A strange sort of joy


Sermon for Ascension Thursday, May 26th, 2022


You know, I find it so odd, that after Jesus ascends into heaven his disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy. Joy. They just spend hours in the temple in joy, blessing God. 

It’s odd to me that they are so filled with joy, because Jesus just left them…again. Now, the last time Jesus left them he was dead. A little more than forty days before he disappeared into the cloud he had been crucified and buried. He had been brutally murdered. And when he rose from the dead and returned to them, well it just turned their entire world upside down. Their loved one, their friend, their teacher, their master, he had died and come back to life, so of course the disciples were joyful on Easter Sunday, when Jesus came back to them. That joy makes sense to me. That is a joy that I think most of us long to experience ourselves. We long to see loved ones again. That is Easter joy and Easter joy makes sense to me. Easter joy is about seeing and touching, someone or something that you thought was lost. Easter joy is about hope fulfilled.

But in our gospel passage today, Luke isn’t talking about that kind of joy. He isn’t talking about Easter joy. Luke is talking about Ascension joy. Ascension joy is very different. It’s a little harder to understand. It’s still joy, but it is a joy that walks hand in hand with a huge measure of faith. It is a joy that forces us to look beyond this world. It is a joy that requires patience. It is a joy that requires humility. 

Once Jesus disappeared from their sight, the disciples couldn’t touch him anymore, they couldn’t see his body. They knew that he had been resurrected, they had witnessed it, but now the physical evidence, his body, wasn’t standing in front of them anymore. But still they have joy. They have joy that Jesus has gone to the Father. The world that Jesus leaves behind is still broken. There is still brutality and murder and sin and darkness. There is still pain and suffering, but they have joy. They have joy that there is a presence at the right hand of God that knows all about that pain and suffering. They have joy that they have an advocate in God’s kingdom. They have joy that Jesus has entered into the heavenly realm. They don’t necessarily understand what that realm is any more than we do. They see Jesus disappear, but they know that he isn’t just floating around on a cloud somewhere; he is in God’s realm, God’s kingdom that exists outside our understanding of time and place. But the disciples don’t walk away feeling abandoned. As hard as it was, I am sure, for them to see Jesus disappear, they still recognize that it is a good thing. It is still good news. It is still reason for joy, even though it now has to be joy coupled with faith. 

The disciples rush to the temple to bless God when Jesus ascends into heaven, because that event confirms for them something that Jesus had told them on many occasions: that his life and ministry was about more than this world. It didn’t begin here. It doesn’t end here. Jesus is still alive. Jesus is still hard at work, but his work isn’t just about fixing this broken old world of ours; it is about making us a part of something new. It is about more than this world. There is joy in knowing that this broken, horrible world is not the end of God’s plan and our final destiny, but there is also joy in knowing that even in this horrible, broken world God has mighty power. God is at work. And God can change people, and transform lives. Ascension joy, is about living in the knowledge and faith that there is a link between the world we are living in and God’s eternal kingdom. There is a link between heaven and earth and that link is Jesus Christ. The Ascension isn’t about being abandoned or left to our own devices to figure out how to fix the world that Christ left behind, oh no. It is about being eternally linked to God through the grace that comes from the risen and ascended Jesus. It is about knowing that Jesus is at work in us AND Jesus is at work for us. It isn’t one or the other, it is both, and that is reason for joy. Ascension joy.

You know, I think what a lot of Christians really want is for God to either teach us to fix this world or to snatch us out of it. So some folks want Jesus to just be a good teacher who tells us to be nice to one another and share and do nice things, and heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race…that’s what some people think this is all about. An eternity of social work. The salvation of the world waiting on us. These people are exhausting for the record. I’m too tired to save the world most days. But then other folks really want to lean into Jesus as a saviour who wants us to give him lip service but not much else. Sign on the dotted line, call me Lord and saviour, and when the going gets ugly I will helicopter in and snatch you out of this ugly world, no personal transformation required. No change of heart. Nothing you do really matters. These people are exhausting too, but in a different way. I mean, what’s the point of having faith if you are the same miserable person you were before? I know plenty of Christians who are on one side or another of this divide, and they all have a few scriptures to back up their position, but in order to be on one side or another you have to leave plenty of scriptures out. But we have to look at the whole Jesus. 

