I don’t know if you are aware of it or not but there is a bit of a cultural phenomenon going on right now on the game show Jeopardy. James Holzhauer has won 28 times in a row—nearly 2.5 million dollars—which is great for him but every other contestant goes home with what is euphemistically called “a lovely parting gift”: a toaster or a set of sheets or a blender. I’m sure that those who receive these parting gifts are thankful for them—but they’re really not the big prize they wanted.
The disciples must have felt the same way to hear these words of Jesus before his ascension. They walked with the Lord for the three years of his earthly ministry. They heard him teach and saw his miracles. They had seen him die on the cross and conquer death three days later as he rose up from the dead. Surely the grand prize stood within their reach!
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” But it was not to be. Instead, the Lord had other parting gifts to give: gifts of his word and gifts of his work to do and gifts of worship—not quite what they were expecting or wanting.
Maybe we too feel a bit of disappointment at times with the gifts of our ascended Lord. After all we are not somehow miraculously immune from valuing material and physical and economic blessings more than spiritual blessings. Much too often we play the game for the big prize. Plenty of money—right now. The end of sickness—right now. One success after another—right now. What I want—right now.
And because of our sinful, self-centered wanting, the Lord’s true ascension blessings go unappreciated for the great spiritual treasure they are. For these gifts that the Lord gives to the disciples then and now at his ascension are not like toasters and sheets and blenders—consolation prizes that don’t quite measure up—instead they are the greatest blessings that our Lord has to give: his words to live by—his work to do—and his worship to give. Luke writes:
Then Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
For three years the disciples were privileged to hear the Lord’s voice as he taught them and encouraged them and preached to them—but soon he would return to his heavenly throne and they wouldn’t hear him that way again.
What a blessing it must have been to them to realize that even though he would soon ascend into heaven, his voice would not be silenced—he would still be heard every time the Holy Scriptures were read and preached. “These are my words” Jesus said, speaking of Holy Scripture.
That ascension blessing—of hearing Jesus’ voice in Scripture--continues to this day. The bible is not dusty history or ancient myth but it is the living voice of Jesus telling his story—and when we hear God’s Word and read God’s word-- we hear the voice of Jesus just as clearly as the disciples did—telling us the same things.
He counsels us when we need to know which way to go in life. He convicts us of our sins when we have done wrong. He comforts us when we are overcome by fears and worries and guilt. Most importantly he tells us again and again what he has done for our salvation in his death and resurrection.
Those events of the cross and empty tomb form the heart of his message to us and to all Christians and to the world. The Gospel is what Jesus wants us to hear. It really is the grand prize!
It is so easy—so tempting-- for churches and Christians to veer off track—to major in the minors when it comes to the Bible’s message. What a blessing it is that Jesus reminds us again and again what his story really is all about: his death and resurrection and the forgiveness for sins that is found there—forgiveness that is spoken not just to us-- but is intended by God to be spoken to the world. Jesus said
Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Most of us know at least something about the Great Depression. We know the big picture. We know that because of a variety of factors the stock market collapsed in 1929 and the banking system collapsed a short time later as people rushed to get their money. Like the first two dominoes in a long line of dominoes, these two events set into motion a whole series of events that crippled our economy and put millions of people out of work.
What a lot of us don’t recognize is what this meant for many of the men in our nation who lost their jobs. Many of them also lost their will to live—they committed suicide and abandoned their families and turned to alcohol--not really because of the financial hardships-- but because they lost their purpose in life and they simply couldn’t face their families or the future without meaningful work to do.
You see, God has created us to work—his design gives us dignity. Work is one of God’s best gifts. He gave Adam and Eve work to do in the Garden before the fall into sin—not after—and it is only after the Fall that work becomes not only a joy but also a struggle.
There are promotions-- and there are times when we get passed by. There are profits and there are losses. Bountiful harvests and lean years. There are all the trappings of power and prestige in our offices-- and there is our retirement day when we take them off the wall and clean out our desk and someone else takes our place and our work is forgotten. That’s the effect of sin on God’s good gift of work—it ends in futility. But at his ascension Jesus blessed his disciples with an opportunity to labor for things that matter eternally.
That you raised your children as Christians and taught them to do the same—that you witnessed to Jesus Christ among your friends and co-workers—that you gave generously for the work of ministry and mission in this place and across the world—that you were compassionate to those in need--these works last forever and they will be recognized and commended by Jesus on the last day and they give a meaning and purpose and value to our lives right now like nothing else that we do.
Each of us needs to have a part in that wonderful work of witness and proclamation that Jesus gives at his ascension. And if you are a little bit hesitant or afraid, in this work or proclamation and witness—know that Christ has especially equipped you for just that thing. Jesus says:
And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."
That promise has been fulfilled. Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to his people—the very power and presence of God himself in his people’s lives-- and you have been given that same gift of the Spirit in Holy Baptism that equips you for meaningful work in his kingdom.
When Jesus ascended into heaven the angel that was there asked the disciples why they were still standing around looking up into the sky. Jesus had given them work to do.
God asks the same of us. “Why are you just standing around? There is work that I have given you to do—a glorious work that pleases me and advances my kingdom and makes your own life rich and rewarding—and I have given you all that you need by my Holy Spirit to do that work of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in the name of my Son Jesus who is worthy to be worshiped and praised”. Luke writes of this final ascension blessing of worship:
Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
We are blessed on this Ascension Day, like no other day in the church year, to know Jesus for who he is—to see the full truth of his divine dignity—to remind ourselves that he is worthy of our worship.
During Christmas we see him as the Babe of Bethlehem. During Lent we see him as the crucified Savior. Throughout the rest of the church year we see him as the wise teacher and miracle worker.
But on Ascension Day we see him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As Paul says we see “the greatness of his power and the working of his great might—that he is above all things on earth and the head of all things in the church.”
Ascension Day is our Lord’s coronation festival where we see him once again seated at the right hand of the Father clothed with divine glory and power and honor and we worship him for who he is and what he has done in giving us these great ascension blessings of his word to hear and his work to do. Amen.