be done to alter or change that. The crown that Jesus Christ has received is not like the crowns found in Sheol or Hades—His is no shadow crown. Neither is it a good idea crown, a theological crown, or a "spiritual dimension" crown. There are crowns other than His, but all of them are subordinate to Him. Some Christians talk as though there are "two kingdoms," which is only all right if we recognize that there are not two kings. There is only one King, the Lord Jesus Christ. However many kingdoms there are, Jesus Christ rules them all. As He put it in His commission to the Church, "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). After He had been raised from the dead, His Father invited Him to make a request, to ask for the ends of the earth for His possession (Ps. 2:8). He has in fact made this request, and He has received everything He asked for.
So Christ has established His kingdom, which will continue to grow and flourish in the world, with necessary political ramifications, and it is compromise even to think about trying to impede or alter that. But as His kingdom is being established in more and more manifest ways, what do we do in the meantime? Jesus Christ must never be invoked in a partisan way, which is quite a different thing than recognizing that the implications of His ascension are necessarily political. To say that Christ is king is a political statement—it posits a rival polis, a city of God that reigns over all the cities of men. To confess this is to make the good confession. But appealing to Christ in a partisan way subordinates His authority to the various authorities found in the cities of man. But He is the Emperor; He is the King. He is not the latest Republican president’s sidekick. He is not the impotent god of national prayer breakfasts, the god who blesses the pancakes of our idolatrous leaders.
So these words today are words that are being declared by a Christian minister—and not by a Republican spokesman opposing a Democrat president. In the first place, I am not a Republican, and, secondly, even if I were, it would be necessary to keep that out of it, setting it completely aside. The pulpit must never be beholden to partisan interests, but at the same time the pulpit does have something to say that all the nations and their rulers need to hear. And lest any partisan opponents of the president take glee in what is here declared, it is necessary to point out that Justice Souter, who is now being replaced, was a Republican appointment to the High Court and he was no friend of the most defenseless among us. We need to remember that many of the justices whose robes are soaked with the blood of the innocents were Republican appointees. The guilt of this nation is bipartisan guilt, with more than enough to go around.Now there is another possible objection. It may seem odd to preach to someone who is not present here with us. But there are three reasons for preaching such a message anyway. First, this is a message that all Americans need to hear because we elected this man as our president. He is our representative civil head, and there is no way to address him without addressing the nation. All of us need to hear this. The popular bumper sticker—don't blame me, I voted for the other guy—is not consistent with any kind of covenantal mindset, and this would include national covenants such as we have. Whenever injustice prevails in a land, the blood goes into the ground. When judgment falls on a nation, it falls on the nation. This means that there is no way to preach a sermon to the president "instead of" to the people he governs. Any sermon to a president is a sermon to the people. In a democratic republic like ours, it is not possible for a president to be called to repentance in a way that does not summon the people to repentance as well.Second, judgment begins in the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). As we learn repentance in the Church, we need to pray for the authority of conviction that will return us to the time when kings were far more aware of the pulpit than they are now. Mary of Scots did not attend the church services where Knox preached, but they were somehow the kind of sermons she would hear about. What St. Paul once said about the resurrection used to apply also to the authoritative proclamations of the gospel by the Church—they were not done in a corner. The Church is not called to be a lobbying agency, so if we have something lawful and necessary to say to the magistrate, it should be said here. This is how the Church speaks as the Church, in the name of Jesus. And if it becomes necessary for the Church to speak in this way, it should be done with the full confidence that God will take care to ensure the message gets where it needs to go.And the third point is related to the second. Ecclesiastes tells us that even a little bird can get a message to a king (Ecc. 10:20). True, the context of that passage shows it is urging us to watch carefully what we say, lest we fall into the king’s disfavor. And so in submission to that warning, every word of this message has been repeatedly both measured and weighed. But while a righteous king might find out what ungodly say about him, it is also true that an unrighteous ruler might in this way be confronted with the plain teaching of the Word of God. A little bird might bring the law and gospel, and not just the latest partisan gossip.
