May 17, 2015 - Ascension Sunday
Your eyes flick over
stacks of baby clothes, a big old-style tube television, a table crammed with
odd little dishes and knick-knacks, a pile of garden tools, a dinged-up chest
of drawers and a whole lawn full of stuff laid out in the hope somebody will
see it and like it. But there’s nothing you really need, nothing you really
want. You’re just, as we’ve all said at times, looking.
That’s almost how our
text ends today, as the season of Easter comes to a close. Forty-three days ago
we celebrated Jesus rising from the dead. Then we remembered how He met His
disciples along the Sea of Galilee and ate fish for breakfast, how he appeared
to Mary and Thomas and two disciples on their way to Emmaus. But this past
Thursday the forty days Luke mentions in verse 3 was up. And so we come to the
moment when Jesus ascended back into heaven and His followers just stood there,
They didn’t know what
to make of Jesus’ ascension. We don’t either. We don’t take much notice of
Ascension Day. Many churches don’t observe it at all. It falls in the middle of
the week. It’s an odd event to celebrate. “Jesus is gone. Hallelujah!” doesn’t
sound quite right. One commentator I read noted that you probably aren’t going
to find an Ascension Day greeting card in the rack.
Karl Barth complained
that it’s a difficult scene to visualize, or to capture on canvas. He said that
some of the worst pieces of Christian art are attempts to paint the Ascension. Human
bodies weren’t designed to fly. Despite all those super-hero films, like last
week’s Avenger’s installment, a man suspended in mid-air looks a little
awkward. Salvador Dali exaggerated the silliness in his Ascension painting by
giving us the perspective of standing directly beneath the ascending Lord,
staring up at the soles of His feet.
The awkwardness of the
Ascension is a clue. We’re not meant to stand there looking at it. That’s why two
angels interrupted the disciples as they looked, like your spouse may interrupt
as you look at ribbon at Joanne Fabrics or at big screen televisions at Best
Buy. You’ve got other things to do besides looking. “Men of Galilee, why do you
stand here gazing up into the sky?” They needed to be somewhere else, doing
Last week we were in
the middle of Acts, reading how the message of Jesus risen from the dead was
brought to a Roman soldier and his house. The Holy Spirit showed up. Now we’re
back at the beginning, remembering how it started, with a little band of
disciples craning their necks as they looked up into the sky, waiting for the
Holy Spirit to arrive.
There’s an ancient
Christian music group called “2nd Chapter of Acts.” They gave us “Easter
Song.” But there’s no group called “1st Chapter of Acts.” What would
they sing about? Those guys just looking? About rolling dice to choose another
apostle in the second half of the chapter? It’s not great material. That’s
because in chapter 1 the story hasn’t really started. We’re still reading the
Verse 1 is a dedication,
like Aaron Honn dedicated his senior thesis to his sister last week. Luke was
the only New Testament author who followed a classical Greek model. Ancient
writers dedicated their work to a patron, someone who paid for the book. Luke
dedicated his Gospel and now the sequel to “Theophilus.” The name means “one
who loves God,” or simply “God-lover.”
Verses 2 through 6 are
a recap, like you get at the beginning of a television show, scenes from
previous episodes to get you up to speed. It became popular a decade ago when
we listened to the voice of Kiefer Sutherland say, “Last week on ’24,’” and
then watched flashes of him defusing bombs and rescuing his daughter and
uncovering conspiracies to destroy the world. Luke has a better story to sum up
about truly saving the world, “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until
the day he was taken up to heaven.”
The word “began” is
important. What Jesus came to do was not finished when He ascended into heaven.
The story goes on, goes on with the men and women who follow Jesus. What Jesus
came to do for us and for our world had just begun. “Began” sets the stage for
the rest of the book.
One commentator on
Luke and Acts said he was not concerned about history, that what matter is not
so much actual events as what they mean. That’s baloney. Luke tells Theophilus
in verse 3 that Jesus showed Himself many times after He rose, that He “gave
many convincing proofs” that He was alive. Luke wants us to know this really
happened. Luke included some of those proofs in his Gospel, Jesus meeting the
two on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appearing to all the disciples. Paul picks up
on those same proofs in I Corinthians 15. This is history. This is reality, not
just some spiritual story.
