Text of sermon delivered yesterday, Ascension Sunday, at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church. Scripture Lesson: Acts 1:1-11 (NRSV) Listen to it here.
The end is near?
How are you responding to all of the end-of-the-world talk that is getting so much attention today?
On Friday May 20th, the day prior to what was predicted by Harold Camping to be Judgment Day, a comedian named Demetri Martin tweeted, “I can’t wait for the end of the end of the world jokes” (@DemetriMartin). Unfortunately for Demetri Martin and the rest of us, all the talk, fascination – and jokes – about the end of the world are not going to end anytime soon. Camping’s May 21 date for Judgment Day passed without event, but now he says we should look to October 21 for it to begin. So we can expect the conversation to begin again in October. That won’t end it either though. The Mayan calendar is scheduled to reset on the winter solstice of 2012, and there are those who believe that the end will happen 12-21-2012 – even a movie was made about that date.
As I shared in a recent blog post, my favorite response to this fascination with a date for the end comes from Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. In an April sermon Hamilton talked about an interview he had given a Kansas City television station about all of this chatter about May 21. He said, “I can most assuredly, almost guarantee you the end of the world will not be that day. And the reason why I can, is Jesus said, ‘No one knows the day or the hour, neither do I,’ [see Acts 1:7 in today’s lesson and Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36] and I think just to spite them it won’t be that day” (Church of the Resurrection Weekly Sermons Podcast, “Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit” 17 April 2011). I know if I were God, that’s how it would work.
Now it is pretty easy to chuckle about and dismiss this. But based on the long history of predictions that the end is near, it is not a stretch to imagine that this kind of talk will last long after 12-21-2012 and until that date that God does decide to draw this thing to a close.
For centuries people have been speculating about the end of the world. It is as if we human beings are like the kids in backseat of the car on that long, summer family drive asking our heavenly Father over and over again the same questions, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”
As a parent I have heard that question several hundred times. As a youth pastor I have heard it several hundred more on mission trips, retreats, ski trips, and other adventures with the youth I have had the privilege of serving over the years. I have learned that most of us in the driver’s seat end up answering the question the same way eventually. After several reasonable answers, and each of us has a different definition of several, at some point we all say something like, “We’ll get there when we get there!”
Today, I want to talk a little about the kids in the back seat asking are we there yet. I want to address what we should do with these predictions about the end. Do we just dismiss the whole thing? Are we supposed to care about when the end comes? Should we get excited about Mr. Camping or the Mayans? Or are we just to ignore the whole thing? This morning’s passage gives us the ability to talk about that today.
For the past few weeks, as we have been dealing with the family systems issues in our worship, talking about ropes, ganglia, triangles, spiderwebs, and evil stepmothers, the church calendar has been in the season of Easter. It has been the time when the church remembers that season of 40 days after the resurrection when Jesus made appearances to his followers. From his meeting of Mary in the Garden on Easter Sunday morning through having breakfast on the beach with his disciples. From appearing in the locked room where the disciples were hiding, to his coming again so that Thomas, who missed the first appearance, could see and touch the wounds in his hands and side. From being revealed to the two men he joined on the Emmaus Road through the breaking of bread, to his questions to Peter giving him the opportunity to confess three times what he had denied three times on Good Friday.
Thursday was the 40th day after Easter 2011, and the church celebrated Ascension Day, which we celebrate this morning as Ascension Sunday. On this day, Jesus led his followers to Bethany, to the mountain called Olivet, just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem. There he shared some final words with them, and then was taken up into heaven.
Twice in this passage Jesus’s followers need to have their focus redirected. When they get to Olivet with Jesus, they ask the same question we hear being asked all around us today, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, the followers of Jesus are asking, “Are we there yet?” In some ways they are still misunderstanding what Jesus is really all about. They are asking if he is going to now lead a revolt to overthrow the Roman occupiers and restore the sovereignty of the nation of Israel.
Jesus answers, “We’ll get there when we get there.” What he actually says is, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7), which roughly translates into “we’ll get there when we get there.” Jesus then redirects his followers’ focus by talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit.
A few verses later, Jesus is taken out of their sight by a cloud, and the disciples are stunned. They stand there, dumbfounded, jaws dropped, staring up into the sky. Who could blame them after what they just saw?
Suddenly two men in white robes appear – a similar description to the one Luke gives in his Gospel of the two men who appear at Jesus’ tomb to tell the women that Jesus has been resurrected. The men in the white robes ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11 NRSV). These “angels” are also seeking to redirect Jesus’s followers from the sky to the world around them and the work to which they are called.
“Are we done yet?”
Early on in my ministry with youth I became aware that there were some who came to youth group that didn’t want to be there. Sometimes they could be disruptive and derail an entire lesson that might have been important for another member of the group. So, as a rookie, I tried holding out a carrot to get them to behave during the meeting times. I remember saying things like, “When we finish our lesson for tonight we will get to play your favorite game.” My thought was that would make them sit dutifully in their seats, help them engage in a lively conversation, ask meaningful questions, and enjoy this part of our time together. I quickly learned this was not the case.
