Waiting (May 16, 2021)
Updated: May 17
Luke 24: 44-53
Today is Ascension Sunday, and ascension Sunday can be hard to preach when it is a fact that we’ve been to the clouds and God isn’t there. In fact we’ve been beyond the clouds, Voyager has gotten beyond the edge of the solar system and we still haven’t found where Jesus went.
But I don’t think that at its heart this is a story of where Jesus goes. Rather, I think it is important that the story does not stop here. The Gospel stops here, the Gospel of Luke stops here, but then he picks it right back up in the book of Acts. He actually repeats the story of the ascension in the first 11 verses of the book. The story serves two purposes. In the Gospel it is about vindicating that Jesus is indeed God, and is able to go to that place, that spiritual place we call heaven, and take a seat at the right hand of God. This story is about vindicating Jesus and everything we say about him. But also, importantly, this is the story of the apostles who didn’t make that journey, at least not immediately. And as we look at the story and we look at lessons from the story, it’s important to recognize that and see what they do, what they don’t do, and what we can learn from that.
It’s also important to wrestle with the question of is Jesus really gone after the story? Because in a very real since Jesus wasn’t gone. Yes, in the sense of “he’s always there in your hearts,” like we say (and mean) with loved ones who have died. That’s true for Jesus: everything that he taught them, including the unpacking of the Scriptures that we see at the beginning of this passage, is in the disciples' hearts.
But also, because Jesus is Jesus, in a very real sense he’s not gone physically. I do believe that God was present everywhere in the world before the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, and that in some sense God was present in our world; and remained present even in this moment. We didn’t spend 10 days with no presence from the Lord. Indeed, the book of Acts begins by saying that the Gospel of Luke was “all that Jesus did at the beginning,” not that this is the end of Jesus working. Now it goes to the Apostles, or even the Holy Spirit. So in that sense, yeah Jesus was not gone.
But we would not be doing the story justice if we did not recognize for a moment that in a very real sense for these Apostles, Jesus was gone. The apostles’ faith formation did not happen like yours and mine. For our entire lives, or at least for my entire life, but I suspect yours too; Jesus has not been physically present. We haven’t seen him, at least not seen him in a way that we recognize him as a person, for our entire lives. We couldn’t go and wake Jesus up and say “I got a question,” or “I got a problem.” When we’re in the storms of life we can’t go to the back of the boat, wake Jesus up and say “hey Jesus, we’re in a storm here, please calm the storm or we’re going to die.”
But they could. For their entire faith formation, the previous three years, they could do that. Jesus was there. And if they had a problem, they can go wake Jesus up to solve it. And for the first time they can’t. He won’t be there. They won’t be able to see him. And that matters, just ask Thomas. (actually all of them, but Thomas is the most famous). He’s got 10 of the inner circle of Jesus, he’s got the three women who were at the tomb, he’s got countless other amounts of disciples who have seen the risen Lord who aren’t the apostles such as the two disciples from Emmaus; Thomas has all of that facing him, every one of them saying that Jesus is alive and they’ve seen him, and Thomas says he can’t believe unless he sees him. It matters that, for the first time, Jesus is not going to be physically present. In a very real sense, he is gone.
And I think that Jesus knew what that would mean for them. And so in the midst of this story, Jesus is working to prepare them for this reality. And he instructs them to do a few things; he makes some accommodations. The first thing he tells them to do: he said wait. Wait. Go to Jerusalem and wait. Don’t do anything. And then the Scriptures imply he goes to heaven and he gets to work sending The Holy Spirit into the world to make sure that they did still have a teacher, to make sure that there would be someone who answered the call when they woke up at midnight, to make sure they had someone there to guide, mold, and shape them as he did. He cared for them, as he cares for us.
But any of you that are parents possibly resonate and perhaps jump ahead a little bit when I point out that Jesus tells them to wait and don’t do anything. Because if you’ve ever dealt with humans, that never works. Just this past week, my son and my wife baked cupcakes together, and Caleb wanted a cupcake. So I said sure ,we can do a cupcake, but wait. I was doing something that I needed to concentrate and make sure I finished, so I said “Caleb, I will give you a cupcake, but wait for like a minute. Don’t do anything.” And halfway through that I looked over and Caleb is reaching across the kitchen table pulling the cupcake thing toward him, and it has gotten about a quarter of the way off the edge of the table. I don’t think wait is a word in very many children’s vocabulary.
