[For some reason, the live Facebook video did not post. Here is the text of the sermon for Ascension Day.]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The disciples are “gazing into heaven,” “watching as a cloud took Him from their sight.” Who knows how long they might have kept looking up, at the place where Jesus had been before He was hidden by the cloud? Eventually, I would guess, they would have started looking around, and then they might have asked each other, “What now?” What, now that Jesus, who had spent 40 days with them after His resurrection was no longer with them in the way that He had been? He is in heaven, wherever that is, and they can’t see Him anymore. What now?
We are not different from the disciples, except in that they had those years and those days with Jesus before and after His resurrection. We are not different in that Jesus is hidden from our eyes still. He is still in heaven, and He has promised to return, as the two men in white told the disciples. But what now? We might have all sorts of questions about what God is doing, or what we’re supposed to do, or why such a long delay between Jesus’ ascension and His revealing in glory, when every eye will see Him.
It would be easy to think of the time between His ascension and His glorious revelation as a time of His absence, during which we are left to figure things out for ourselves, wandering blindly and aimlessly through an unfriendly world. What now? And that might have been the disciples’ question even more than ours. They must have felt the loss of Jesus’ visible presence more keenly than we, who have never seen Jesus visibly. So perhaps we can learn from the disciples and follow their example after the ascension.
First, Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know times or seasons which the Father has set by His own authority (Acts 1:7). In the fullness of God’s own time, He sent His Son into the world. So also, in the fullness of His own time, Jesus will appear to raise the dead and restore all things. In between, we are not given any knowledge of when that second appearing will happen. If we have a trustworthy God—and we do—then we will simply trust Him.
Second, Jesus tells His disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them. And then He says that they will be His witnesses in ever-widening circles, beginning from Jerusalem. The appearance of the Holy Spirit did happen, on Pentecost. And the word of Jesus has been and continues to be fulfilled. We have the direct evidence ourselves, in that the word of Jesus, via His apostles, has reached us, who are indeed at the ends of the earth from Jerusalem.
Third, Luke records for us what the disciples actually do after the ascension, after the angels tell them that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come thus, in the way you saw Him going into heaven” (1:11). Here in Acts 1, we are told that the apostles, and Mary, and the other women, and Jesus’ brothers “with one mind,” unanimously, with one purpose, “were devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14). They are putting their time and energy into prayer with all the believers. How often I turn to prayer as a last resort! I don’t devote myself to it in times of waiting and wondering, but instead I see if I can reason and work out everything on my own first.
Besides devoting themselves to prayer, in Luke 24, we are told that after Jesus was parted from them visibly, they worshiped Him as they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And, through it all, they were in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:52-53). Jesus went with them out to Bethany, and raising His hands, He blessed them. And His blessing is ongoing as He is taken into heaven. That blessing has not ceased since that day. Paul tells us that the result of the ascension is that Jesus has been given as Head over all things to the Church, in which He does His blessing work. It is a blessing of His presence; a blessing of the Spirit who brings His words to our remembrance; a blessing of them as they worship.
And because they are blessed by Him, they bless Him in return. That sounds strange to us, because we tend to think of blessings as good things that come to us. But the literal meaning is a good word. He speaks good words to them, and they speak His good words back to Him. They go back to the Temple, where God had located His presence for so long. There they bless that God because He has revealed His presence in the flesh and blood of Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead. Now they know the meaning of everything they heard and saw in the Temple. Even when the Temple is destroyed within their lifetime, they know that the presence of God has not ceased, because they have the blessing of Jesus, Immanuel, God with them.
The difference between the disciples in those moments and us now is that they were still waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit would begin the harvest of the end by the words He gave the apostles to speak. And that harvest continues now, as Jesus said: look! The fields are white for the harvest. Pray that the Lord would send workers into the harvest fields, because the harvest is great, but the workers are few (e.g., Luke 10:2).
The Spirit who was poured out on Pentecost is the same Spirit who was given to you in your baptism, so that you hear and believe what Jesus says. So what now? We are not the apostles, but we have our own vocations, into which we have been sent. Through all of it, whatever happens to us until we see Jesus, we worship at the Temple of Jesus’ presence. And He blesses us with His good word, His forgiveness, His comfort and consolation. Everything we do in the Spirit we do under the blessing of Jesus’ up-raised hands. His ascension is not Him being taken from us; on the contrary, it is ascension to the right hand of God’s power so that He can be present with His whole church at all times and places in the midst of this world. I will not leave you alone, as orphans, Jesus promised His disciples. I am with you all the days until the completion of this age.
Through it all, we devote ourselves to praying God’s promises back to Him, which will sustain us until the day He is revealed in His full glory. Through it all, we devote ourselves, as the apostles did, to the teaching Jesus had given them, to our fellowship in that teaching, to the breaking of the bread that is His body, and to the prayers. Through it all, we devote ourselves to doing the work that He has given us for the sake of one another. Through it all, we hang on to the promise that was given to the disciples by those two men. Luke wants us to recognize that they were the same two men who were at the empty tomb. They said to the women then: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember what He told you (Luke 24:5-7). Now they ask another question: Why are you staring into the sky? He will come back in the same way you saw Him go into heaven.
Two promises: He has risen, and He will come. This is the common confession of all Christians throughout history: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And what now? It is under the good word of that blessing that we labor, that we suffer, that we rejoice, that we worship, that we love. So do not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap the harvest, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9). Do not grow weary of following the disciples’ example. They saw and heard Jesus, and it is by their testimony that we know Him. They were sustained by Jesus’ ascension blessing and His ongoing presence in Word and Supper, and so will we be.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/12/21