WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR
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I read a piece recently about the author’s experience of churches in the heartland of the United States that were built in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this piece the author notes that no matter if it’s a country church or a cathedral-like building in the middle of a city, they all have this thing in common. Somewhere in the church the scene of Jesus’ ascension is depicted. Whether as, the author describes, it’s from small-town North Dakota to the capital of Nebraska, from the dairy communities of middle Wisconsin to the suburbs of Kansas City, congregants in many Midwestern churches find themselves week after week looking at an image of Christ ascending into the clouds, with his followers looking up at him. He writes – “No one seems to know exactly why this image is so prevalent in churches that were built a century or more ago. Perhaps the ease of painting clouds attracted the image of amateur artists. Or perhaps the verticality of the image – Christ going up, up and away – helped norther European immigrants feel a sense of transcendence as they homesteaded such flat land and lived sometimes monotonously hard lives. Or did the image appeal for another reason altogether? Might it have something to do with an empathy evoked by the disciples pictured at the bottom of the painting? In my unscientific study of such sanctuary art over the years, I have rarely discovered an image of Christ ascending into the clouds without the disciples gazing up from below. And there is never just one disciple, or two, peering skyward. It is always a group of Jesus’ followers, who clearly are wondering what this disappearing Christ will mean for their lives. The more clever the painter and the more meticulous the stained glass artisan, the more intricate the facial expressions on those disciples standing there… Some of the faces have jaws gaping. Others have furrowed brows, as if to signal some distress. Though glory and exaltation emanate from the face of the rising Christ, an anxious look marks the disciples below.”
Perhaps some among us can identify with this anxious look. Throughout the story of God - which is ongoing and which if you’re a follower of Christ you have been caught up in – God calls and forms a people for himself and for his purposes. A group of people who are called out – an ecclesia. Over the next four months we are going to be journeying through the book of Acts. Traditionally called the Acts of the Apostles, but in reality more like the Acts of God. The Acts that God works through a group of followers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. What we’re looking at throughout this book are the acts of God, the acts of Jesus Christ, the acts of the Holy Spirit. The three in one. Someone has said that when you call one, you summon all three. W.H. Auden wrote these lines – “He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.” Someone has described the book of Acts like this – “Before Peter gives his first sermon in chapter 2, Luke gathers people from Jerusalem, Asia, Egypt, and Rome. Paul preaches in the intellectual marketplace of Athens, he is driven out of the religious centre of Ephesus, and he finds hospitality on the insignificant island of Malta…. The apostle Matthias and the prophesying daughters of Phillip appear and disappear on the road as abruptly as tollbooth attendants. Rhoda and Eutychus enliven the journey with their excitement on one hand, and their somnolence on the other. Lydia and the islanders of Malta offer hospitality sorely lacking elsewhere. And Peter, who would seem to be a major figure in the journey, simply disappears without warning or explanation… An angel directs Philip to a deserted place during the heat of the day, where he encounters a marvelous Ethiopian eunuch who hears the gospel eagerly. The gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to those who repent and undergo baptism, but it falls on the Gentile Cornelius, along with his family and friends, while Peter is still in the process of explaining Jesus to them.” Phew!
What might this book have to tell us about how to be the church? How to be a people called out to do the work of Christ? How to be the church in the face of opposition? How to be the church in the face of vast indifference? How to be the church in the face of internal strife? These are the questions that we will be asking over the coming weeks.
