Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2017
Acts 1:6-14 Commentary
Why do you stand here looking into the sky? is the compelling question around which, in some ways, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday revolves. However, it’s also a question that the Lord might pose to Acts 1’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
Acts 1:9 reports that Jesus has ascended and somehow disappeared into a cloud. His disciples whom he leaves on the ground, however, can’t seem to move or walk away from his “launch pad.” So they seem frozen in place, staring up into the sky, perhaps straining their eyes to catch just one more last glimpse of Jesus.
Are Jesus’ disciples stunned? Probably. Puzzled? Perhaps. Worried? Maybe. Their mouths may even hang open as they look up into the sky. Yet we can hardly really blame Jesus’ disciples for just staring.
We suspect that at least some of these disciples who now stare up at the sky had watched, from a distance, Jesus suffer and die. They were also among those to whom Jesus appeared after he rose from the dead on the first Easter. After all, after “suffering,” Jesus “showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” However, just as his disciples get used to having him around again, Jesus disappears again.
So are Jesus’ disciples are trying to see where he went? Are they waiting for him to somehow come right back? Or do some of Jesus’ disciples, remembering what happened at his transfiguration, expect the cloud hiding Jesus to evaporate, leaving him among them again?
I sometimes wonder if the disciples’ “looking up into the sky” is a kind of metaphor for the natural inclination of both ancient and modern disciples of Jesus. After all, God’s people too sometimes get caught just looking up into the sky in one way or another.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we sometimes look up into the sky by getting caught up in speculation about when exactly he’ll return. Some Christians spend a lot of time, for example, wondering if increased trouble in the Middle East or disasters like earthquakes indicate Jesus will return very soon.
Acts 1’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us may also stand here looking up into the sky by asking what God is going to do for us. We may look up and just ask how the Lord’s going come down and fix our families or finances, or how the Lord’s going to give us a spouse or more friends.
Or we stand here looking up into the sky by just waiting for some perfectly clear message from God about what to do in a particular situation. God’s adopted sons and daughters may wait for some audible or visible message about whom we should marry or what work we should do.
Jesus’ disciples had hoped that he would finally establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace, perhaps embodied in a restored Israel. And since Jesus hadn’t yet restored such a kingdom, those who stand looking up into the sky wonder when he’ll do so.
We know how Jesus answers his wondering disciples in our text. Never mind the times and dates, he essentially tells them in verse 7. There’s no way for people to answer that question. The establishment of and timetable for a kingdom of justice and peace lies in God’s hands alone.
Yet that doesn’t mean that the disciples should just stand around staring up into the sky and waiting for that kingdom to “come” to them. No, Christ challenges his followers to testify to what they know and have experienced. He sends them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (8).
Yet Jesus calls his disciples to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses only after he promises them “power when the Holy Spirit comes on” them. In many ways this promise may be even more central to this text than Jesus’ call to witness in ever-widening circles.
After all, not all Christians range far in their witness. However, God does give all Christians the power to witness through the Holy Spirit. That powerful gift shapes the lives of all of God’s adopted sons and daughters, whether we go to the “ends of the earth” or just next door.
So while God calls Jesus’ followers to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses, verse 8 reminds us that’s not something they can muster on their own. Being God’s witnesses isn’t first of all about reading the right books and going to the right conferences, though they can be useful. Being God’s witnesses is, first of all, about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Being God’s witnesses is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit.
So how can those whom we teach and to whom we preach know if Christ has called and sent them to be his “witness?” If they have the Holy Spirit. Those who love and trust Jesus Christ as the one who saves them from their sin can know that God given them the Holy Spirit. After all, since faith is only and always a gift, its presence signals the fact that the Holy Spirit has already come on those who have it.
Yet those who have the gift of faith also have even more. God’s adopted sons and daughters have the Bible’s account of God’s wonderful work in our world, including God’s work in Christ. God’s people also have our own stories of God’s work in our lives.
