Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In the Meantime

A Sermon based on Acts 1: 1-11
Salvador Dali, Ascension, 1958

Two weeks ago I was the on-call chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital.  I was at the East Pavilion 9 nurses station writing some notes and I heard a voice say, “Hey chaplain isn’t the world supposed to end today?”  I looked at the Doctor who said this and he was smiling at me. I smiled back.  I had been thinking about that since it just happened to be May 21 the day that was predicted that, you know, ‘all heck was going to break lose’ and the world would come to a screeching halt. 

One of the residents who was standing also at the station said (seriously), “Yeah, I ate ice cream for dinner last night, just in case”.  Then I burst out laughing (very pastorally of course) and said, “You guys have got it wrong!  You need to hone your research skills.  I went to the source, website shown on the billboards.  Clearly is says today is judgment day NOT the end of the world.  This is the beginning of the apocalypse.  The end of the world comes on October 21, 2011 according to Harold Camping and the Family Radio.  You’ve got five more months that you can eat ice cream for dinner.  Any flavor, Baskin Robbins, Ben and Jerry’s, Hagen Daz they will love you.” 

As we know, May 22 came and then May 23 and so on.  No rapture. Not even one pebble of brimstone was found up here in the Northeast.  Unfortunately however, there were a lot of dashed dreams and hopes the day after from people who believed, with all their heart and faith that the world would end.  There were a lot of financial pockets drained, property sold and money given away, there were a lot of people who risked everything leaving nothing, having nothing on May 22 all because they put their heart and soul and their dreams on the line just to be ready for their Jesus.

Rapture predictions are nothing new; they’ve been around for a very long time.  The Left Behind Series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins tickled our fancy, the Y2K scare ushering in the new millennium.  Edgar Whisenant, active in the 1980’s particularly 1988 predicted that the rapture would happen in September during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Even Sir Isaac Newton figured out that the rapture would come no sooner than 2060.  People read the Bible and crunch the numbers and develop a date when the end of the world will come. Some of them are really convincing, enough so that other people believe them hook, line, and sinker.

Many of these predictions are based on scriptural references but, as a friend of mine who works in the news broadcast field once said after I was complaining about a weather prediction that went horribly askew, ‘they don’t call them predictions for nothing.’  Fair enough!  Ultimately Harold Camping, and Edgar Whisenant and all the others predicted but they were wrong. 

I guess that the Book of Acts, Chapter 1 Verse 7 just slipped their minds.  “He (Jesus) replied, It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  Jesus, of course is answering the disciples question of ‘when’?

The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem.  It’s been forty days after the resurrection and Jesus has been with them during that time.  Jerusalem is getting back to normal after the Passover and the pilgrims that had come to the Temple have migrated back home.  Jerusalem is still occupied by the Romans but yet it was a juicy time for upheaval.  The seeds of a new religious community, one who follows this itinerant, this Jesus were planted and so, as with any new endeavors there are a lot of questions and uncertainty.

The disciples aren’t quite sure what is happening so they found themselves gathered quite often.  And even after three years of close companionship, and following their rabbi from the hills of the Galil to the Judean desert town of Bethany, they aren’t clear about what Jesus is saying to them.  Restoration?  Kingdom?  Huh, what? 

They ask, “Is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  That’s a politically loaded question for Jews even though they were Christ followers of the first century.  They want Israel restored to its pre-Roman occupation, pre-Assyrian and Babylonian exile.  They want the glory days.  That’s what God has promised them.  And what does Jesus say?  “It is simply not for you to know what God has in mind here.”  In essence, none of your bee’s wax!  God will do what God wants to do in God’s own time – which – as we all know – is not our time.

But, in the meantime here’s what I’m going to do for you, Jesus says.  And then he gives them a promise and a charge.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you and with that power I want you to be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.  In other words, I want you to make my work known to other people.    
So in the meantime, let’s face it, has become a long time.  Two thousand years plus of meantime.  That’s quite an extended interval of time.  It is the creative tension between seeing Jesus, touching Jesus, smelling Jesus like the disciples were able to do, and seeing him when the kingdom will be restored.   Restoration of the kingdom is one of the foundational tenets of our Christian faith but we’ve got a whole lot of living and a whole lot of witnessing to do in the meantime. 

That others have witnessed before us is how we got here; that we witness to others, those who come after us is fulfilling Christ’s charge to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  How we do it and what aspect of our faith we witness, well that he leaves up to us.  Hallelujah!  I love creativity and a challenge especially where the Spirit is concerned. 

My mother witnessed to me each and every week as I watched her prepare her lessons to teach in Sunday School.  Her love for telling stories about Jesus rubbed off because I love a good Bible story! 
Martin Luther King Jr. has witnessed to me of justice and equality through his writings and his life when he said, “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others”.[i]  His witness touched me deeply to strive for justice so that each person can live a dignified life with food on their table and a roof over their head.

A patient at the VA recently witnessed to me of deep faith as he laid there riddled with pain both physically and emotionally.  A Viet Nam vet, he derived great comfort from the 23rd Psalm because when he was over there, at one of his platoon’s most dire moments, someone began praying the 23rd Psalm out loud, over and over again.  I learned from his witness that I too, can be in a metaphorical trench and still feel the strength of God and the power of God’s promise to love and keep me safe.

I could go on and on telling you about people who have witnessed to me.  I pray that I have been that witness to others.  Witness is important; it is the lifeblood of how our faith in Christ and the promises of Jesus are passed on.  Witness is loving God enough so as to tell others about how God has forgiven you, graced you, loved you, brought you through life’s messy and dark alleys and has provided extraordinary views from a mountaintop.  Witness is what we do in the meantime because we can and we must.  This is what we do in the meantime.

Predictions come, predictions go.  And before Christ ascended into heaven he promised to come again. The kingdom will be restored.  Don’t try to figure it out when, it’s just not for us to know.  But, in the meantime let’s live our faith fully, let’s tell those old, old stories, let’s engage in justice and peace, let’s witness to other people of the love of God through Jesus Christ.


[i] Martin Luther King Jr. ‘On being a good neighbor’, from “Strength to Love” 1963.

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