II Kings 2:1-12, Acts 1:1-11
May 24, 2009
I hate to admit my shortcomings. But, I’m a bad photographer! I admit it. For years now I’ve been laboring under the misconception that the camera is supposed to do all the work! You point it at something, and it should take good pictures. And the more money you spend on the camera, the better the pictures! That makes sense, doesn’t it? Well you wouldn’t know it from my pictures.
Another problem I’ve had with photography over the years, is that I have a bad habit of getting my finger in front of the lens! I could show you loads of pictures of my finger in various scenic places! I have pictures of my finger in Colorado. I have pictures of my finger in Saint Louis, and in Boston, and down at the Shore. And of course, I have lots and lots of pictures of my finger along with my kids at various stages of their lives!
Well, it seems to me that putting a finger in front of a camera lens is good metaphor for life. And what I mean by that is that it’s often hard for us to see the true picture of our life because part of us gets in the way! Think about it. Isn’t that a great analogy? (I’m quite proud of it!) We have a hard time seeing a true picture of our lives, and especially our faith, because part of us gets in the way. The image we have of God often gets distorted because we get something of our selves in front of the lens. That is, we see God the way we want to see him, rather than seeing him as he really is. And we’re in good company!
I think that’s what’s happening here in this first chapter of Acts. The disciples were having a hard time seeing the true picture of things because their own understanding and their own beliefs about things, were getting in the way. And I want us to recognize that in this story because it’s so hard to keep that from happening in our own lives.
Think about it. So much of our view of this life starts with our own perception. It comes only through our own views and our own beliefs. And it’s the rare person among us who can take that proverbial step back and to look at themselves, or look at their faith without preconceived notions, with out their own personal understanding. Yet I think that is essential to our faith. Scripture tells us again and again that we need to see ourselves as God sees us. We need to see things through his eyes!
Let’s take a look at these two stories here in Acts. This first one is about this event called “the ascension.” Now, that’s the time Jesus left this earth and was taken up into heaven. And that’s one of those celebrations in the church year that doesn’t fall on a Sunday, so we don’t often think about it. The day to celebrate the ascension was actually this past Thursday. But I wanted us to think about it today because this is what was happening just prior to that important event we celebrate next week, the event called Pentecost!
Just imagine this scene. I know it’s hard for us because it’s a Bible story, and we have our preconceived notions about it. But I’d like us to try to step out of that realm for a moment, and try to think about these guys and all they’d been through. They had followed Jesus through his ministry. They had suffered the terrible tragedy of his arrest and his execution. They had witnessed the unbelievable event that took place on Easter Sunday, when, incredibly, Jesus had come back to them from the dead. It had all been one unimaginable roller coaster ride in those past few weeks. And now they stood with Jesus on the mountaintop, and he was talking with them – like “old times.”
Try to picture that scene. This was a wonderful moment. Something important was about to happen, and I think the disciples could feel it! But, even being in his presence, they were still not quite focused – they were not quite “in tune” with Jesus. Like that finger in front of the camera lens, some part of them was getting in the way of their seeing the big picture.
The talk turned very quickly to “the kingdom.” But notice, it wasn’t Jesus’ kingdom, it was their kingdom – or at least their view of it. They asked, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Remember, that’s what they hoped Jesus would do. Many people hoped he would lead the rebellion against Rome, and restore a free and independent Israel! That’s why many people were disappointed in him after Palm Sunday. And that’s the reason many turned on him when he didn’t fulfill that dream!
At first, it seems like Jesus was blowing them off, as though he was avoiding their question. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the father has fixed in his own authority.” That sounds like a nice “biblical” way of saying, “I’m not going to answer that.” But if you read further, he actually does. Because look what he says – and I believe this is all one sentence. “…but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem (the Israeli kingdom) and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”
He did answer their kingdom question, didn’t he?! In focusing only on that earthly kingdom, they were still letting their view of the world, and their desires, get in the way of the picture, As close as they were to him, being now in his very presence, they still didn’t see the big picture. That’s amazing to us! And here, Jesus was trying sharpen their vision. He was trying to focus their picture. They were thinking Israel. Jesus was talking about the world! And that would soon make sense to them!
I wonder. Do we ever need to have our vision refocused? Do we ever need to go to God to see how he would have us be thinking and seeing? I think you know that the answer is yes. But I also hope you know that we don’t do that nearly enough. It’s way too easy for us to get caught up in our own vision of things. It’s way too easy to let ourselves get in the way of seeing the right picture.
The rest of this chapter is taken up with a similar story, which I’ll let you read on your own. But let me just tell you for now that it’s a strange story that begins with the disciples deciding that they need to find a replacement for Judas. And so they talk about it, they pray about it, and then they draw lots! And the lot fell to this man named “Matthias.”
That story has always seemed strange to me! And perhaps the strangest thing about it is that after they made that choice, the name of Matthias is never mentioned again! He’s never part of the picture. What we do see in Acts is that God had other plans for that “Twelfth Apostle slot.” And God’s plans had to do with converting his mortal enemy, a man named Saul, into his greatest ally!
The story of Matthias still stands in Acts, though. And I want you to see that the disciples meant well. They were even thinking spiritually. The problem was that they were out of phase with God’s plans. Something got in their way, like that finger in the lens, and they saw only their own perspective.
I think this is a very important story for us. Because I believe these men were doing their best to think spiritually in both these stories. They were well meaning. They knew they were supposed to be doing something. But they missed the mark. And what I want us to take from these stories is that we can be in a very spiritual mindset, and still fail to see the picture. We can be thinking heavenly things, and we can still fail to have the right focus. That can easily happen. Because we’re human! We can be thinking of the things of God and we can still mess things up!!!
I’ll never forget what my minister told me years ago. He said that some people are so gung-ho for doing God’s work that they “leave God behind.” What he meant was that they are always going forward, doing things, learning things, etc… without “checking in” with God. He even said that sometimes that’s when our old adversary Satan works against us. He tries to keep people spiritually minded, but have them focus on all those other, “spiritual things,” rather than on God. And I think there’s truth to that. We can easily get caught up in doing all the things of faith, but miss God’s spirit talking to us, and guiding us.
That can be a problem for some believers. They think as long as they are being spiritual, they must be doing things right, or that they must be doing God’s will. But they’re really getting sidetracked. Paul had to deal with that a lot in the early church. In the congregation in Corinth, the people were worshipping in ways that involved what we would call the “gifts of the spirit.” They were doing these “Pentecostal” things like “speaking in tongues,” and prophesying, and making prophetic interpretations. And even though people believed they were being “spiritual,” there was great chaos in that church. In the fifteenth chapter of that letter, Paul coined this phrase that has since become the “marching song” for Presbyterians over the years. He insisted that all things be done “decently and in order.” And it was all about these “spiritual expressions” of the faith!
I want to encourage you today, not to think just about doing “spiritual things.” That’s all well and good. But even more, let me encourage you to remember these stories and to be seeking the guidance of the Lord in your spiritual lives. Do those spiritual things. Seek to grow in every way in your life of faith. But know that spirituality alone doesn’t mean we’re getting the right picture. Be sure to spend that all so important time in God’s presence. Wait on him. Seek his guidance in the quite times of your relationship with him. For if you seek to focus on him, if you strive to get yourself out of the way, then you’ll see his picture more clearly!
Eternal God, thank you for calling us to be your people. Help us as we strive to be so, to wait upon you, to seek to get ourselves out of the way. Help us to see with your eyes, and to love with your heart. For we pray in your name, Amen.