We continue, today, our journey through the Books of Acts by picking up right where we left off last week. To refresh your memory, we looked at how Jesus called the Apostles, the group who had followed him throughout his earthly ministry, to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. We even said there are times when we need to wait on God as we go out to share the message with others.
We pick up the story still as the Apostles and Jesus are still in Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus is giving his final instructions, but he is preparing to leave them soon. This Sunday, which we affectionately call Mother’s Day, is, this year, also the day we celebrate as Ascension Sunday. It focuses on an event 40 days after Easter when Jesus ascended to heaven to return to his place at the right hand of God the Father. This day anticipates the celebration of Pentecost, which is next Sunday, when we will celebrate the church’s birthday when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles.
For now, we are on the mountaintop receiving these last words from Jesus. He tells them that they will receive power from God and that they would be the witnesses of God’s love to all people. And then he ascends into the clouds.
After this moment, the Apostles cannot help but to stare into the sky looking at the clouds. Maybe they are thinking to themselves that the cloud is a sign of both the heavenly realm and God’s presence. But, most likely, the Apostles are staring into the clouds waiting for Jesus to return.
This scene fascinates me. The Apostles have received this great charge to go tell others about the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace, and yet they chose to stare into the clouds. Now, there is nothing wrong about staring into the clouds. I’ve always enjoyed trying to find a recognizable shape in the cloud. Even so, looking at the clouds can give you an early warning as to when bad weather is on the horizon – an especially important thing to pay attention to when one is preparing a cookout like yesterday.
But, I don’t think the Apostles were looking into the clouds to see if they could recognize the shape. We’ll explain more as we go on, but I believe what we will see is that this moment tells us something about the Apostles and what their state of mind was like. I also think this moment gives us a window into our own souls and how we often respond to God’s message to go and tell the story to others. To see what I mean we need to take a deep look at this traditional Ascension Sunday passage from Acts 1:6-11.
Our interaction with the Apostles, this morning, begins with a question to Jesus. They want to know when Jesus will restore the kingdom. Now, there are some expectations within this question. They center on what the Apostles believed was about to take place.
The idea of the kingdom was a common theme for Luke, but not in the way the Apostles meant. For the Apostles, they believed Jesus came to reestablish Israel’s political power and authority. To put this into terms that we can relate to, the Apostles saw Jesus as a political leader who, if put into power, would bring their brand and political positions back into leadership and mainstream appeal.
The way Jesus came to bring about the kingdom of God and its restoration looks much different. The reign Jesus came to restore was God’s reign on earth, which Jesus did through his acts not of political power but of self-sacrifice, love, and grace. While the Apostles wondered what was to be what will be so again, Jesus continually taught that the Lord is doing something new and bringing us into a deeper relationship with the Lord than we could have ever imagined.
Also, and this goes along with the restoration of the kingdom, the Apostles expected to be named the judges of the restored Israel. The expectation was that, in the restoration, the 12 tribes would judge over the people. They believed they would be the leaders and the ones in control of this new kingdom in the end. This is why the Apostles were adamant about adding a 12th member to replace Judas. They felt they needed all 12 tribes to be represented through them for Jesus to return.
What they want to know is a question that we often ask ourselves. A question that focuses on when the end will take place. When will Jesus come and make his reign on earth fully realized? This is what was on the Apostles’ mind as they question Jesus.
I think it is often on our mind as well. We want to know the time and place when Jesus will return. This almost seems like a pastime for the church, especially in this century that we find ourselves in. We’ve wondered when the end time will commence and we will often attribute natural disasters, changes in the political mood, or the things we watch on television as signs that we are living in the last days.
Why do we do this? Have you ever wondered why we are fascinated with Jesus’ return? Now, I believe there is a genuine desire among all of us to be in the physical presence with Christ. We want to see our Lord. But, I think there is something else going on. We want Jesus to take us away from our problems and, as well, the problems in the world. The idea of Jesus’ return, for many, is about Jesus coming and taking us out of our problems, protecting us, and making everything safe. In this way, Jesus becomes our rescuer out of the world and into a place of protection. To be honest, we never seem to place a lot of attention on Jesus’ return when things are going well, but we seem to focus on nothing else when there is chaos in the world.
I think Jesus recognized this desire to focus on the end within the Apostles and us and uses the last words before the Ascension to remind us to stay on the mission. You see, we’ve been living in the “last days” ever since this moment. Never did Jesus give us a word that we would be taken out of the world. Instead, he gives us a mission that takes us into the chaos and the problems of the world. He says it is not for us to focus on the time or to even know when the timing of the return will come. In the meantime, we have a work to do to go into the chaos, the struggles, and the problems of the world to offer hope.
Notice what Jesus says to the Apostles and to us. He says we will receive power to be Jesus’ witnesses to the entire world. What Jesus says is that there is much work to be done in the meantime. Work that exists in our church to tell our story of Jesus’ love with each other. Work that exists in our community to share hope with the brokenhearted and those who feel alone. Work that goes out across our nation to share the message of reconciliation in the places of division. Work that goes out across the world to share peace in the name of Christ.
Jesus didn’t call us to sit around and wait out the clock until Jesus returns. He calls us to get to work to be witnesses of Jesus’ love. A work that can be intimidating. There are many among us who believe that it is too difficult to share the story today. That it is too difficult, today, to be anything more than a social club for Christians who are waiting this life out. We give up way too easily on the important work that Jesus calls us to be about.
I recognize the desire to give up. When ministry is hard or when I feel like I’m all alone, there is a temptation to hand in my resignation letter and go back to the cubicles of a sports desk somewhere. When it is up to us, the work is daunting and too difficult. When the work is in partnership with God, anything can happen in telling the story of God’s love with others.
Friends, it is not up to us to tell the story of God with others on our own. God gives us the power to do the very work of impacting our church, our community, our nation, and world for Jesus. That power is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us the authority from God to be the Lord’s witness to all people. Through our faith, we have been given the authority, permission, gifts, and talents from God to tell people about Jesus and to share this love with others.
We can tell the story. We can make a difference by the way we love and serve others. We can because we are not alone. God goes with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We know this, but every now and then we find ourselves looking at the clouds. Like the Apostles, we begin to want what was to be what will be again. We would rather trust the promises of old, the ministry of others, our past glory to be our guide than to lean on the Holy Spirit to lead us out in new ways. Perhaps that is why we need the witness of the angels who visit the Apostles. They tell them that just as Jesus came and left, so will he come again. Basically, we can trust Jesus will return so in the meantime we can trust that Jesus is with us in the work that we are to do for Christ.
Jesus will come again. We don’t have to worry about when. We can trust it will happen. But, until the final bell rings, until the final trumpet sounds, there is work to be done. There are people who are hurting who need to feel loved. There are people who feel unloved who need to know that someone cares about them. There are people whose lives you can impact by your willingness to live for Jesus and to tell the story with others.
You have, within you, the power to tell this story. To tell the story of how Jesus is with us, loves us, and walks with us always. You have the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Every one of you.
So, what are you waiting for? You have the power to share Jesus and to tell about Jesus with others. Don’t wait. Go tell the story of Jesus’ love in all the places that you interact with today and always.