“Ascension Joy” (Luke 24:44-53)

The Ascension of Our Lord
Thursday, May 30, 2019

“Ascension Joy” (Luke 24:44-53)

How did you feel about going to church this evening? Were you happy and excited? If you were happy, were you more excited about the service or the ice cream social afterward? C’mon, admit it! No, seriously, did coming to an Ascension service tonight spark joy for you? Or were you instead a little grumpy about having to go to church on a Thursday night? Did you focus on the joy of being able to be in the presence of God, to hear his Word and receive the blessed Sacrament? Or did you complain about one more thing being added to your schedule? You see, you can take the same event, and people can have different reactions to it.

Likewise, when people experience an event that’s similar to one they had just experienced a short time before, those same people can have two entirely different responses. Take, for example, the response of the disciples at the time of the Ascension and compare that to how they responded just a few weeks earlier. At the Ascension, when Jesus “parted from them and was carried up into heaven,” the disciples “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

But then contrast that with how they reacted just a few weeks earlier. Go back six weeks to Maundy Thursday. How did the disciples respond then? That was when Jesus told them he was about to leave, that he was going away. At that time, their hearts were filled with grief. They were sad. And then when Jesus was taken from them–in the arrest and trial, in the crucifixion and his death–they were completely downcast and crushed. And frightened, too. “If that’s what happened to Jesus, then what’s going to happen to us, we who are known to have been his followers?” Right after Jesus’ death, the disciples stayed in Jerusalem at that time, too. But there was no worship then, no great joy. They were not at the temple, praising God. No, they had locked themselves behind closed doors, for fear of the Jews.

Two similar situations, just six weeks apart. In both cases, Jesus was leaving them and going away. But these same disciples reacted totally differently. The one time, with fear and sadness. The next time, with great joy and praise. What made the difference? And what will make the difference for us, to move us from our ordinary grumpiness into “Ascension Joy”?

The same thing that made the difference for the disciples! Namely, what God does for us, the work he does for us and in us. That’s what moved the disciples into Ascension joy. What happened? Our text tells us. It says, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” You know, a lot of people read the Bible, but they don’t understand it properly. They read it with all sorts of wrong ideas as to what it’s about. But Jesus tells us what the Bible is about. He says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” Now the disciples will know that the death of Jesus was not a defeat, but a victory. This all was planned by God. This was how the Messiah would bring in God’s kingdom.

And with that, the disciples will know the great benefit and the new life that comes to them as a result of what Jesus has done. Because he goes on to tell them what else is written: “and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Beginning right there, at Jerusalem, Jesus himself was forgiving their sins, even as he was standing there in their midst. Their doubt, their fear, their denial and desertion–all of that, Jesus had won forgiveness for by his death on the cross. Now he is speaking that forgiveness, that peace, that absolution to them.

So it is for us. Jesus is here today, speaking his word of forgiveness to you. All your sins have been paid for. All your guilt, removed. Jesus has done it all for you, and through this preaching here in his name, Christ’s good gifts are being delivered to you tonight.

“Forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” And Jesus will involve these disciples in that preaching. “You are witnesses of these things,” he says. Witnesses are those who have seen and heard and then go and tell. The disciples were such witnesses. They had heard and seen many things in their time with Jesus. Now they have seen him risen from the dead. Now they have heard from his own mouth the meaning of it all. So now they will be those witnesses who go and tell. They will be the ones proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. Beginning in just a few days.

“I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” Jesus says. “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Jesus here is promising them the Holy Spirit, whom he will send to them very soon, on the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit will clothe them with power from on high to be Christ’s witnesses. This promise of the power of the Holy Spirit removes their fear and fills them with confidence.

So it is for us. These words remind us that Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit. In Holy Baptism, we receive the gift of the Spirit, who works faith and confidence and new life in us. The Spirit empowers our witness and removes our fear. The Holy Spirit, given in baptism, will actually open up our mouths, so that we go and tell the things we have seen and heard, the things of God and the new life that is found in Christ.

