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6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 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.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
On January 5th, St. John’s member Milo Quinnell died at the age of 88. While it was a peaceful and love-filled death, with his family by his side, it was also quite unexpected after some medical complications.
Some of you knew Milo and some of you didn’t, but he was a loveable human being with a heart-warming grin and quiet humor that was pleasant and comforting to be around.
Well, this past week, I was out to the house to visit Milo’s wife, Elouise. We did what we normally do, which is sit at the kitchen table, by the window looking out at the birds and the newly planted fields, catching up on the ins and outs of life. The kids, the grandkids, the graduations and the birthdays.
But as we sat there, I noticed a picture in the kitchen I had never seen before. Either it had been there for years or it was brand new. Either way, it caught me off guard and, for a moment, took my breath away.
Here is the picture. And as you can see, it is the picture of a flag pole with the flag at half-staff and three people standing around it, with their necks craning toward the sky.
As it turns out, this photo was taken on January 5th, the day Milo died. The family had just returned home from the hospital. Milo was a veteran and so in honor of him, Elouise wanted the flag on their property to fly at half-staff. But the flag itself was quite tattered. She had a new one to use – so that day three of the grandchildren were taught how to properly raise a new flag. By unfolding it out at the pole, without letting it touch the ground, and then raising it all the way up to the top, before lowering it half-way, in honor of Milo.
And with those three grandchildren looking upward, perhaps just to the flag, perhaps to the heavens too, wondering about Milo and death and the great beyond, someone thought to capture that moment in what I think is a remarkable photo.
Now the reason this photo took my breath away is because I’ve had the Acts reading rattling around in my head all week. And as soon as I saw that photo of those boys, standing there, looking upward toward heaven, I couldn’t help but think about that scene with the disciples, standing there looking upward as Jesus ascends toward heaven.
The story we just heard from Acts is the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day, if you will, which the Christian calendar always recognizes 40 days after Easter, which just so happens to have been this past Thursday. But since most of us weren’t in worship on Thursday, because there wasn’t any worship here on Thursday, we get the story today.
So, it’s the beginning of the book of Acts, which is sort of like the sequel, or the continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has died on the cross, been raised from the dead, and now according to Acts, has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. And now everyone is gathered together and the disciples ask Jesus a question. And if you listen closely, I think you can hear their desperation. “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
We’ve asked questions like that, haven’t we?
Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll get a second interview and my life will finally get straightened out?
Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll finally find lasting love?
Lord, is this the time when my child be whole again?
Is this the time when I won’t have to be terrified to look at the news notifications on my phone?
Is this the time when I won’t be so scared to speak up for myself?
Is this the time when worship will finally speak to me?
Is this the time when I stop feeling so invisible to the world?
Lord, is this the time? They ask?
And Jesus says to them, “It is not for you to know the dates and times…but I promise you will receive power from the Holy Spirit when She comes. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all the earth.”
And then all of a sudden, Jesus starts to be lifted up. Floating in the air on a cloud and out of their sight. And as the disciples are gazing up at heaven, two men in white robes appear and ask “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.” Then they returned to Jerusalem and went to the room upstairs, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
That’s the story of Jesus’ ascension. Okay, now be honest – raise your hand if this past Thursday at some point you thought to yourself, “Hey, today is Ascension day.”
Exactly. Very few of us. Because we don’t really think about it anymore.
You see, Ascension Day used to be a really important day in the church, up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. But now it’s almost as forgettable as the disciple Bartholomew. And at first I thought it is because our modern minds don’t really know what to do with the ascension of Jesus. That it is just sort of weird – like the wizard floating off in a hot air balloon at the end of the The Wizard of Oz.
And then I saw that photo of Milo’s grandchildren looking upward. And with this text in mind, I thought of that question– why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
And in my heart, I heard an answer – Because they miss him. Because they long to have him back. Because life is terrifying without him.