Instead, what I came to expect was that there was a segment of my youth group who after enduring the “God-stuff” would raise their hand when I asked if anyone had any questions and ask, “Can we play the game now?” “Not yet. Does anyone have any questions about what we’ve been talking about?” Maybe I’d get a question or two. Then another, usually sitting next to the one who had asked the first question would raise his/her hand and ask, “How about now? Can we play the game now?” “Not yet. Let’s pray together.” Then immediately following the “Amen,” someone would jump in with, “Are we done NOW?” as they were halfway to the door. “Yes. Go.”
I no longer use that technique because it doesn’t work. Rather than helping them focus on the lesson because they knew there would be a reward later, the reward became the focus, and some in the group heard little that was done in the lesson-part of the gathering because all they could think about was playing Sardines toward the end of the meeting time. What those youth needed was to have their focus redirected from the game to what we are doing right here, right now.
I think the same is true in the church. We can become overly focused on the end. One author put it this way: “Much of our theology has become so concentrated on heaven that it invalidates any concerns for earth…Christianity is not just about going up when we die; it’s about bringing God’s kingdom down” (Claiborne, Shane, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2010. 302, 303). In other words, we are not to stand around gazing up toward the sky, but are to be working for the Kingdom of God today.
The church needs to be about doing the work to which Jesus called us. What is that work? Let me get at that this way…
The NBA Finals
Tonight some of you, along with a good chunk of the country, will sit down in front of your television sets to watch game 3 of the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. Games 1 & 2 in the series did very well in the ratings, especially for an NBA finals that has neither the Lakers nor the Celtics playing in it – two teams with national fan bases. The Heat and the Mavs don’t have that kind of following. But one guy on the floor each night does. Lebron James plays for the Heat, and he has people watching. Some want him to win, and others are rooting hard for him to lose, but either way, people are watching.
He has me watching. I don’t typically watch NBA basketball, but I have seen the 4th quarter of both of these games, and several of the end of the Heat games throughout the playoffs. I want to see if Lebron gets his first championship this year. And I want to be there, through television, if he does something remarkable, which he is certainly capable of.
For our non-sports-fans: Lebron was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers right out of high school to play professional basketball, and immediately made an impression. On the right night he can do things that if you didn’t see it yourself, you might not believe are physically possible. Early in his career people recognized that he was going to be great, maybe one of the best ever.
The advertising executives at Nike, who are fantastic at what they do, capitalized on this and ran an ad campaign around Lebron. The tag line was simply this,
“We are all witnesses”
They sold T-shirts with just one word on them: WITNESS. They put up a website with the URL believe.nike.com. They capitalized on fans’ recognition that they were witnessing the beginning of something great, and Nike sold them the T-shirts to prove it.
Notice that this is the same word that Jesus uses to describe what he is calling his followers to. When they ask about the end, the coming of the Kingdom and the restoration of Israel, Jesus says, “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” (Acts 1:8).
Witnesses. We are all witnesses.
Jesus doesn’t call his followers to be experts. He doesn’t say that they will be religious leaders. He doesn’t tell them that when the Holy Spirit comes he will give them power to answer any question about God that any one asks. Jesus doesn’t say that they should become persuasive so that we can talk others into accepting him so that they can go to heaven when they die.
He simply says, “you [which by extension includes us] will be my witnesses.” We are simply called to share our own experiences with Jesus, to witness (or give an account) to our faith, about our church. We are to be witnesses, to talk about relationship with Jesus and what it means to us. We can share the peace that we received in illness, the calm we knew in crisis. We can talk about the strength we received to persevere when we lost our job. We can talk about the meals we received when we were recovering from surgery, the support we got when going through divorce, the advice we received when we were struggling with our children, the love we felt at a dinner together, a sermon that inspired us to look at things differently, a whisper in our ear from God to take that chance, the satisfaction in serving through a mission trip, Tri-Lakes Cares, the soup kitchen, or teaching VBS.
We are all witnesses to the work of Jesus in our lives and in our world. We have received an understanding to what life is all about. We know that we matter. We know we are loved even when we feel unlovable. Our lives have direction. We recognize that life is more than the accumulation of things. We experience a joy that undergirds us even when things are rough.
We are all witnesses – called to share what we have experienced in Jesus through our words, through our actions, through the lives that we live. Don’t over think this. Don’t complicate this. Just share. It doesn’t need to be eloquent, sermonesque, or theologically profound. Your experience of Jesus and what he means to you is the most powerful witness of all, and the story you are called to share.
And you are called to share it everywhere.
Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth
Over the years many have been quick to point out the geographic nature of what is being said here. Jerusalem is a city. Judea and Samaria are regions – the names of the northern and southern kingdoms that made up the nation of Israel. Then there are the ends of the earth. So you feel this movement outward, like concentric circles, growing the places where Jesus is having influence.
