Sunday May 24, 2020

7th Sunday of Easter

New Testament - Acts 1:6-14

At All Times and Places

INTRODUCTION: It’s just what humans do, isn’t it? At least for those who are religious. We like to spend a lot of time thinking about, well, the end of time. Many traditions, after all, often talk longingly about our present world being brought to some sort of end so a new and better one can be born.

“When will God’s great plan for creation finally be consummated?” we like to wonder. Or more specifically for folks like us, “When will Jesus come again to make all things new?” 

Many of you might recall the name of William Miller. In 1831 he started preaching that the world would end in 1843 with the Second Coming of Jesus. Attracting as many as a 100,000 followers, Miller had to redo his math when 1843 uneventfully and quietly turned into 1844. The world wasn’t going to end in 1843, he decided, but rather in 1844. 

Of course, his followers were once again disappointed when 1844 also came and went with no end of the world in sight. Or as one of Miller’s followers wrote with sadness, “I waited all Tuesday, and dear Jesus did not come …I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain—sick with disappointment.”  

More recently the American radio host and preacher Harold Camping predicted the end of the world on 12 different occasions. But each time the predicted date came and went, October 21, 2011 being the final one, nothing happened. The sun set in the west only to rise again the next day in the east. 

So it’s just what we humans do - especially the religious ones. It’s just easy for us to get caught up in trying to figure out when the world is going to end.  

 

    Why, even Jesus’ immediate followers weren’t above pondering such things. 

As the Book of Acts opens, a resurrected Jesus has been making assorted appearances to his followers in and around Jerusalem for forty days. After promising the gift of the Holy Spirit in a short few days, Jesus’ followers get to wondering if the time has finally come for him to reestablish Israel. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

You see, for Jesus’ earliest followers, God’s saving work was going to culminate with the reestablishment of Israel once again as an independent nation. After being trampled under foot for centuries by one great power after another, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans, Israel was going to be born again as a great nation making all things right and new one final time.

And a whole lot of Jesus’ followers, well, they had grown to like the idea that he just might be the guy to get the job done. It was Jesus, as far as they were concerned, who was going to reestablish Israel as a great nation. And so his followers, rightly, are wondering if the time has finally come. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

 

But to such querying from the disciples Jesus replies rather unhelpfully, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Like most religious people, the disciples want to know when the end is coming, only to have Jesus reply, “Sorry, folks. But that is information that is above your pay grade.”

     But notice, please, Jesus doesn't end the conversation there. Nope. As far as Jesus is concerned, just because his followers aren’t privy to God’s cosmic time table, that doesn’t mean there still isn't work to be done. 

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says Jesus before drifting up into the heavens, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Not knowing when God might complete his great reclamation project, in other words, hardly means the disciples get to sit around gazing at their navels. Instead, they are to be witnesses - witnesses to the idea that in Jesus Christ, right this very moment, God is actually, bit-by-bit, making all things new. 

One commentator says our passage from Acts this morning dramatically shifts the question from, “When will God make all things new?” to, instead, “How will God make all things new?” And the answer, of course, is that God will make all things new by the power of his Holy Spirit working in and through us.     

So rather than sit around twiddling their thumbs like bumps on a log, the disciples are to be living, breathing examples of God’s promised coming new world. Rather than babble on about God’s coming world of goodness, love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace, the disciples are to be representatives of that world by actually being virtuous, loving, merciful, forgiving, and gracious. 

What’s that old line often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Preach the good news at all times and all places. When necessary, use words.”

Or as the two angels that appear after Jesus has ascended like to put it, “Men of Galilee, why do stand looking up toward heaven?” After all, there’s work to be done, right?

     And it’s good to be reminded that even now there is work to be done, right? 

For sometimes all the talk about a better world coming can lead people of faith to live as if this world isn’t really important or worth trying to make better. No wonder Karl Marx could famously say, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” For sometimes religion is actually used that way, isn’t it?

Told there is a better world coming and so not be worried about this one, large groups of people are often left to endure all kinds of horrible circumstances and situations for the promise of a heavenly payoff. “Don’t worry if your life stinks right now,” goes the sales pitch, “for in heaven everything will be different.” Of course, such talk ignores the fact that we pray every Sunday for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.       

But more pressingly, I think, we seem to live in an age when the values at the heart of God’s new world - kindness, grace, love, mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness - well, they seem to be in short supply. There’s a roughness and a self-centeredness to our lives that I find, honestly, bewildering. 

The historian and writer David Perry claims we now live in a time when vice-signaling, rather than virtue-signaling is now the norm. It used to be we sought to create community by promoting public displays of virtue as a way to unite us together. It was behaviors like kindness, sacrifice, respect, and love that used to be the ties that bind. 

But today? Well, according to Perry, we seek to create community by promoting public displays of behavior that are anything but virtuous. Instead, we find community in behavior that is just, well, course, mean, and to be frank, ugly.  

     

CONCLUSION: Well, I wish I could give you the date and the time when this world will be brought to a close so a new one can begin. I wish I could pull out a calculator, punch in some numbers, and offer you a firm date. But such things are not for humans to know.

So I guess we might as well get busy working for God’s kingdom. For there is work to be done while we wait - especially these days. And besides, what good are a bunch of people of faith who just sit around staring into the clouds while waiting for the end?

Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.