II Kings 2:1-12, Acts 1:1-11
May 20, 2007
In our reading from Acts today, we actually have the continuation of the Gospel of Luke. That’s this “first book” he refers to here. At the very beginning he writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was ‘taken up,’” which is our story for today.
Then, as we go through this first paragraph of Acts, he find Luke bringing his reader up to date with the end of that first part of the story. He tells how Jesus had “presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to his disciples during forty days, and speaking to them of the kingdom of God.” Then he tells how Jesus told his disciples to “wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the father.” That refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit, which is our story for next week – Pentecost Sunday!
So, that’s where we find the disciples as Luke sets the scene for us at the beginning of the book of Acts. And so far the writer has helped to “flesh out” some of what happened in this post-Resurrection, pre-Pentecost time. And now he’s ready to pick up the story of what happened next.
Luke actually begins the narrative of this book in verse 6, even though this is part of what he said was in the “first book.” – things that Jesus did and taught until the day he was “taken up.” And that is our story for today. So depending on how you look at it, the ascension story sort of overlaps the last events in the book of Luke. And sure enough, if you go back to Luke, you will find a shortened version of that event.
He begins by telling how “the disciples had come together.” They were still in Jerusalem, as Jesus told them, awaiting the promise. Again Jesus was with them. And as he goes on with the story, I’d like you to notice what their conversation was about. I’m sure they talked about a lot of other things, but the only part of the conversation that Luke records is this question. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
I think that’s amazing! Think about all they’ve been through! Yet, they still have on their minds that “burning question!” “Is this now the time we get our kingdom back?” Remember, that’s what everybody wanted! And that’s a big part of what got Jesus crucified! They wanted that earthly kingdom for Israel, and he did not appear to be giving that to them. Even though what he did give them was so much bigger, still many rejected him because all they could see was the immediate world around them and their desire to be free from Rome.
Here were his disciples still asking that same question. After all they had been through, after all the horror of Jesus’ death, after the thrill of his resurrection, after all the explanation and the new understanding he gave them, even after that wonderful “Road to Emmaus” story – that only Luke records – after all of that, still they too cannot give up on that idea of the earthly kingdom, either! That’s amazing!
Now, let’s keep in mind the history of all that. These disciples didn’t know what was going to happen between the Jews and the Romans. We do! Through the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, we know that this desire for freedom didn’t “go away” after Jesus’ time. The people still wanted the revolution. And eventually, in about the year 66 AD, they went to war with Rome. But they lost. The war ended not long after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. And from about the year 73 on, Israel would not be a nation again until our time, some 2,000 years later.
The disciples didn’t know all that, of course. And despite all that had happened in this post-Luke, pre-Acts time, they still longed for that same earthly kingdom. So that’s the question the writer records. It seems they still don’t get it! At least not completely. Not yet. And we can’t blame them. They don’t know what we now know about Jesus, either. This was all so new, and so hard to comprehend and accept! They didn’t even know what was about to happen to them in the next chapter!
So, in the meantime, Jesus answers their question, saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” And in a way that seems to change the subject, but doesn’t really, he says, “But you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. In a way, he is telling them about the earthly kingdom, isn’t he? But he’s telling of the earthly kingdom from his perspective, not that of a “free and independent Israel.”
Well, as the story goes, those are the last words he spoke to them on the this earth! Because he was then “taken up” in this event we have come to know as “the ascension.” He told them they were to be his witnesses in all the world! And then he was lifted up and he was gone!
This sounded to me like the story of Elijah and Elisha. So I had us read that one, as well. Elijah was about to “pass the mantle” of leadership to Elisha. In fact, that’s actually where that expression “the mantle of leadership” came from! Elijah passed his mantle, his cloak, to Elisha, and then he was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind of fire. If you think about it, in both of these stories, there is a passing on of leadership, isn’t there? And in both cases there is this ascension in to heaven. The Apostles were to be Jesus’ leaders in the world.
Now, I want us to see this next part in Acts, because was very important to Jesus’ disciples. And I think it’s important to our own understanding of how we are part of the ministry of Jesus. I hope you’ll agree!
While the disciples were “gazing into heaven,” two men stood by them in white robes. And these two men say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven. This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go.”
Now, there are two reasons for that statement, I think. One is that it gave them the promise, or should I say, it reiterated the promise Jesus gave them, that he would come again to this world. And we are still awaiting that promise, aren’t we. But at the same time, there is still to come this promise Luke talked about earlier, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And that is the promise that would give them the power to be his witnesses “to the end of the earth.” And we are part of that promise, as well, aren’t we?
The other reason for this statement, I believe, is that it was meant to get their head out of the clouds! Why are you “gazing into heaven?” the men asked. There was much to do on earth until the time of Jesus’ return. In that time, they were to be the witnesses to Jesus’ “earthly kingdom.” Again, that wasn’t the earthly kingdom they originally wanted for Israel, was it?! It was much more than that! You see, God wanted them to transform the world.
And I ask you, what about us? Do we want to do that, too? Remember the prayer, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth” how? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” Did you ever think about that little phrase? You say it every week! Do you really want God’s will to be done here on earth as much as it is done in heaven? Wouldn’t that be a transformation of this earth of the highest degree?!
Sometimes I think some Christians do need to get their heads out of the clouds. Have you ever heard someone described as being, “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good?” Sometimes that means a person who walks around in a constant spiritual state with a smile on their face and a song of praise in their heart, and yet they’re oblivious to the needs of people around them. And, don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing wrong with that – except for the oblivious part at the end. We should be spiritual. We should have a song of praise in our hearts. But we should also have concern of promoting God’s kingdom on earth. We should be about the business of transforming the world!
There’s more to it, though. Sometimes a person having their “head in the clouds” means that they tend to leave all matters of faith only to those times when they are being “heavenly minded.” In other words, the only time their faith impacts their lives at all is when they are in a spiritual mode, thinking spiritual thoughts. Otherwise, there is no difference in their lives from the lives of anyone else. They can talk spirituality with the best of them, but then they don’t live it! Such people need to get their heads out of the clouds, too!
The disciples were awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. As they heard of this promise of Jesus coming again, they were about to have their lives changed by that Holy Spirit. They were on the verge of this time of great transformation on this planet. They would have their heads out of the clouds, and with the power that was about to come on them, they would be the instruments of that transformation. The world would never be the same again!
What about us? Do we concentrate only on the promise of Jesus coming again? Or do we also concentrate on the promise of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we seek to be the instruments of transformation? Now, you might be thinking, “But who am I to transform the world?” Well I wonder, how many of the disciples were thinking that very same thing – before Pentecost!
Lord, empower us as you did the Apostles of old. Help our lives to reflect the glory of your kingdom in all we do, not just in the “church things” we do, but in all of our actions, our conversations, and our acts of love and kindness. Use us to change our world. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.