“Hands of Blessing” (Sermon on Luke 24:44-53, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“Hands of Blessing” (Luke 24:44-53)
“Then he 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.” This is our text.
“Lifting up his hands he blessed them.” On this Ascension Day, I invite you to consider with me those hands of Jesus. The hands with which he blesses us, as he ascends into heaven. For these hands of Jesus are “Hands of Blessing.”
As I was thinking about the lessons for tonight’s Ascension service, it was those hands that caught my attention. Why does Jesus lift up his hands as he blesses? After all, to give a blessing does not require the use of the hands but of the mouth. To “bless” people means, literally, to “speak good things” upon them. It is a verbal action, involving words being spoken. Whether it was an Old Testament priest speaking the Aaronic Benediction over the people of Israel, or here, the Lord Jesus Christ blessing his disciples, the one doing the blessing speaks words over people. He speaks good things upon them, in the name of the Lord, actually conferring God’s blessing on the people being blessed. So to pronounce a blessing involves using one’s mouth.
So what’s up with the hands? Why did the priest in the Old Testament or Jesus, here, lift up his hands as he spoke the blessing? This gesture of the hands was to communicate what was really going on, namely, that the Lord God was bestowing his blessing upon the people. The blessing was coming down from heaven, from God, in his name, and was being poured out on, showered over, directed toward, and conferred upon, the person or persons who were getting the blessing. The action of the hands matched the content of the words.
And so Jesus, here at his ascension into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the place of all authority–Jesus lifts up his hands as a sign of blessing coming down from heaven, blessing being conferred, even as he speaks the very words, his authoritative words, which bestow that blessing.
OK, fair enough. That explains the gesture of Jesus lifting up his hands over the disciples as he blesses them. But what sort of blessing or blessings does Jesus give? What are the good things being spoken and bestowed? And here I began to think about those hands again. These hands of Jesus that we see here at his ascension–what have we seen those same hands doing up until this point? How has Jesus used his hands during his ministry as hands of blessing? That question piqued my interest, so I went through the four gospels, and I searched for every place where Jesus’ hands are mentioned or where he’s described as touching something or someone. What I found was thrilling, because the kinds of things Jesus does with his hands–these are the kinds of good things that Jesus bestows on us when he blesses us.
So here goes. A quick run-through of how we see Jesus’ hands in action in the gospels: Right away, early on in his ministry, Jesus was using his hands to bless people. To bless them in every way, body, soul, and spirit. A leper comes to Jesus, pleading, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him and says, “I will; be clean.” And it was done. Peter’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever. Jesus touches her hand, and the fever leaves her. That evening, all kinds of sick people were brought to Jesus, and he laid hands on every one of them and healed them.
Hands of healing, hands of blessing, hands of life. Jairus comes to Jesus and begs: “My little daughter is dying. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” Jesus comes, the girl is already dead, but Jesus takes her by the hand and says, “Talitha cumi,” “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And she does. Jesus does this again when he touches the funeral bier of the widow of Nain’s son and raises him from the dead. “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
People are astonished at these things Jesus is doing. They begin to wonder about him. “How are such mighty works done by his hands?” The authority of Jesus, in his word and in his touch, is just amazing. These mighty works of blessing and healing and life–this man must be getting these things from God.
But there’s more. A deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus puts his fingers into his ears, and spits, and touches the man’s tongue. “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” And they are, the ears opened and the tongue loosed. Some people bring a blind man to Jesus, and they beg him to touch him. Jesus spits on the man’s eyes, lays hands on him–twice–and the man sees clearly. The hands of Jesus give people ears to hear and eyes to see and tongues to speak.
Jesus is out teaching the crowds. It’s late. They’re hungry. Jesus takes some food in his hands, five loaves and two fish. He speaks a blessing over them, and with that Jesus-blessed food, five thousand people eat and are satisfied. When Jesus takes bread in his hands and blesses it, wonderful things happen.
The hands of Jesus rescue and lift up fallen, doubting disciples. Peter is bidden to come and walk out on the sea. He does, but he’s afraid and begins to sink. “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and takes hold of Peter. The disciples are beginning to see just who this Jesus is: “Truly you are the Son of God.” Again Peter is afraid, along with James and John, on the Mount of Transfiguration. The glory is too much for them, and they fall on their faces, terrified. But Jesus comes and touches them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” Another reassuring touch from Jesus, relieving fear.
