For the past few weeks, the story of God with us from the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has been fueling our discipleship.
Time after time, over and over again, we’ve heard Jesus extend the invitation to drop everything and follow him.
Drop your old ways of self-centered thinking, and follow my thoughts of self-sacrifice and humility.
Drop your old ways of broken and fearful living in darkness, and follow my path of abundant and fruitful living in light.
Drop your old ways of simply moving and being, and instead fix your gaze upon the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
Let your old self be crucified, and let your new self be raised. Let the stone that blocks your vision be rolled away, and start seeing the world and everyone in it with Kingdom eyes.
Live such that the least of the least experience the unconditional love of God pouring out of you and into them.
This morning, the ancient account moves forward as we turn the page to the Acts of the Apostles, the second of a two-volume set authored by Luke – his careful research and writing time apparently paid for by a wealthy patron named Theophilus.
Luke’s Gospel is the first volume, and it reveals who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and why God sent him to us. Volume two, the Acts of the Apostles, starts telling the story of the game-changing influence that Jesus renders in the lives of his followers, as the Good News of Christ begins to spread and the community of Christian faith begins to take shape.
And it should be no surprise that the Holy Spirit assumes the leading role in the widespread scattering of the Gospel, the re-orientation of countless hearts and minds, and the head-turning growth of the Church.
Listen now, with the help of that same Spirit, for the Word of the Lord in the opening scenes of the book of Acts, where the disciples find themselves stuck in one place, which not only reflects their confusion in the moment but also readies them for the Gospel work that lies ahead.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But 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.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:1-14)
Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
The compelling question of angels is the hub around which our Scripture lesson seems to revolve.
Jesus has ascended and disappeared into a cloud. But his disciples remain grounded and can’t seem to walk away from the Lord’s launch pad. His followers are frozen in place, staring up into the sky, perhaps straining their eyes to catch just one more final glimpse of their long-promised Savior.
Are they stunned? Probably. Puzzled? Perhaps. Anxious? Possibly. Surely gobsmacked and slack-jawed, as mouths hang open and all eyes are on the skies. Given what they’ve just witnessed, you can hardly blame them for just being still and drinking in all the amazement of the moment and the wonder of what’s next.
But the angels ask: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
To the ascension of Jesus they’ve got deluxe front-row seats, but at least some of these sky-gawking disciples surely watched from a distance as Jesus suffered and died on the Cross. They also count themselves among those to whom Jesus appeared after rising from the dead on the first Easter. But no sooner do his disciples get used to having him around again, and he’s gone again.
This stunning moment of star-gazing is a kind of metaphor for the natural inclination of both ancient and modern disciples of Jesus.
And again they ask: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
Like the first disciples, we sometimes look up into the sky, because we’re caught up in a fool’s errand of speculation about just exactly when Jesus will return. Some Christians spend scads of energy and wads of time aimlessly wondering if increased trouble in the Middle East, or wars in Ukraine and elsewhere, or disasters like earthquakes, or viruses like corona, point to the imminent return of Jesus.
Like the first disciples, we also might stand there looking up into the sky and asking what God is going to do for us, looking upward and asking just how long will it take before the Lord comes down and fixes our families, or our finances, or our nation, or our world? Just how much longer do you have to wait before the Lord blesses you with a spouse or a friend? Or even just someone who listens to you, understands who you really and truly are, and honors your inherent dignity and worth?
Like the first disciples, we stand here, there, and seemingly everywhere looking up into the sky and waiting for some perfectly crystal-clear message from God about what to do in a particular situation.
And yet again from the angels: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
The first followers of Jesus hope that he will finally establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace, perhaps embodied in a restored Israel. And since Jesus has yet to restore such a kingdom, the befuddled gang of sky-watchers wonder when he’ll finally get around to doing just that.
From our lesson, we know how Jesus answers his wondering disciples. Never mind the times and dates, he essentially says. There’s no way you can answer that question. Establishing a timetable for a kingdom of justice and peace lies in God’s hands alone.
But that doesn’t mean you disciples should just stand there staring up into the sky and waiting for God’s Kingdom to come in its fullness. No, I challenge you to testify to what you know and to what you have experienced through, with, and in me: the One whose Spirit sends you forth to be my witnesses to the farthest ends of the earth. And your testimony is simple: The Messiah has come, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. I AM who I AM.
So, why do you stand here looking into the sky?
Jesus orders his disciples to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses only after he promises them heavenly power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. In many ways, this promise might be even more central to becoming disciples than Jesus’s call to witness in ever-widening, concentric circles.
After all, not all Christians range far in their witness. But God does give all Christians the power to witness through the Holy Spirit. That powerful gift shapes the lives of all of God’s people, whether you and I go to the “ends of the earth,” or just next door, or up the block.
So, while God calls Jesus’s followers to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses, that’s not something they or we can muster on our own.
Being God’s witnesses isn’t first of all about memorizing Bible passages, and reading the right books, and attending to the right conferences and retreats – however helpful and faithful any of those things can be.
Being God’s witnesses is, first of all, about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Being God’s witnesses is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. Being God’s witnesses is about loving others with the same passion of grace, mercy, and peace that God lavishes for all to enjoy.
Knowing if and when Jesus sends someone to be his witness comes only by the Holy Spirit. Those who love and trust Jesus Christ as the One who saves us from sin can know and feel that God gives us the Holy Spirit. Since faith is only and always a gift, faith’s presence signals the reality that the Holy Spirit has already come on those who have it.
God has given God’s people everything we need to stop standing and looking into the sky. God has equipped God’s children with everything we need to be Christ’s witnesses, not only around the world, but also in our own neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.
So one more time: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
Sometimes, however, even Christians who have both the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit and stories to tell assume they can’t be Christ’s witnesses. But witnessing is simply about telling others what has happened to you – in this case, how God in Christ is working in your life.
In Christ, God has broken into sinful lives and made a whole new world for those who by faith receive God’s amazing grace. God’s children witness, then, by simply telling, by what they do and say, about what has happened to them in Jesus Christ.
The Church is the church when she’s adding many new members or meeting the needs of existing members. Those are good and important happenings. But the Church is perhaps at its best – most like the church God calls us to be – when we stop staring up into the sky and start being God’s witnesses.
Yet, no matter how powerful the Holy Spirit and our messages are, God’s children might easily neglect another crucial ingredient of being Christ’s witnesses: Prayer. Our lesson ends with a report of everyone joining together in constant prayer.
Active people might have expected Jesus’s disciples to do something more “useful” after Jesus ascends to heaven. But after the disciples obey Jesus by returning to Jerusalem, their first response to Jesus’s ascension is to pray. The disciples somehow understand that God expects more from God’s people than just busyness and hard work. You and I understand that the Church must also be busy praying, perhaps especially praying, for all who are Christ’s witnesses.
This strongly suggests that those who would stop staring into heaven and start being witnesses always begin, continue, and end with prayer. That those who want to stop standing and start witnessing begin by figuratively getting on their knees in prayer.
And so I ask: Why do you stand here looking into the sky – or letting whatever it is distract you from the work that the Lord calls you to do?
Jesus promises to come back, indeed, somehow in much the same way that he left in the first place. But in the meantime, God has given you work to do. You have seen Jesus fly away. You will see Jesus come back.
But between that going and coming, there must be another. The Spirit must come, and you must go – into the world, for Christ, as his witnesses, to a ministry of reconciliation that keeps its feet planted on the ground and its eyes fixed on the Kingdom.
Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, July 17 , 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Stott, and Will Willimon inform the message.