(Not) Waiting for God to Act
A sermon on Acts 1:1-11
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash)
If you have ever participated in a Bible study that I have lead, you will know that I am usually all about exploring the original context.
I am far too familiar with the kinds of damage that can be done – to people and to the scriptural witness – by reading isolated verses as though they had been written, in English, for a modern American audience.
Nine times out of 10 I believe that we set ourselves up for serious misunderstandings if we fail to do the work of historical and cultural translation of these ancient texts BEFORE we start asking what they might be saying to us, now, in our time and place.
But this week was an exception for me.
This week, I read the story of the disciples first moments after Jesus was taken into heaven, and I was right there with them.
I was standing, staring up at the clouds, longing for him to come back.
I heard the angel’s question: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” and I felt the words form on my lips: “Where else am I supposed to look?”
In a world that so clearly, so DESPERATELY needs God-with-us to sort out the massive mess we humans have made of things, where else am I supposed to look?
The truth is, even before I read this week’s texts, I was already standing and staring at the sky. My soul was already crying out: “How long, O Lord, will you forget us forever?”
That was my heart’s cry, when I first heard about the school shooting on Tuesday… and when the number of victims went up… and when I saw the photos of their sweet, innocent faces.
It has been my hearts cry for long before that.
When a white supremacist opened fire in a Buffalo supermarket two weeks ago.
When coverage of the atrocities in Ukraine fell off the news cycle because it’s not news anymore.
Whenever I see people I love, including so many people in this congregation, suffering because of all that is broken in the world.
In the seven weeks of this Easter season many of you have reached out to me because you needed a place to speak your pain and anxiety and grief.
You’ve talked about your horror at the atrocities of gun violence and Russian aggression, and also about more personal pains.
You’re shared your mental health needs, and your physical health crises.
You’ve opened up about difficult relationships and family conflicts.
You’ve trusted me with your stories of assault, fear, and trauma.
You’ve processed your feelings about rising transphobia, and the erosion of bodily autonomy, and anxiety about what the Supreme Court might do next.
You have been honest and real about the daily toll that both national news and personal pains are taking on your lives.
And I am so glad that you have come to me!
It is one of the most precious privileges of my calling that you all trust me with your pain and uncertainty… that you are willing to drop the mask that our society too often requires of us, to be honest about just how hard it is to live in a world where sin and evil too often prosper.
I want to be a pastor that you can talk to about ALL of this.
AND… I know I can’t fix any of it.
I can’t make the world less scary.
I don’t have any magic bullets… or (better) any magic gun control measures.
I don’t know how to cure our culture’s addiction to violence any more than I know how to cure cancer, or depression, or trauma.
And that is why, on weeks like this week, I want to just stand staring up at the sky, begging for Jesus to come back.
Except, if I’m honest, I don’t really want him to come back… not the way he came before.
I want Superman Jesus, flying in to save the day. Defeating bad guys and protecting the innocent while I stand by and cheer.
But, of course, that’s not the Jesus the disciples had in the first place. That’s not actually the Jesus I love and follow. Jesus did not come to overpower everything that stood in his way.
He DID defeat evil but not by brute force… and not in a way that just magically made everything perfect.
He defeated death by taking away its sting, by submitting to it and then rising again to rob death of its finality and to take away our fear.
HE didn’t remake the whole world, but rather showed us a different way to live in this world, a way that involves us directly in its healing.
And the story of the Ascension is a story that calls us – directly – into that shift of thinking, a shift away from looking to the clouds and toward recognizing the power that we have to make a difference.
Not that the disciples understood that that was what was going on, at least not at first.
I’m not the only one who sometimes wants a Superman Savior.
When Jesus first told the disciples to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, they missed the point completely. They thought he was talking about phase 2 of the Emmanuel Plan – the part where Jesus kicks things into a new gear and finally “restores the kingdom of Israel.”
They were looking for Jesus to shift from his servant-leadership, lay-down-your-life, love-even-your-enemies ethos and start asserting power and establishing political control. They wanted him to start FIXING everything already!
But Jesus was not about to be coopted by their ideas about how the world needed to be fixed, or about who was supposed to do the fixing.
So, when they asked him “is now the time?” he told them that “the time” was not what they should be concerned about. Instead, they were supposed to be ready for THEIR part of the story.
Power was coming, but not the kind of dominating, power-over that they were hoping Jesus would use to re-make the world.
The power was coming to THEM, the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And this is a power whose purpose is not domination, but witness.
A power that gave them, and gives us, a voice to speak transformation into the world… not to impose it by force.
I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I have felt that power in my own life. It has changed me and healed me in powerful ways.
I have seen the Spirit working in many of your lives as well.
Giving you hope.
Leading you in wisdom.
Guiding you in love.
It’s not the kind of power that will magically erase violence, or illness, or suffering, or grief… and in weeks like this week that frustrates me so much!
I’m tired of marching, and calling my representatives, and doing the painstaking work of raising awareness and combating hatred.
I’m tired of holding people while they cry because I cannot take the pain away, and praying for healing because doctors don’t know how to help.
I want an easier solution than the call to be a daily witness. To daily take up the task of speaking a different kind of world into existence.
But, even though I want the Superman Savior Solution, I can recognize that there is a very real hope in this story of Jesus leaving, and telling us that he is sending US the power to carry on the work…. It is the hope of Christ’s exhortation that we can do something other than just WAIT – staring up at the sky, praying for him to come back.
We have been given the Spirit of God.
We have been given the task to witness to his life and teachings – teachings that model a transforming way of being in this broken, heart-breaking world.
NOT power over, but instead the power of love that refuses to give up.
That keeps witnessing to God’s will for a world not ruled by power and violence, but transformed by love.
Thanks be to God.