Like all of us I’m sure, I have spent much of the past few days in stunned anguish; rocked to the core by the events playing out in Uvalde, Texas. A senseless nightmare unfolding again among us, for the twenty-seventh time in this country since the beginning of this year. Like all of us I am horrified, grief-stricken and in despair at the sensel1596essness of this taking of life; the magnitude of it, and I mourn the generational impact of lives now and in the future cut off--what they could have done, who they could have been. All gone. And like many of us I have found myself crying out with those who have gone before the ancient lament; “How long, O Lord?” How long?
It is a prayer as old as the church certainly; as old as our ancient scriptures, both those written by our New Testament forbears and by those to whom we owe our faith heritage, the Jewish writers of the Old Testament. It is a cry uttered in our Psalms. And in our text today, a version of it appears in verse 6; “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is now the time, finally, that you will make things right?
Before we read our main text today, let me introduce the passage. The book of Acts is volume II of a gospel story that begins in Luke. And it opens in verses 1-5 of chapter 1 with an explanation; the author tells Theophilus, the recipient of this letter, that the story is shifting from the life of Jesus, described in Luke, to now the events surrounding the birth of a movement: the church. Our passage for this morning is part of a larger section that ends at 2:47, which describes the hand-off, so to speak, from Jesus to the church in the continuing mission of the Kingdom of God. (Keener) Jesus, having endured his passion and risen from the tomb, has appeared to the disciples and has just promised them that very soon the Holy Spirit will come upon them. It is here, beginning in verse 6, that we pick up the story:
Are we there yet?
Let me take you back to a day just about forty-seven or so days before this conversation between Jesus and his disciples takes place. We remember it on Palm Sunday. It’s the day when Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, over cloaks his followers had laid on the ground as they waved palm branches to welcome him. This spontaneous, public display of devotion didn’t come out of thin air. It was intentional; it was subversive, and it was revolutionary.
The symbolism and fervor demonstrated a hope that Jesus’ followers had carried with them throughout his earthly ministry--that Jesus would finally be the one to restore Israel to her glory among the nations. Some thought he might restore it as a military, kingly figure; others as a priest; still others a prophet. But one way or another, many including his closest friends believed that Jesus would restore the glory of Israel as it had once been; all the suffering, mistreatment, and violence that they had endured under their many oppressors would finally come to an end when Jesus made things right.
And when Jesus died, that hope was crushed. As he hung dying a criminal’s death, all their hopes that that kingdom was coming died with him. So imagine their heads spinning when they saw him alive again. Imagine the hope welling up again within them, stronger even than before, that finally, things would be made right. All that hope against hope is what lies behind this question in verse 6; “Is this the time?” Is now the time when all will be made right? Is now the time our suffering will end? Is now the time the bloodshed and violence will finally be stopped? “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Like an road-weary child on a long trip, the disciples desperately ask Jesus, “Are we there yet?”
Times and seasons
And in a response only slightly less frustrating than a parent’s; “We’ll get there when we get there,” Jesus responds; “It is not for you to know the times or periods the Father has set by his own authority.” (v. 7)
We have looked together at some important ancient understandings around time. Do you remember? We have talked about chronos time and about kairos time, and how they are different. We’ve learned together that chronos time has more to do with linear thinking; about consecutive events in a timeline--what comes before and what comes after. And we’ve also learned about kairos time; that understanding of appropriate seasons, of weighty moments in time that somehow stop the clock and cause us to reflect on the bigger picture of God’s way and our place in the human family as it grows and changes over time. With that in mind, I want to show you the Greek text of this verse. This is what it looks like with some of the Greek added in:
How disappointing! Imagine being the disciples at that moment. This is a loud, resounding, “NOT NOW” to their weighty question--a question filled to bursting with a longing that stretches back a thousand years. How long? When will it end? Are we there yet? Jesus says, not yet. BUT; that is not the end of the story.
God is God, we are not. God sets the times and seasons. As the great wisdom teacher says in Proverbs, we may make our plans but God directs our steps. We are not in charge. BUT, neither are we powerless.
You will receive power
The author of this second volume of the gospel history shares again Jesus’s promise to the disciples, first told in Luke 24:47-51; the Holy Spirit is about to show up. And when the Spirit comes, so also comes power--dunamis in the Greek. The same word that shows up in our English language in words like dynamism; dynamic; dynamite. Not brute strength, but creative energy; the kind of generative power that brings stars into being. But this is not an unfocused energy; this is power with purpose. Jesus continues in verse 8:
“And You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This is the hinge point; when all of Jesus’ ministry and mission turn on a dime. What Jesus had begun in his earthly ministry, Jesus now entrusts to this group of people; people who so often get it wrong. People who are sinful, fragile and limited. People who mess up all the time. And people who have loved him all through his life, death and resurrection. As he has done with Peter, Jesus gives them a new beginning; a new chance to find their purpose in him. Wholeheartedly, even recklessly some might suggest, Jesus hands over all of his work to them, with the promise that the very power that made the stars will move into, among and through them, when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. And so there is hope:--hope for them, and hope for us. Not in our own power, which is so finite and limited, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, which has been the mark of Jesus’ disciples from the very beginning, passed down through the generations as God continues to make all things new among us.
Jesus taken away (cf. Luke 24:47-51)
And just as he utters these words, the text tells us, Jesus is taken away from them, hidden in a cloud. The baton has been passed. It’s up to them now, as it is up to us, to bear witness.
