June 5, 2011


“Spending Time Waiting”

Acts 1:1-11



Today we have moved a festival of the church so that you all can celebrate it.  Although it falls 40 days after Easter, or last Thursday, we are celebrating Ascension Day today.


Some of you remember that Ascension Day was once a recognized day of prayer and worship.  Maybe your mother or grandmother wouldn’t do any wash on Ascension day.  Perhaps your father would not do any more work on the farm than was absolutely necessary.  It was, in a real sense, a Sabbath.  One Ascension Day, the congregation I served decided to hold a service in the evening.  My shirt had lost a button, so I asked my mother-in-law to sew it back on.  She refused saying, “If I do, in the hereafter I’ll have to pull out every stitch with my nose.”   It’s funny to think about all of the tales we conjure up to get ourselves to observe a religious festival, a Sabbath.  What Sabbath keeping, like this sort of thing, is about is not doing nothing, but doing something in particular.  Ascension Day would call it waiting.


This text from Acts is one of two accounts of the Ascension.  The other is, of course, at the end of Luke; chapter 24, verse 50 and 51.  And if we were to take these texts as a ‘teachable moment,’ a time of direct instruction by the risen Christ, then there are several things we might learn.


First, the church is instructed to wait. 


I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting.   Last weekend my new pup and I were entered in an AKC performance test up in the Pocono’s.  I did not know what kind of schedule they were operating so we arrived early.  The first group of dogs were supposed to begin at 7:30.  So, being of Germanic stock, we arrived at seven.


I was wandering around the grounds, and found one of the judges who told me, ‘your group will not run until about noon.’  Then, she said, “it’s hurry up and wait.”  “You must be ready,” she said, “because when we call your brace you only have 5 minutes to appear and be ready to go.”


This is what I don’t like about waiting.  So often it seems like you are just passing the time, twiddling your thumbs, standing around and gazing into the sky waiting for something to happen.  That is why I was never good at baseball.  As a kid, I was always sent out into right field.  I’d be out there and in the first inning I’d be slapping my glove, in a crouch, just waiting for that ball to come my way.  But by the fifth inning, I’d be looking at the bugs flying around, maybe chewing on a blade of grass, thinking of something else.  


It can be hard to wait.


At the AKC event, I watched a guy go into the bathroom.  He had his German Shorthair on a lead with him.  He told the dog: sit, stay; which the dog did.   He was in that bathroom, oh, maybe 30 seconds and the dog started looking around.  Ten seconds after that, the dog got up and started walking around.  Now, I don’t know what tipped him off, but the man shouted (from inside the outhouse), “I said SIT.”  The dog, as if he knew the compromised position his master was in, kept snooping around.  When the man came back, there was hell to pay, but who can blame the poor dog.  Waiting, especially without any supervision, is difficult.


The second thing we might learn is that this is ‘holy waiting.’  It is, as one author described it, ‘a royal waste of time.’  Emphasis on royal.  See, waiting is never for nothing.  If you are standing around waiting for nothing, you aren’t really waiting.  We call that loitering.  In Oley where I live there is a small sandwich shop called the M & M.  There is nearly always a group of kids hanging around there.  The other night my wife and I wanted to go out to eat, for some fine dining you know, so we went down to the M & M for a sandwich.  This same group of middle schoolers was there.  I noticed that they were doing such constructive things as loosening the cap on the salt shaker and taking straws from the kiosk with all the condiments and blowing spit balls at each other.  I asked them if they were waiting for their food.  “No,” they said, “we’re just hanging out.”


They weren’t waiting for anything.  People wait in line at the post office for a book of stamps.  Laborers wait for the foreman to bring a certain tool or instruction so they can get to work.  If we are waiting, we wait for something.  The church is no different.  If we are just hanging out we are loitering.


We don’t celebrate the Ascension because it’s forty-something days after Easter and that’s what the church is supposed to do. We don’t celebrate the Ascension because the creed says Jesus rose into heaven to sit on the right hand of God. Neither do we celebrate the Ascension because we have this beautiful stained glass window here over the altar that features the event.  We celebrate the Ascension because we’re no different from the early church who gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed: the news that they were going to receive power. And perhaps even more importantly, we celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have.  This is another thing we can learn.


Jesus makes it clear, the purpose of the wait is in order to receive the gift of power. In Luke: “clothed with power from on high” (24:49). In Acts: “you will receive power” (1:8).  And power, of every kind, is for a purpose.  This is closely tied to the idea of waiting.  Generally, whether we like it or not, we wait for something so that we can get on to the next thing.


For us, this is particularly counter cultural.  See, we think that we wait for something for our own purposes.  But here at the Ascension, the purpose of waiting is so that we can get on with being Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  See for the time being, Jesus left, be we stay.  He said that the purpose of the power of the Holy Spirit is so that we can be witnesses for him to the whole world.  What I notice most often these days, even amongst Christians, is that what we are concerned about in this in-between time is what we are going to get out of it.


One of my minister friends tells a story about a couple who came to see him with regard to possibly joining the church. He was excited about it until he felt the conversation turn into an interview. The couple wanted to know just what Second Church was going to do for them and for their children. The pastor brought them to sudden silence by asking, “What are you planning to do for Second Church?” Soon they left, never to be seen again.


Listen, the purpose of divine empowerment that is given in a season of waiting is in order to be witnesses.  Now I freely admit that this is odd.  The Creator of the Cosmos, the Ruler of the Universe, the Lord of all things seen and unseen, asks a bunch of fallible human beings to point toward him.  He asks that through their lives; their words and deeds, to show the love he has shown them to the world.  “The World,” you ask?  Yes, Jesus says “in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”


Now this text is not the whole bible.  I know that there are times where we have to make the first move, get our feet wet so to speak, before God acts.  There are times when we are asked to step out, in faith, and get the ball rolling before the Spirit kicks in.


Not today.  Today we are asked to wait.  We are not asked to loiter however, but to wait, with eager anticipation that God will empower us with the Holy Spirit to do something, to reveal the Good News to the world.  This is not a time to say, I cannot do that…it is a time to listen for the urgings of the Spirit.


Now what I want you to do is to take out that memo pad in your brain.  Do you have it?  Good.  This is what I want you to write on it, write down this question:  How is God empowering me to make this world around me a little more like the Kingdom?  An even better question is this: “What are WE, as a congregation, asked to do to make our little corner of the world a better place?”


Some Christians believe this life is simply practice for the next one. Others believe it is some kind of trial, something to be endured until a future glory. Still others think of this life as a test, a time and place to prove ourselves worthy of heaven. Not us, friends. 


We have been ‘left behind for good.’  That is, we have been left behind for the good of the world and of its people.  How, in your day-to-day life will you do this?  Don’t go thinking that you yourself must save the whole world.  Jesus has already done this.  The work for today is not to do it, no, the work for today is to ‘be still, and listen for the urgings of the Spirit.’


When the church waits and receives, it is emboldened in way that transforms. In the Book of Acts and long after, when the church is empowered by the Spirit, they go out to be that which, by the grace of God they already are, the people of God in the world!   And then, it was well worth spending time waiting.