Sermon from Sunday, May 21, 2023
Speaker: Rev. Doug de Graffenried
Scripture: Acts 1:6-14
Our lesson this morning comes from the Book of Acts, specifically the first chapter starting with the sixth verse. These words: “So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?’ He replied, ‘It’s not for you to know the times or the 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 away 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. And when they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the 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’ friends. This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
So it has been nearly 20 years since my mother passed away. In the South, when that happens, we gather at the house to sort through her belongings. As a child of someone who has just died, you claim what is rightfully yours, the things from your mother’s life that you’ve wanted for a long time. So my brother, sister, and I all gathered, and I asked my sister Gail, who was close to Mom and lived there, if Mom had a will. Gail said, “I don’t think so, but she wrote a bunch of stuff down on a legal pad.” And sure enough, we found the legal pad where Mom had made copious notes about everything. We kept flipping through the pages, finding lists of items in her house. She would list the items on the left and the child’s name on the right, scratching through and writing another child’s name. We had things circled, drawn with arrows, and on top of that mess of paper, she had just put a big X across it with a red marker. In the bottom right-hand corner, she wrote these words as her final instructions: “Kids, don’t fight over my junk.” And we didn’t.
We have all been in situations where we have had a final conversation, where someone was giving us important instructions. It may have been saying goodbye to a loved one, starting a new job, or graduating from high school or college. There is always this sense that someone is saying something significant, and it feels like final instructions. In the Book of Acts, we have Jesus giving His disciples final instructions. Luke tells us that Jesus had been with the disciples, teaching them and instructing them through the Holy Spirit. He had chosen these men to proclaim the Gospel to the world, and now He was gone. I believe we can find in the ascension story of Jesus some key components that allow us, as post-resurrection followers of Jesus Christ, to live as powerfully and victoriously as the first-century apostles did. This morning, I want to share with you three words, and the first word is “word.” Jesus taught the disciples, using the Old Testament to instruct them. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Jesus was a man of the book. Granted, He was a man of the Old Testament, and Paul was a man of the book. Granted, he was an Old Testament and Peter was a man of the book. It was the Old Testament. And I get amused when people say I want to be a New Testament church. I’m thinking, “Well, to be a New Testament church, you’ve got to go all the way back to the Old Testament to get there.” This book was important to Jesus. He lived out of his precepts. He taught what it taught. He walked the way the Bible proclaimed he ought to walk.
For 40 days, Jesus had been with them teaching them. 40 days. Sound familiar? Noah’s in the Ark for 40 days. Moses wandered with the children of Israel for 40 years. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. And now he has spent 40 days with the disciples. 40 is a time of preparation for a greater movement. It’s a time of preparation to get people ready.
Even the story of the ascension has an Old Testament harbinger. Do you know it? It’s the story of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah knows that Elijah is about to be carried off, and so he starts following him around. Elijah goes, “The girl. Girl.” So Elijah follows the girl, girl. Next, we go to Bethel. Then we’ll go to Jericho, then we’ll go to the Jordan. We cross over the Jordan. And when they cross over, Elijah said to Elijah, “Tell me what I may do for you before I’m taken from you.” Elijah said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You’ve asked a hard thing, yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you. If not, it will not.” And as they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elijah kept watching and crying out, “Father, father, the chariot surveyors were all his horsemen,” and Elijah picked up the mantle of Elijah and went back. And he leads the band of prophets.
Jesus’ ascension is a lot like and reminds people of Elijah and Elisha. And Jesus said, “What to us? You? Because I go to be with the Father. Greater works than I have done, you will be able to do. Because Christ dwells within us. God’s Word promises us that as His people, we have power. We are not alone. We have fellowship with Him. And if we’re going to become the church that Christ wants us to be, if we’re going to become the Christians that Jesus died for us to become, we have to become students of God’s Word. It’s not just the pastor or the scholar. It’s you studying, discussing, growing in your understanding of the Word.
Well, the second word is “word.” We don’t like it, and it pops up in the sixth verse of the text from Acts. So when they come together, they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Do you know what that question is? That question is this: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? When are we going to be there? Are we there yet?” And Jesus says, “Hang on and wait.” He’s already told them that they need to go to Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Spirit. Oh, my goodness. Wait. Isaiah said, “They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” What’s the first thing you have to do? Wait. We’re terrible at that, aren’t we? Yeah. People line up in Walmart in the self-checkout section, and I’m good. Oh, I’m good. Good. I started in retail. I’m good. But I stand there and I time people. I look at the place that I think I’m going to end up. “Oh, they’re taking a long time. That laser read a lot. If you just slide it on through, slide it on.” We don’t like to wait, but Jesus said, “Wait, hold on.”
And the Scripture tells us that they waited and they waited together, and they waited, praying. So waiting is not where we sit passively. Waiting is where we participate in what God has called us to do. Waiting is where we ready ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit. Waiting is when we study the Word prayerfully, preparing ourselves to meet God wherever He shows up.
And when you wait on the Lord, all kinds of interesting things start happening. Maria and the Missions team have been waiting on the Lord. They’ve been praying because they have been tasked with leading us to develop a missional vision and strategy for the church. That is Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.
And it’s hard for staff people to wait. We say they like to do. They need to be doing something. And this whole compassion weekend that popped up, and that’s how it happened. It popped up. It popped up because we were waiting on God. We’re waiting for God to do something. We were waiting for God to lead us. We were waiting to see what God wanted to do and what God wanted to bless.