Because this is grief. This is what we do. We find ourselves lost in wonder as we caress the grave stone or touch the name etched in the copper plate on the columbarium, or as we lower a flag in honor of a beloved grandfather. Life can be both awful and terrifying without the ones we love – and so we gaze off into the distance. We stand there looking up at the heavens.
Why do the disciples stand looking up toward heaven? Because their beloved leader whom they just got back from the dead has just left them behind and they miss him and they are terrified of doing this alone.
Which is perhaps the real reason why we struggle with Ascension Day in the Church. Since Ascension day, for two thousand years, the church has been waiting for Jesus’ return. And for just a moment this day, this text touches on our greatest fear – that perhaps Jesus is not with us. And that’s terrifying.
51 Sundays a year, I feel so committed to the promise that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. But this Sunday seems a little different. In the Christian calendar, this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost seems to be the one Sunday a year when we are called to sit in the presence of absence. Jesus has left but we haven’t received the promised power of the Holy Spirit yet. And we are left here to…wait.
That’s what the disciples are asked to do in this moment of absence. To hurry up and…wait.
When the two men show up and ask why the disciples are standing looking up toward heaven, notice that they don’t demand that the disciples get it together and get to work. No, they simply reaffirm the promise – that Christ will come again. Which means you’ll have to wait. So, the disciples return home to an upper room to pray. And to wait.
And so, as one theologian has said, “The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.”
God will show up, Jesus says. The power of the Holy Spirit will come. God will ignite you as witnesses and participants in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will return, in surprising and unexpected ways, the two messengers said.
But today, the disciples (and we) are asked to wait.
How good are you at waiting?
I wonder what you are waiting for in your life right now?
Based on this story, there seems to be something divine, sacred, transformative about waiting. It is something God can work with.
Because God certainly could have sent the Holy Spirit instantaneously after Jesus departure and left no one waiting.
But instead God asks the disciples to wait.
Have you ever really waited for something – on the edge of your seat? You see, this is the moment when something new is about to happen. And everything is springloaded and ready to move but you can’t move yet because you have to wait to see what happens next. Some of you who have played tennis will get this. There is a moment in tennis when the player hits the ball and the ball hits the top of the net and it goes straight up in the air. And for a moment, everyone waits…because you don’t know if the ball will land on this side of the net or that side.
This is like that moment. Something is about to happen. But we have to wait for it. This is that in-between moment, that Holy Waiting Time, in the creation story when God has made the human out of the dirt but hasn’t breathed the breath of life in yet. This is that time when the water has broken but the child has not yet arrived. This is the time when the people of God are being shaped into the body of Christ on earth. And that shaping, it can take time. And the power and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the holy breath, will come, but not just yet.
For now, the disciples are called to wait.
And it is an active waiting. An expectant waiting. A waiting that makes you watch more closely with your eyes and listening more carefully with your ears. For what God might be up to next.
And this kind of waiting – this available and attentive waiting – it takes courage. Waiting is hard. How do you know when to stop? How do you know when precious time is being wasted? To wait like this takes courage because it is to trust that God is up to something, even in what feels like God’s absence. That God is not passive but active and alive in this world. And to trust that when the time to respond arrives, you’ll know.
And look what happened when a couple handfuls of heartbroken disciples decide to wait in prayer – they become the Church. And from their courageous waiting…comes you, the Church of St. John’s of 2017.
And if I learn anything from Jesus’ ascension and the time before Pentecost, it is that God has made holy those waiting times. That even in what feels like God’s absence, God is doing something. Preparing us for what’s to come in this beautiful but scary uncertain world.
So, in closing this morning, I want to invite you into some intentional waiting. As you wait to receive communion today, or as you wait for others to finish receiving communion, I invite you to open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and let it be a holy waiting. Let yourself learn something about this community or this sacrament that you’ve never noticed before. As an act of discipleship in which perhaps God is preparing you for something you cannot see yet.
Holy are the waiting times and blessed are those who enter them. Amen.
 Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, Christianity Today, found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/may18/8t6046.html?start=2