06 May 2016

Homily for the Ascension of Our Lord

"Ascension Blessing"
Luke 24:44-53

Listen here.

For this first half of the Church Year—the festival half—we have followed the life of Jesus. We have followed Him from His silent conception in the womb of His virgin Mother to the red, wrinkled infant lying on straw in a feeding trough. We have followed Him from the young toddler receiving the worship of the Wise Men to the 12-year old lad learning and teaching in the Temple. We have followed Him from John the Baptizer proclaiming Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) to the water pouring over Him, the Spirit descending upon Him, and the Father declaring, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Jesus then went into the desert to be tempted by the devil as He firmly held onto God’s saving purpose. Then we journeyed with Him through the fulfillment of that purpose—Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Good Friday and Easter are certainly the high-point of the story, but they are not the end of the story. So we’ve followed Jesus forty more days. Now we see Him lifting up His hands to give a blessing and then being carried up to heaven.

Let’s be clear on one thing about Jesus’ Ascension. It does NOT mean that He has gone away. Before He ascended, Jesus did promise that He would be with us always and to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). He did say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; Josh. 1:5). What, then, does Jesus’ Ascension mean? It means that Jesus no longer shows Himself visibly to our physical eyes. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if He would still show Himself to our sense of sight, as He did before His resurrection. We would have to wonder where He might be this evening. Would He be here in St. Louis, or half-way around the world in, say, Istanbul? We would have to admit that if He’s there, then He’s not here. But since Jesus has ascended, His people half-way around the world, and here in this room, and in various other places, know that He is with them. He promised it, and He always keeps His promises.

How can Jesus do that—be present where we cannot see Him and in many places at once? Only Jesus knows how He can do that, and it’s silly for us to try and figure it out. The bright cloud that “took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) tells us that. This was no ordinary cloud. This was the bright cloud that led Israel on their journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. This was the cloud that stood above the two angels on the ark of the covenant. This was the bright cloud that appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. This bright cloud was the guarantee of God’s presence for His people, to lead them and bless them. So this bright cloud marks Jesus’ re-entry to the realm of God. We cannot see that realm; we cannot measure it; we cannot witness what happens there. But it is just as real as anything we can see, measure, or witness.

Jesus did not take a space shuttle ride or travel at warp speed to the other side of the galaxy. He rose up a little way above the earth and “a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Jesus Himself is not gone; just the physical sight of Him is withdrawn. Now Jesus is present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things—and He’s still a man, a man fulfilled and glorified. It’s what we confess when we say that He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” That right hand is not a specific place. It’s the whole power and authority of God that Jesus, true God and also true Man, gets to exercise—for us and for our blessing.

That is the true joy of Jesus’ Ascension. After He led His disciples “out as far as Bethany,” He lifted “up His hands and blessed them.” He was still blessing them as He was “carried up to heaven” and being taken out of their sight. Luke does not tell us what words Jesus spoke in that blessing, and we really don’t need to know. Instead, let’s look at His hands. In those hands raised in blessing we can read the meaning and blessing of Jesus.

These are the hands that pushed at Mary’s breast in our human littleness and frailty. These are the hands that could learn to hold a pen and write the words of Scripture that Jesus knew so well by age 12. These are the hands that worked with hammer and saw, thus sharing in our work and blessing our labor. These are the hands that touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute to open our eyes of faith and loose our tongues to sing His praise. These are the hands that held the pale cold hand of a little girl and gave her back to her grieving mommy and daddy—giving us the hope of the resurrection of the body and being reunited with those we love who have departed in the faith. We can read just how often Jesus stretched out His hands and touched and grasped with that personal, one-to-one touch of love and healing. He was there, giving His blessing and His healing, for each one that needed Him, using His hands to take hold of each one. And never forget that moving scene when, after a long and busy day, Jesus continued His work of healing and blessing well into the night: “When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40).

These are the hands that gathered the little children into His arms to hug them and bless them. These are the hands that grabbed Peter when he looked away from Jesus and began to sink. These are the hands that broke the bread which had been blessed and gave them His body to eat. These are the hands that Thomas held and overcame his doubt.

But here is the biggest thing of all. These hands of Jesus--extended in blessing as He is taken up and hidden from physical sight--these are the hands that show the print of the nails. These are the hands still scarred from the jagged wounds of the cross. These are the hands that speak the greatest blessing, the super-sized blessing, the blessing for each of us now and into all eternity, and how it was won for us on the cross. Wouldn’t it be great to see a painting in which the artist depicts the scars in Jesus’ hands in the shape of a cross?

That’s the real blessing of Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus took on Himself all our wrongs, all our sins, and He bore the punishment for them. We deserved to be forsaken by God, but Jesus was forsaken in our place. Instead of being forsaken, now we are forgiven. Because of what Jesus did there on that cross, we are made alive again as God’s children. We are healed from the plague of sin and death. Because Jesus’ hands were stretched out on the cross and pierced with spikes, now, today, they are stretched out in blessing on His disciples, on you and me. Jesus ascends and blesses with the marks of the cross in His hands. No cross, no blessing. That’s why the sign of the blessing is made in the shape of the cross. That’s what Jesus’ Ascension means: life and blessing won and given.

No, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Quite the opposite. He is with us now even more powerfully than when He walked the earth visible to people around Him. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present Lord and Savior. Because He is with us, His Christians cannot be destroyed. He has overcome the world, and His victory is ours as well. And so He leads us, so He gives us strength, so He gives us courage, and finally He will bring us to that bright cloud of heaven. And so we go on from the Ascension just as the disciples did: “with great joy.” Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment