Easter 2017 – 6th Sunday of Easter
One World at a Time Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
It is important for us to remember that it did not dawn upon the disciples all at once. It took some time for them to realize the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. In the Book of Acts we are told that over a forty day period the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, comforting them, reassuring them, teaching them, preparing them, and then sending them forth to continue the work that he had begun, the work of the kingdom coming.
In the Bible the number forty has symbolic meaning. It means the right time, the required time, the time needed to accomplish a certain task. So in telling us that Moses and the Israelites wandered for forty years the Bible is saying that they wandered for as long as they needed for God to make them a people. Elijah’s forty days on the mountain of the Lord was the time needed for him to reclaim his prophetic call, and Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness was the time it took for him to have clarity about the will of God for his life. And the forty days following his resurrection marked the time needed to get the disciples ready to be the church, which would happen on Pentecost when the Spirit would come upon them in presence and power.
And we have our own forty day periods in life, give or take some days, when the Spirit is especially at work in us, bringing us through a time of transition, or helping us to make an important decision, or preparing us for some new task. And it is so important that we do not become impatient with the Spirit in these times, that we allow the Spirit the time needed to do its work.
Now this is a gentle word to the parents of our seniors. I am a father too, so I know that these next few years can be both an exciting and an anxious time, especially as you are wondering and maybe worrying a little about whether your son or daughter will end up being gainfully employed. And that is important, I know, but so is being patient with the Spirit that is at work within your child, because this is for them one of those forty day periods, or maybe four year periods give or take a little, of preparation and discernment and decision.
And the forty day period leading up to Jesus’ ascension reminds us of our need to be patient in the Spirit. The Spirit cannot be forced. It is sort of like seeds and soil. With so many things in life it just takes a certain amount of time for the seeds to germinate, grow, flower, and bear fruit, and there is only so much that we can do about that.
So when it comes to the working of the Spirit, and the times and seasons of grace, patience is a virtue, and we have to be willing to practice what has been called “the sacred pause.” We have to be willing to wait until the time is right, as hard as that may be for us sometimes.
Story has it that, when Leonardo Da Vinci was painting the Last Supper, he would stand for long hours before his unfolding masterpiece without making a single brush stroke. Once when he was asked why he would take so long, he replied, “When I pause the longest, I make the most telling strokes with my brush.”
Artists must wait for inspiration, and as followers of Jesus, there are times when we must wait for the Spirit because there are some things in life that require more than our doing alone. They require God’s doing, or our doing with God. And since the Spirit is always a gift and never a possession, there are times when we have to wait, when we have to show some patience.
But the disciples grew impatient. They were only human after all. “Lord,” they asked Jesus, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?”
“That’s not for you to know,” Jesus told them yet again.
Just leave that to God, Jesus was saying to them. But for some reason that is hard for us to do. There is something about end time speculation that fascinates us, and I suppose that is understandable. In many ways our world is a mess, and it would be good if God would just set things right. Now. In a day. This mindset is sort of the theological equivalent of wanting to win the lottery.
But there are at least a couple of problems with this. First, church history is littered with mistaken predictions about the end of the world. What is it about Jesus saying that the day and the hour are not ours to know that we do not understand? And second, this is not Jesus’ way.
When the disciples asked Jesus for a timetable for the future, Jesus gave them instead a task for the present. The Spirit will come upon you in power, Jesus told them, that you may be my witnesses’ to the ends of the earth. You will be my witnesses, telling others what you have experienced in me, the forgiveness, the acceptance, the healing, the peace, the call to love and serve in my name. In a word, you will tell others of the love of God.
And you will take this good news to the ends of the earth. The disciples wanted to know about the end of the world, but Jesus told them that is God’s business. Your business, he said, is to go to the ends of the earth, to every nook and cranny and corner of the world, wherever people are hungry, hurting, lonely, afraid, lost. Go there, Jesus said, go there with the good news of God’s love. Speak it, but above all, live it as I have done.
And I would just remind us that the ends of the earth may be as near to us as the person sitting next to us or our neighbor next door, or someone we know who is struggling with an illness, or grieving the loss of a loved one, or worrying about their children or their aging parents, or how the money is going to last until the end of the month, or when they are going to find work again. Or, for someone else, we may be the ends of the earth, the one in need, and either way Jesus wants us to do something about it.
