"Waiting for the Power"
Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-14
In churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’re coming to the end of Eastertide, the season when we focus on celebrating the Resurrection. The third major festival of the Christian year, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, comes next Sunday. Before we get to Pentecost, we celebrate the Ascension, and we hear the part of the story that Luke/Acts places between Easter and Pentecost.
One part of the story is that Jesus has ascended to glory with God. The glory of the risen and ascended Christ is good news-- something to celebrate.
But the other themes in the story invite us to look at the Ascension from a very human perspective, the disciples’ point of view, which is where we stand.
Up until now, Jesus has been the chief actor in the gospel drama. From his birth to his death, it’s Jesus who keeps the story moving.
In the forty days following the resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to his followers a number of times and continued to teach them about the kingdom of God.
But they were still living under Roman occupation. There were still people who were poor and hungry and marginalized. Things were still not right in the world. So, when Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem, where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?”
Jesus answered, “It isn’t for you to know these things. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Then they saw Jesus lifted up, and a cloud, which the Bible uses as a symbol of God’s presence--lifted Jesus out of their sight. And now he’s gone from their sight.
When Jesus was carried up into heaven, the reality they were facing was that Jesus was no longer a part of their daily life, in the same way he had been before.
Now what? What are Jesus’ followers supposed to do? It would have been hard not to feel anxious and impatient—just as it can be for us.
There’s so much bad news in the world-- so much fear and anxiety and hatred. Since earlier this past week, our hearts are heavy with the news of precious lives lost: mostly young concert-goers in Manchester, England and a promising young college graduate in Maryland, stabbed to death by a white supremacist.
In the 24-hour news cycle, we haven’t been hearing much about refugees in the past few months, but a few days ago we heard that more than 30 perished when an overcrowded boat listed while trying to reach Europe from North Africa, and that most of the bodies recovered were toddlers.
An 18-year-old former neo-Nazi / white supremacist converted to Islam and murdered two of his white supremacist roommates and told the police he killed them because they didn’t respect his Muslim faith.
We heard about an attack on a caravan of Coptic Christian pilgrims heading to a monastery in Minya, Egypt that killed 28 people. Friday two men were killed and another injured when they stepped in to protect 2 women from a man who was shouting ethnic and anti-Muslim slurs at them. This man, too, turned out to be a white supremacist.
In our nation’s South, there are conflicts over removing statues that celebrate leaders of the Confederacy. Closer to home, we have a controversy over what place a statue of former Dearborn mayor Orville Hubbard should have.
Concerns have been raised in local cities about justice and due process in detentions deportations of undocumented immigrants and the impact of current policies on their families.
In our nation’s capital, politicians are debating matters that include who deserves to have enough to eat and adequate, affordable medical coverage, how we will care for the environment, and much more. The litany of losses and pain and struggle is long.
Do you want to just shout, “How long, Lord?” “Is this the time you’re going to make things right in the world? We want to know what the plan is. We want to know now.
Lord, is this the time?
Hear what Jesus says: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set byfor some time for reflection, whether at home or away. It can be an opportunity for us to renew our sense of gratitude for those who have served their country and for the freedoms we enjoy because of that service and sacrifice. It can also be a time for us to renew our sense of commitment to wohis own authority.” It is not for us to know all the details of the big plan.
Christ’s charge to them comes with a promise: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit... 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.”
Luke tells us that the disciples worshipped the risen and ascended Christ. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the verses following the passage we read in Acts, Luke tells how the disciples returned to Jerusalem and went to the upper room where they were staying, where they and certain women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. On the day of Pentecost, disciples were gathered together in one place when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them from on high.
The first disciples were called to wait during times of transition--with trust and hope…with eagerness and expectancy.
This Memorial Day long weekend will bring a variety of parades and other celebrations andrking for a world that is more just and peaceful.
When the first disciples couldn’t see where the future would lead them, when they couldn’t see where the future would lead them, they remained focused on the drama of God’s salvation story, and worshiped God with great joy. Their joyful worship as they waited helped to center themselves in God’s gracious, powerful promises
Do we believe God can use us to transform the world? Do we believe that we can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens us? How many of us want to believe these things?
I believe God has the power to work miracles, and that God wants to use us to change people’s lives. But it is not in God’s nature to coerce us. We have choices.
In his book, God’s Politics, which a group of us read together some years ago,
Jim Wallis talks about
“The Critical Choice: Hope Versus
Wallis says that one of the big struggles of our times is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope—that these realities can and will be changed. This choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice—one that has enormous political consequences. He argues for a better religion-- a prophetic faith—the religion of Jesus and the prophets.
As Wallis says, cynicism can protect you from seeming foolish to believe that things could and will change. It protects you from disappointment. It protects you from insecurity, because now you are free to pursue your own security instead of sacrificing it for a social engagement, if you decide that it won’t work anyway.
Ultimately, cynicism protects you from commitment. If things aren’t really going to change, why try so hard to make a difference?... Why take the risks, make the sacrifices, open yourself to the vulnerabilities? Cynics are finally free just to look after themselves… and pursue their own agendas.
According to Wallis, the difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power, and possibility of hope. And that is indeed a spiritual and faith issue. More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even a religious choice.
I agree with Wallis when he says that hope is not a feeling. It is a decision. And the decision for hope is based on what you believe at the deepest levels—what your most basic convictions about the world and what the future holds-- all based on your faith.
We can choose hope, not as a naive wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world. I believe this hope is grounded in faith…and nurtured in our worship life.
The Civil Rights movement in the United States grew out of the African-American church… and then others joined in—people who chose to hope in a society in which there is justice for all. We’re still waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of that dream.
During the days of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu used to say, “We are prisoners of hope.”
I know I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s powerful and inspiring. During Apartheid, the South African Security Police came into the Cathedral of St. George’s during Tutu’s sermon at an ecumenical service.
Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of the cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances.
They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make a statement and a point: religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid would be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime.
After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, Tutu acknowledged their power, saying, “You are powerful, very powerful.” But then he reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority: “I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”
Then in an extraordinary challenge to political tyranny, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away.
The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. The heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers. Yet the congregation was moved—empowered—to literally leap to their feet, shouting the praises of God. They began dancing. They danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
Some time later, a few days before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa, Wallis remembers wondering, “Who would have ever believed? And that’s just the point, he says. We have to believe.
I know… I know… What we see going on in our nation and in the world seems overwhelming.
And yet, we are called. Christ has given us a Great Commission: You shall be my witnesses.
We have Christ’s promise: You will receive power…
Like the first disciples, we have the promises of God to cling to, even in times of sorrow and anxiety. These promises are ours, even at times when it seems that Christ has vanished and the Holy Spirit is not breathing down our necks or in our lives.
So let us cling to God’s promises and rejoice in them. There will be accomplishments and setbacks, joys and sorrows. In the midst of it, we can trust that God is with us, comforting, celebrating with us, accompanying and strengthening us, even when we can’t see it. We can give thanks that God is preparing us to live with less fear and more generosity, preparing us to look out for the rights of others, and to work for a more merciful and just world.
Thanks be to God!
 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.