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” This blessing of Jesus gives his disciples great joy. Jesus lifts up his hands to bless us, not curse us. He is here tonight to bless us, with those same nail-pierced hands that bear the marks of his redemptive love. Jesus is here to bless you, dear friends–yes, you!

But how can I say, “Jesus is here”? I thought it said, “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” But that is precisely why I can say that Jesus is here! Because he was taken up into heaven! Jesus’ ascension does not mean he has left us. On the contrary, now that he has ascended, he is able to be present with his church at all times and in all places. Remember what Jesus promised? “Surely I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Or, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” Jesus is here, with his people, present to bless. Christ’s ascension means that even though we do not see him as his disciples did, nevertheless Jesus is here, present with us. He has given his promise, his word.

And our Lord gives us himself here in his Holy Supper, his very body and blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is present now, more than ever. No longer limited to a few square miles in Palestine or to a few select disciples, now our ascended Lord is present with his disciples everywhere, wherever his gospel is preached and his sacraments administered. This is good news! This gives us great joy! The blessing goes beyond Bethany or Jerusalem. Jesus’ hands of blessing are outstretched tonight over us, here in Bonne Terre.

The paschal candle serves as a good illustration. It was lit on Easter morning, the morning of Christ’s resurrection. And just as the risen Lord was then with his disciples over a period of forty days–up until his ascension, when he was taken from their sight–so this paschal candle has been lit over a period of forty days. Now tonight, after the words in the Holy Gospel telling of his ascension, “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven,” we extinguished the paschal candle. Why? Because Jesus is no longer with us? No, precisely the opposite. He is with us. It’s just that we no longer see him, just as the disciples no longer saw Jesus once he ascended into heaven. But Jesus was still with them, even as he is with us.

And so the paschal candle has been extinguished. But notice that the candles that were lit from the paschal candle–those candles are still burning. The two eucharistic candles–those two on the altar that signal that a service of the Sacrament is going on–those candles are burning. That’s telling us that Christ is here in the Sacrament, present in his body and blood. So the paschal candle may be extinguished, but the light of Christ is still shining brightly in our midst.

And let me give you one more reason for Ascension joy. Notice that I read the Holy Gospel and preach the sermon from the pulpit, on this side of the altar. Now from the perspective of the pew, this may look like the left side of the altar. But actually, this is the right side, because right and left are determined from the perspective of the altar. The right side of the altar thus is called the Gospel side, the side where Christ speaks to us through the Holy Gospel. And in biblical thought, the right side is considered the side of honor and the side of authority.

So this reminds us of why Ascension Day is a time of great joy, why Christ’s ascension is such a good thing. It’s like we confess in the Creed, that Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Do you see what I’m getting at? Jesus Christ, right now, is sitting on the right hand of the heavenly Father, in the position of all honor and authority. He, our ascended Lord Jesus, right now is ruling and governing all things for the good of his church. Jesus is at the right hand of God, guarding and guiding and protecting and directing his church. And that’s us! Our ascended Lord Jesus is doing that for us even now!

Now can you see the reasons for Ascension joy? Christ has died for our sins. Christ is risen from the dead. Christ has ascended into heaven. And now he is present with his people, all over the world. Now he is sitting at the right hand of God, exercising all authority for the sake of his church. Jesus opens our minds to understand all of this. He stands among us here to forgive our sins. He pours out his Spirit to empower our witness. Think of all those blessings! What greater joy could there be?

Well, there’s one more still to come. And we have the promise of that joy even now. It’s in what the angels told the disciples: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Our Lord Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven, will come again from heaven at the Last Day. On that great day, Christ will take us home to be with him forever. “Lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh!” Friends, we have the sure hope that future joy to look forward to, and that gives us an even greater Ascension joy even now.

Published in: on May 30, 2019 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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