Another (past) sermon: Keep On Keeping On

I was going through papers in my briefcase (also known as my “traveling office” … yes, that’s how much stuff is in it!), and I found my sermon from a few weeks ago. I realized I hadn’t posted it yet, so here’s my sermon from May 8, 2016.

Side note: I ended up sick as a dog on Pentecost – Sun., May 15 – so there’s no sermon from last Sunday.

keep on keeping on

Texts used – Ephesians 1:15-23 and Acts 1:1-11

  • What a rollercoaster few weeks it’s been for the poor disciples, right?! Just a few short weeks ago, their beloved teacher … mentor … leader … friend … died a shameful, slow, and painful death on a cross. Then, a couple days later … he was back! The tomb was empty! The grave clothes were cast aside! He is risen indeed! And then he appeared to them in all sorts of strange and wonderful ways: hanging out with Mary Magdalene in the garden when he was fresh out of the tomb, popping up in locked rooms to reassure his disciples, displaying his wounds as hard evidence for all to see, walking incognito along the road to Emmaus, and showing up on the worst fishing day ever with the greatest catch of all time and breakfast on the beach. Crazy, right?! And it all culminates in our story from Acts this week.
    • Again, sitting down to a meal together
    • Again, presents disciples with unexplained instructions: While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”[1] → Now, frequently throughout the gospels – both before and after his death, Jesus gave the disciples faith-and-life lessons wrapped in bizarre-sounding instructions.
      • E.g. – He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away.[2]
      • E.g. – When they came to Capernaum, the people who collected the half-shekel temple tax came to Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said. But when they came into the house, Jesus spoke to Peter first. “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect taxes, from their children or from strangers?” “From strangers,” he said. Jesus said to him, “Then the children don’t have to pay. But just so we don’t offend them, go to the lake, throw out a fishing line and hook, and take the first fish you catch. When you open its mouth, you will find a shekel coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”[3]
      • And today is no different. Jesus inexplicably tells the disciples to stay put – to “wait for what the Father has promised,” to “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” → advertisement for next week: Jesus = foreshadowing Pentecost
        • Often think of foreshadowing in terms of its use by the Kings of Suspense – Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King → use it to build up tension and fear to the breaking point for the purpose of telling a great story
        • But there’s another side to foreshadowing: Foreshadowing can make extraordinary and bizarre events appear credible as the events are predicted beforehand, so that [we] are mentally prepared for them.[4] → In this passage, we find Jesus’ attempt to mentally and spiritually prepare the disciples for the truly extraordinary and bizarre event that is Pentecost, to add a measure of credibility to what will be a crazy in-breaking of the Holy Spirit.
  • But I think it’s safe to say that the disciples where wholly unprepared for what happened next! – text: After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.[5] → What?! One minute, they were eating another pleasant meal with Jesus, listening to him and trying to follow whatever it was he was saying about the coming of the Holy Spirit … and the next minute, he’s being lifted up into heaven! Again … what?! As I said, the disciples have quite a rollercoaster ride, don’t they?
    • We can only imagine what this looked like
      • No mention of the chariot and horses of fire that took prophet Elijah up into heaven[6] → Jesus is simply “taken up”
      • Looked up famous artistic depictions of this passage – almost all (no matter time period in which they were created) have Jesus levitating feet above the heads of the disciples with his arms stretched out to the sides à la Charlie after he’s consumed the Fizzy Lifting Drinks in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”[7] → Jesus’ face in these depictions is always composed, serene, beneficent, full of love and reassurance and purpose. But the disciples’ faces tell another story. They are astonished. They are afraid. They are confused. They are pleading. They are distraught. They are all five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – in one fell swoop. Because in their minds, the disciples are losing Jesus all over again.
        • Imagine the confusion of this scene
        • Imagine the anxiety of this scene
        • Imagine the heartbreak of this scene
        • Anytime we have to say goodbye to someone, it’s hard. We spend weeks … months … even years processing that loss. We have conversations with our deceased loved ones. We continue to mark their birthday every year as well as the anniversary of their death. We encounter them in dreams. We imagine what they would say about this new path or that life decision. They remain with us in ways that we can never anticipate in that horrible, shocking moment of loss.
          • Story of losing my cousin Julie at age 22 to double pulmonary embolism – hearing her favorite song “Time to Say Goodbye” during UDTS “Explore Your Call” weekend → I knew. I just knew. Dubuque was where I was supposed to be.
