May 17th, 2007
“A Joyful Departure”
Goodbyes are tough. I remember several times in my life, saying goodbyes to dear friends as we were about to move across the country, or as they were. Often friends will exchange promises to keep in touch across the distance, though they seldom follow through. “Don’t be a stranger”, but distance doesn’t really make the heart grow fonder.
Perhaps you too have had some tough goodbyes, maybe even the death of a loved one. Then you know, that this side of heaven, you will never see the person again. Such goodbyes can be filled with regrets of things left undone and unsaid. We may just wish we had more time together. But they are hard.
You would think that the disciples, when they realized Jesus had departed, would also struggle with the goodbye. Here they had spent three years with him, day in, day out. They had given up much to follow him. They had grown to love him. It all seemed to come crashing down when Jesus was crucified and they scattered in fear. But then came a joyful reunion, many reunions actually, as Jesus had risen from the dead and he proved it to them convincingly. He died, but now he was alive. And right away, he was leaving again?
If I was one of those disciples, I’d find it hard not to be disappointed, dejected, and distraught at the idea that Jesus who had come back (even from death) was now leaving for heaven. Leaving his disciples behind.
But he would not leave them alone. And he would not leave them distraught. He would send them a Comforter, His Holy Spirit. And they were not distraught, but instead “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy”
At times it may seem like Christ has left us alone, too. Even though he has ascended and rules on high, they way he rules might not be what we expect. We see towns wiped out by tornadoes and fires. We see conflicts in our family, stress at work, and not enough money in our pockets. We watch our health decline and fail, and we see our loved ones taken from us. We may feel abandoned by the one who promised he would care for our daily needs. Even when we turn to him in prayer, it can seem like our complaints and requests fall on deaf ears. As if God has left us alone.
How can the disciples be so joyful when Jesus leaves them? They found joy in his promises! Can we find the same joy? Yes. His promises are for us, too.
Their joy was founded in the words of the angels, and the promise of Christ’s return. “For in the same way you saw him go, he will return”.
We too find joy in the promise of his return. We look forward to the last day, to the fulfillment of all things, and to seeing Christ with our own eyes, face to face. We know that his return in glory will be the day of victory over all sin, death, and devils. The times and hours are not ours to know, but what is ours to know is the promise.
Their joy was founded in the promise that Christ would send them a gift, a comforter, a counselor. His Holy Spirit. We saw this promise fulfilled in a powerful way on Pentecost, which is celebrated not this Sunday but next. But the Day of Pentecost wasn't the only time the Spirit ever worked for God's people. We too know the work of the Spirit, who has called us to faith by the Gospel and enlightens us with his gifts, who strengthens our faith and guides us in the paths of righteousness. The promise of the Spirit is for us too.
And though not mentioned in the Ascension readings, some of Jesus' last words to them are found in Matthew 28, where he promises, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” And so by his Spirit, and in his word, he was, and he is. He is with us. The promise of his presence gives us joy, when we meet him here at his altar. When we receive him as he has promised to be found in simple bread and wine. Here Jesus' promised presence gives us joy, as his body and blood are given for the forgiveness of our sins.
The promise of his return. The promise of his Spirit. The promise of his presence. These promises make his departure not only bearable, but also joyful, for the disciples, and for us.
Yet his ascension comes not only with promises, but also with purpose. He ascends to heaven in order to reclaim his throne there. And as with everything he does, he does it for us.
Jesus takes back his divine majesty and authority (which he had largely set aside during his time on earth). He sits at the right hand of the Father, far above all other authorities. And there he rules in power. And he rules in power for us.
Jesus Christ, true God AND STILL true man, soul AND resurrected body together – now reigning in heaven. And just as we will follow him through death and to life again, so too will we follow him to reign in heaven. We will receive the crown of life.
Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ has ascended. Not a cause for sadness, but a reason for joy. Not so much a goodbye, as a “see you later”. For he promises his return, his spirit, and his presence. And he rules there in heaven for us his people, preparing a place for us. Thank God for the Ascension of Christ. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.