Gazing into Heaven – May 12, 2013
Isaiah 62:1-5, Acts 1:1-14
May 12, 2013
So, next week is Pentecost. And whenever we look at Pentecost, and the time leading up to it, we have to look to the book of Acts. And Acts is a great book! I was reading a commentary about it the other day, and at one point Acrs was described as being “The first book of Church History.” I like that! And really, that’s what it is!
Of course, there are many books of Church History, and more are being written all the time. But Acts is really the first. And it’s all about the time from just after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the time the Gospel was brought to Rome by the Apostle Paul. And it gives us great insight into the early days of the Church.
The other thing we can say about the book of Acts is that most scholars agree that it was written by Luke, and it’s actually a sequel to his Gospel. As you just heard, it starts out with the words, “In my first book, O Theophilus…” and that first book refers to the Gospel of Luke.
Now, I’d like to say a word about this man named Theophilus. And that word would be “mystery.” We really don’t know who he was, except that he was a friend or a colleague of Luke, and both Acts and the Gospel are addressed to him. In fact, in the beginning of the Luke’s Gospel, he is addressed as “most excellent Theophilus.” But thats all we know, except that his name is comprised of two Greek words, “Theos” meaning “God,” and “Philos” meaning “brotherly love.” We should all know that word living in the suburbs of “Phila-delphia.”
While were at it, we might also say something about Luke himself. Luke is one of the two Gospel writers who were not Apostles. The other, of course, was Mark. (Mathew and John were two of the twelve,) And Luke was generally believed to be a Gentile convert to the faith who was a colleague of Paul. Hes actually named in several of Pauls letters, including one reference where he is called “the beloved physician.” (Colossians 4:14)
So, Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospelthat he thought it a good idea to write the story of Jesus on earth – like others had done. By that time there were many letters that had been written to various people and churches, and they were being shared from church to church, helping people to understand the new faith. We have a number of those letters preserved in our New Testament. They were an important source of information and inspiration as the Gospel spread and the faith grew. But they were pretty much all written before the Gospels themselves.
Ok, so thats just a little bit of background. And at this point my wife would probably say, “Ok, enough of the history stuff!” And I suppose she’s right. But I wanted you to get an little of the understanding of this first book of church history, and how it came about. Because this book gives us the best picture of the early events of the church. And of course, the first event it tells us about is the event we look at today, the event we have come to know as “the Ascension.”
When I think of this event, I have to wonder about those disciples. I wonder how it “hit them!” Think about them for a moment. After a little bit of introduction, Luke tells us that Jesus was together with his disciples, and they asked him this question. “Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” (My emphasis)
Do you see what they were thinking that day? They were still expecting what they had expected all along, that Jesus was going to be their deliverer like Moses. And now that he had come back from the dead, maybe that seemed even more likely! As I said last week, the story of Moses and Israelites being brought out of Egypt was what defined them as a people. That event gave them their law, their covenant, and their nation. And they dearly loved all three of those things! But now they had lost their nation, their sovereignty, and they wanted it back.
So, of all the expectations the people had of Jesus, this was the biggest! And here in what was about to be their last encounter with Jesus on earth, they expressed that expectation yet again. And notice, the question was not “Jesus are you ever going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” No. The expectation was that he would. Their only question was “Will you do so, now?”
Well, of course, Jesus didn’t fulfill that expectation! In fact, as he often did, he did something that probably shocked them. And what he did became an event that would be celebrated by the church down through the ages. With a few words to the disciples about not knowing the time, or even the nature of the kingdom, and that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit – which Im sure made no sense to them – Jesus rose into the air and vanished into the clouds. And that was the last they ever saw of him. Maybe you remember the skies on Thursday. It was full of huge billowy clouds of varying heights and colors and brightness, and I picture this happening on a day like that! Can you imagine Jesus ascending into such a sky?
