5/28/17: The Scandal of Absence, Acts 1:1-11
The Scandal of Absence
Seventh in the Series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Ephesians 1:15-23
Second Lesson: Acts 1:1-11
Rev. Scott Dickison
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?
Looking back on this moment from where we stand now, some 2000 years later, this question of the disciples to the risen Christ seems woefully ill-informed. Of course Jesus would be raised into heaven! Of course we would be left here to carry on toward the Kingdom until he comes again!
But for the disciples that day, standing there on the Mount of Olives, there was no reason to believe that wasn’t “it.” After all, Jesus has been raised from the dead, and so whatever God wants to accomplish in the world must be about to happen.
Now must be the time for God to lift up there lowly and fill up the hungry with good things.
No must be the time for God to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and bring down the powerful from their thrones—as Mary sang to baby Jesus when he was still in her womb.
Now must be the time when God will “wipe away every tear” from our eyes, when “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,”when wrongs will be righted, prayers answered—now must be the time when God’s Kingdom will come “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus has been raised—miraculously, mysteriously—from the dead, and so now must be the time!
Please, Jesus, they seem to say, tell us now is the time.
Do you hear the tiredness in this question? Do you hear the slightest bit of sorrow? Please, Jesus, do what you said you would do. Let now be the time.
You’ve asked this question before: Lord, is now the time?
Lord, it’s been two years and three miscarriages. Is now the time when we’ll have a baby?
Lord, we’ve been spinning our wheels for so long, the credit cards, the loans, the debt—is now the time when we’ll be free?
Lord, we’ve had our sleepless nights, we’ve cried our tears, we’ve paid the bail bond and for the rehab. Is now the time when he’ll finally find his way?
Lord, we’ve done the treatments, we’ve fought and fraught and kept a good face—is now the time when the scans will come back clear?
Lord, I’ve buried her. What’s left of me is here all alone. Is now the time when you’ll call me home?
Is this when it will happen?
Is this when I’ll feel fulfilled?
Is now when the weight will be lifted?
The disciples want what we all want, which is for God to act—faithfully, powerfully, decisively—just as we’re promised God will. But the answer they get is also familiar: It’s not for you to know the times and the periods God has set.
And interpreters of this exchange between the risen Christ and the disciples have at times tended to read a scolding tone onto Jesus here, as if he’s slapping them down for asking a question they should know better to ask. But that’s not how I hear it. For one, I can’t imagine Jesus would let that be the last thing he said to them before leaving them for good, to embarrass or ridicule the disciples—after all they’d been through? No, if anything there must have been just a touch of grief behind his words. Not just because he knows he’s about to say goodbye, but also because he knows what he’s about to ask them to do.
My dear friends, I wish I could tell you these things, but they’re not for you to know. In the end, you might be glad you don’t know how long it will take for the Kingdom to come. But—and we must always pay attention in Scripture to what happens after this word.
But—you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
Do you see what Jesus did here? In their hope and exhaustion the disciples asked for Jesus to bring all these things to pass, to fulfill these promises of new life and restoration and reconciliation: Lord, is now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? And Jesus turns their question around: The time is not for you to know, but you will receive power to be witnesses to it.
And this is the great tension of Christian faith the we see played out here in the story of Christ’s Ascension: that on the one hand Christ is no longer with us in the way we might like; Christ is no longer here casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead, walking before us, showing us the way, tellings us where to go, whom to love and how—Christ is no longer here among us in that way. But the Ascension is not about abandonment as much as it’s about empowerment. And we know something of this.
Parents, when you drop your children off at the first day of school, and send them off to begin this new chapter of their life, you’re ceding some control, entrusting them to others. But you’re also trusting them. Or rather, trusting that something of what you have instilled into them up to that point has stuck and will guide them—that they will be somehow prepared. At the time it may have felt like an abandonment, to you or to them. But wasn’t it necessary? Wasn’t it a necessary empowerment? Didn't you tell them, You can do this. You have what you need. You know your colors and numbers and animal sounds. You know to be kind and forgiving and generous. You know how to be firm in what’s right. You know you know a great deal already but you still have much to learn. And remember I’m not far away. I’ll always be right here with you.