They come down the mountain. Jesus casts a demon out of a boy. The demon convulses him and leaves him like a corpse. Jesus takes the boy by the hand and lifts him up, and he arises. Likewise a woman with a disabling spirit. Her body is all bent over. Jesus speaks a freeing word to her and lays hands on her, and she is made straight. Jesus’ hands and his word have authority over the demonic realm, which wishes to cause us harm.
The hands of Jesus are hands of blessing, blessing all who come to him, all who are brought to him, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to the world. People bring little children to Jesus, to have him touch them and bless them. “And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” Two blind men sit by the side of the road. “Kyrie, eleison,” “Lord, have mercy on us.” “And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.”
We come to Jerusalem. It’s the Feast of the Passover. Jesus’ hands now are holding a towel, as he gets down on his knees and washes the disciples’ feet. The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served. At the end of the meal, Jesus takes bread in his hands and blesses it. “This is my body, given for you.” Then he takes the cup. “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” A little later that same evening, Jesus reaches out his hand even to one who comes to arrest him. Peter cuts off the ear of one of the arresting party. But Jesus touches the man’s ear, and it is healed. See the love and mercy and healing touch of our Lord, in his hands.
So what kinds of blessing have we seen Jesus bestowing with those hands of his? Healing the sick and every kind of disease. Delivering from demons, liberating the afflicted. Raising the dead with a word and a touch. Feeding the multitudes with the bread of life. Rescuing and reassuring fearful disciples. Blessing little children. What hands of blessing these hands of Jesus are!
But how can we know these hands of blessing are meant for us? I mean, that was then. What about now? What about us? How can I know that Jesus is lifting up his hands over me? How can I know that Jesus has love and mercy and blessing for someone as sinful as I am?
Well, let’s take another look at those hands. Where do we see them a little later in the gospels, after all the healings and miracles and so forth? “And they crucified him.” The hands of Jesus–healing hands, holy hands–nailed through, nailed to a cross. Hands immobilized, but, oh, what mighty works are being done by those hands! Christ is bearing the sins of the world in those hands–your sins and mine. He is offering up the perfect sacrifice for all our sins with those nail-pierced hands. This is how you can know all of Christ’s blessings are meant for people as sinful as you and I are: Take a look at his hands.
That’s what Jesus does when he rises on Easter Day and comes to his fearful, hiding-behind-locked-doors disciples: He shows them his hands. He wants them to know it is really he–they’re not seeing a ghost. And those nail marks are not a sign of defeat. No, they are a sign of victory, an everlasting sign of victory. Our risen Lord always wants to be known by those nail-marked hands. For they show forth his finished victory over sin and death and everything that would close in on you and cause you to fear. The hands of Jesus show that the price has been paid, death is undone, that even the grave could not stop the Son of God or keep his life from bursting forth. Here is life for you. Jesus is holding the life in his hands, and now he is offering it to you, free of charge.
So now when we see the hands of Jesus, upraised, lifted up at his ascension, we know what the blessing is that he is bestowing upon us. It is forgiveness of sins, won for sinners like you and me on that cross. It is eternal life, guaranteed by his resurrection, which he showed to his disciples with his nail-marked hands. It is strength and reassurance for when we are weak and afraid.
And it is Christ’s blessing resting on his church, as the ascended Lord now sends out his church in his name to take the life-giving gospel into all the world. Jesus is blessing the mission of the church at his ascension. He now is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he is ruling all things for the good of the church and her mission. The uplifted hands of Jesus at his ascension show that he will continue to bless his church, which indeed he did by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
Dear friends, our ascended Lord blesses us with every blessing. He speaks good things upon us. His hands are stretched out tonight, bestowing every good upon us. The nail marks show that even poor miserable sinners are included. And tonight our Lord takes the bread and the cup in his hands once again to bless us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Yes, risen, ascended, and now seated at the right hand of God, our Lord Jesus Christ is lifting up his hands of blessing over you tonight.