And so with this as our apologetic for the task at hand, we come now to the point.Mr. President, your past record, your campaign promises, your political affiliations, your supporters, your political philosophy, and your record since the election, all consistently indicate that your appointment to the Supreme Court will be a pro-abortion nominee, one who favors the continued recognition of a ghoulish "right" to slaughter the unborn. Your rhetoric, as displayed very recently at Notre Dame, hypocritically aspires to transcend this moral confrontation, sometimes disingenuously called "a debate," as though you are somehow above it all—but your record and actions indicate otherwise. You are radically down to earth in your complete support of unrestricted abortion rights. You are a thoroughly committed partisan in this sick war that adults have declared on children. This means that we have every reason to believe that you will decide, or that you already have decided, to nominate a pro-abortion judge to this vacancy. And so we come to the central point of this message, declared to you by a minister of Jesus Christ, speaking in His name and on His behalf. You may not do this thing. And if by the time this message is preached, you have already placed the name of such a person in nomination, you are commanded in the name of the Lord Jesus to repent, and withdraw that name from consideration. The one to whom you ultimately answer is the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the American people. And this Jesus, who is the Lord of all presidents and parliaments, kings and congresses, forbids what you are in the midst of doing. And so I say it again. You may not.You said in the campaign that you did not have "a litmus test" for your nominees, but it is important for you to know and recognize that the Lord Jesus does have a litmus test for judges. He requires them to hate injustice and to judge righteously (Dt. 1:16), to defend the fatherless (Is. 1:23; Jer. 5:28), and to keep the land from being soaked with the blood of innocents (Hos. 6:6-8; Ps. 10:18). Judges must adjudicate with godly wisdom (Prov. 8:16). Judges must recognize that there is a Judge above them, one to whom they answer. The Lord is our judge, lawgiver and king (Is. 33:22). And judges who refuse to acknowledge the wisdom of heaven are judges that the Lord will bring down to nothing. He makes the judges of the earth as vanity (Is. 40:23).
Now at this point, you might be thinking that the best response would be to simply dismiss the insignificant messenger or herald, to shoo away the little bird. "Megalomania is never attractive," you might say, "especially in small town pastors." But this objection actually brings the biblical answer to this objection right along with it. This is what God does. This is His way. He chooses the despised of this world to confront the worldly wise, and He takes those who are small and insignificant and He works through them. The authority of a messenger always lies in the message itself, and in the authority of the one who sent it. The authority of an ambassador or herald works the same way. And in this instance, the authority of any minister with an open Bible is authority enough.
So hear the word of the Lord. You have no mandate to allow for the summary executions of anyone. You have no authority to make whether or not a baby is allowed to take a breath of air a matter of somebody else’s political "choice." That is not yours to give. You have no right to deprive anyone of life without due process. And to address the crowning hypocrisy in all of this, you have no authority to invert the meanings of empathy and cruelty. You have stated that one of the characteristics of your nominee would be "empathy." But the treatment that unborn children receive in this calloused and cruel nation of ours is a photo negative of true empathy. We dismember little children, we kill them with saline injections, we suck out their brains with high powered equipment, and you want a nominee who will keep this ghastly business going, and you want one who will call what he is doing empathy. But the prophet Isaiah has declared an authoritative word—"Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!" (Is 5:20-21). Woe, in other words, to those who do exactly what you are doing.
Furthermore, the one who is the resurrection and the life, the one who is the source of all our life, is the Lord Jesus. The Lord gives, and so the Lord is the only one with the authority to take away. You did not give life, and so unless you have direct warrant from the one who did give life, you have no authority whatever to take it away. This is why the magistrate can execute a murderer after a fair trial; God has given that kind of authority to the magistrate (Rom. 13:4). But without authorization from heaven, the capacity to kill does not confer the right to kill. Murder on a large scale, or conducted in a highly organized fashion, does not mysteriously turn into something else.
The kings in our text discovered what it was to sink away from the light of life and the presence of the Lord. They descended to the nether regions, to the land of fading shadows, and they really did fade away. But faithful kings bring their honor and glory into the New Jerusalem, while those who descend into the pit are tumbling from a great height, a height which they consistently refused to understand.
