Luke 24:44-52 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 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.
There is so much about the Ascension event that is jaw dropping, hard to process, and unbelievable especially for modern people. There’s a story about a Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin who allegedly looked out the window of his shuttle and muttered to himself, “I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” It’s almost like he thought that Jesus was some out-of-control helium balloon that got a 2,000-year head start on him – that he thought his fast moving shuttle might make short work of the gap, catch up to Jesus, and then watch Jesus continue ascending wherever he was ascending from the comfort of his shuttle. Whether that’s what Yuri actually meant I don’t know. What I do know is that to the modern mind, this supernatural levitation without the aid of a jet pack seems laughable, over-the-top, and impossible to entertain.
I’m guessing though that that’s not what sticks in our craw the most about Luke’s account. We as Christians believe Jesus could pull that off. We think he’s fully capable of supernatural levitation. We’re committed to the idea that this is an historic, true, and accurate account of what happened. We can even see this in our mind’s eye. We can imagine ourselves standing on that hill in Bethany and watching all this go down. We believe this so completely that we think this is even better than watching Disney’s Up. This isn’t Jesus suffering from a case of out-of-control helium. This is Jesus mastering physics, taming cosmology, and possibly even moving to a different spiritual dimension. This is Jesus being our Jesus. We get that.
There’s something here though in this Ascension event that does stick in our craw. Do you know what it is? What he said about us. He said, “You are witnesses of these things.” (v. 48) That’s Jesus’ next word with his friends that we’re looking at. Now let me be clear. There is only one word in that statement that’s hard to take in. We’re fine with the witness part. We get that that’s important. If Jesus’ visible presence is heading up and away, then we get that the gospel has to get out through some type of witness. That’s understandable and we’re agreeable with that. We want people to know about Jesus’ death, resurrection and his ascension. We get that. What’s hard to take in is the first word in that statement, “You.”
It’s that pesky little, “you,” that gets us. It’s so personal, direct, and honoring. It’s so - well - you. Christians have sensed what an overwhelming and even terrifying honor this really is for a long time. There’s a legend - and it is just a legend. There’s nothing biblical about it - that does a pretty good job capturing this. As the legend goes, Gabriel stood there with his angelic jaw on the ground. After all, he was a pretty strategic, straight thinking angel. Jesus had arrived home to heaven and Gabriel had asked, “Master, you suffered horribly down there. Do they know what you accomplished and how much you really loved them?” Jesus calmly replied, “Not yet. Just a handful of folks in Palestine know.” Gabriel perplexed and troubled immediately followed up asking, “How are they going to find out?” And Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to get the word out. Pretty soon the whole world will know. That’s the plan.” Gabriel surprised and troubled thinking of how unreliable and fickle humans can be asked, “What if they get tired? What if the people after them forget? What if they fail? Jesus, what’s plan B?” As the story goes, Jesus answered bluntly, “There is no plan B.”
“There is no plan B.” That’s what’s surprising about Jesus’ word with his friends here. You are my witnesses. I’m not sure about you, but I still can’t get that image out of my head of these guys all hitting the eject button from Jesus just weeks earlier. I can still see them still sawing logs even after Jesus asked them - no he begged them - to stay awake with him as he literally sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Should I go on? I think you get the picture. If you really think it through, this plan is enough to make you want to say, “Jesus, are you sure? Isn’t there a more efficient and effective way to get out the good news than these terribly incompetent, Christian burn outs who you’re telling to start at Jerusalem and then radiate out to the world?”
Of course, those kind of thoughts have little to do with those ancient disciples. They have far more to do with us. That, “you,” in Jesus’ word, “You are witnesses,” is no longer relevant to them. It was incredibly so, but it isn’t now. Don’t get me wrong. That, “you,” in Jesus’ word, “you are witnesses,” is still relevant. Just not to them. The baton has been passed. There are now new witnesses. The, “you,” that was so personal, so direct, and so honoring for those first disciples is now a, “you,” that is personal, direct, and honoring for you. You are now plan A. And there is no plan B. And if we’re honest, that’s scary. It’s enough to make us want to say, “Jesus, really? I’m not so sure. I’m not scripturally competent enough. Jesus, you know I can be so overly concerned about what my friends are going to think if I go all gospel on them. Jesus, you know I don’t have enough credibility with my co-workers to speak of such high things because of my past and frankly a bit of my present. Jesus, I’d rather kowtow to the old expression there are two things you never talk about with family, ‘religion,’ or, ‘politics.’”