As all the Gospels
say, Luke says in the second part of verse 3. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. Some of you heard in our N. T. Wright Sunday School class that Jesus’ message
was not just about being saved, about going to heaven, but how God’s kingdom is
arriving. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” The biggest question is
not how to get saved. It’s how the kingdom will arrive. Jesus gathered His
people, worked miracles, and as verse 5 says, gave us the Holy Spirit. That’s
all so God’s kingdom can come.
So in verse 6 they
asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He replied with a lesson that Christians keep forgetting. God has not given us
to know the times or the dates. Just like those disciples, we don’t know when
the kingdom of God will finally and completely come down and fill the earth.
We do know is that the
kingdom starts now. Jesus did not give us His schedule. He gave us our schedule.
If the first few verses of Acts are the preface, then here’s the table of
contents. In verse 8, Jesus lays it out. He says “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem” – that’s section 1, chapters 2-7 – “in Judea and Samaria” – that’s section 2,
chapters 8-12 – “and to the ends of the earth,” – that’s section 3, chapters
13-28. In that single verse, Jesus gave us the plan for the geographic
expansion of the Gospel in ever-widening circles.
Matthew 28, verses 19 and 20, is “the Great Commission,” “go and make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:8 is the plan for that Commission. Start at home and
spread out. There’s a difference though. In Matthew Jesus assured His disciples
He would always be with them. Here in Acts He disappears. In verse 9 He rose
into the clouds and is gone. That’s it.
They stood there waiting
for the end of the trick. Many years ago, Roy Horn of the magician duo
Siegfried & Roy was mauled by a tiger in Las Vegas. The cat grabbed him by
the neck and dragged him behind the curtain. Some in the audience thought it
was part of the show. They sat waiting and watching for Roy to come back
smiling. But Roy was gone. Finally Siegfried appeared to announce the show was
over. They should all go home.
That’s how it was for
the disciples. They stood there just looking, waiting for the clouds to part, for
Jesus to appear again as He did out of the clouds after His Transfiguration. The
angels came to tell them the show was over. But it wasn’t.
In verses 1-15, Luke
wrote about what Jesus began to do. Jesus wasn’t finished. He just
called the disciples up on stage to take over. They had been lookers, spectators
of what Jesus did. They watched and learned. They watched Him preach to the poor
and heal the sick. They watched Him die on the Cross and saw Him risen from the
dead. But just looking is over. The show goes on with the disciples out in
front. That means you and me.
Shopping is more fun
when you’re not just looking, when you’ve got money in your wallet or purse and
you’re ready to buy. That golf club or dress or television or house or vacation
cruise is for real. You aren’t just looking. You’re involved, actively seeking.
The same is true of Christian faith. Stop just looking at Jesus and get
involved in what He’s doing. It’s a lot more fun.
People say church is
boring. Sure it is, if you’re just looking. A television preacher will be lots
more exciting than I am. Christian music you download will sound much better
than the uneven mix of voices in our congregation. The missions you can support
on-line will be bigger and flashier than our food barrel and our warming
center. If all you want to do is look, you can find lots more fun and
interesting things to look at. But get involved, get on stage, and you will
find the real joy, the joy you can’t have just looking.
Let’s not just be
lookers, but doers, like some you heard from the letter of James in Trudy’s
class, “be doers of the word and not just hearers.” Have you sold a house? Who
annoys you the most? Aren’t they the “lookey loos,” the folks who just come to
wander through your home and criticize it or get decorating ideas but who have
absolutely no intention of buying. Jesus did not die and rise to start a church
of lookey loos. He gave Himself to raise up a body of people who are all in.
Yet being all in does
not mean just getting to work and trying harder. That’s a mistake the disciples
could easily have made. But Jesus knew they were tired and afraid and unsure. They
followed Him around Palestine and helped heal the sick and feed the poor and
preach the good news for three years. Now they were in a daze. The last two
months were a spiritual roller coaster. They marched in triumph to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They watched Jesus arrested, then killed on Good Friday. They
rejoiced to see Him alive on Easter. Now He was gone again. Up down, up down –
they were confused and worn out.
