For these Sundays of the Easter season, our Scripture lessons are speaking to us about the gift of the Holy Spirit – all in preparation for the annual celebration of the Spirit’s appearance to Christ’s followers on Pentecost.
Last Sunday, from the Gospel of John, we heard Jesus make a profound promise to his closest friends on the eve of his crucifixion. Into the midst of their confusion and sadness, Jesus breathes words of assurance: “I will not abandon you. I will not leave you as orphans. I will send the Holy Spirit to live and abide with you forever.”
Fast-forwarding to this morning’s scene from the New Testament’s Book of Acts, the Resurrection is now 40 days past, and Jesus is about to return bodily to heaven. During his farewell speech, Jesus doubles-down on his earlier promise of the Holy Spirit. But now, Jesus says, when she arrives, the Spirit will do more than merely abide. The Spirit will arrive with instruction and guidance, holy power and divine glory.
Listen now, with the help of that same Spirit, for the Word of the Lord in the opening scenes of the book of Acts, authored by Luke after carefully writing his Gospel – both volumes apparently funded by a wealthy patron named Theophilus.
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. 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.” (Acts 1:1-11)
It’s a real puzzler, that’s for sure. A head-scratcher if there ever was one: Jesus has ascended and disappeared into a cloud.
But his disciples can’t seem to walk away from the Lord’s launch pad. His followers are frozen in place, staring up into the sky, wondering what to make of what feels like a here-again-gone-again God, a Lord God who at times makes a way and at other times closes way, a Savior who seems to be taking his sweet time in coming to the rescue.
You and I now stand in their sted, looking up into the sky, 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?
The wait for answers is painfully long, which gives a body good reason to wonder if any of God’s promises are true. So, this story is for you who are confused and questioning, “Just in Case You Ever Wonder,” written by Max Lucado and illustrated by Toni Goffe.
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 harnessing the Spirit’s power to love others with the same passion of grace, mercy, and peace that God lavishes upon you and me.
It’s relatively easy to love the lovable without condition, but it’s a whole nother thing to love those we find irritatingly different, downright offensive, or somehow threatening.
Oh how good it is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is ours to get done the holy work that Jesus calls us to do: Loving one another as Christ loves us. It is precisely as we declared earlier with the psalmist: The Lord God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Just in case you ever wonder. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, April 23, 2023, the third Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the second of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Max Lucado inform the message.