Jesus knew we might feel like that. Just as he knows everything. That’s why he waited. He didn’t say this to us before he died, but after. He didn’t say this before his resurrection. He said it after. He didn’t say this on some normal, average Joe day. Jesus said this on his Ascension Day. He said it only after 39 days of showing himself to his disciples alive. He may have looked awfully weightless on this day, but he decided to speak to us this way only because his work on it was oh so weighty. That’s what Jesus wanted to be clear on his Ascension Day. He said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (v. 44) Must be fulfilled. That’s a lot of necessity and weight right there. But then he goes on and he tells us where it’s written. He said very specifically, “I’m written about in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Not to be too scholarly about this, but that’s the whole shebang. That’s the whole thing. In Jewish minds the Old Testament had three parts. Jesus said he’s not just in the Torah, or, the Law of Moses. He’s in the Prophets too like Isaiah and Jeremiah. And he’s not just in Moses and not just in the Prophets, he’s also in the Psalms. Jesus is saying, “I’m woven through the whole entire Old Testament.” Do you know how big a claim this is? There is no other claim so clear and sweeping in the entire New Testament. None. On Jesus’ Ascension Day, he makes the claim that you can find him woven into the tapestry of the entire Old Testament.
And then he ups the ante even more… as if that were possible. He wasn’t yet content for us to realize that he’s all over the Scriptures. He’s not just done after he tells us that we can find him written into every part of it. He has to go further. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” (v. 46-47) Do you see what Jesus just did? He not only told them that he was in there. He told them he was the whole thing. He not only told them that he was woven into every part of the Old Testament, but that he was its entire content. Jesus not only told us that he was pictured in the tapestry, but that he was the tapestry. That’s what the, “is,” means in that statement, “This is what is written.” That, “is” is an equals sign. Jesus is summarizing the world-leading, life-giving, perfect writings of the Old Testament saying, “If you boil it all down, it’s all me; how I suffer and rise from the dead. It’s all about how I am the place where in repentance people find forgiveness for sin in my life’s work.”
Do you see how incredibly important this is for us to understand? This is far more than a claim to the centrality of the Scriptures for our lives. It’s far more than an almost obsessive referencing of God’s written thoughts in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is making the claim that the Scriptures aren’t just central to our lives, but also that he’s the center of those same Scriptures. He’s its beating heart. He’s its pulse. It’s perfect center that radiates out to every part. We say stuff like that at Peace all the time. We say, “We think it’s our job to help people understand Jesus better,” or, “We’re all about the gospel and helping people dig into it.” We say stuff like that all the time. I point that out because I want people to understand that when we say that we don’t mean, “This is Peace’s slant. It’s Peace place in the marketplace. It’s out niche.” The reality is that that’s not our claim, it’s Christ’s. He’s the one who’s claiming that the Scriptures are Christo-centric. He’s the one telling us to emphasize him. Not because he’s jealous or trying to rewrite the Scriptures somehow, but because it’s true. He is the middle of the Scriptures and its end. He is its emphasis. He’s also its off-the-cuff comment.
Jesus. Jesus. Only Jesus. That’s what the Scriptures are all about. He is the center, the life, and the breath of everything they have to say. And that is route that Jesus takes to his very direct, very personal, and very honoring word that he shared with us his friends when he said, “You are my witnesses.” That’s incredibly important to notice. Jesus never expected us to share the gospel until he first applied it to us. He never thought we’d have any business teaching it until we saw how central he was to what we were to be teaching. He never wanted us to offer its forgiveness to others until we saw how wrecked we were without him and saved we then were through him.
That’s what he talked about on his Ascension Day. That’s the one thing he wanted them – and us! – to know before he visibly left. He wanted them to know that the whole plan from beginning to end was to forgive their formerly dead and weak wills, and to gift to them his competence; that he has perfect commitment to us whenever our commitment to him falls on its face. He wanted them – and us! – to know that God’s heart from the moment of the first human sin up until the present time held one great thought, one great idea, one driving will that he would save us. He would make us clean and holy and pure. He would wear our skin. He would take our place under God’s holy, perfect, flawless law. He would sacrifice himself on the cross. He would rise. And now, he was not going to visibly leave them until he had made it clear to them – and us! – that they were loved, and that they forgiven in his name. That that, in fact, was the plan the entire time.
You know what the truth is? Maybe I was wrong the whole time. Maybe the most miraculous part of Ascension Day isn’t Jesus’ jet pack free ascent. And maybe it’s not that he actually entrusts to us the communication of his life’s work to this world. Maybe the most miraculous part of Ascension Day is that we’re forgiven enough to be Jesus’ witnesses. Maybe it’s that despite what we’ve done, said, or thought that we are his trusted ministry partners, his friends, the people to whom he entrusts the gospel gold of forgiveness. Maybe that’s the real miracle here.
Maybe that’s why Luke’s gospel closes with so much joy even as Jesus visibly left. Did you catch the glorious ending, their last glimpse of Jesus? His hands were raised blessing them. They who least deserved it and most needed it! What a moment that must’ve been as they looked up and they saw his nailed marked hands held up over them. What a moment! How they must’ve known that though they had hit the eject button so recently, that though they were and would be marked by various levels of incompetence, that though they would waver, and fear in their witnessing that their Jesus, their Savior, their King had won them God’s love and forgiveness. And that wouldn’t ever change. Not then. Not ever. And so they worshipped and they were filled with joy. And history tells us that they personally, directly, and powerfully became his witnesses. Just as you have. Amen.