So their mission did
not begin immediately. The eleven apostles did not just get the Great
Commission, hear the angels, and then conquer the world. No, they followed
Jesus’ direction in verse 4. Wait for the Holy Spirit. They retreated to a
little upper room and waited. They elected a new apostle to take Judas’ place,
but mostly they rested and prayed.
I’ve been using
shopping examples, so you might think we need to get out there as kingdom consumers.
We must always be in active, buying mode. Use what we’ve got, then on to the
next project for Jesus. But the best move a shopper can make is to go home and
collect her thoughts, take stock, do a little more research, think it over.
That’s the mode for us right now as we are forty years from our founding like
the disciples were forty days from Easter. Slow down, spend time with the Lord,
talk and pray together and wait for His leading, wait for His Spirit to guide
us toward what’s next.
Many, many of the
great Christian moments in history have come out of times when a person or a
group of people stopped to wait and pray and look not for what was going to
happen next, but for the Holy Spirit to come. That’s how the Covenant Church began in Sweden in the nineteenth century, with little groups of people
gathering to read the Bible and pray together in their homes. Now we’re a
denomination who believes the Holy Spirit has led us into mission around the
Here in our church
right now, we’re not just looking, not just observers, but we still need to
wait for God to send His Spirit to show us the way. That’s why we’ve asked you
to get together in neighborhood dinners, to participate in an anniversary
celebration that doesn’t just look back but looks ahead. And this summer your
pastor will be on six weeks of sabbatical time, rest time, time waiting for the
Holy Spirit. And the preachers you will hear will be thinking with you about
how to follow Jesus in the future we have together.
We’re not just looking.
We are waiting. The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote about our
text today saying, “The history of the church suggests that Christians are not
very good at such waiting, as they have oscillated between an occasional
eschatological fervor that stands on tiptoe and asks eagerly (and repeatedly),
‘Lord is it at this time…?’ and their more customary torpor which has needed to
be reminded yet again ‘that the end of the world comes suddenly.'”
Do you see the balance
we’re aiming at, that this first chapter of Acts aims at? We don’t want to be
lazy observers, spectators at the game of church. But we don’t want to jump
ahead of where Jesus is at, of what He’s doing here among us right now. So we
learn to wait, to pray, to receive the Holy Spirit, and then to do whatever God
has for us.
Where are you this
morning? Have you been just looking, wondering if you want to be a Christian? Or
looking for a church? Or trying to decide whether to join this one? Maybe it’s
time to quit looking and get involved. But if you’ve been involved, moving from
one activity to the next, maybe even jumping ahead and questioning Jesus on
when things are going to happen, whether it’s when He will come back or when
that person you’re praying for will be saved or when your life will get
straightened out, then it’s time to pause, to rest, to wait for the Holy Spirit
before taking the next step.
Our text closes with a
great assurance. The One we’re looking for will come back. When our oldest
daughter Susan was little, somebody gave us a video tape of “Baby Songs.” On it
was a tune meant to reassure a young toddler being dropped off at daycare or
left with a babysitter or spending an afternoon at Grandma’s house. It went
Mommy comes back, she
always comes back.
She always comes back to get me.
Mommy comes back, she always comes back.
She never would forget me.
For a little child, the message
was simple. You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to keep crying or looking
out the window. Play with your new friends, have a great time with Grandma. Get
involved and don’t worry. Mommy will come back.
Jesus left us with the
same assurance. We don’t need to keep gazing into heaven, wondering when He’s
coming. We don’t need to be so anxious for His return that we forget to enjoy
and get involved in life on earth. In verse 11, the angel said to those
disciples and to us, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back.”
He will come back. So
it’s all right for us to turn our eyes from heaven to earth, either to push
forward or to wait for new instructions. This world is where He put us.
It’s not always easy to live in, but it’s a good place, a good place to grow up.
He hasn’t left us forever, only for a while so that we can grow out of
childhood into the people He wants us to be. Then He’s coming back. He never
would forget us.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj