You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand from our text that the disciples were not expecting the ascension of Jesus Christ. In fact, quite the opposite – it is clear that they were expecting something different altogether. And this is in spite of the fact that Jesus had been teaching them for more than five weeks.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact our risen Lord was with the disciples for forty days. Long after we have taken the Easter lilies out of the chancel; long after we have stopped hearing Scripture readings about the appearances of the risen Lord; long after we have stopped singing Easter hymns, Jesus Christ the risen Lord was still present with his disciples here on earth as he appeared to them in different parts of Palestine.
We learn in our text from Acts chapter 1: “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” These appearances served two purposes. First they provided a series of convincing and assuring proofs that Jesus Christ had truly risen from the dead. This was not a onetime moment of hysteria or projection of the disciples’ deepest wishes. Instead, in a way the left no doubt about his physical, bodily resurrection, Jesus was present with them again and again.
Yet these appearances also served another purpose. Jesus used the time to speak to the disciples about the kingdom of God. He was teaching them about the reign of God that had arrived in the person of Jesus. It was the same message that Jesus had been teaching all along.
Of course now, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, things had become much clearer. They finally understood who Jesus was. They now understood that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die and rise from the dead. And as the time of Jesus’ ascension approached, our Lord began to give them some instructions. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” We hear the same thing in Acts, the companion volume to Luke, as Jesus adds, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Jesus had talked to them about the kingdom of God for forty days. He had told them that they would be his witnesses preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. He had said they needed to remain in Jerusalem until they had received power from on high – a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
And so what question do they ask? We hear in our text, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” Jesus was talking about the reign of God being carried to the ends of the earth in the forgiveness of sins, and they were thinking of some kind of national restoration for Israel. They understood much more than before the resurrection … but they still didn’t entirely get it.
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jesus turned them away from speculation about “when?” questions. Instead he pointed them to two things. First, they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. And second, they would be witnesses for Jesus in Judea, and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
Clearly this was not what they were looking for; this was not what they expected. And that is what Jesus left them with for we hear, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”
The disciples didn’t fully get it as Jesus was just about to ascend. What is interesting is their reaction after the ascension. We hear in our Gospel lesson, “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” We learn that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were at the temple worshipping God. Just after our text in Acts we learn that the very next thing they did was to select another apostle to replace Judas – they got the Lord’s twelve back to twelve. And then we learn that they obeyed Jesus words. They stayed in Jerusalem, not knowing how long they were going to be waiting for power from on high – for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
So what is our reaction to the ascension of Jesus Christ? I wouldn’t be surprised if it is one of disappointment. That may be one of the reasons that the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord is not well attended – in addition to the fact it always falls on Thursday night. Perhaps the ascension just seems like a bummer. After all, the disciples go from having the risen Lord right there with them in a way they can see and touch to no longer having him present in that way. This means that we have never had the chance to experience Christ in this way at all. And frankly, we want more – we want more than God is giving us right now.
What should interest us is the fact that the disciples did not react in this way. They, more than us, should have had reason to feel this way. After all, they had lost something that we have never had. Yet in spite of this they did not react with discouragement or frustration. Instead, they reacted with joy. They went about acting in constructive ways as they asked God to reveal who should fill the position of the twelfth apostle. And they faithfully trusted Christ’s word as they waited in Jerusalem.
Part of the reason must have been that they now understood Jesus’ words. During the last few weeks in the Gospel readings taken from John, we have heard Jesus say that he was going to the Father. He was going, but he would send the Holy Spirit, the Helper to them. Jesus assured them that all of this was a good thing. In fact, we have heard him say, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” They trusted and believed Jesus’ words, and so they waited patiently in Jerusalem as day after day passed … for ten days.
And then on the tenth day, the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, God poured forth the Holy Spirit. Now I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We’re here to talk about the ascension, and we too have to wait ten days for Pentecost.
But I want you to listen to what Peter said about the ascended Christ on that day. He proclaimed to the crowd, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
The disciples trusted Jesus’ word as they waited for Pentecost. And in the outpouring of the Spirit on that day all became clear. The ascension of Jesus was not about the Lord leaving them. It was instead the exaltation of the risen Lord. Paul tells us that the Son of God had “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Yet now everything was different. In the ascension the incarnate Son of God had been exalted as the risen and victorious Lord. In Ephesians the apostle points to God’s “great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
In the ascension we see that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father. He has poured forth his Spirit, the Helper, just as he said he would so that the work of the Gospel may go forth into the world. Like the disciples who returned to Jerusalem after the ascension we need to trust Jesus’ word about these events; we need to rejoice in what God has done for us; we need to be about the work of the Church that God has given us to do.
The ascension of the exalted Lord tells us what we need to be doing in the present. At the same time, it also tells us about what Jesus Christ is doing for us right now. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ is seated at right hand of God where he intercedes for us. We have the most powerful friend who speaks on our behalf. And he speaks for us, even when we sin. John tells us, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” We take comfort in the fact that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf in the midst of our daily struggles with sin in a fallen world.
And the ascension of our Lord speaks directly to our future. In confessing the mystery of the Incarnation, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ was true God and true man. However, we can never lose sight of the fact that this remains true of our Lord after His ascension as well. Our Lord is still true God and true man even today. This means that in His ascension, Jesus Christ took humanity into heaven, and into the presence of God the Father. His ascension provides the assurance that we too, as baptized Christians who are in Christ, will one day dwell in God’s presence in our redeemed humanity.
The words of our text assure that this day is coming. For after Jesus ascended, the two angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This fact gives us hope – for we have the hope of the risen, ascended and exalted Lord who will return. And because we know he will return we are prompted to live in love and service more and more, just as he lived for us.
We do so in the knowledge that tonight and every Sunday our Lord still comes to us in a bodily way. He still comes into our midst in the Sacrament of the Altar as he gives us his true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Through this gift he gives us food for the new man in us so that we can be strengthened in the faith. And in each celebration of the Sacrament as we sing the Sanctus we practice the phrase that we will use on the Last Day when the angel’s words are fulfilled: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”