Through the years I have lost count the number of times that people have asked me what I thought about all the end time speculation and prediction, and my response has usually been to tell them what Martin Luther once said about that. For a long time now this has been my approach to all of our fascination with the end of the world. The instruction is simple, but the guidance is wise I believe, and faithful, and hopeful, and in keeping with what Jesus would have us do. “Even if I knew that the world was going to end tomorrow,” Luther once said, “I would still plant my apple tree today.”
In other words, no matter what tomorrow brings, do the good thing today, do the right thing, the just thing, the kind thing, the loving thing. I have long since come to believe that the best way for us to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ is for us to be faithful to his First Coming. If we do that, if we love God and neighbor, if we treasure those things that have real value in life, if we give generously of ourselves and our gifts, if we are attentive to the times and seasons of grace, and if we trust in the love of God, from which nothing in this life or in the life to come can separate us, then we need not worry about the Second Coming. We can just leave all that worry about the end of the world where it belongs, in the very good and gracious hands of God.
Henry David Thoreau was once asked what he thought about the end of the world. “One world at a time,” he answered. “One world at a time.” I like that answer too, almost as much as Luther’s. The needs of the day are sufficient thereof, Jesus once said. And if I may say it in a little different way, but in the same Spirit, “The needs of this world are sufficient thereof.” I mean there is more than enough for us to do to make this world a better place for all.
I have already spoken a word to our parents, and this is my word to our seniors, though I would encourage all of us to take it to heart as well. This world never lacks for opportunities to do good, and it never will lack until the end, whenever that comes, whether it be tomorrow or a thousand thousand tomorrows from now. So do some good with your life.
But when Jesus ascended to God, the disciples stood around looking up at the heavens, until two angelic figures came and said to them, and I am paraphrasing a little here, “Get your heads out of the clouds.” The disciples standing there looking up are the perfect depiction of the kind of faith which is so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. And if Jesus wanted our faith in him to be anything, he wanted it to be earthly good. He taught us to pray, “. . . thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, we should take it one world at a time, keeping out heads out of the clouds, setting our sights on this world, and on the here and now, doing all the good we can, as Wesley taught us, in all the ways we can, by all the means we can, for as long as we can.
That is the way Jesus has set before us, and the way he has called us to follow. And we can count on it because, as the scriptures and the tradition of our faith tell us, God has raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand. We do not usually make much of Jesus’ ascension, but we should. The use of the phrase “seated at the right hand” is not meant to give a spatial location. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are a sign of his vindication, that God has vindicated the way of Jesus as the way to new life, and that for all who choose to follow him, he has become what was the earliest confession of faith among the first followers of Jesus. “Jesus is Lord.”
Lordship is a bit of an archaic word, and one that is a little hard for us to understand in our day, so how about this as a simple image for it. On an isolated back road down south there is a sign which is posted every spring when the rains come and the road gets good and muddy, and the sign reads: CHOOSE YOUR RUT WISELY, YOU WILL BE IN IT FOR THE NEXT 13 MILES. Let us face it, there are all kinds of ruts in the road of life, and we cannot avoid them entirely. It is not a matter of steering clear of all the ruts. It is a matter of choosing the right one, and then staying in it for a good long while, until the end of the road.
And some of us choose the rut of work, working all the time, slighting all kinds of other important things in life. Others of us choose the rut of anger or fear or regret or shame or indifference, and it taints every other aspect of our lives. Still others of us choose the rut of self, making life all about us. All conversations focus on us, all things matter depending upon how they affect us, all decisions are made with our needs in mind.
I could go on. There are many, many ruts in the road of life, and we have all spent time in some of them. And making Jesus Lord is like picking his rut, setting our wheels in his way, allowing him to take us where we need to go, all the way to the end of the road.
This is a simple image, and a good one I think, a down to earth one, which is where it is at for us. This world is where we have to live out our days, where we have to seek to follow Christ, where we have to choose our ruts wisely. We can only live life one world at a time, and that means this world first. But again I would remind us that, if we keep the faith here, if we keep the great commandment here, if we choose the right ruts here, in this world, then we have nothing to fear from the world to come. For no matter what tomorrow brings, Jesus is Lord, Lord of earth and heaven, and Lord of this life and the life to come. Amen.