My sermon for May 24 … ascension Sunday.

I had the honor of preaching at my home church today. I'll past the text below, followed by a link:

The Scriptures for the day were Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68, 1 Peter 4, John 17. My primary focus was Acts 1.

 

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When will life get back to normal? When will the difficult time we’re going through be over?

I know these are the questions all of us are feeling in one way or another these days.

When will the COVID 19 quarantine and social distancing end?

When will we feel safe again?

When will people get their jobs back?

When will the economy feel secure again?

When will the cure flatten and when will someone invent a vaccine?

These questions might tap us into a larger set of questions …

When will our country stop being so divided racially, politically, and economically?

When will we grow beyond racism?

When will we stop destroying this planet and start caring for it as we should?

When will poor people be treated with the same dignity and respect as rich people?

When will we turn from war and weapons to peace?

When will we stop using religion as a tool of supremacy and instead practice it as a path to harmony?

You can feel what these questions have in common. Something now isn’t right. Things aren’t  now as they should be. There is a sickness among us now that must be healed. We can’t rest or be satisfied until a needed change comes.

That’s how the disciples feel in our reading today from Acts 1.

In Luke’s telling of the disciples’ post-resurrection experiences of Jesus, he says that Jesus appeared to them over a forty-day period, and the disciples had one major question on their minds:

"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

In other words - will life get back to normal now? Will the difficult time we’re going through be over now? Will you set things right so we can feel safe again?

They’re hoping he’ll say yes. They’re afraid he’ll say no. But instead, he says — are you ready for this? IT IS NOT FOR YOU TO KNOW. Seven words that we need to ponder.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

It is not for you to know. You’re asking the wrong question. By the way, in Matthew 24:36, Jesus says that it’s not for him to know either. Neither he nor the angels of heaven know. If it’s not for them to know … do you think it’s for us to know?

Now this is a big deal, because Christians, throughout Christian history, have engaged in all kinds of wild and crazy speculation, claiming to know when God would swoop in and either fix everything or destroy everything. In about 170 AD, for example, a fellow named Montanus said Jesus was going to come back to two cities in Turkey. Then in the Middle Ages, in the 1100’s, there was a fellow named Joachim de Fiore who made a lot of prophecies that even famous kings and queens took seriously. Then in the 1500’s a fellow named Nostradamus made his famous predictions. Fast forward to the United States in 1844. A fellow named William Miller said Jesus would return by March 21. When that day came and went and nothing happened, he refigured his dates with all kinds of fanciful biblical calculations and said it was going to be by April 18. That day came and went and people felt, predictably, disappointed.

These and dozens of other end-of-the-world groups have come and gone through the centuries, including in our own lifetimes. I’ve met more than my share of Christians who start reading the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation … and pretty soon they’re telling you that Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ, or the Donald Trump is the modern-day King Cyrus, and even though these stories never end well, lots of people buy them.

Even though they always end in disappointment, thousands and sometimes millions of people are taken in by the next person who says - I know the future! Why is that?

Maybe we’re susceptible to prediction fever because all of us humans are like little kids on a long trip. We’re constantly asking, “Are we there yet?”

We’re looking for someone to tell us what we want to hear: that God will show up and wipe out our enemies. That God will intervene and help us be prosperous and secure. That God will swoop in and solve all our problems. That we’re almost there, wherever there is.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the disciples have this question on their minds. They’ve had enough stress and drama for one lifetime, thank you very much, and they want things to calm down fast and for good. So, when will that be?

And the word of the Lord is … It is not for you to know.

And let me tell you why I think it is good for us not to know what the future holds. Let’s say you were in 5th grade and I told you, “I know the future. You’re going to get an A in Math.” What would you do? Wouldn’t you become complacent and probably not do your homework? And then what would happen? You would NOT get an A in Math. But then let’s say I told you, “I know the future. You’re going to get an F in Math.” What would you do? You would feel defeated and not do your homework. And you would not get an A in Math. Thinking you know the future is a sure path to complacency.

So let’s say I tell you, “Listen. It’s not for you to know whether or not you’re going to get an A in Math. Here’s what is for you to know now: it’s your job now to study and do your homework and ask questions and do your best. It’s your job to be a good and curious student. In that way, NOT knowing the future will lead to a far better outcome than knowing the future.”

