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An Ascension “Goodbye”?

I don’t know anyone that likes goodbye. We look forward to warm welcomes standing in our doorways, we cherish the moments of togetherness around a table, but we all know that eventually, we will be standing there at the end of the drive, staring, and waving as the car disappears around the bend. The last, sad word on our lips: “Goodbye.”

The disciples found themselves in a similar situation as they stared up into heaven, watching Jesus disappear behind a cloud. This would certainly qualify as the proper time for a tear-filled goodbye if it really were just another departure. The disciples knew this wasn’t the case as the angels reassured them that this new arrangement was only temporary. “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Just as we comfort ourselves during farewells with the assumption that we’ll be reunited again, so Jesus’ Ascension is accompanied by the promise that He will return.

So, we know Jesus’ Ascension means He will return, but does it also mean that, for the time being, Jesus is no longer present with His disciples? Not at all! As Martin Luther once said in his Ascension sermon of 1523, “Beware, lest you imagine within yourself that He has gone, and now is far away from us. The very opposite is true: While He was on earth, He was far away from us; now, He is very near.” The real reason that the Ascension is not just another “goodbye” is that it’s not a “goodbye” at all!

Luke writes at the end of his Gospel, “And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51) Notice Luke doesn’t write, “After finishing blessing them,” but rather, “while He blessed them,” He ascended into heaven. The disciples’ last image of their Savior was of the Son of God with hands raised in blessing. And that’s the same image of Jesus that we ought to hold on to now in these post-Ascension days.

In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” He had sat there before from eternity, yet at His Ascension He returned to His throne with the victory over sin and death in hand. The result is that this throne room scene is described by John as, “In the midst of the throne . . . stood a Lamb as though it had been slain.” (Revelation 5:6)

As Jesus ascended to this position of glory, He was exalted as the One Who was crucified. And this is important! The One Who is exalted is the One Who was humbled to the point of death on a cross. The One Who holds all authority in His hands is the One Whose hands were pierced for your transgressions. The One Who is reigning as the King of kings is also the One Who loves you more than you could imagine. So, an Ascension “goodbye”? No! The truth is, Jesus never left. He is present and in charge, not only as the One Who loves you, but also as the One Who knows you. He knows your doubts, temptations, fears, and trials, and He rules over all for your sake. His hands are now raised over you in blessing just as He shall return—hands raised over you in blessing.

Samuel Rodebaugh is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church of Manchester, Missouri.