Acts 1:6-14

Rev. Todd Weir

Preached June 1, 2014

 

Tiffany Window of the Ascension from Montclair UCC in New Jersey.

Tiffany Window of the Ascension from Montclair UCC in New Jersey.

It has been 40 days since Easter.  Most important things in the Bible happen in blocks of 40.  If you hear the number 40, think “This is a great inflection point, where there will be a transformation at the end.”  Noah steers his floating zoo for 40 days of rain, and then the storms end and he hits dry land.  The slaves from Egypt wander in the wilderness for 40 years, and then they go to the Promised Land.  Jesus fasts in the wilderness for 40 days, and then he confronts his demons before launching his ministry.  So the Ascension of Jesus is 40 days after Easter morning.  What is the transformation that will happen next? Perhaps the disciples had 40 on the brain too when they came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?”  This question is a setup.  Jesus was asked 186 questions in the Gospels, gave straight answers to 8 of them, and asked 306 in return.  I think someone studied the Socratic method of dialog.  What is in this question?  First, it shows the hope and excitement the disciples had after Easter.  Change is coming.  For three years Jesus taught “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  He taught them to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  In Matthew, right after the Lord’s Prayer he tells eight parables to say what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  Its like a tiny Mustard seed, it is like yeast, it is a Great Banquet where the poor are invited, it is sowing seeds, a pearl of great price. How significant is this Heaven talk?  In the Old Testament the word heaven is used 380 times and every time it refers to a place beyond the earth.  Jesus opens the heavens and says it is near you now-75 times in Matthew Gospel alone.  So the disciples are excited about this message after Easter, but they did not ask about the Kingdom of God.  Instead they ask, “Is this the time you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?”   Jesus never even once said he would restore the Kingdom of Israel.  That belong to the Herodian Dynasty. Old paradigms die hard.  The disciples are still thinking the old narrative-the Messiah will come, throw out Rome, bring down Herod and restore the righteous line of King David.  In fact, just a few year before this Gospel was written, the people of Israel tried to do exactly that, and they lasted about three years in rebellion before the legions came and crushed them.  It is really important to know when to let go of an old paradigm and embrace a new one.  You have heard it said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  True enough.  I love history.  But those who try to hold on to history in the present are doomed to lose what they have.  There is no way to recreate a moment in time, or a bygone era.  It can only live in our memory.  Or as Jesus put it, those who try to save their lives will lose it, but those who lose their lives for my sake will save it. The nature of change is about death and resurrection.  We have to let the old die, then the new can be reborn. Reborn – it resembles the past, but it is something new. Jesus does not chastise his disciples for asking this question.  There is no eye rolling, condemnation or shouting insults about their thick-headed question.  He simply replies, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”   Jesus does not kill their genuine, if misguided, enthusiasm.  He instead is going to try to attach their desire for change not to the past, but to something to come.  There is still a kingdom coming, just not quite the one you thought.  There is an important lesson here.  When we make a decision to move into the future, we don’t get to know the outcome ahead of time. It would be great when we make a bold decision, or take a risk that we had some degree of reassurance or certainty of success.  If you are faithful to God, you will get what you desire.  Or at least there should be a money back guarantee.  It would be great if Jesus said to me, “Preach this sermon and I guarantee you this outcome.”  It would be great if there was an easy to follow blueprint of how to build a successful church, with 7 easy to follow steps to growth.  Church consultants write these books by the dozen, and if they worked…well, lets just say the state of the mainline Protestant church would be much different.  Jesus is gentle, but very clear with the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  The future is always a leap of faith.   Now we may not know the outcomes of our efforts ahead of time, but we are not walking alone in the dark either.  The next words out of Jesus’s mouth are this, “But 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.”  Kingdoms have a power and a geography.  In the disciples mind the location of the kingdom is the land of Israel, and the power is the king, the Temple and the Law, most likely backed by an army.  Those are the features of an earthly Kingdom.  Jesus says the power in the Kingdom of Heaven is going to come through the Holy Spirit who moves in you.  This Kingdom will not come from the power of kings, laws and armies; it will come through preaching the good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, forgiveness, doing justice, loving mercy.   The Kingdom of Heaven also has a different geography.  It is Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.  Imagine, not just Israel, but the ends of the earth.  They didn’t even know the ends of the earth yet.  They thought it was flat, and it would be 15 centuries before humanity would know differently.  Even Rome did not know the geography of the ends of the earth.  By the way the ends of the earth includes Samaria.  Now what do we know about Samaria and Samaritans?  They worshiped on the wrong mountain, in the wrong way, and as far as Israelites believed there was only one hypothetical good Samaritan who would actually help a person in distress.  The spiritual geography of the Kingdom of Heaven is not about drawing lines on a map between us and them, it is about crossing them to embrace the people with whom we disagree, reconciling with those whom we have fought wars, healing the divisions of disagreement and opening ourselves to those who worship and think differently than us.  That is what Samaria represents.  And if you can cross those boundaries, then you can possibly go to the ends of the earth.   So this is how Jesus answers the disciples’ question about the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.  “You don’t get to know how it all turns out, the power you want will come from the Holy Spirit and not from worldly power, and your geography is too cramped.”  And then without apparent warning or even a “Good luck” he ascends straight up into heaven.  Now that is how you end a sermon!  Leave them with their mouths hanging open in wonder!   And then comes the guys in the white robes.  (Today they would be wearing white jackets.) Men of Galilee, why are you standing their looking up into heavens?”  People of the church, don’t look to heaven as if it is somewhere else, for your hope is right here among you, the kingdom of heaven is near.   I will leave it for you to decide what relevance this all has for what we do next at the annual meeting.  For 40 days I have made flow charts, lists of pros and cons, crunched numbers, read articles, asked and answered questions. I might be able to share all my thoughts with you in 40 minutes, but I’m not sure that is what you need from me right now.  40 days is not a long time to make a major decision in the life of the church.  Its very fast and you have shown extraordinary openness and discernment.  But 40 days is long enough for God to work with Noah, with Jesus in the wilderness, and with the disciples before Pentecost.  I will not be so bold as to say that I have found the answer for the future of the church.  I can’t give you assurances greater than Jesus gave to his own disciples.   I will leave you with this.  I see ministry as sowing seeds.  I think what Sarah has to offer this church is very good seed which will bear a great harvest.  More to the point, I saw Sarah holding an armful of tomato starts, ready to go in the ground.  One thing we have is a lot of ground in which to plant.  I think this church is good, rich soil.  You may think this is all too fast and ambitious and I’m trying to plant burning bushes rather than seedlings.  We can go back to the drawing board together and make another plan.  That is not the end of the world, it just a delay on when the harvest may come.  I just love tomatoes and peas and carrots, and I am eager to see this garden grow.