“Why do you stand there?” A Call to Action
Notice what happens next in the story. The disciples are standing there staring up at an empty sky; perhaps too enthralled by what happened to even notice that two men in white robes have appeared out of nowhere. Perhaps there are the same two men who appeared to the women at the empty tomb in Luke chapter 24. They ask a very similar question; “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” And in much the same way as their words motivated the women to action at the tomb, so also are these disciples snapped out of their stupor. They set about the mission right away, gathering at the Mount of Olives with others of Jesus’ followers, praying, telling the story, bearing witness. And so begins the story of the church.
It would be a number of days before the fullness of Jesus’ promise would be realized, as the Holy Spirit would descend on them all at Pentecost. But the foundation was laid. The disciples were ready and waiting. And soon the miracle would come. In his commentary on the book of Acts, New Testament scholar Craig Keener says that “the empowerment of the Spirit is foundational for the rest of the church’s mission.”
“The empowerment of the Spirit is foundational for the rest of the church’s mission” (Keener); as Jesus was empowered with the Holy Spirit in Luke 3:22-23, so the disciples also will be empowered by the Spirit before their mission begins.
But what I want to focus on today is not the arrival of the Spirit (that will come at Pentecost), but the hope of the Spirit. Because it is hope that lives in the in-between.
Often when we pastors speak of the kingdom of God, we speak of it as an “already and not yet” reality; that is, when Jesus came to us here on earth, he embodied the kingdom of God and ushered it in. So in some ways it is already here; and yet. And yet we still find ourselves beset by sorrow; violence still plagues the human family; there is still war and hunger and all of the intractable problems we continue to face. And so it has not fully come. That’s the “not yet” part. I submit to you this morning that what gets us through the “not yet” is hope. And what plugs us into the “already” is the Holy Spirit. We are not in charge, but we are not powerless. Because the already of the kingdom of God has come. It has come in Jesus. And Jesus has passed it on to us through the Holy Spirit. And as Jesus told the disciples in verse 8, the Holy Spirit empowers us to bear witness. Let us not be silent in the not yet. Let us bear witness to the hope we have in Jesus as we become messengers of the good news; angels of hope to a hope in desperate need of it. In Jesus’ name, let us bear witness to the Kingdom of God in Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit as we fulfill Christ’s command to love God and our neighbor as God has first loved us. Let us pray…
Lord, we gather in your name today after the tragic events in Uvalde, TX; and for all those who have been victimized by gun violence. Our hearts go out to the victims and all those who have experienced loss. We pray for all those who lost their lives during this tragedy. May all find peace in your heavenly kingdom. We pray for their families who are suffering pain from the loss of a child or a loved one. May they find comfort and courage to face this pain in your loving presence. We pray for the first responders and those who helped during and immediately after the tragedy. May their work be an inspiration for us all to act like the Good Samaritan in service to others. We pray also for those responsible tragedies like this. May the Lord's justice and mercy lead them to repentance.
Heavenly Father, as our nation pauses today to remember those in the military who have given their lives for freedoms we enjoy, we pray You would have us all look to You for strength, comfort and guidance. Be with all who serve in our Armed Forces. Bless them and their families. Grant Your loving protection. Let peace prevail among all the nations, O God. Especially let Your mercy rest upon our land, even as we acknowledge with thanksgiving Your past goodness on this country. If it is Your will, preserve the lives of the men and women in uniform as they defend our citizenry. Most of all, we pray that You would turn the hearts of all – military and civilian – to Your holy Word where we find the true peace for our sinful souls that surpasses all understanding. Keep us repentant of sin. Move us to know, take hold and treasure your saving grace. In the name of Jesus, our Savior and Your beloved Son, who alone gives this peace and hope for eternity, we pray. Amen.
And as we remember them, let us pray together the prayer our Savior taught us:
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
in earth, as it is in heaven:
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil;
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
We have already come across this chapter in this series; just a few weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ re-commissioning of Peter, which happens after today’s passage in verses 15-19 of John chapter 21. Remember that Jesus’ words to Peter are forward-looking; Jesus gives Peter the three chances to once again profess his love for Jesus and he commissions him with the command; “feed my sheep.” So there is something happening in this Johannine epilogue that shifts the focus from what Jesus has done, to what the disciples are now going to do. And what I would like to suggest is that, as is always the case with Jesus, the process is as important as the teaching. We know this to be true; the words of Jesus cannot be separated from the way of Jesus. Put another way, how Jesus teaches is as important as what Jesus teaches. So I’d like us to look together at the how of this miraculous encounter. What happens when Jesus shows up, and what can we learn from the how of Jesus’ interaction with his followers. And I have a request for you today; as we dive into the story, don’t just dissect it with your intellect it--feel it in your heart. Imagine in your mind’s eye the scene as it unfolds before us. Smell the salt air and the scent of fresh-caught fish. So what do we notice when Jesus shows up in this story? I think the first thing we notice is what happens before Jesus gets there. It’s an early morning at the edge of the Sea of Tiberias. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John the sons of Zebedee and two other disciples were together. And notice what it says in verse 3: Peter declares to the group; “I am going fishing.” Not; “Let’s go fishing” or “Do you guys want to fish with me?” No; “I am going fishing.” And then notice what his companions say right back to him; “We will go with you.”