Well, again, we know this event. We know this was how Jesus left this earth. But can we even begin to imagine what it was like for those who witnessed it? Luke says “As they were gazing into heaven” and I think he could easily have added, “with their mouths hanging open!” With all they had seen, after all they’d been through, I wonder if it was still possible to shock these men! But the more I think about this scene, the more Im sure the answer was yes. They had to have been shocked and astonished by what they had just seen!
But it was more than that! Because there went the last of their expectations! It vanished into the sky with Jesus. And I have to wonder if they even cared at that point. But I also have to wonder if maybe they started to get it that day! Looking forward, I don’t think they could have begun to imagine all that was in store for them in the very near future. It took the coming of the Holy Spirit to make it all clear to them! But at the very least, maybe they got a clearer picture at this point!
So let me ask you this. Did they need their expectations to be swept away before they could accomplish what God expected from them? And do we ever need the same thing? I was thinking that this has a lot to do with the whole will of God thing. How do we determine, how do we discern, the will of God. We’ve asked that before. As I like to point out, we say every week that we want Gods will to be done, but its hard to seek and do that in our everyday lives. How do we do that? Thats been a recurring question Ive heard many times in my years in the ministry.
Well, I think that one good place to start in determining Gods will is to look at these expectations we’ve been talking about. I think they’re one of the biggest things that keep us from seeing God’s will for us. It’s hard for us to know Gods will when we’ve already decided what his will should be!
So, what are your expectations about God? How do you expect him to act and to be? (We’ve been talking about these!) Do you expect him, for instance, to solve all your problems? Or do you think maybe he would rather walk beside you through them? Do you expect him to love only the people you love? Or do you think maybe he would prefer to challenge you about who you love? Do you expect him to think like you think? Or do you think maybe he would choose instead to challenge you in the way you think? Do you expect that God is small, easy to control, and simple to understand? Or do you think maybe he just might be the omnipotent, omnipresent God we’ve always heard he was, one who knows our every thought, and whose ways are far above our ways?
I’m thinking its the latter on all those examples. And I think you’ll agree! And once we remove the expectations we have for God, not only will he be better able to show us his will, but we will be better able to see it! Once we stop talking all the time in prayer, we will be better able to listen and maybe even hear when he speaks.
It seems to me that there’s a difference between knowledge and expectations. Yes, we are to seek to know God. That is, we are to strive to get to know him in relationship, to learn his ways, and to seek to grow in our understanding of him. But whenever we think weve got it all figured out, whenever we think God only works only in certain ways, and at certain times, then we’ve strayed into the realm of expectations. We need to try to drop those expectations, and strive to listen to him.
Often in the scriptures we read about this idea of waiting for the Lord. Isaiah wrote, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40) That involves waiting to hear Gods voice. It involves waiting for him to act, rather than forcing his hand. (The Bible is full of examples of that!) Its a matter of waiting for him to lead us. It is waiting expectantly for him which is different than having expectations. It is expecting God to act, but not in a way we determine. The Psalmist wrote in the 37th psalm, “Commit your way to the Lord. Trust in him and he will act Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” (Psalm 37)
Are we able to do that? The disciples had to learn that. Their lives and the whole world were about to change dramatically. The Holy Spirit was about to come upon them and give them the power to be the Apostles those who are sent! Now they were gazing into heaven, astonished at what they had just seen. Soon their wait would be turned into action, and the Church would be born. And the Church would come to be the force that would have more influence on the history of this planet than anything else, ever!
We are part of that church. The Apostles legacy has come down through the ages and across continents and oceans, to us. We are the continuation of their work! And as we do that, may we look to Gods kingdom, Gods will, and Gods spirit in our midst! Jesus left this earth and disappeared into the clouds. May we seek him and follow him as did those Apostles of old. May we know he is with us, and have the peace to wait upon him.
Eternal God, you know us better than we know ourselves. But sometimes we think we know you better than you know yourself. And we know that can’t be. Help us to wait silently for you, to strive to hear your voice, and to have the strength to follow where you lead. For this we pray in Jesus name, Amen.