Several years ago under Ramona’s leadership, our Missions Committee adopted this verse to guide and balance our missions work. We wanted to be sure we were working in all three areas: (1) locally (Jerusalem), (2) nationally (Judea and Samria), and (3) globally (to the ends of the earth). So one time we would be talking about Tri-Lakes Cares, a ministry in Monument that serves the poor; or Tessa a women’s shelter. Then the next focus would be towards Native American Sunday, our youth mission trips, or a hurricane. Another time we would focus on Haiti, or Compassion Children, or another global effort.
I am so proud to be on the leadership team of a church that is thinking about our reach on these multiple levels – to our community, our nation, and our world.
I think there is another layer Jesus’ statement.
Jerusalem, as well as being a city, was also the religious hub of the Hebrew faith, and most, if not all of those gathered in Bethany to hear Jesus that day were Jewish. Jerusalem was the center of orthodoxy, right religion, the proper understanding of God, of being the chosen people to whom God had revealed Godself. We might say today that Jesus is telling the followers that they will be his witnesses in the church.
Then Jesus mentions the regions of Judea and Samaria, the two kingdoms that make up the nation of Israel. It is remarkable that Jesus includes in this description Samaria. As you may remember from previous messages, Samaritans (the people of Samaria) were thought to be greatly inferior to the Jews of Judea. When the Northern Kingdom was captured by the Assyrians, many of the people were taken away, and Assyrians moved in. The Jews in Samaria eventually married Assyrians, and were then looked down upon by those who were “fully Jewish” as those who were impure, compromised.
The animosity was so great that in Jesus’s day many Jewish people would add an extra day’s journey to travel around Samaria rather than go through it. So when Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well in Samaria, and uses a Samaritan as the good guy in a parable, it is quite shocking. So too it should be here. Jesus is calling his followers to be witnesses, not just among those that are already in church, the people with whom they already agree, but also those outside of the church whom you think are unworthy, misguided. Jesus is calling us to be messengers to those we think might be undeserving.
Maybe today we would say that he is talking about sharing our faith with those of another denomination that we see as too conservative or too liberal. Or maybe those who are Christians nominally.
Then when he widens it to the ends of the earth, he begins to include those who are of other religions, or maybe no religion at all. Maybe he is even including the Romans who worship their emperors as gods, and oppress the people of Israel – the very people to whom Jesus is speaking. He is asking his followers to include even these in their loving witness of what they have experienced in Jesus.
No one is beyond the reach of Jesus.
John Wesley said it this way, “The world is my parish.” Wesley believed that we were called to go beyond the walls of the church. He lived that by preaching on the street, outside of a mine at closing time, outside of a pub, or anywhere else people would gather. John Wesley witnessed to his experience with Jesus, not just in the church, but with those who were nominally connected to the church, and those who were completely outside of the church.
That balance is necessary for us today, as a church, but also as individuals. Are you involved in ministry locally, nationally, and globally? Do you share your faith with those connected to the church, those kinda connected, and those who are completely outside of the church – through what you say and what you do?
Our job is not to be standing around staring at the sky waiting for Jesus to return. Our role is not to ask over and over again, creating formulas to figure out if we are there yet.
Rather we are to get busy because Jesus is coming. We are to be those who are witnessing to the love of Jesus in the world – locally, nationally, and globally; in the church, with those loosely connected, and with those outside of the church.
“Make me like Jim!”
Author Tony Campolo tells the story of an alcoholic named Jim who was miraculously converted at the Bowery Mission. Before his conversion, he was rather well-known around town as a hopeless case, but following his conversion everything changed. Jim became better-known for what he did for the mission – even called the most caring person the mission had ever seen. He did whatever needed to be done, whenever it needed done. He cleaned up vomit left by sick alcoholics and scrubbed toilets and floors as needed. He fed those who were too out of it to feed themselves, and helped others get into bed when that was too much of a chore for them.
One night the mission brought in a pastor to preach to the men, most of whom didn’t even look up during the message. But there was this one guy, in the back, who seemed to be paying particularly close attention. When the invitation was given, this man came down the aisle, knelt at the altar and began to cry out to God to help him to change. There at the altar this alcoholic shouted, “Oh God, make me like Jim! Make me like Jim! Please God, make me like Jim!”
The director of the mission leaned over and said, “Son, I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘Make me like Jesus!’”
The man at the altar looked over at the director confused and asked, “Jesus? Is he anything like Jim?” (from Rice, Wayne ed. “Make Me Like Joe” More Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks. Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 1995. 114-115 – I changed the name from Joe to Jim as to not use my own name for this illustration).
Like comedian Demetri Martin, I too am looking forward to the end of the end of the world jokes. Not because a certain date has passed, but because we, the church, have stopped sky gazing and have started witnessing to Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
May you and I be such effective witnesses to Jesus that one might ask, “Jesus? Is he anything like you?”