The most difficult goodbye that Amy and I have experienced took place during February last year in the El Paso, TX area. Timothy’s National Guard infantry unit was at Ft. Bliss as they prepared to leave for a deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Timothy would be gone for almost a year in a combat zone. The troops had leave for several days, and so we flew down to El Paso to see him. We enjoyed our time with Timothy greatly, and we ate really well. However, I had to return early because of Ash Wednesday. It was very difficult to say the final goodbye to him at the airport. However, it fell to Amy to take Timothy back to Ft Bliss and see him for the very last time. I received a tearful phone call that night after she had done so.
It is not a happy thing to say goodbye. Now often we only expect the absence to last for a fairly brief time. And of course, we have many forms of communication by which we can stay in touch. Nevertheless, we are sad to see our time together come to an end. When the goodbye leads to a very lengthy separation, and the options for communication are going to be somewhat limited, it can be very difficult.
Tonight we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. We celebrate the event in which the crucified and risen Lord Jesus departed into heaven as he withdrew his visible presence. Now based on what I have just said about goodbyes, it probably sounds rather odd to say that we celebrate this event. In fact, it doesn’t seem to make much sense when you compare our situation to what the disciples had been experiencing.
As Luke indicates at the beginning of our text, the Book of Acts is the second volume that accompanies the Gospel of Luke. There in chapter twenty four Luke had told about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The women had gone to the tomb early on the morning of Easter and had seen two angels who said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had talked with Jesus and learned from him in an incredible way as he explained the Scriptures to them. Then they had recognized Jesus as broke bread and disappeared. They returned to Jerusalem where they learned that Peter had seen Jesus. And then the risen Lord had appeared in the midst of the room as all present learned that the One who had been crucified was now alive.
As we know from Matthew and John, these were not the only times when the risen Jesus was with the disciples. Nor was Jerusalem the only place, because as Jesus had told them before his death they also saw in Galilee. These appearances in different places took time. And in fact Luke tells us, “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.” For forty days the risen Lord was with the disciples teaching them.
During that time Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Later, when they had come together, the disciples asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Now this question has often been viewed as if it shows disciples’ complete lack of understanding. But actually it is entirely sensible. Jesus had risen from the dead, and this was an event of the end times. Now Jesus had said that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament was filled with prophecies about how God would give his Spirit to Israel at the time of its restoration. All the end time things were coming together, and so what other conclusion could the disciples be expected to arrive at?
The disciples weren’t completely wrong. But they didn’t understand the timing. And they didn’t understand what “Israel” really meant. With regard to the first, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” As for the second, I can summarize Jesus answer with these words: “Think bigger.” The Lord told them, “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.”
Then we learn in our text: “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.” Jesus was lifted up into the air as he ascended, until a cloud hid him.” As you and I would have, the disciples were gazing into heaven as he went. But then, two angels stood next to them 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.”
We must acknowledge that in his ascension our Lord has left us. We don’t presently experience Jesus Christ the way the disciples did in those forty days from Easter to the ascension. And as far as we are concerned, that is a bad thing. To us, this is not something to celebrate. Christmas celebrates the Son of God’s arrival in our world in the flesh. That service also occurs on an evening, and think about how many people attend it. Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and think about how many people attend at that time. Ascension celebrates Jesus’ leaving – and well, look around and consider how many people showed up tonight.
Yet God’s Word tells us that we are wrong. Jesus’ ascension is not a bad thing. In fact, it truly is something to celebrate. The first reason is that Jesus’ ascension is part of his exaltation by the Father. On the day of Pentecost, Peter explained what was happening as he said, “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.”
The ascension of Jesus Christ is part of his exaltation. St. Peter wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Jesus’ ascension is the fulfillment of Psalm 110:1 where David writes: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Jesus Christ has been seated at God’s right hand. That means he exercises all power and might. It means that angels, authorities and powers – everything has been subjected to him. The ascension of Jesus means that you believe in the ultimate and almighty winner. God the Father has declared this through the exaltation of Christ’s ascension.
We think the absence of Jesus’ visible presence is a bad thing. However, in the Gospel lessons during these weeks of Easter we have been hearing how Jesus says that his upcoming departure is a good thing, because it means that Christ will send the Spirit. Indeed, just before his ascension in our text Jesus promises the Spirit who will give the disciples power to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. The ascension does not mean the absence of Christ. Instead, it means the presence of Christ’s Spirit. We will celebrate on Pentecost that as the exalted Lord, Jesus has poured forth the Spirit who has been at work through the Gospel everywhere in the world to call people to faith. He has called you to faith. The exalted Lord is present in our midst as his Spirit works through the Means of Grace to create faith, give forgiveness and sustain faith.
Jesus has ascended into heaven. But remember who Jesus is and what he was like when he ascended. The Son of God entered into the world in the incarnation as the One who is true God and true man. In the resurrection, Jesus did not cease to be true man. Instead, he still is. On the evening of Easter Jesus said “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Jesus rose from the dead with a real material body. But as the second Adam he rose with a body transformed so that it can never die again.
When Jesus ascended, he ascended as true God and true man. He has taken renewed and restored humanity into the presence of God the Father. And because he has, we know that this is our future as well. Our bodies will be renewed and transformed, and we will dwell in God’s presence.
In our text we learn that Jesus was lifted up “and a cloud took him out of their sight.” This fact is very significant because Jesus had said of himself during Holy Week: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” The ascension of Jesus points us to the fulfillment of all that God has done and is now doing. It directs out hope and expectation to the Last Day when he will return in glory to give us a share in his resurrection. As the angels 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.”
We celebrate the ascension because the crucified and risen Lord who fulfilled the Father’s saving plan has been exalted – he has been seated at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. Our Lord is the ultimate winner.
We celebrate the ascension because it is as the exalted Lord that Christ has poured forth the Spirit – his Spirit. The Spirit carries forth the work of our Lord – the Gospel – into all the world. And we are not without the Lord’s presence, for the Lord is present through the Spirit as he is at work in the Means of Grace.
And we celebrate the ascension because Christ has taken our renewed humanity into the presence of God. He has guaranteed us that we too will dwell with God. And we will do so, renewed in body and soul. We will do so with bodies transformed so that they can never die again, because the risen and ascended Lord will come in a cloud with great power and glory on the Last Day.