Luke does not see the world through rose-colored glasses. Paul does not write that “all things work together for good” as though evil is not real. The Bible does not tell a story of the power of positive thinking to defeat the power of negativity. The Bible tells the story of God redeeming a fallen world. The Bible tells a story of God providing the gifts we need to walk the pathways of fiery trials, not to avoid them.
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
My father died twenty years ago last March 13. I mention that because all the death, loss, and grief that surrounds us now has brought back echoes of the blow that his death dealt to our family.
I remember especially how, on the Sunday between his death and his memorial service, we stood to sing a hymn. I looked at the hymnal, and the words leapt from the page in a way I had never experienced them before. It was as if our father’s death had scraped away my skin and every verse of every hymn brushed against the exposed flesh.
“How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
I could read the words, but I couldn’t sing. I know, I have been told, there’s nothing different about that, I could never really sing before.
But, the memory that echoes so strongly now is that feeling of deeper understanding and sensitivity to the rhythm, rhyme, and imagery of the poetry. It has returned over the last few weeks whenever I pick up the Bible to prepare a sermon. It is as if I never understood the texts before, that they were written for us in this time of pandemic and before now, I understood them cognitively, but never experienced their emotional weight.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’s ascension in our reading from Acts, the disciples are waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
Just before Jesus departs, the disciples ask, “Is this the time? Now will you turn things back to the way they used to be?”
The emotional turbulence they have experienced through Jesus’s death, resurrection, and forty days of instruction has raised their sensitivity to all that they have lost through the Roman occupation. It has raised their expectation that Jesus the Messiah will turn back the clock, and restore their political autonomy.
“It’s not for you to know the time,” Jesus answers. That must have hurt. The disciples were restless. The resurrection had shaken up the universe. It had shown them that death no longer reigned, that the world was about to change. It had given them the good news they could not contain and they needed to organize their campaign from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Rome and to the ends of the earth. “Just give us a timetable, a few dates we can put on the calendar, Jesus, and we will take it from there.”
But instead, Jesus tells them to wait. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says.
“You will receive,” he tells them. Not “you will create,” or “you will discover,” or “you will plan and execute.” They will do all those things, but not yet. First, they have to wait to receive the gift. And, the world he describes after the disciples receive the gift is not the restoration of the way things used to be. It is something new, something different, a new heaven and a new earth. It is not something they will create, but something they just have to wait for.
Their waiting for the gift of the Spirit, however, is not an idle time. It is a holy time.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote of the waiting as gestation, of waiting for the labor pains of a new creation. The pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, Shannon Kershner, recently posted a picture of her laptop screen with a sermon manuscript just beginning to take shape. Her caption was, “Give birth on Sunday morning, pregnant again on Monday.”
Study, listen, pray, and wait. It is the way a sermon is written, but it is also the way a life of faith is lived: Study, listen, pray, and wait. Something is about to happen because, in this holy time of waiting, we are not alone, even in quarantine.
"Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I'll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
The hard part about waiting for those first disciples was that they liked to think of themselves as a people who made things happen. Waiting for a gift, especially a gift like the Holy Spirit that they did not even understand, felt like time wasted. They didn’t want to wait for the future, they wanted to shape it.
And, Luke tells us, that after Jesus departed from them, between ascension and the day of Pentecost, they made good use of their time. Luke tells us they prayed together with Jesus’s mother and brothers, and then they chose a new apostle, Matthias, to step into the place Judas had vacated.
Even their process of choosing leadership, however, was a process out of their control. They did not call a congregational meeting to elect a nominating committee, then another meeting to present the nominee to the congregation, take nominations from the floor, and then vote by ballot and record the results. No, they chose two disciples who seemed acceptable, then prayed for God to choose and cast lots. They rolled the dice.
That does not sound like a process done exactly decently and in order.
In this time of waiting in place for the virus to recede; for cases to decrease, for the contagion to diminish, there is so much that is out of our control. I know I feel a strong desire to return to normal, but very little control over the future. A comic strip reminded me yesterday that when you are wrestling with a gorilla, you don’t stop when you’re done. You stop when the gorilla is done.
The good news of the gospel is that the gorilla’s power is temporary.
"When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.”
The gospel does not deny the power of death, but it does defy it. By the time Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the church had passed through all kinds of fiery trials from the persecution of emperors to shipwrecks and imprisonment and the execution of many of the original apostles. Death surrounded them.
So, Luke does not see the world through rose-colored glasses. Paul does not write that “all things work together for good” as though evil is not real. The Bible does not tell a story of the power of positive thinking to defeat the power of negativity. The Bible tells the story of God redeeming a fallen world. The Bible tells a story of God providing the gifts we need to walk the pathways of fiery trials, not to avoid them.
I have been struck during this time how the church has leapt forward in its use of technology during this fiery trial. Just a few months ago, I thought you had to be Pentecostal to bring this much technology to the task of ministry. But, Presbyterians and even Mennonites find themselves reaching the ends of the earth with the inclusive arms of the internet. In worship, in service to others, in prayer and fellowship, we have stumbled our way up the hill of keeping the ministry of the church going, even expanding it, as the former way of doing ministry fades into history.
Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt wrote about a drive-by she and her congregation did to celebrate the return home from the hospital of a young man named Aidan. He had spent the previous 35 days in a hospital in Chicago for his leukemia treatments, isolated not only because of the usual precautions for immune suppressing therapy, but even more intense isolation because of the danger of coronavirus infection.
She posted a photograph of Aidan sitting on a lawn chair next to his brother in their front yard as a line of cars, a motorcycle, and a firetruck passed by with streamers trailing and people waving.
On the grass, we can see the shadows cast by the person behind the camera and several more who stand next to her. It is such a great photograph in reminding us of the unseen cloud of witnesses that surround us in times of trial.
Last week, Rob let you know of the needs of Germantown Help for food to distribute to those in our community who are struggling to find enough to eat. Even though the technology was glitchy during his minute for mission and many of the words were eaten up by the internet gremlins, you caught his drift. And yesterday, I saw the photo of the carload of food Jill Worley delivered to Germantown Help.
These are just two of the reminders that, with the Holy Spirit stirring things up, we don’t stop being the church while we wait for the quarantine to end.
We don’t stop feeding the hungry, helping the homeless find shelter, reaching out with good news to those who are lonely and in need of grace.
Waiting through things that are out of our control while surrounded by death, division, illness, and fear does not come easily to disciples. We are a restless people, restless to come together again and restless to love God, serve Jesus and help our neighbors with all our heart and mind and strength.
But, this story of the time between ascension and Pentecost reminds us: Waiting is a holy time, a time when our skin is scraped away and nerve endings are exposed, and we hear with new ears,
"The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake."
Thanks be to God. Amen.