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Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord – May 24, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Usually farewells are sad affairs. We are sad when friends move away – something we are all too familiar with in a military town. Parents often cry when beloved children go off to college or boot camp or start a new job in another state. We grieve for loved ones when they die. Goodbyes, when they involve people we care about, are usually sad affairs.
But this is not the case when it comes to the Ascension of our Lord. Jesus ascending into the heavens forty days after his resurrection is indeed a farewell scene of sorts. Jesus gives the disciples some parting words. He gives them some farewell instructions and a farewell blessing. He then withdraws from them as he is carried up into heaven. Jesus leaves! He disappears into the clouds above. “Jesus has left the building,” we might say. But as St. Luke tells us the story, he points out that the disciples were not sad about this. They were happy! They were filled with great joy as they headed back to Jerusalem without Jesus!
Why? Why were the disciples so happy that Jesus had withdrawn from them? Why were they so happy that their beloved Lord had levitated up into the clouds until they couldn’t see him anymore? Were they thinking, “Whew! He’s gone! Now our lives can get back to normal!” I don’t think so! So why were they filled with great joy?
And for that matter, why does the church celebrate the Ascension of our Lord? Why do we have a special day in the church calendar for it? Why in the world do we celebrate that “Jesus has left the building?”
What makes this event a cause for celebration, for the disciples and for us, is not that Jesus has left, but where he has gone. Luke tells us in our gospel for today that he was “carried up into heaven.” In the version of this story Luke tells us in Acts it says he was taken into a cloud, which, given biblical symbolism, means he was taken into God’s holy presence. In Ephesians, St. Paul tells us Jesus was “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places.” We say something similar just about every Sunday as we recite the creed, saying: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
What does all of this mean? This is symbolic language. The right hand represents power. There’s nothing wrong with being left-handed, of course, but about 90% if the human population is right-hand dominant. For the vast majority of the human population, the right hand is their strongest hand. It is the hand you use to get things done. The right hand is the hand you use to sign your name or crank a wrench or flip a pancake. The right hand is the hand you use to accomplish things.
And so in ancient times the right hand symbolized power and strength. This symbolism carried over to the seating arrangements in the courts of kings – the highest ranking official would always be seated to the king’s right as a sign of his power. This communicated to everyone that this was the person the king used to accomplish things. We use the phrase “right hand man” even today.
Jesus ascension is his enthronement as the eternal “right hand man” to God the Father. Jesus is taking his place as the one who has the ear of the Heavenly Father, who acts with his authority, who carries out his will. Jesus, as the “right hand man” to God the Father, is the one who will continue to get things done. He will continue to be at work. He will continue to accomplish things. That’s what the right hand man does, right?
The disciples are full of joy rather than sadness because they know that Jesus’ ascension means he isn’t really leaving – he is instead about to be powerfully present with them in a different way. He will be powerful present in the world and in their lives as the right hand man of God the Father to get things done, to be at work, to accomplish things.
Jesus will be present with them through his Word. Before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples that the law, the prophets, and the psalms were all about him. He has fulfilled everything they pointed to, and he can continue to be found there!
Jesus will be present in the community of believers. His ministry will continue through them. As his disciples, past and present, take up the call to be his witnesses, as we proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, as we baptize and teach and serve, he continues to be at work in the world!
Especially during this time when are unable to be together for worship in our sanctuary, it is important for us to remember where Jesus is exactly. As we are unable to gather in our sanctuary for worship, it is helpful for us to understand that Jesus has never been confined to our building, As special as our sanctuary is, as much as it is indeed a holy place, as much as I miss having people in it, Jesus has never been contained within those walls. Jesus has ascended and sits at the right hand of God the Father, and it is from there that he is continuing to get things done!
He is getting things done through his Word as we find him present in the scriptures, in the word of Law and Gospel. He continues to do his work in us through his commands and his promises – calling us to repent and forgiving our sin, calling us to die to sin and then raising us to new life in him.
Our Lord Jesus is getting things done through his people as we bear witness to him to others, and as we serve others in his name.
And so we rejoice in the Ascension not because Jesus has left us, but because of where he has gone. We rejoice because he is powerfully present with us no matter where we are. He is at the right hand of the Father, still at work, still getting things done.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church