This morning we’re looking at the transition scene that marks the transition from the presence of Christ Jesus with his disciples to the presence of the Holy Spirit with them. It starts in much the same way Luke began Part 1 of his work. “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote to you all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning…” The other way to translate this is “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” In other words, the work continues in Jesus’ church. Jesus gives instruction through the Holy Spirit. Everyone is involved here. He spends forty days with them, speaking of the kingdom of God. A new beginning. We can’t hear 40 without thinking of the people of Israel being prepared to enter the land of promise over 40 years. We can’t hear 40 without thinking of Christ preparing for his work in the wilderness for 40 days. A time of preparation. A whole new beginning. Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of God. This story did not begin with Jesus’ birth, of course. The script had been written long before. Promises had been made. We looked at this when we talked about Jesus announcing the start of his ministry in his hometown synagogue. The script had been written by the prophet Isaiah. Jesus enacted it. The story is not over. It continues in us. This story in which we are caught up is a big deal. It’s the biggest deal of all. We need to be reminded of this don’t we? I don’t think it is opposition to this story that we face so much in our world as indifference. We need to be reminded of its importance. Of its big-dealness. We need to be reminded of who the church is founded on. Don’t leave Jerusalem, Christ tells his followers. Everything will emanate from Jerusalem. The centre of it all. The place where Jesus died for us. The place where God raised him from the dead. The epicentre of the salvation story. We like to think of Toronto as the centre of the universe I know I know. The geography of this story is not without significance, particularly when we think of how we see cities as centres of power – Toronto, Ottawa, Washington, New York, Hollywood…. Do not leave Jerusalem, Jesus tells them.
And then comes a most interesting command. What is the first thing they are to do, these followers of Jesus? We’re the ones whom God has called out. Let’s get busy right? Let’s go do something. Let’s start with a study maybe – a survey of the neighbourhood. There must be something to do. Look at how Jesus tells them to start. He tells them to wait.
And wait. A great man once said something about waiting on the Lord. Those that wait on the Lord will renew their strength. In an age where we feel/are told we need to be constantly doing, we are told to wait. So how is our waiting? We have a group of people in our church who have been appointed to discern God’s will for the immediate future of our church. How is our waiting in that process? What role does waiting play in reminding us on whom we depend? There is nothing wrong with activity, of course there isn’t. There is nothing wrong with being able to read the signs of the times and our culture and our neighbourhoods. We begin with waiting.
How do we wait creatively? Waiting should come naturally to us. To follow Christ is, after all, to be waiting on something. We’re waiting on the same thing the disciples ask about in v. 6. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” We needn’t think of this as a misunderstanding on the disciples’ part necessarily. The restoration of Israel was promised. The restoration of all things is promised. The disciples are wondering how long. Jesus tells them it’s not for them to know. Don’t get distracted by what someone has called apocalyptic enthusiasm. The day of fulfillment will come. We live in the already and not yet of the kingdom of God. We are Easter people. We travel along the road with the risen Christ. We are in between times people. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses. The empowerment and the mission. This is the church my friends. We begin by waiting. We begin by praying. Together. The next scene has Jesus’ followers devoting themselves to prayer.
How are we doing with praying together? What should we be praying for? There are two things that we’ve already been speaking of in this passage. Pray for the kingdom to come. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Pray for the Holy Spirit. Pray that we might be filled with the Holy Spirit and that we might be a people who show the fruit of the Spirit of God. Paul told the church in Ephesus that he prayed that God would give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they came to know him. He prayed that they would be strengthened in their inner being with power through his Spirit, that they might be filled with all the fullness of God.
Let these things be our prayers my dear friends.
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Here come the men in white. We’ve said before when the men in white show up, things are happening. Two men clothed in white appear. They reprove Jesus’ followers. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
A double warning here. Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. Remember that we’re not just to gaze wistfully at the departed Jesus and remember what a great man he was. We’re called to a purpose. We’re called to continue his work. We’ll see what that looks like for the people of Acts over the coming weeks. We’ll continue to figure out together and in the power of the Holy Spirit what it means for us here today. We don’t gaze wistfully and as we consider our world and the roll we are called to play we don’t despair. We look back, we look around us, and we look ahead. This Jesus – the same unchanging one – will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This same Jesus will come on a cloud to restore all things, to renew all things, to fulfill all things. The arc of history is long and it bends toward justice. We’re living in the gracious interim. May God continue to be revealed to us. May the will of God for us here in this place continue to be revealed to us.