John 16:1-7, Luke 24:44-53, Psalm 24:1-10
On this festival day, much of the global Christian church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord into heaven. 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the New Testament tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven and is currently seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
I remember the flaming dialogue that took place a few years ago when someone wrote an article entitled “The Cape Canaveral Christ!” which went on to say that the whole episode was unbelievable! Humans do not fly without the aid of machines. Having Scotty beam anyone up is Star Trek science fantasy, which has no science and no historical veracity. There were, obviously, immediate responses to the article. But the article pleaded; “please don’t ask us to believe such a story before we can call ourselves Christians!” But the early Christians did believe it and recorded the event in the New Testament.
I have loved for a lifetime the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We need to remember that the Apostles’ Creed is a list of unbelievables. These articles of belief are not intended to stretch our credulity, but to describe the events and certain truths that caught us all by surprise.
- In that first century, if you believed Jesus was the Messiah, then it was almost impossible to believe he could die.
- If he died, it was just about impossible to believe he could rise from the dead.
- And if he were raised, it would be preposterous to believe that he would leave 40 days later.
But, the creed is not simply describing what it believed; it is describing what the early apostles say actually happenedin their day. They could not believe it before it happened, but they had no choice after it happened. They would have to deny the evidence of their eyes, ears, and touch, multiplied through more than 500 witnesses. The unbelievable facts stand, and so the creeds record the event, “He ascended into heaven and He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
To understand this unusual act of God let me take you back to the events of Holy Week.
The Ascension Announced
On the night of the betrayal, Jesus is meeting with his followers. He knows that the days ahead will be very dangerous days, resulting in despair for his friends. He wants to offer them something to hang on to. He is about to die. They will not understand it. So, he gives them a word about his ascension.
“Now I am going away to Him who sent me,
though none of you are asking me, ‘where are you going?’
but because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go away.” John 16:5-7
Can you imagine how those words fell on the disciples’ ears? “It is better for you that I go away.” It seems that he is saying that its better for you to lose the best friend you will ever have. It’s better for you to lose the greatest teacher the world will ever know. It is better for you to lose one who has been wisdom and strength and purpose for you for these past 3 years. This is what he seems to be saying.
There was a scene earlier in the Gospel of John where Jesus has said some difficult things about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and many had been scandalized by his words, and decide to quit following him. Jesus had turned to his closest friends, and asked, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter asks the question, “Lord, to whom else can we go. You have the words of eternal life.” To leave Jesus was unthinkable. But now, the tables are reversed, and He is leaving them! It must have been a terrible blow.
It is better for heaven.
If he had said, “It is better for heaven” they could have understood that. For more than 30 years, heaven had been deprived of its chief glory. We have no reading as to how that absence had affected heaven. But on the day of ascension, when Jesus returns the choirs must have picked up their tempo. Angelic variations on the Alleluia Chorus must have resounded through the universe. Some have suggested that they may have sung Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads O you gates,
And be lifted up you everlasting doors
that the king of Glory may come in.
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty.
The Lord, mighty in battle.
Yes, it might be better for heaven, but it sure didn’t look better for earth.
It is better for Jesus
If Jesus had said, “It is better for ME that I go away” the disciples could have understood that. Of course it was better for him!
He had lived much of his life facing opposition and hostility. He had humbled Himself to become man, then servant, then sacrificial victim. It would be great to be beyond all that.
I wonder if one of the reasons Jesus spent so much time in prayer was because he was homesick for His Father and his Father’s house, and wanted to keep in touch?
On his ascension, the humiliation would be all behind him. He would be returned to the highest place of honor. He would regain the glory that he had experienced with his Father before the worlds began. Obviously, it was better for Him that he ascends to heaven.
It is better for YOU that I go away
But Jesus did not say that it was better for heaven or himself. He said it is better for you. I have a suspicion that as he spoke these words they were met with bewilderment. After his resurrection and 40 days of conversation I am sure they understood better. But when he spoke those words on the night before his crucifixion, they must have stunned the minds of the twelve.
The question needs be answered, how could his leaving be better than his staying? Here is the best response the church has been able to give:
He Went Away so that He Might Come Closer.
He left them in bodily presence that he might be nearer to all of them. As long as he was with his followers physically, he could not be with them when they separated from each other. While in the body he could not be in Galilee and Jerusalem at the same time. He could not travel with Paul and still be with Peter.
Just think what would have happened throughout the centuries if Christ had not ascended, but had instead remainedin Jerusalem for the rest of history. The world would have needed to travel to his door. When we needed the help of Christ we would have to write, telephone, zoom, or drop by, but we would also have to take a number and stand in line, because multiplied millions would also want his attention.
We would be joining the millions on pilgrimages and the crowds would be so intense that we would rarely ever be able to be in touch with him. And of course, only the wealthier could afford to drop other things and make the trip. We would find ourselves spending our time and resources trying to see him, instead of doing his work.
Of course, Jesus could be the world traveler who would move to where the need was greatest. But then we would find that he was in South America when we needed his ministry in Australia, and in Europe when his counsel was needed in Asia.
Just before the ascension Jesus left the church with one of its commissions. “Go into all the world and share the good news with everyone.” and then came that great promise, “And be aware of this, that I will be with you always, even to the ends of the world, even to the end of the age.”
But how could that be possible? Because of the ascension! Instead of his being localized, he is now omnipresent. The message of his ascension says that there will never be a place where we cannot meet Christ. There will never be a circumstance where he will be unreachable to any of us. He will never be across town, or on a trip and cannot be contacted. Instead, he says to each of us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And to every group of Christians he says, “Where two or three of you are met together in my name, there am I in the midst of you.“
Listen again to the words that he spoke to his followers on the night of the betrayal:
“It is better for you that I go away, for if I do not go away the Comforter will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.”
The Comforter is the Holy Spirit, and whatever else the Holy Spirit is, he is the presence of the Risen Christ with every believer.
Listen to other words that Jesus spoke to his friends that same night,
“I tell you the truth, the one who believes in me
will also do the works I do, in fact, will do greater works than these,
because I am going to my Father….”
The work of Jesus Christ in the world is to be continued by his church. But in our own strength, we do not have a prayer. But if Christ by his spirit can be with us, then with Paul we can say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
That, my friends, is the good news of the Gospel and the good news about the ascension.
Hear once more the final words on Luke’s Gospel, “Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Did you catch the note about Joy? “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” It sounds like they were glad to get rid of him? But no, not that. They believed what Jesus had been teaching them in the 40 days after his resurrection.
Because He ascended, he would return in the person of the Holy Spirit, to be with every one of us in every age and in every place. And not just “with us”, but “with us to strengthen us” for a usefulness to our own world.
Thanks be to God! Let us worship God as the early Church did and sing a song of praise to Christ our King.
Hymns to sing on such a day:
Rejoice, The Lord is King
God is Gone Up on High
Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise
Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus