Patience, Powers and PrayersEaster
I received a phone call recently from our interim moderator, Wayne Stretch, asking if I was available to lead the service this morning. At the end of our conversation he casually said, “by the way it is “Ascension Sunday”, but that I did not have to preach on that topic and I could choose anything I liked. I do not recall hearing many sermons on the topic of the Ascension, so I decided that I would try to deal with that topic this morning.
In my review of the various commentaries it seems many claim that this is a very difficult topic. In fact, the renowned Scottish theologian William Barclay says that this short passage leaves us face to face with two of the most difficult conceptions in the New Testament.
He explains firstly, that the ascension was an absolute necessity because there had to be a moment when Jesus went back to the glory that was his. The forty days of the post-resurrection appearances had passed. He had to return to his father.
Secondly, it leads us to the promise of the second coming. Jesus will come again down from heaven to which he had ascended. We cannot speculate as to when that will be because even Jesus said he did not know the day and the hour when the Son of Man would come. The second coming is not a matter for speculation but rather a summons to make ourselves ready for that day when it comes.
I found that in order to understand the scriptures we have read this morning, it requires (like most things) some background and context. So, first a bit of background information: Acts is actually written by Luke. Luke is also the one who authored the gospel bearing his name. He was a doctor, a physician in the New Testament times.
And the purpose of the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke is actually given in Luke Chapter 1:1. It says this: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this is in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” And so both in the Gospel of Luke and in the opening verses of Acts, Luke refers to a man by the name of Theophilus. And it is commonly held that Theophilus was a Roman official and that the book of Luke and Acts were actually two legal briefings for the case that Paul was going to be tried on before Caesar in Rome.
You heard Fiona read Acts Chapter 1:11. My message will focus on that passage.
In a typical Presbyterian 3-point message, I propose to look at the patience required to wait; the power that the Holy Spirit will bring, and the promise of Jesus returning to earth from heaven.
Few of us like change. We don’t like seasons of transition. Transitions can be times where we are left uncertain about how everything is going to work out. Our church is in a season of transition. And Acts Chapter 1 is an example of transition.
The disciples have been used to Jesus physically being with them, leading them into different ministry situations. He was always accessible to them to some degree. But Acts 1 describes a beautiful transition where Jesus’ relationship with His apostles remains constant, but the form of the relationship changes dramatically. He is physically no longer present with them but remains in relationship with them nevertheless.
So, by way of background to this event of the ascension, it is important to see the context in which it takes place. As Brett McBride of the People’s Church in Toronto says: “The disciples have been in a bit of turmoil over the last forty days. They entered with Jesus into Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover. They were welcomed with a hero’s welcome forty days prior to this chapter. And they thought that it was going to be the time where Jesus established His kingdom and His kingship. The nation of Israel was waiting for a physical expression of a king that would throw off the Roman occupation and Roman rule and re-establish Israel as a mighty nation.
And so the apostles, when they followed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, welcomed with a hero’s welcome, were anticipating and expecting that this would be the moment that Jesus would establish His rule and reign physically. And much to their surprise, about five days after entering Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, Jesus was nailed to a cross, and was crucified by the religious leaders and by Pontius Pilate.” We can appreciate this roller coaster of emotions for the disciples. Here they come into Jerusalem with jubilation, and excitement, maybe wondering what positions they will hold in this new kingdom that Jesus is about to establish, and then left with the disillusionment, and confusion, when they see Jesus nailed to a cross, dead and buried.- But then their joy is awakened when Jesus is resurrected and they see Him physically, and they are excited again and jubilant that nothing can stop this kingdom from coming to pass.
We know that after his resurrection, Jesus has appeared to them for forty days, giving many convincing proofs. It wasn’t just one isolated incident where Jesus appeared to them; He appeared to them over forty days giving many convincing proofs that He indeed was resurrected. And certainly the disciples have a bit of their confidence and excitement back because Jesus is alive!
And then, In Verse 1 Luke opens the Book of Acts with this: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” That, of course is a reference to the Gospel of Luke that was our second scripture this morning.
Luke is very careful with the words he chooses to open the Book of Acts. Luke’s Gospel was all about what Jesus began to do and to teach, and Acts is picking up the account of what Jesus is doing and is teaching. But now, He is doing it through His church.
This is a powerful truth. Acts is a recording of what He continues to be doing and teaching through His body, the church. Why that is so important for us is because it reminds us as a church that is not about us. It is not about us doing and teaching. It is not about us in isolation doing this for Jesus. Luke reminds us that it is Jesus Himself doing and teaching through His body the church.
It is not about us! At the very outset Luke’s message reminds us that it is about Jesus, it is about His work, not ours. He is the head of His church, directing it and organizing it as He sees fit. Our understanding of this truth is foundational to how we live the Christian life.
It has been said that the Gospels are about what He began to do and to teach. The Book of Acts and the Epistles are what He is continuing to do and to teach through His body, the church, right up until our day and age. And the Book of Revelation is a glimpse into what He will do when He brings all things to fulfillment. From start to finish the New Testament is all about Jesus. It is not about us.
And then in verse 4 we read: “While he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait…’” Why does Jesus have to command them to remain in Jerusalem and wait? Well, again the background is helpful. If you remember, forty days prior they had been in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and it was mandated that any Israelite had to come to Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Jewish religious system for that festival.