A group of women said, “We’ve been involved in this. We’ve been praying about this, and we’re just convicted that the church ought to be involved in this.” And so they brought it to us, and we thought about it and prayed about it. And it seemed to be that we had been waiting for a moment just like this.
What if one of the strategies to grow a church is to wait? Oh, I don’t like that. I want to write me some mission statements. I want to come up with some procedures. I want to have an outline of everything. I don’t want to wait. But Jesus told the early church, “Hang on, wait.” You know, one day I’ll tell you how I think this fits in with the selection of Matthias as the next apostle. But today you’re not going to get that in the sermon. So I’m going to my third word. And it’s found in the eighth verse.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” And the apostles heard Jesus say this, and they went, “Really, Lord, really? You’re sending us to Jerusalem, Lord? Do you know what they did to you in Jerusalem? Yes, you do. They crucified you, Lord. Do you know what Judas is like? It’s got a bunch of hostile Jews, and it’s got the hostile Roman army. We don’t like them either. And Samaria, they are our enemies. And you’re sending us to them and the uttermost parts of the earth. That’s all the Roman Empire out there. They’re all enemies. Jesus, why are you sending us to enemy territory? Why are you sending us to places where people are going to be hostile to what you have done for us? They’re going to be hostile to hearing the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Does it sound like the world in which we live? Does it sound like Jesus may have been preparing us to be witnesses for him in this time and in this place? I think it does. “You shall be my witnesses. You shall be my witness.”
You know, back in the ’70s, you could grow a church, man. It was so easy to grow a church in the 1970s. All you had to do was to act like it was 1955. You had to have a big traveling youth choir. You needed a revival, at least once a year, preferably in August, right before school starts. You had to have a great newsletter, good Sunday school, and great worship. And by the way, you had to have the perfect preacher. And you know about the perfect preacher. He’s 27 years old with 30 years of experience, tall and short, thin and heavyset, handsome but not overpowering. One brown eye, one blue eye. His hair is parted in the middle and is straight on one side, wavy on the other side. And there’s a balding spot revealing maturity. He constantly works with the youth and spends all of his time with senior citizens, visiting nursing homes and shut-ins. The perfect pastor is talented, gifted, scholarly, practical, popular, compassionate, understanding, patient, levelheaded, dependable, loving, caring, neat, organized, cheerful, and above all, humble.
So if you had a ’55 mentality, 1955 Happy Days mentality, and your church had a traveling youth choir, you had revivals, a newsletter, and Sunday school worship, you could grow a church. By the time we got to the 1990s, it was pretty easy still to grow a church. You did the gym in a church, volunteered for missions, signed up for weekends away, did the Christian walk to Emmaus, and did Disciple Bible studies, and you could grow a church.
And then the contemporary worship movement broke out. Mickey Cloud and I compare scars about dealing with the contemporary worship movement in the church. You know, people couldn’t believe they would bring an acoustic or guitar in church. And then they brought in drums and amplifiers. Oh, my goodness. And for a while, that’s all you had to do to grow a church. And then you had to have absolute scintillating social media. You had to have great TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, all this other stuff. I’m tired of Kyle McKaskle ruining my Facebook feed. He puts me on it, and I see myself. You have not been disturbed until you see yourself on Facebook. And I’m in a reel too.
Now the church is talking about leadership. We’ve got to be great leaders. We’ve got to be leaders who can make all these changes in the church and lead through changes. And we’ve got adaptive changes and all this other stuff. And I’m always sitting in the back of the room. I don’t see any place where Jesus called us to be leaders. He said, “Follow me.”
But if you do all that, you grow a church. There are two things I want to say about that. We’ve got to decide what kind of church we’re going to be. Are we going to be a Robert Church or a sailboat church?
About this time of year, down on the Cain River in Natchitoches, the rowing teams of all the universities have gathered around the Cain River Lake. They are practicing in these long boats, sitting single file, with their oars going in and out of the water in perfect synchronization. It’s a majestic sight to watch. Each university has its own boat, representing their team colors and logos. They row up and down the river, putting in hours of hard work, becoming exhausted and dehydrated in the process.
And that’s what the church has become. We keep rowing and rowing, trying things that don’t work, and our solution is to try the same thing harder next year. We exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of church growth. But Jesus said to wait on His word and wait for the Holy Spirit. We need to be a sailboat church, catching the wind of the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to guide us.
Some might argue that we need a three-point mission statement, something to put on our coffee mugs and website. But what if our mission is simply to follow Jesus wherever He goes? Can we do that?
The other thing that is often left out is that you are the key. You are the key to the movement of God in the church. What is God calling you to do? How is God calling you to be His witness? The redeemed of the Lord are called to tell their stories, to share how God has moved in their lives, transformed them, used them, saved them, and blessed them.
At Trinity, we’ve experienced some strange things lately, things we’ve never seen in a church before. But amidst it all, we’re joining together on a journey, letting go of the past, spending time in prayer, waiting on God, and telling our stories. We’re seeking God’s leadership and direction, excited to see what He will do with such a wonderful group of people.
Let us pray together. God, as we embrace our role as witnesses, help us to be faithful in that calling. Bless us as we discover You in surprising places and attach ourselves to the people You’re calling us to. May we live out Your Word and be a blessing to others. In Your name, we pray.