Lk 24 50-53 Be Happy He Went (originally published version in pdf format)
(Note: This is not for the festival of Ascension, but rather Easter 7. I don’t usually like to publish a sermon ahead of the last time that I practice it, in case I make changes, but this time I am in South Carolina watching over my younger sister who had a hemorrhagic stroke, so this was published in advance because it was prepared for someone else to read in my absence. How wonderful to know when things seem out of control that my Savior and Brother is seating on the throne of all power and authority! He will bring even this to a blessed conclusion.)
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Be Happy He Went. Probably not the normal way you think of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, but pretty appropriate, based on the text in front of us. The disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” That’s what Luke says about the way the disciples felt when Jesus left. Think about that. Think about how crushed the disciples were when Jesus died and was gone. Think of their confusion, their despair, their fear. And then think about how happy they were when he came back from the dead! Think of how excited they were to see him alive, how happy to be with him again. Then think about how you would then expect them to feel when all of a sudden he left them again, disappearing into the clouds.
Well, Luke says they were glad. Something doesn’t seem right there, does it? A lot of people have difficulty with that, actually. Your own pastor was once one of them. Why would there by any joy at all in Jesus leaving the earth? Why would there be any joy at all in no longer be able to see him? Why would the disciples be happy he went?
Our text, actually, lists several reasons:
First of all, there was the joy of having private time with Jesus before he went. Notice the text begins with “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany….” That means that he removed them from the busy city of Jerusalem for some quiet time. In fact, one of the details from the parallel account in Acts is that Jesus took them to the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus often took his disciples for quiet time during the busy festivals. This was a happy setting for them.
The next detail in Luke’s record that we can understand them being happy about is that Jesus “lifted up his hands and blessed them.” It’s striking that the word for bless in Greek literally means to “speak well” of someone. That would have made this a joyful occasion, don’t you think? I mean, the disciples had largely failed Jesus when the time for testing came. It’s not as though he had never told them that he was going to be arrested, tried, beaten and crucified. He had predicted it all to the letter—including his own death. Their failure to roll with the punches until he rose again boils down to nothing less than a failure to take Jesus at his word.
To have Jesus then “speak well” of them! This wasn’t just hugs to make people feel better, mind you. Nor was this Jesus saying, “You messed up, but somehow we’re going to work through it.” Jesus blessed them. He “spoke well” of them, as though they had never done anything wrong. Well, you can just imagine their joy!
Seriously—you can imagine their joy! We came in here this morning dragging our failures behind us for the Lord to clearly see. In fact, as you sit in the Lord’s house, before his altar, he sees more failure in you than you yourself care to recognize. We tend to pat ourselves on the back for good tries, but his will isn’t merely for us to make “good tries.” And they wouldn’t satisfy us either if we actually took his commands at face value.
We also can’t downplay our failure just because so many around us fail. He called us to be the ones who get it, the ones who understand, the ones who react differently than the rest of the world. He called us to be the ones who take difficulties in stride and to be the ones who focus on the way that God would want us to respond, putting our sinful nature’s reactions aside. He has called us to be the ones that make people think, “Wow, there really is a better way of life, and these people have it!”
It’s likely that you already have some understanding of your failure in this calling. You also have some inkling of ways in which you know you’ve failed but prefer not to think about. On top of that, there are many ways we have failed that we do not see because of our immaturity. Jesus, however, sees all these things as he looks out over the people who have gathered before him in his house.
Yet when we conclude our worship today, it will be with words of blessing. This is why I said that you yourself can imagine the joy of the disciples on Ascension Day. I will speak words of blessing over you this morning, at Jesus’ own command and by his own authority. When I speak the blessing at the end of this service, that is Jesus “speaking well” of you, speaking to you as though he isn’t even aware of your past failures. That’s the blessing of him who completely wiped all failures away at his death, long before your first chance to fail him. And he’s more than happy to renew that forgiveness—as well as your call to discipleship—whenever you humbly bring your failures back to the table.
Certainly here is a reason to be happy about Jesus’ work, but is that any reason to be happy that he left? The inspired writer Luke seems to think so! The way Luke writes it, Jesus’ blessing, his “speaking well” of them, brought them great joy. But what brought them to their knees in exuberant worship was watching Jesus bless them as “he left them and was taken up into heaven.”
Luke’s careful writing is intended to draw you into the excitement so you can better understand their joy. Those words, “While he was blessing them,” for instance, really draw us into the scene with Jesus’ disciples and wraps us up in that joyful context we have been discussing where Jesus is “speaking well” of his disciples, despite how undeserving they were. And he was actually still in the middle of his blessing when he started to rise!
The Greek word for departure at “he left them” is carefully chosen to convey joy, as well. It carries the idea of passing on from one place to another. It expresses the idea of progressing on a journey, of making headway and continuing forward. The Holy Spirit chose his words in order to help us understand that the disciples saw his leaving as a step forward in the plan of salvation!
Finally, Luke made the experience more vivid by changing the way he expressed the final verb in this verse. Our translation loses that flavor by saying simply, “…and was taken up into heaven.” It sounds like a regular past tense verb, a historical fact, just one more word to describe a long past event. Well, it doesn’t make for easy English, but the Greek reader would have heard the original words with a continuous action—something like, “While he was blessing them, he went on from there, and was being taken up into heaven.”
The disciples found themselves wrapped up in this moment, recognizing that this “levitation” was something really big, a new and necessary development that was all part of the ultimate deliverance of sinners from the eternal fate they deserved. He was going up to be the God in heaven that he had always been before having to come down and save sinners from the fate they deserve. And, both joyful and humbling for sinners, Jesus going back to his rightful place in the heavenly realms showed that he was putting them in charge of carrying out his mission. He was entrusting them to carry the message of his salvation to the world.
This is the joyful picture Luke draws: here was Jesus, speaking well of them, trusting them, strengthening them, ascending to his rightful place. Why shouldn’t they be joyful? In a very literal sense, their God was in heaven and all was right with the world!
Once again I say, we can well imagine their joy, because their joy is ours. Just look at us. God has so privileged this congregation. We have a big, beautiful campus. We belong to a wider church fellowship that provides us with the best trained workers this nation—perhaps even this world—ever sees. We have a school for the raising of our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We are remarkably and extraordinarily blessed! Yet all too often, we seem sad, bored, like we’re missing something. Our excitement to share these blessings diminishes.
There’s no excuse for our mediocre mentality. If we had earthly jobs on anywhere near the same level of importance as the mission God has given us and we were this bad at carrying it out, we would have lost our jobs long ago. Yet, today, we are forgiven. We are restored. Yes, Jesus even blesses us, speaks well of us, and continues to entrust the most valuable treasure in all the world, his gospel, into our very undeserving hands!
Yes, we know why the Ascension of our Lord led the disciples to fall down upon their knees in worship. We know why they were overjoyed to see him go to his rightful place at his Father’s side, to entrust them with his mission to share the gospel with the world. We know their reasons for staying continually at the temple, praising their God. They are the same reasons that will bring us back here again and again, happy that our Savior has returned to his rightful place as our God in heaven, happy that he left us restored to our place as his trusted missionaries. Amen.