So I want to look at what the disciples did while they waited. Because Jesus’s instruction is “don’t do anything,” and they still did. So I want to look at what they did while they waited, and what was successful for them, what maybe was less successful for them, and what they can teach us. Because we are very much still in a moment of waiting. We are still very much in that moment between when Jesus ascends and when he descends. And while I think that because the Holy Spirit has come upon us we don’t necessarily need to wait and not do anything, I think it is important to realize what the disciples can teach us about how to wait.
And the first thing they do in the Gospel of Luke is they praise God. They take up residence in the Temple structure, or at least very nearby, and every day they’re walking out into the Temple and they are praising God. They’re worshiping God. And this, I think, works out well for them. By Pentecost, Peter is able to give a very masterful sermon explaining the Scriptures to the Jews. So at some point during the time they’re waiting, they’re digesting everything that Jesus just told them, and they manage to incorporate that into themselves so greatly that they’re able to preach when the day of Pentecost finally does come. So they’re sitting in the Temple and praising God, and praying constantly. It does them some good and helps them to understand what Jesus has taught them.
Now I don’t think we are called to take up residence in this building and constantly, every day, come to worship the Lord in church. But we are to praise God every day, and in all that we are doing. We believe God is everywhere among us, and we believe that God is in whatever it is that we are doing, and that God is able to take whatever it is that we are doing to make the world a better place; That’s what we believe. And our job then is to help God take what we are doing and to make the world a better place. So God is with you as you do what you’re doing: as you plant those seeds in the ground and harvest them in the fall, as you are working on bringing that family to their new house, as you are are you selling or buying coffee, as you’re teaching, as you’re driving, as you’re selling, even if what you’re doing is bagging groceries or taking an order and handing out food, you can still make the world a better place. God is with you where you are. We firmly believe that. So praise God every day in what you were doing.
In both of the stories, both Luke and Acts, the ascension provides a purpose and a meaning to the story. In the gospel reading that we read, the ascension shows and validates that Jesus is God. Because this is not the first ascension in Scripture, there is actually another one in the Old Testament where the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven at the end of his life. In that story we see that Elijah has to be picked up. Angels come and they pick up Elijah in a chariot of fire, and they raise him off into the sky. And I think it’s important to note that nothing like that happens in this story. Jesus just goes. He ascends to heaven on his own. There’s no angels, no chariot of fire, there’s no nothing because he doesn’t need to be picked up, he’s doing the driving. This story validates that Jesus is actually God. And I think that's the purpose of the story in the Gospel of Luke. And then in the book of Acts, angels show up among the disciples to tell them to get to work, and that serves to show why the disciples are moving, why the movement is following a leader that you can’t see.
And lastly the story begins the work of the church. Jesus commissions to church to go out and make disciples, to spread the good news to all nations beginning in Jerusalem. Acts says “beginning in Jerusalem, then to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.” And as we sit here 2000 years later, it is amazing to me how fully that Scripture has been fulfilled. Now it’s not been completely fulfilled, but we have taken the good news on a journey. We have taken the good news to the densest jungles, we have taken the good news to the farthest shores. We have taken the good news to the end of the earth. If you set up a map of the earth and put Jerusalem in the middle the corners of that map would be somewhere around a country called French Polynesia, the majority of which is Christian. It is amazing to me that we have taken it to the ends of the earth. But of course we’ve gone event further, because when we went into orbit of the moon at least one astronaut read the Scriptures. We’ve taken it to the ends of the earth, we’ve taken it to the moon. The good news has gone a long way from Jerusalem.
It is amazing to see just how far God has worked in 2000 years, and I can’t wait (or perhaps I can only wait) to see where God is going to take us next. But to do that we must praise God, wait upon the Lord, and be ready when the Spirit comes upon us to do the wonderful work of God. So this week, oh church, wait. And praise. Wherever you are. Amen.