Posted on May 11th, 2013
Many ages ago, five kings joined forces together: the kings of Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboiim, and Bela; they rode out to the Valley of Siddim and clashed with the armies of four kings: the kings of Elam, and Goiim, and Shinar, and Ellasar. The armies of the five kings were routed; some fell into pits of tar, and others fled to the hills. And the four kings took captives – including Lot, the nephew of Abraham.
Abraham, who himself was a man of great power, heard the news; and when he learned of Lot’s capture, Abraham went forth with 318 of his household warriors. They rode hard all day, and when night fell, near Damascus, they crept upon the conquering army from two angles, and rescued Lot, along with all of Lot’s possessions, and the women under his protection.
The free man had become a slave, a living man slated for death. Lot and his household were the plunder of war, but another warrior came and took back what had been plundered. In the liturgy for this great festival of Ascension, a verse from the Psalms rings out: “You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive.” Luther rendered it something like this: “You have plundered the plunder.”
There are two pictures of mankind in the Bible: one of a man in rebellion, running away from God; and the other of a man who falls among thieves, who rob him of his goods. In that last picture, man’s dreadful condition is the fault of another – an enemy, namely the devil. In the first, man himself is to blame. Which is it? Both. Man rebelled, man turned, but man was foolish, a child, ignorant, and he was led astray by a deceiver who took him captive.
Quite likely you have people in your life, perhaps family members, who act unwisely; but they also get help in their foolishness, they have people who offer aid but in fact are leading our loved ones into the captivity of addiction and darkness. It hurts to watch, and there’s often nothing we can do to help. Yet perhaps the man most enslaved is the man who most thinks he is free; experiencing worldly success, he believes he is master, he is lord, he is god, thus plummeting into the idolatry of the self. He is enslaved to his passions.
The story of the Scriptures, the story of man, is that we all, collectively, are as Lot – we are caught up in a war, and have been taken captive. Captured by death, we have become captivated with the things of death, fixing our minds on the things of darkness, having greedy bellies and grumbling mouths.
Into the horror of darkness rushed Abraham, and with his mighty men rescued Lot from slavery, thus foreshadowing our Lord JESUS Christ, who plunged headlong into battle with Satan. Now in His triumph we sing His praise: “You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive,” He has plundered the plunder.
Where we stand now at the Ascension is seeing the beginning of the victory. Just as I said on Sunday that the Pastor does not turn his back on you but faces the altar with you, so our Lord Christ does not leave us, but goes for us into the heavenly places, indeed far above all heavens as the first man to stand before God the Father in the flesh.
This is what the incarnation, this is what Annunciation, and Christmas, and Good Friday, and Easter, were all driving at: God took on a body and carried it into death. Rising from the dead, He did not slough off the body, but raised the human nature up. In the resurrection appearances of Jesus, He demonstrated by many convincing proofs that He was no ghost, no spirit, but a real flesh-and-blood man, who could be touched, still bearing the marks of His crucifixion; He remained a real man who could with His hands build a fire, and eat fish roasted on that fire.
But now glorified, He ascends into the heavens, beyond the heavens, showing that this world is not goal but graveyard. We remain in a world still riddled with death and decay, still with petty men and petty grievances, littered with ridiculous music and bad art, cheap trinkets and dirty tricks, a world that jams scissors into the spinal cords of babies and calls it “choice.” The Ascension reminds us that this life and this world is hell and tribulation and soon to be judged. This world is not goal but graveyard.
The Ascension shows us a life beyond this world of death, glory beyond this world of sin. What do we do in this world still in bondage and captivity? We proclaim God’s triumph to our neighbor, we serve our neighbor, all while with the Apostles waiting, waiting in the Church’s worship with great joy.
There is so much to be sorrowful about, and it will overwhelm us if we let it. There are so many sins, and they will divide us if we let them. But Christ is risen, and has taken captivity captive. Christ is ascended, and He has plundered the plunder. Christ is present still in the holy Eucharist, and does not leave us comfortless. Christ is coming again, and we wait with great joy, all the while saying, “Amen! Come, Lord JESUS!”