That’s what the disciples hear from the risen Christ in Acts 1. It’s not for you to know about the future … but here is what you need to know in the present:

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.”

It’s not what you know about the future that matters … it’s who you will be in the present and how you will be empowered. You don’t need to know the outcome. You need to know your mission - and then live in empowerment to fulfill it. And if you fulfill your mission, then you will be part of the solution.

It’s interesting: Jesus’ answer reveals that their frame of reference was far too small. They were concerned about Israel, their one nation. They were what we would call religious nationalists. When will our nation be great again? When will our nation be #1 again? But Jesus says, “Folks, your frame of reference is too small. God’s concern isn’t just Jerusalem and Judea. It’s also Samaria (which you’re not too fond of) … and it extends to the ends of the earth that you hardly know or care about. You’re singing God Bless America, but I’m singing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

You may have heard the old saying: Some people watch history. Some people write history. Some people make history. Or another version: some people don’t know what’s happening. Some people know what’s happening. Some people make things happen.

And Jesus is telling his disciples, it’s not for you to watch history or write history - but to make history. It’s not for you to wait to see what happens. God wants you to be protagonists in your own liberation. God wants you to join God in making things happen, in bending the arc of history toward justice, joy, and peace.

The Acts story says that after Jesus tells them this, he vanishes up into the sky, and the disciples are looking up in awe. Then, two men in white robes are standing by them - Uhhh, excuse me. Men of Galilee - why are you standing here looking up into the sky? Jesus told you what to do … shouldn’t you get on with it?

Theologians often refer to this event as the ascension, but I think a better term is the enthronement. Jesus has finished his work and taken his throne in glory, so we should now get on with the work of his kingdom here on earth.

Next week, Jessica is going to tell you what happened next … a beautiful story full of meaning. But here’s the thing I hope we can see today.

I would like to take the role of one of those two men dressed in white … and I would like to say, “Uhhh, excuse me. People of St. Mark’s. Why are you looking up into the sky? Why are you wondering what’s going to happen in the future? You have your mission, your marching orders, your vocation here and now. Jesus wants you to be his witnesses, his representatives, his agents … down here, on earth.

He spoke up for the poor. He wants you to speak up for the poor.

He showed up with food for the hungry. He wants you to show up with food for the hungry.

He wasn’t taken in by liars and hypocrites, and he wants you to see through deception and hypocrisy.

He dared to claim that God loves everybody, no exceptions, and he wants you to show that same kind of revolutionary, nondiscriminatory, no exceptions love.

He risked his life for what’s right, and he wants you to put your skin in the game too.

You know, we live in a country where if a young black man goes running, or a young black teenager goes walking along with some skittles, he just might be jumped by some angry white men who think they have the right to kill him. If you and I say, “I wonder what’s going to happen. I wonder when somebody is going to do something about racism. I wonder when God is going to make everything right” ... if you and I just stand around looking up in the sky with our mouths hanging open … nothing is going to change.

You know, we live in a world where a tiny minority have an excess of luxuries and a huge majority have a deficit of necessities like clean water and good nutrition and decent healthcare. If you and I join a Bible study to figure out the Book of Daniel and Revelation so we can figure out when Christ is going to return and make things right, I’m sorry … but nothing is going to change.

You know, we live in a world where the temperature is rising the ice caps are melting and species are going extinct and there’s a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of our toxic pollution … and if you and I worry and fret or complain and blame but don’t get out into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth empowered by God’s Spirit to agents of God’s justice, I’m sorry, but it’s going to get worse.

The future is not ours to know. But here’s what we need to know: What is ours to do? Jesus wants us to continue his work. Jesus is counting on us to embody his message. Jesus wants us to be his witnesses or agents or allies … to join God in the healing of the world, to be agents and co-laborers in the world’s liberation, right now.

Here’s how Jesus said it in today’s gospel in John 17: “I am no longer in the world. But they are in the world. I have finished my work. But now they have their work to do. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world. I’m asking you to keep them in this world but not of it, one in you, one in me, one in love, letting my love flow through them whatever happens.”Amen.

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You can see the whole service here (sermon starts at 23:10):

https://www.facebook.com/stmarksmarco/live_videos/

 

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