So Acts 1’s preachers and teachers can announce that God has given God’s people everything they need to stop standing and looking into the sky. After all, God has equipped God’s children with everything they need to be Christ’s witnesses, not only around the world, but also in their own neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.
Sometimes, however, even Christians who have both the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit and stories to tell assume they can’t be Christ’s witnesses. That’s why preachers and teachers always remember and remind people that “witnesses” are simply people who tell others about what has happened to them.
After Jesus healed a man who was blind, the religious leaders tried to discredit his witness. He responded by simply telling people what had happened to him. “One thing I do know,” the healed man reports in John 9:25. “I was blind but now I see.” He doesn’t say anything spectacular or original. The formerly blind man merely tells what happened to him.
Something has happened to not just God’s people, but also to God’s entire creation – Jesus’ cross and resurrection. In Christ, God has broken into sinful lives and made a whole new world for those who receive God’s amazing grace with their faith. God’s children witness, then, by simply telling, by what they do and say, what has happened to them in Jesus Christ.
So when is the church most like what God calls her to be? When she’s adding many new members or meeting the needs of existing members? While both those things are good and important, the church is perhaps most like the church God calls us to be when it stops staring up into the sky and starts being God’s “witnesses.”
Yet no matter how powerful the Holy Spirit and our message are, God’s children may not neglect another crucial ingredient of being Christ’s witnesses. After all, our text ends with verse 14’s report that “They all joined together constantly in prayer . . .”
As Will Willimon notes, active people might have expected Jesus’ disciples to do something more “useful” after Jesus ascended to heaven. Yet after they obey Jesus by returning to Jerusalem, the disciples’ first response to Jesus’ ascension is to pray. As Willimon goes on to point out, the disciples somehow understood, God expects more from God’s people than just busyness and hard work. You and I understand that the church must also be busy praying, perhaps especially praying for all who are Christ’s witnesses.
Notice, however, how Jesus’ disciples, along with a number of other people, begin to pray. Jesus’ followers, according to verse 14, “joined together.” That means that these followers of Jesus don’t just pray in the same place and at the same time, but also for the same things.
However, Jesus’ followers’ prayers are also persistent. According to verse 14, they “joined together constantly.” Jesus’ followers are persistent in their prayers as they wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
This strongly suggests that those who would stop staring into heaven and start being witnesses always begin, continue and end with prayer. That those who want to stop standing and start witnessing begin by figuratively getting on our knees in prayer.
Jesus has promised to come back, indeed, somehow in much the same way that he left in the first place. In the meantime, however, God has given God’s people work to do. I like the way the biblical scholar John Stott summarizes the angels’ implied message to Jesus’ disciples (and us): “You have seen Jesus go. You will see him come. But between that going and coming there must be another. The Spirit must come, and you must go – into the world for Christ.”
In an earlier Sermon Commentary on this passage, my colleague Scott Hoezee tells of putting his German to use by reading an old German fairy tale book a fellow German major at Calvin College had bought at a local garage sale. He notes the original German fairy tales were brutal, unlike their American versions, which seem to have been sanitized and tidied up. Their authors wrote the stories to teach children lessons. Hoezee says those authors clearly believed that scaring the wits out of kids was the best way to get their point across.
One of those stories was entitled “Hans Guck-in-der-Luft,” which Hoezee roughly translates as, “Hans Head in-the-Clouds” (literally: Hans Look-in-the-Air). Its author meant to teach children to pay attention to what they are doing and where they are going. Hoezee writes, “to make the point the title character of Hans is a little boy who is forever daydreaming, forever walking around with his eyes fixed on birds, butterflies, treetops.
The result is that he keeps bumping into lampposts, tripping over uneven sidewalks, running into old ladies. Throughout the story adults chide Hans for his dreaminess and they warn him to pay attention, to get his head out of the clouds. But Hans does not listen and so at the end of the story he walks straight off a cliff and is smashed to death on the rocks below.”
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