Then they witnessed that the religious leaders crucified Jesus. And we are told in the various Gospels that the apostles, when they saw Jesus crucified, feared for their lives, fled and scattered and were hiding behind locked doors probably during the whole Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Now we just read that Jesus commands them to remain in Jerusalem, to remain in a situation that was dangerous to them. Notice he does not tell them not to worry, – He just wants their obedience. There are times in the Christian life where we are asked to do something that we don’t want to do. Will we remain obedient in times of waiting in a situation that we may not want to?
And throughout Scripture we see examples of people who had to wait for God’s timing, and often His timing isn’t our timing. You think of Abraham and Sarah, who were promised to have a child, had to wait twenty-five years when they were already very old.
Israel had to wait in Egypt for centuries before God’s timing had come for the exodus to take place. And think of the generations that lived and died in Egypt and while wandering in the desert – praying, wondering when God’s timing would come about. His timing is not our timing and sometimes we have to wait according to His schedule. There are many other examples but time does not permit to list them all.
So there is a biblical principle for us to understand and be reminded of in Acts Chapter 1. It’s not about you and He may have you wait in a situation that you don’t want to for a time frame that is longer than you think it ought to be.
Now we see how the disciples wait in Verse 6 right after Jesus says to them, “remain in a situation”. In Verse 6 they meet together and they asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus said to them:“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
Now think about that. Jesus has told them, “Wait in Jerusalem. You will be clothed with power from on high. The Spirit is going to come.”
Brett McBride comments: They wait for a few seconds and then they say: Is this where You are going to restore the kingdom to Israel? They thought that Jesus was going to establish His rule and reign and they were arguing amongst themselves as to who of them would be the greatest. They were waiting for this moment so that they might be the beneficiaries of what Jesus was going to do. And what is Jesus’ reply to their inquiry? It’s not for you to know.
When we are asked to wait, we try to create a strategic plan that purports to understands what God is doing. And when we inquire of God, when we pray to Him, the response back from heaven is seemingly, “It is not for you to know,” That is tough for us to hear!
Times of waiting and not knowing foster our dependence on Him. When everything is good and rosy and easy, the danger is that we can start to go into cruise control in our relationship with God. We think that everything is easy and wonderful and we’re just enjoying it. And that’s not bad; but the danger is that we can unwittingly start to drift from our dependence upon Him.
To my second point, Jesus’ command to wait also includes a promise. In Verse 4 we read this: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father has promised.” “In a few days” (Verse 5) “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
In Verse 8 Jesus draws their attention to it again. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
They are called to remain in Jerusalem and Jesus embeds that command with a promise: “You will receive power to be a witness.”
Not just power so that you can enjoy your relationship with God, (although that is true), but power “so that you can reach out for others and be witnesses of My resurrection.”
We have not received power simply so that we can enjoy receiving that power. That power from on high is so that we will be a witness. And really when you read the Book of Acts it is all about the Spirit leading and guiding the people of God to will and to act according to His good purpose. The Spirit is the One who moves and we get to be along for the ride if we are abiding and remaining obedient to His commands.
We get to be a part of God’s work. He involves us in the missionary endeavor. Yes, Jesus is the One who began to do it, but He continues to do it today through His servants, the church.
What happens next is a huge transition for these disciples though. In Verse 9 it says this: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Think of the sequence of events here. Jesus has told them to wait and abide in a situation that is dangerous to them physically. Upon their inquiries of how it is all going to work out, Jesus has said to them, “It is not for you to know.”
They don’t know whether they are going to live or die in Jerusalem. They don’t know what the response of the religious leaders is going to be. All they have been told is, “You will be clothed with power from on high and you will be My witnesses.”
And now Jesus, who has commanded them to do this, who hasn’t answered their inquiries, is taken up to heaven and hidden from their sight. This is a huge, huge, transition for these disciples. They are used to seeing Jesus physically. There is a certain assurance that they had because Jesus was always within arms’ reach when things started to get a little dangerous.
And now not only have they been told to abide and remain in a situation that is dangerous, and that they are not going to know how it is going to work out, but the way in which they have seen Jesus is changing.
My third point this morning is that this same Jesus will return one day. When Jesus is taken up into a cloud and hidden in Verse 10, we read: “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.”
They are asked why they are looking into heaven, and were told that “Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”.
We live in the benefit of that promise. He is going to come back for His church. We have only to look back on God’s fulfilled promises in order to have a confident expectation that this promise will also be fulfilled.
But in the meantime, He has got work for us to do. And that might involve going into some situations that we may not want to. In Verse 12 we start to learn what we should do in seasons of waiting, not knowing and not seeing Jesus the same way we used to.
“Then they returned to Jerusalem.”
And in Verse 14 it says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer.”
All the disciples know is that they are to remain in Jerusalem. They don’t know what is going to happen. So what do they do in the meantime? They are obedient to the instructions that they have and join together constantly in prayer. Despite the danger and the uncertainty they followed His command and walked into Jerusalem.
Will we devote ourselves constantly to prayer? Will we trust Him even when we don’t understand what He is up to or how long he will take to act out his purpose? Do we trust that God has a plan for St. Andrew’s and the timing is not for us to know?
And in life there will be times of waiting, not knowing, not seeing Jesus physically but believing in his presence through faith. But in those times we can abide together in community and devote ourselves to prayer and to seeking Him even when we don’t understand what is going on. Let us commit to doing that.