Isn’t this what you told them? Isn’t this what you told yourself? This is the way of things. It’s how anything good lives on in the world: by being handed down through the generations. The younger being reassured that they are ready, more ready than they feel. And the older trusting that God has something in mind—that we’re all entrusted with nothing more and nothing less than our own part to play in it. No, we can’t know the times and the periods God has set; but we can live in confidence that God does.
I’ve spoken of this before, but Sam Wells, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, says that living faithfully in the present is to remember we’re part of a larger drama.
The Christian story, the story of what God’s up to in the world he says, is like a five act play. The first act was creation, God calling forth all things into being. The second act was the Kingdom of Israel, God focusing on this one people to carry out divine purpose in the world. The third act was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—this decisive turning point in the story. And the fourth act is where we are now: the church. The people of God living as faithfully as we know how in light of what’s happened in the previous acts. And the fifth act is what’s next—the culmination of God’s story: life in the world to come.
He says it’s crucial that we in the church remember where we are in the story. Too often we live and think as if we’re in a one-act play, where we’re all there is in the story—nothing before us and nothing after—and so we’re the ones totally responsible for what happens in the end. This is not the Christian story.
It ignores all that God has already done to get us to this place, but just as importantly, all that God promises is on the way.
We’re not called to be everything and anything in the story. Our role is to be faithful in act four—to remember that the end is secured, that we don’t have to worry about sorting out all the details and making sure that everything ends up how it should because that’s God’s job. We’re called simply to be faithful here, in the present. To be witnesses to the story that’s been revealed to us thus far. Living in the way of Jesus, telling the story of God’s grace and forgiveness. Modeling, as best we can, the Kingdom of God we’re told is at hand.
And the beauty of all this is that since the end is secured—and this, more than anything, is the scandalous promise of our faith: somehow, someway, the end is secure, that God holds the future and it is good. Since this is true, we know that God is able to work with even our mistakes, and Lord knows the church has made a few. Wells says the challenge then as the people of God, is to make “interesting mistakes.” I love that. As Martin Luther put it, “If you sin, sin boldly, but have faith bolder still.” In other words, if you err, err on the side of grace, on the side of love. On the side of opening our hearts, not closing them. Perfection is a lie, and God will sort it out in the end anyhow, so just live as faithfully as you can, erring on the side of Jesus.
How would it free us up as a church to remember that Christ has ascended but continues to live and breathe in the world through us—through you, but that the end is secure? That Christ has ascended, and has left us here, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to find our way as best we can, forward, into God’s future—knowing that the success is already guaranteed, somehow and some way—and so we just need to relax and have some fun making interesting mistakes for God to do something equally, infinitely more interesting with? Where would that kind of thinking lead us? To whom would it take us?
What would that kind of assurance do for us in our own lives—to know that the Kingdom of God will come to us no matter what we do or fail to do? Not to say what we do or don’t do in life doesn’t matter—of course it does. We’ve been empowered to do much good in the world, but it’s also true we can do much harm or cause great pain. Our choices absolutely have consequences. But these consequences are not absolute. As a friend of mine puts it, “Live as if it’s all up to you, but sleep as if it’s all up to God.”
What would it mean to live as if Christ has been raised into heaven and has empowered you to be his presence in the world, but sleep as if Holy Spirit is as close to you as your own breath?
What would it mean to live as if all those who suffer in the world are looking to you to ease their pain, but sleep as if God is working in waysbeyond your understanding?
What would it mean to live as if you have been given much do to and little time to do it, but sleep as if in God, you have all the time in the world?
What would it mean to live as if the greatest questions of God’s timing might one day be answered, but sleep as if they already have been?
What would it mean to live as if what you do in this life or what we do together as the church matters eternally, but sleep as if God has the final word, and that word is “yes?”