Sunday 2 June 2019
The lectionary readings from today present us with a unique situation: the same event, described by the same author, in two separate books of the bible. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles are actually written by the same person. In fact, they are a two-volume book, a history, written for a patron named Theophilus. The first volume, Luke, is about the life of Jesus, and the second volume, Acts, is about the birth of the church. And what we encounter in our readings today are the very last verses in Luke and the very first verses in Acts. It turns out that they both tell the same story: the story of Jesus’s ascension.
We know with certainty that these books were written by the same author. Nevertheless, if you look closely at the stories, you’ll see that they are a little bit different from each other. In the first version it sounds like the ascension happened on Easter evening in Bethany; in the second version it sounds like it happened forty days later in Jerusalem.
But despite the small differences in these two accounts, the core of the story is still the same. Jesus appears alive to his disciples. He tells them that his death and resurrection were all a part of the plan, that everything was to fulfill what was written in the Torah. He tells them that they are going to be his witnesses in all the world. And he tells them that the promise of God is about to be fulfilled; they are about to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But, Jesus says, they are going to have to wait. Don’t leave Jerusalem. Wait until you are clothed with power before you do anything else.
And that seems to me to be a very strange message to be coming from God. We usually think of God as declaring things, right now and for eternity: start immediately and keep doing it for all time. But in this case, God says, I have a great plan for you, a wonderful mission. This will be the very fulfillment of your lives… but just hold your horses a minute, don’t get ahead of yourselves. You’re not ready yet. Let’s take this nice and slow.
Now, much of the time we in the church don’t have any trouble taking things slow with God. Bureaucracy, committees upon committees, study groups, Conferences, Assemblies, and a two-millennia tradition of just waiting to see how things turn out haven’t made us the most nimble of organizations. Change seems to be a four-letter word in many congregations, and one of our most sacred creeds seems to be these seven words: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Of course there are exceptions to this, moments of radical response to God’s call. But much of the time God has a hard time getting us going, has difficulty getting us motivated to do something new, has to work really hard to get us to reach outside of our comfortable sanctuaries and into the world around us. Evangelism, mission, outreach, prophetic witness—can’t someone else take care of those things?
So since we are so used to hearing God say, “Hey, get up and do something,” it does seem a bit odd to hear this message to the first disciples: “Hey, sit down and don’t do anything.”
Last we week I told you the story or how I stopped being a music student and ended up on the road to ordained ministry. It started with a feeling of unease, and then with an experience of failure. My failure to be accept for composition school shook me up enough to make me reevaluate everything and head in a new direction.
But I didn’t tell you the whole story. In the midst of all this, in my sophomore year of college, while I was trying to figure out the direction of my life, I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences that I’ve ever had. One evening, looking at the sunset, everything seemed suddenly clear. All of the worries and the hang-ups and the insecurities that I had been cradling suddenly seemed silly. I truly felt God’s presence, and I knew that I wanted to turn my life over to God, to let God set the direction, to turn myself over completely to a life of service. At the time, I interpreted that as a call to international mission. And I was ready to go right away. I was ready to discontinue college, pack up, and travel to some distant shore where I was sure that everything would make more sense and be more meaningful.
But things didn’t work out quite the way I thought they would. God had a different plan. And the truth is that I wasn’t ready. I was enthusiastic. I was willing. But I didn’t really have much to offer in the mission field.
When I didn’t immediately become a missionary, I felt horrible—disappointed, guilty that I was letting God down or somehow evading God’s call, inadequate. But that was all a part of the process. I couldn’t have made the journey without taking each turn along the way. It took the moment of failure. It took the profound experience that re-inspired me. And it also took God saying, “Wait. It’s not time yet. You’re not ready. Be patient.”
For those who have heard God’s call, who seek to respond in faith, these can be very hard words to hear. It can feel like a betrayal or an abandonment. It can feel like somehow we are not good enough or strong enough to do what God is asking. If only we had the endurance, the determination, the faith, then maybe we could see it through.
But the truth is that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s time is not our time. And every time that we try to make God conform to our time schedules, we end up being made the fools. At least that’s been my experience. Maybe some of you have had better luck getting God stick to your timeline. If you have, let me know your secret. Sometimes God says, “Wait. Not yet. It’s not time. Be patient.”
That’s what Jesus said to those first disciples, “Wait here in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from the Holy Spirit.” They could have ignored that and set out on their mission anyway. But they wouldn’t have been ready. They would have been trying to do God’s work on their own, instead of letting God work through them.
Or they could have gotten discouraged with Jesus’s rebuff and given up on the whole thing. If God doesn’t think it’s time now, then what is the point? But then they would have been missing out on all of the remarkable things that God had in store for them: Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, huge crowds flocking to the Gospel message, and a church that has grown now to encompass two billion people all around the world.
We have the same choice when God asks us to wait. We can go off, half-cocked into the world trying to do it all ourselves, and we will end up burnt out and discouraged. We can give up on God because of our impatience and miss the miracles that God has in store for us.
Or we can take the middle way. We can listen to God’s call, and seek to follow, but still have patience with God’s timetable and methods, continuing to listen for God’s prompting and leadership. It is a more difficult way. It requires us to meet our anxiety with radical patience and perseverance. It requires us to think outside of ourselves. But it is the only way that we can hope to be co-workers with God, to be laboring on God’s side.
Listen to God’s call. Be inspired. And do not be discouraged if God says, “Wait. Not yet. Wait until you are clothed with power from the Holy Spirit.”