Are your kids as clueless as mine once were? You tell them to go wash their hands because it’s dinnertime. Instead both of them come racing to the table, slurping milk before their bottom hits the chair. “Show me your hands … yep, go wash them.” One of them returns ten seconds later, hands dripping with water as proof. The other one has wandered off to finish his Lego project.
“Thank you,” you say to the dripping-hands child, “now go get your brother…and come right back!”
Ten minutes later you go in search of them both, and find them crouched by the Lego bin.
“Why are you sitting there digging through Legos when dinner is ON THE TABLE!!” Sheesh, an hour ago they were pestering me for snacks, now they’re putting off dinner. Clueless!
Two Clueless Angels Scratch Their Heads
I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ Ascension, an event that happened 40 days after his resurrection. The news bulletin of this event is brief, coming to us through Luke, the historian. He devotes exactly 8 verses to it, 4 at the end of his gospel, and 4 near the beginning of Acts. Despite Luke’s brevity he gives considerable space to the words of two angels who appeared to the disciples right after Jesus disappeared into the clouds:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11
Why did they ask Why?
Angels aren’t known for asking questions. They are messengers, sent to make announcements. When God wanted to announce the incarnation of his son, he sent an angel to Mary. When God wanted to warn Mary and Joseph of danger, he sent an angel to tell them. But here they are asking Why? You can almost picture them scratching their angelic heads.
The disciples’ gaping heavenward makes sense to me. I imagine myself among them that day, a first century follower of Jesus. I’ve followed him through his ministry, seeing his miracles, his arrest, his death, burial, and resurrection. Now I imagine myself watching him rise into the clouds. I too would at least feel sad. Maybe even clueless. Searching the sky, hoping for just one more glimpse.
Humanly speaking–emotionally speaking–their lingering gaze makes sense. But to the angelic beings it is senseless. Hadn’t he told them? Not just once but over and over?
These clueless disciples might make sense to us, but to the angels they were incomprehensible.
How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?
Now I know Jesus was extremely patient with his disciples, telling and retelling parables. Teaching and reteaching about his heavenly Father. But I find myself wondering, how many times did he actually tell them about his coming departure?
If he hadn’t told them at all, or if he had only mentioned it once, then we might give them a pass. We don’t always listen either, and even when we do, we don’t always remember. If Jesus’ ascension was a well kept secret, perhaps they were justified in staring at the clouds. Even if he’d told them once or twice, we might give them a pass for forgetting it, given the crisis of death, burial, and resurrection they had just witnessed.
So I did a little search.
I was surprised to find Jesus didn’t just mention his coming ascension once, but many times. What makes these mentions hard to recognize is that he doesn’t necessarily use the word Ascension but describes it by words like “going to him who sent me.” Consider these words Jesus spoke to the Pharisees:
“I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” John 7:33, 34 ESV, my emphasis
This conversation occurred during the Feast of Booths, in October of the year before his crucifixion. Jesus knew these religious leaders were seeking to kill him. It was common gossip of the day. The crowds were also buzzing with rumors about Jesus’ identity and why in the world he would show his face when there was a Mafioso contract out on him.
That day Jesus calmly informs the plotting Pharisees and the curious crowd that it is he, not they, who is managing his mission. He declares that he will be with them for a certain amount of time, a bold assertion in view of the plots and subplots swirling around him. But Jesus also declares the next event on his timetable:
“…and then I am going to him who sent me.”
Jesus will depart in his own timing, and his destination will be his Father’s presence. Further stumping his listeners, he adds:
“You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” John 7:34
At that point the crowd buzzes with questions about the scattering of the Jews, the Diaspora, and wonders aloud if Jesus is talking about going into hiding.
No, he is talking about his Ascension.
Repeatedly during the week leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be leaving them. Clearly, his ascension was already on his mind as he approached the cross. He called this sequence of final events “my hour.”
In John’s Gospel Jesus often uses the phrase “my hour has not yet come.” He first said these words at the wedding in Cana when his mother told him that they had run out of wine at a family wedding. This hospitality disaster called for help. Surely a little miracle wouldn’t tax Jesus’ powers. We remember that scene, but find Jesus’ tone towards his mother perplexing:
“Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” John 2:4
Why did he say that? John consistently refers to Jesus’ coming death and resurrection as “his hour.” From his baptism onward, every step of his ministry was bringing him closer to these final events: the death that would pay for our sins, the resurrection that would vindicate his innocence and announce his triumph. His testy response to Mary seems to caution her not to jump ahead to that part of the story. But as the final week began, Jesus knew that it was time. His hour had come.
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father… (John 13:1)
I have never thought of Jesus’ Ascension as part of that hour. His trial, yes. Sentencing, yes. His suffering, yes. His cry of “it is finished”? Of course. But he was looking past all that, even past his resurrection and all his appearances to this moment.
Jesus clearly understood “his hour” referred not just to his passion, but to his return home. The hour when he left us to go to his Father.
Am I Clueless Too?
I feel the sadness of this moment. You’re leaving us to be with your Father? How can you? We need you here. Now. With us! No wonder they stood there looking up long after he had disappeared.
That’s why the angels were sent, not just to ask why they were still staring up, but to reassure them that he is coming back.
“This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11
You see, Jesus’ ascent was always part of the plan he and his Father had made from eternity for us. Jesus ascended because he loved us, as John declares, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1b).”
If his leaving was filled with such love, how much more will his return bring? Jesus’ descent will bring a glorious end to this story, and the beginning of a greater story than we can imagine.