Josef Stalin once dismissively asked how many divisions the pope had, but this betrays the tyrant's radical confusion about the nature of Christ’s rule. It is long since the time when Stalin had to stand before the one he had determined to so grievously insult. Every victim of his, millions of them, bore the image of God, and Stalin had poured out his hatred of God by attacking that image. And when he was done, he went to his accounting.
The God, in whose name I am declaring these things, judges kings, presidents, and rulers in three ways. The first is the way He has already judged Stalin. Every tyrant, every bloodthirsty ruler, despite the impulse to be as God, has this disadvantage. Regardless of what happens, he too is a mortal and he will die. However many of his fellow mortals he might kill, he will still die. He will follow all of his victims. And when he dies, he will find himself standing before the throne of God, naked and ashamed. There will be no armies to summon, no UN resolutions to manipulate, no secret police to call, no wiretaps to order, no critics to silence, no enemies that can be removed in order to fix the problem. When that day comes, as it comes to all, there will be no way to throw your arms over your head in a way that will ward off the judgment. The only defense for any man is to take refuge in the merciful righteousness of Jesus Christ. Flee to him, even now. Scripture contains one account of a king who did this—Manasseh was a vile king who repented at the end of his life (2 Chron. 33:13). We have one example, so that no one might despair—but only one so that no one might presume. Christ suffered and died on the cross for our sins, however grievous they were, He was buried, and rose again from the dead for our justification. He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, and He has commanded us to offer this gospel to every creature, every person, and to every president. Come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ. Come as you are, but you may not remain as you are.
The second way that God judges is through temporal judgment on kings, together with the nations who exalt them. These are judgments in history. It is kings who hide in the rocks of the mountains (Rev. 6:15). God is the one who sent an angel to summon the birds of the air so that they might gorge themselves on the flesh of kings (Rev. 19:18). These are not visions of the end of the world, but are rather visions of haughty powers that were brought low as the result of battles, famines, droughts, and more battles. Every great nation, while on top of the world, forgets all that has gone before with regard to the other nations before. Every nation in this position preens itself, pretending that the inexorable laws of history have been set aside just this once. So if America continues in this godless fashion, then America will fall under the same kind of judgment, and that judgment will be righteous, holy, and true. And you as one of our civil representatives will bear significant responsibility for the disaster.
So we have a judgment on the individual level, when every mortal man dies. It is appointed to man once to die, and after that, the judgment (Heb. 9:27). When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes (Prov. 11:7). We also have historical judgments—nations which exalt folly and deride wisdom are themselves brought low. They are brought low in time and in history in such a way as to cause schoolchildren of a future era to struggle as they try to keep all the names of these departed glories sorted out—Belshazzar, Kaiser Wilhelm, Tammerlane, Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and countless others. The glory of all kingdoms outside of Christ is the glory of a transient morning mist—nothing to take refuge in.
But we come now to the third and last form of judgment. Mr. President, I am speaking to you in the name of the one before whom the mountains and the oceans will flee away. Not only will individuals face God, but the day is coming when all heaven and earth will be transformed in the presence of the Lord Himself. The Great Day will eventually arrive, as the Lord has promised us, and all nations will be assembled before the living God. This will happen at the general resurrection of the dead. We know that all the individual inhabitants of Sodom have long since met their individual recompense. We also know that Sodom was thrown down thousands of years ago with a firestorm from heaven (Gen. 19:28), so that we might take a greater warning from it than we do (Jude 7). But despite these two forms of judgment, the Lord Jesus speaks of a future time when Sodom will be assembled with all the nations for judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:24). If Jesus speaks of a future time when it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for Capernaum, on the day when full justice is unveiled, that must mean that that day has not yet arrived. And when it does, America will be there, right along with Nineveh and Tyre, Athens and Rome, Babylon and Berlin. How shall we stand? What shall we say?
And when you finally come to stand before Him, the one who is a true King, there will be no presidents or parliaments, no Congresses and no courts. There will be no way to manipulate anything. There will be no elections, no pollsters, no mandate to continue on the self-centered and bloody way. There will be no spin. There will only be sheep and goats.