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Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord – May 21, 2023

Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

 Dear friends grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a difference forty days makes! As we’ve been hearing in our readings these past two Sundays, when Jesus first told the disciples he would be leaving them they were beside themselves with worry. Their hearts were troubled. They felt like they were about to be orphaned, like they were losing the one who gave them life, the one who loved them more than anyone else ever had. As Jesus spoke of his leaving in the Upper Room, the disciples were filled with anguish and confusion and fear.

Now, forty days later, Jesus actually leaves them. He withdraws from them, St. Luke tells us. Jesus is carried up into heaven, getting smaller and smaller and smaller until he disappears from their sight. And what is their response to Jesus’ leaving? They are filled with great joy! What a difference forty days makes!

So what changed? What happened to make Jesus’ leaving them go from being an occasion of anguish to an occasion of great joy?

Well, one obvious thing that happened was the resurrection! Over those forty days the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in many and various ways. Although the disciples all scattered like sheep when the storm of the crucifixion blew in, the risen Jesus didn’t appear to them in order to scold them. Instead he came to them saying, “Peace be with you.” This is what his death and resurrection accomplished: Peace with God! Although Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, publicly disavowing him, Jesus didn’t come to Peter so that he could punish him, so that he could get his revenge. Instead Jesus forgave him and restored him. Although Cleopas was clueless about what had just happened in Jerusalem and blind to Jesus’ presence while he walked with him on the road to Emmaus, Jesus didn’t give up on him and start walking the other way. Jesus had patience with him. He taught him. And then he broke bread with him, opening his eyes at last.

The resurrection had ushed in an entirely new reality for all of them. If there was a love more powerful than sin and death, what did they have to be afraid of?

The risen Jesus also opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures. Now they understood how what we call the Old Testament writings pointed to him. He was the offspring of Eve who would crush the head of the serpent, defeating sin. He was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that through his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed. He was the Lamb of God in Exodus who delivers people from death. He was the suffering servant in Isaiah, by whose wounds we are healed. Now they understood that his death on the cross was not an accident or a failure, but God’s means of salvation. The Messiah was indeed to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It was all part of God’s endgame from the beginning. Now they understood this, and so Jesus’ leaving was not a tragic farewell but a triumphant victory lap after his mission was accomplished.

In addition to opening their minds to understand the scriptures, Jesus also promised to clothe them with power from on high. Jesus was promising them the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit they would continue to deepen their understanding of the scriptures. Through the Spirit they would be empowered for their own mission, which was just beginning – their mission of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. Through the Holy Spirit they would continue to know the presence of Jesus in their lives, and so he wasn’t really going away. He would just be with them in a different way.

As Jesus left them, as his risen body began to ascend, Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed them. This was the posture the priests in the temple used to put God’s blessing on the people at the end of worship. It is the posture priests and pastors continue to use to bless God’s people, to put his word, his mercy, his love, his blessing on them. Jesus lifted up his hands in blessing. His hands, still bearing the wounds of his great sacrifice for them, were over them, covering them, shielding them, assuring them, blessing them.

These hands of blessing were yet another part of what made Jesus’ departure an occasion of great joy rather than great anguish. These disciples knew that these hands would remain over them, and so they could go back to their daily lives in great joy. They could go back to Jerusalem, where so much ugliness had happened, without fear. They would spend the rest of their lives worshipping him, blessing God for the blessing that was upon them.

The Ascension of our Lord continues to be an occasion of celebration among Jesus’ disciples today. While it isn’t well known or celebrated much among many American Christians today, historically in the Christian church it has been considered as important as Christmas and Easter! St. Augustine went so far as to say it was even more important than those festivals. He wrote:

“[The Ascension of our Lord] is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.”

The Ascension “confirms the grace of all the other festivals” because now our ascended Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father, where all the things he accomplished in his Nativity and his Passion and his Resurrection continue to be poured out upon his people throughout the world. Our ascended Lord has taken his place at the right hand of God, where he continues to do for us what he did for his first disciples. He continues to do for you what he did for them!

For you who have scattered, who have strayed or fled from him, Jesus comes to you through his word – not to scold but to say, “Peace be with you,” to say, “It’s alright. I have made peace between you and God.” For you who have denied Jesus by your words or your actions, Jesus comes to you through the forgiveness which is proclaimed here in his name. He comes to restore you to right relationship with him and recommission you for service. For you who have been confused or distracted or blind to him, Jesus comes through the breaking of the bread, opening your eyes to his presence. Jesus doesn’t give up on us when we stumble or scatter or sin. He just keeps on coming to us with his word, moving us from repentance to forgiveness.

Jesus opens our minds to understand the scriptures. This isn’t to say we won’t be confused by the Bible from time to time. It is a big book with some confusing parts. There are some verses which the best Bible scholars in the world can only guess at their meaning. But Jesus opens our minds to understand that it is all ultimately about him and what he has done for us. It is about how God sent us a savior to save us from sin and death. It is about how the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. It is about how forgiveness, life, and salvation are found in Jesus.

This understanding doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t happen by being in the vicinity of a Bible. You actually need to open it up once in a while. You actually need to gather with God’s people to hear it and study it. But when you do, you can be assured that Christ Jesus will teach you what you need to know.

Jesus continues to clothe his people with power from on high. He sends the Holy Spirit to open up the word to us and stir up our faith and remind us of his presence and empower us for our mission and our callings.

And the same hands that were raised up over the disciples in a posture of blessing are raised up over you. As you gather to worship Jesus, as the disciples continued to do, his hands are lifted over you in blessing.

Every week I lift my hands in blessing at various points in the service, whether it is the absolution, or the post-communion blessing, or the benediction. Next week I will lay hands on our confirmation students, blessing them anew with the blessing they first received in Holy Baptism. Last week I laid hands on the head of one of our church members, saying the words of the benediction at the end of our time together. And so she was sheltered, she was covered in blessing when she died a few days later.

The hands of your pastor raised in blessing are a reminder that Christ’s hands of blessing are always over you. And so, with the disciples, you can live without fear. You can go back to your daily lives in great joy. No matter how ugly the world can be, you can go back to it knowing that Christ continues to hold his hands over you in blessing from his throne at the right hand of the Father.

The Ascension of our Lord is good news for you and for me. It is not about Jesus leaving. It is about him being with us forever in a different way. It is not a farewell, it is a “mission accomplished.” His hands were not waving goodbye, they continue to be held over us in eternal blessing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church