Because Jesus does heal folks in this world, and he does instruct us to care for others, and to share and to love, and to be compassionate, and yes, I’m going to say it, to sin no more. The Jesus who teaches us to do nice things to others, also teaches us, first and foremost, to address our own sinfulness. Not just the sins of society, or the sins of history, or the sins of the system, or “the man” but our own personal sinfulness that is our own fault and no one else’s. Jesus does teach us and his teachings aren’t always simple and easy. But Jesus does more than teach us. What is happening on the cross isn’t just God teaching us a lesson. The resurrection isn’t something that we can achieve on our own through good works and right opinions. And the Ascension should remind us that there are things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus goes someplace that we cannot go on our own. There is no stairway to heaven that we can just climb up by being better people. We need Jesus. We need a saviour. We have a saviour. But it just so happens that the saviour we have is a saviour who also teaches us. Jesus is both of these things, there’s no getting around it.

It strikes me that Ascension joy, the joy that the disciples experienced on this day, comes from the realization that while I am standing here on this earth, trying to do what my Jesus has commanded me to do, that even now (right now) a part of me stands before the heavenly throne. Jesus is my teacher, yes, but he is also my Lord and saviour. He is my advocate. He pleads for me. My pains are his pains, and his joy is my joy. There is work for us to do in this world, but this world is not the end of the story. Thank God this world is not the end of the story. Thank God there is a link between this world and the world to come. Like the disciples on Ascension Day, it is right that we should come to the temple and bless God for that living connection between these two worlds, it is right that it should bring us joy, because if the Jesus who died on the cross in this world wasn’t seated on the throne I would despair. I would despair. 

Maybe it seems odd to spend so much time talking about joy at a time like this. How dare we talk about joy when we have had yet another mass shooting of children? And cue the stock responses from everybody (and they are stock responses now because at this point they have been used so many times). The liberals say this, the conservatives say that. And nothing really happens. Joy? How can we talk about joy, when one half of the country hates the other half of the country? How can we talk about joy when human lives, which scripture tells us means so much to God, means so little to us? Oh yeah and there’s also all that other stuff: inflation and covid and war. How dare we talk about joy? How dare we not!

I promise you, people in the world are well acquainted with suffering and sorrow. We need to talk to them about joy. People need to hear about Easter joy, the joy of knowing that death doesn’t have the final word; that we have hope of reunion with those we love, but they also need to hear about Ascension joy. People need to know that right here, right now there is a power in heaven that knows their name. Knows their sorrows; knows their pain; knows their struggles. I promise you, people already know about death, and darkness and evil. But do they know about grace? Do they know that the Jesus who taught us about living in this world, do they know that that same Jesus lives to intercede for us even now? There is joy in that knowledge. People know about the power of death, but do they know about the power of God? How can we not talk about God’s power at a time like this? 

So many people right now have no hope for heaven and no fear of hell, just a lot of pain and no place to put it. People are angry at everything and at nothing. Let’s find someone to blame. Let’s project our anger onto everything and to hell with anyone that wants to find joy, and goodness, and happiness and innocence in the world. 

If I thought that it was up to the politicians to fix this, I would despair. Man, I would despair if I thought the solution was waiting on us. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have sensible laws in this country, but in order to get sensible laws, you have to have sensible politicians. In order to have sensible politicians you have to have sensible voters and in order to have sensible voters you have to raise up people whose primary motivation in everything they do isn’t anger. You need people who still believe in the power of joy and goodness even in the midst of pain and suffering. That power is a grace that comes from God, it isn’t something that comes from us.

That is the power of Ascension joy. It is joy that is in this world, but not of this world. It is a joy that gives us the courage to try and follow Jesus even when we know that it is only by his grace that we will be saved. It is an odd, peculiar joy that can only come from knowing that the Jesus who sits on the throne in the next world is the same Jesus who hung on the cross in this one. It is a strange sort of joy, but it is a joy that the world very much needs right now.