May 8, 2016 “Read and Tell” – Luke 24:44-3
“Read and Tell”
May 8, 2016 – Ascension Sunday
“No Daddy! That’s not how it goes!” That’s what one of my daughters would say when I endeavored to relieve the mind-numbing boredom of reading aloud for the fifty-seventh time one of their favorite books. One that really got to me was a horribly plotted, horribly illustrated 31-page little torture session entitled Pony Bird. I was trying to spice up the story of a boy who rides off on a winged horse with the absurd name “Pony Bird.” I’d add a bit about going fishing, or stopping for pizza, or fighting killer slugs, but my girls wouldn’t have it. They knew how the story went.
They could have told the story themselves. Perhaps I should have let them, since hearing one of them talk would have been better than having to read it again myself. Hearing or, even better, reading a book for themselves and then being able to talk about it is something I wanted my children to learn.
It’s a basic skill for God’s children too. He has given us His own story in Scripture. Part of the response He expects is for you and I to study that story so well we can tell it for ourselves. That’s what’s going on in Jesus’ last hours with His disciples in our text for this Sunday, as we remember His ascension into heaven.
I’m a little off track here, right at the beginning of what was meant to be a series of sermons on the book of Acts. As you heard, the Ascension of Jesus is the way that book opens. For Luke, Jesus rising into heaven sets the stage for the story which follows, the Acts of the Apostles, the “official” name of the book. Without Jesus bodily present, His followers set out on their own to tell His story to the world. That activity of witness is the story of the book of Acts.
What I realized, however, is that I had preached the sermon from Acts 1 which I intended for this Sunday just last year, a sermon focusing on the words of the angels about the disciples standing there looking into heaven instead of getting busy with the job they had to do. Not wanting to repeat myself quite so soon, I thought about alternatives. I found one in our Gospel lesson from the end of Luke.
Luke is the only Gospel writer who mentions the Ascension. He thought it was important because he wrote about it twice, once at the end of Luke and again at the beginning of Acts. It occurred to me that we hardly ever spend much time on the way it is written here in Luke, so I’m focusing on this text.
As I read Luke’s ending I found something else that reminded me that my proposed series in Acts needed modification. In verses 44 to 47, preparing the disciples for His departure, Jesus talked about and explained what was written about Him in the Old Testament. He even mentioned the three parts of the Hebrew Bible as Jews see it, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms [which means all of what Jews call ‘the Writings’].” The whole thing, every part of Scripture, is about Jesus. They needed to grasp and start to think about that, to study it, and to start telling that story for themselves.
So when I read about Jesus teaching Scripture to the apostles, I remembered something else which would sidetrack my plan to preach through Acts this year and next. Your church council and I are making plans for us all to read Scripture together in the fall, for everyone here at Valley Covenant to read the New Testament in eight weeks starting at the end of September. You will be hearing more about the Community Bible Experience through the summer, but for now I’d like us to hear Jesus tell us how important it is to know and understand and tell what the Bible says about Him.
We have the New Testament now, which is all about Jesus and His people, but as we’re taught here, it is also vital that you and I learn how what we call the Old Testament talks about Him too. As the men who come to Bible study every Friday morning can tell you, the Old Testament is difficult. It’s full of stories, often violent stories, that seem to have little to do with the good news of a forgiving and loving Savior.
Yet that Old Testament was the Bible for the first Christians. After Jesus ascended, it was the book they read to learn more about Him. They read the Law, the first five books, to see how the coming of Christ was promised from the beginning and pictured in how God saved His people out of Egypt. They read Isaiah and the other prophets to hear how Jesus suffering and death and resurrection was predicted. And throughout the psalms and other writings they found mention of the perfect king, of the Son of God and the Son of Man, of forgiveness for sins, and of the hope of eternal life.
That’s why when the apostles began to write down their faith in Jesus, they filled their books, filled the New Testament, with quotations from those earlier writings, from the Old Testament. The result was a “Book of books,” which came together into a story which not only makes good sense, it’s good news for anyone who will read or listen to it.
What we are reading today at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts is what a publisher might call the commissioning of the New Testament. It’s an author’s dream. Instead of writing a book and then shopping it around to find someone who might want to publish it, you are asked, even paid to work on a book not yet written. A publisher commissions you to write something that’s only an idea in your mind at the time.
Verse 45 says Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” In verse 46 He starts out, “Thus it is written…” In Acts 1 verse 2 we heard Jesus give “instructions to the apostles he had chosen.” Jesus not only commissioned them to go and tell His story, to write it down for all the world to read, He gave them key ideas for the whole book. As verse 46 continues into verse 47, what He taught them from the Old Testament is that He died and rose again and that it means forgiveness of sins for the whole world. That’s the plot, the heart of the story.
Next Sunday, Kay and Terry will display and sell and sign some of their books for you. There will be some books by Shelley Houston, a former member here too. You can ask them what people always ask authors. Where do you get your ideas? I bet it won’t take long before one of them uses the word “inspiration.” Look at the word in the middle of “inspiration.” It’s “spirit.” Authors with a genuinely fresh idea or story to share have received a kind of spirit, something “breathed into” their hearts and minds, to use the medical meaning of “inspiration.”