        • We who have the privilege of “reading ahead” – of knowing the full story of Scripture – we know that life and other incredible faith experiences await the disciples just around the corner. But in the moment captured in our Scripture reading this morning, the disciples are caught up in their loss. One minute, they were eating another pleasant meal with Jesus, and the next minute, he’s being lifted up into heaven. He’s gone … again.
  • Enter the angels – text: While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”[8]
    • Probably one of the most important questions in Scripture: “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”
      • Other translations
        • The Message – “You Galileans! – why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?”
      • This is the crucial question because it reminds the disciples that there is still work to be done. Even in the face of Jesus’ sudden absence, even in the midst of whatever complex emotions and worries and questions and doubts and fears are running through their heads, these “two men in white robes” (as our text called them) remind the disciples that the moment has passed. The sky above them is, in fact, empty. By continuing to stare at that empty space – that space where Jesus used to be – they are allowing themselves to dwell in the past when there is a future of Holy-Spirit-work just ahead of them. They’ve simply got to redirect their gaze.
  • Sometimes, as the church, we can get stuck with a misdirected gaze just like the disciples.
    • Inward focus – too worried about our internal working, our internal politics, our internal day-to-day business → forget to look for the Holy-Spirit-work in the world around us
      • Where are we needed?
      • Where is God calling?
      • How is God still speaking not just to us but through us?
    • Pinhole focus – too focused on serving and drawing in one specific group of people (“young people,” young families) → forget that there are all sorts of people out there in all shapes, sizes, age ranges, and backgrounds who are seeking a way to God
      • g. – so many recent articles/blog posts about “reaching millennials”: how to get them back into the church, how to make church interesting/exciting/relevant/appealing to them
        • First problem with this: most millennials who have actually consulted about this couldn’t care less about all the bells and whistles → searching for authentic community … period
        • Second problem with this: ignores a gigantic portion of the population → There are more than just millennials searching for God.
      • Who can we welcome?
      • Who have we forgotten to welcome?
      • Where in our community is God directing our gaze?
    • Past focus – too caught up in what we used to be: numbers, programming, budgets, activities → forget the faith is an ever-evolving, ever-changing thing and that our job as the church is to continue to evolve and change, too
      • Who we were continues to inform and enrich our life as the church today, but we cannot go back and be the church of the 1950s … the church of the 1990s … the church of whatever “golden era” you choose because that is not the world we live in today.
      • What have we tried that’s new?
      • Where can we go that’s different?
      • Who are we today and who are we becoming (intentionally or unintentionally)?
  • We know that the story wasn’t over for the disciples. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, they didn’t slowly fade back into the lives they had before he showed up – fishing, collecting taxes, being unassuming people with ordinary lives. Pentecost is right around the corner – an event that will shake things up like never before and disperse the Good News about God’s love and grace to the whole world … the same Good News that we believe and carry and proclaim today!
    • Encouragement in the message/the work for the message from Eph passage – Paul: I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. … God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.[9] → “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call” … God’s call for your life, God’s call for that special work that God has for you to do in this world, and God’s call for this church. Sometimes, in our own lives and in the life of the church, we get caught up in what was. Our eyes get locked on the wrong place – the empty place, the “used to be” place” – and we forget to look forward and outward for God to move in our midst. So let us look not for what was but for what can be. Let us look not for the familiar but the hoped-for. Let us redirect our gaze toward God’s amazing future and whatever part we have to play in it. Amen.


Charge & Benediction
Whatever discouragement you’re feeling – whatever is holding you back or holding you down – in your own life or in the life of this church, along with Paul, I pray that your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call.

* And may that great God of HOPE fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.*

[1] Acts 1:4-8.

[2] Mt 21:2-3.

[3] Mt 17:24-27.

[4] “Foreshadowing” from Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Devices website, Copyright 2016, accessed May 7, 2016.

[5] Acts 1:9.

[6] 2 Kgs 2:1-12.

[7] Roald Dahl (book and screenplay). Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released June 30, 1971 by Warner Bros.

[8] Acts 1:10-11.

[9] Eph 1:18-19, 22-23.

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