Jesus wanted His story told. Verse 48 says, “You are witnesses of these things.” His followers were meant to learn the story, listen and read and study, and then go out and witness to it, tell what they had seen and heard. But they couldn’t do that, couldn’t write a book that was going to change the world, without the proper inspiration. That’s why verse 49 says, “see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
In Acts 1 verse 4 Jesus also talks about that promise of the Father, but there in verse 5 He says explicitly what it is, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The inspiration of the disciples was not just a bright idea that came to them in the middle of the night. It wasn’t just a remake of Old Testament stories. It was the living, dynamic Holy Spirit of God sent to guide what they said and did and wrote down.
That’s why we trust the Bible. It’s a very human book. You can see dozens of different writing styles and even human fallibility coming through, like when Paul in I Corinthians 1 can’t quite remember whom he baptized there in Corinth. Yet in all that humanity there is also divinity, a divine inspiration and direction given by God to the writers. Jesus commissioned this Book and then gave the writers exactly what they needed to get it right. He sent them the Holy Spirit.
We will remember that giving of the Holy Spirit next week on Pentecost Sunday. We will see how the Spirit wanted to make sure everyone present heard the story, even if it took a miracle, a miracle of languages. We will also remember that the Holy Spirit is not finished. He inspired the apostles to preach and to write down the story of Jesus in the New Testament. That’s the heart and center of it all, what the apostles preached and wrote for us. Everything we believe and practice as Christians comes from there. But the Holy Spirit is still at work. He still inspires everyone who reads or listens to God’s words written down in Holy Scripture.
The Holy Spirit inspires everyone who encounters the Bible to do what those first believers did, to understand it and then to tell it to others. That’s a fundamental Christian skill, to be able to read and tell, to read God’s Word and then tell someone else what you found there, whether it’s by preaching or through writing or in a simple conversation. Read and tell the good news.
On my blog this week I posted a link to a bit of educational satire Beth found as she was grading papers, a humorous college memo about “Core Educational Competency In Reading Things In Books And Writing About Them.” As I remarked there, that basic skill of being able to read something and then write about it is a competency many students are struggling with today. We receive lots of disconnected information through our computers, tablets and phones, but it’s harder to pay attention to a longer story or explanation, even harder to be able to explain it to someone else.
That’s why I’d like to encourage everyone here to begin now to commit yourself to the Christian practice of reading and telling. One way to do that would be to resolve to join in the Community Bible Experience in the fall, to commit yourself to reading the New Testament and talking about it with others in the discussion groups begining then.
The point is partly to accomplish that mission which Jesus gave us just before He went up to heaven. It’s sketched out there in verse 47, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [Jesus’] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Acts 1:8 spells it out even more clearly, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s pretty simple, we’re to read, to take in this good news about Jesus, and then tell it, starting at home and then moving out to the world.
It’s about mission, but it’s also about something else. It’s about joy. The last few verses of Luke’s Gospel telescope together things that are spread out in Acts 1. You might even get the impression from Luke 24 that it all happened in one day, on Easter. Acts makes it clear it took longer. After He rose from the dead, Jesus was with the disciples teaching and preparing them for forty days. But the end of Luke runs it all together and helps us see the other result of knowing and sharing Jesus’ story. Verse 52 says, “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
Being a Christian is not just about the work of mission, not just about getting out there and accomplishing the task of letting everyone know about Jesus. It’s about the joy of learning and believing and living out that good news in ourselves. “And they worshipped him…” says Luke. It’s not all work, it’s the regular and constant celebration of the fact that we have read and heard the greatest story on earth. And we tell that story partly by the fact that we get together to worship and remember it every Sunday.
We want everyone, we want you to have that same joy which the first hearers of the story had, to be glad to come together in God’s house and bless Him in praise and worship. That’s why we keep reading and telling what we find in this Book, in this Holy Scripture which delivers Jesus’ story to us today.
Reading in itself is a joy. As I reflect on my own mother today and thank God for her life, one thing I praise God for is that she wanted me to read. She read me stories like Beth and I read stories to our children. She took me to the library and taught me the pleasure of wandering through stacks of books discovering new adventures. She bought me Tom Swift and C. S. Lewis and selections from the Science Fiction Book Club.
Mom was also an example. She was always reading herself, whether it was nursing texts for work or mystery novels for pleasure. She got huge joy in reading and I learned to have it too. And our family read the Bible together. Like lots of Christian families, we struggled to have regular times of devotion, but sometimes it happened. And my mother gave me several Bibles, from my first Sunday School Bible with pictures, to the plain black King James I wore out carrying around in junior high, to the reference Bibles I began to study in high school and college.
Not all people and families are wired like ours. I know that. Reading may mean less to you and not bring you as great a joy. But I assure you that reading and learning this one Book is worth all the effort and time you can give it. It will bring you joy. It will bring you peace. It will bring you salvation. It will bring you a Savior, Jesus Christ, who still sends the Holy Spirit to guide and instruct anyone who reads His Word.
Jesus got ready to go to heaven by instructing His disciples from the Bible. It’s still how He instructs and makes us ready to live for Him in this world. Reading the good news that He died and rose again to give us forgiveness and new life is still deep and lasting joy. I hope you will keep reading it. Mothers, parents, I hope you will read it to your children, even as infants. It will bring you and them joy. Elders, I hope you will read it even though you’ve read it over and over. It will bring you joy at the end of life. And busy, hurried people in between, I hope that you can set aside the screens on which we have to focus so much these days, and pick up again the Book that has the Words of Life, the Words of joy.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj