Sunday, June 01, 2014

Stuck in the Middle with You: Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

This morning marked the last sermon I will ever preach as the seminary intern at Bellevue Presbyterian Church. It is bittersweet to watch this chapter come to an end. I will always cherish the memories of my time there. It's going to be hard to walk out the doors next week on our very last week there in an official capacity. 
Today, I preached on Acts 1:6-14 and John 17:1-11





 “This must be Thursday,” said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. “I never could get the hang of Thursdays[1].” 
One of my very favorite books, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams begins on a Thursday. Our hero, Arthur Dent is unsuccessfully trying to stop a bypass from being built directly through the middle of his house when his best friend springs the news on him that he’s not actually human, but is an alien trapped on Earth. To make matters worse, Arthur’s alien buddy – Ford Prefect – is trying to hitch a ride home again before another alien race blows up Earth in order to build an intergalactic bypass.
Most of us can probably sympathize with Arthur Dent’s dislike for Thursdays.  Thursdays are this sort of no-man’s land of a day. They aren’t the beginning of a fresh week, but they aren’t quite the end of the week yet. Mondays are expected to be tough because they are the return to routine after the weekend. Fridays are hopeful because the weekend is about to begin. But Thursdays. . . yuck. Most of us can sympathize with poor old Arthur Dent – even if we’re pretty sure our best friend is human.
            We had a lovely service this week to celebrate the Ascension – Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father – Jesus made really real - realer than real – for always. It’s what a professor of mine (name withheld to protect the innocent) calls “the corollary to Christmas!”
            We will have a lovely service next Sunday to celebrate Pentecost – the day that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and the Church began! It’s the church’s birthday!
And this morning, we have a lovely service to celebrate. . . well. . . Sunday.
We are in between the ascension and the beginning of the church. It’s a funny middle day, a sort of a Thursday, in which we reflect on the whole life of Jesus – incarnation through ascension - and prepare for the inauguration of what we know as the church today.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of Jesus’ followers at the Ascension? Everyone just kind of standing around, staring up at the sky. . . jaws dropped.


Peter says, “WOW! That was. . . so cool! I wonder if we get to do that someday!”
Thomas says, “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!”
And Mary! Can you imagine! Jesus mother who was there (obviously) for the moment of the incarnation – she got to see things all the way through to the ascension. She’s the only person in the entire story who got to see every part of Jesus’ life unfolding as it happened!
The other day, I was slogging back up my hill at the end of a run with my ipod on full blast. I was in my own little world just trying to get up the last quarter mile of hill without falling over and a neighbor honked at me to say hi. I think I jumped 8 feet in the air. That must be how it felt when the men in white showed up in this passage.
As the followers are all just staring up into the clouds totally flabbergasted by what just happened, suddenly, there’s a couple of angels there talking to them. I can’t imagine that didn’t startle the beejeebers outta a few disciples.
And the angels didn’t really seem to say much. Just, “Yeah. He’s up there.”
And then the messengers are gone.

I can only imagine that someone says. . . “Hey guys. . . Uh. . . Now what?”
Jesus just ascended to heaven, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t come down yet. . . now what?
In the description of the Ascension in Acts, we hear at the very end – it really feels like a sort of add on – what the followers did in their funny in between time. We get the “now what.” These verses very simply tell us that after the ascension, Jesus’ followers gathered together in prayer. They didn’t just have one  prayer vigil and a potluck before going along back to their regular lives. They didn’t go their separate ways to pray alone. They gathered together and devoted themselves constantly to prayer.
            Do you remember those “WWJD” bracelets from 15 or 20 years ago? They stood for “What would Jesus do?” They were supposed to be a reminder throughout the day that we’re supposed to model our lives after Jesus. I wonder if maybe Jesus left his followers some sort of ancient WWJD bracelets.
Jesus’ followers are doing in Acts what followers do. . . following. And this passage from John shows us the example that they are following.
This prayer falls directly at turning point between the ministry and passion of Jesus. Jesus is in a tense in middle time in which he offers up prayer for his disciples. After the Ascension, his followers, who are caught in a similar middle time and have seen Jesus modeling prayer throughout his ministry, look back and follow his example by turning to prayer.
Acts doesn’t say what the disciples and followers prayed about after the Ascension. But in John, Jesus is praying about the foundation of the church. He asks that the world would know God through his ministry and life and that believers would be united. This is a prayer about the foundation of the church. Jesus prays for the glory of God the Father and is asking that God the Father would also glorify him. Jesus is praying through this middle time – this Thursday – that whatever happens next would be to the Glory of God.


I won’t tell you Arthur Dent’s whole story. I hate it when someone spoils a book for me and I sincerely hope at least one or two of you who haven’t read it will put it on your summer reading list. But, I will read you another excerpt. This is from the prologue of the book.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has— or rather had— a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper , which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.[2]
            Douglas Adams was not a Christian author, but his philosophical observations of people are spot on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has much to say about getting from one point to another and all the middle times in between. Here, he’s saying that money and stuff and power and notoriety are how we often try to fill the transition times that often don’t seem to have any sort of direction.
            Bigger!
Faster!
            New and Improved!
            Make thousands of dollars a week from the comfort of your own home!
            The endcaps by the checkout lines at the grocery store are littered with magazines that tell us how we can look, act, and even BE like the celebrities we see on TV and in movies.
            It’s like the world feels trapped in a middle time and is searching for the “now what” but nothing is good enough. There is always more money, stuff, fame, glory. There is always someone cooler and more famous.
What are we really trying to glorify?
We certainly use the word “glory” in funny ways today. We use it in ways that don’t really seem consistent with what Jesus is praying about in this passage from John.
The movie “Glory” is about war!
There is a kickboxing tournament called “Glory.”
Celebrities are said to have “fame and glory.”
We sing about giving God the glory, but why aren’t our knees shaking? Are we taking this glory thing seriously? Perhaps our use of the word is too watered down or mis-defined. Perhaps our efforts to give glory have been misdirected. But this is the very thing that Jesus prayed would be the mission and being of the church. The stakes are high.
Jesus is asking for the glory of the Father, not for his own sake. Jesus is talking about real glory, not vainglory or vanity – not the sorts of glory or celebrity that are held up on TV and in magazines. There is no human who is worthy of or capable of handling the glory that Jesus is talking about.
The church is founded for the glory of God and God alone. Even in the weird in between times. Even when we’ve been left staring up at the sky saying, “Now what?” We have to keep our focus on Christ – not on the spot we last saw him, but always looking to find where he’s moving next – praying for the Holy Spirit to guide us to the “now what.”
Jesus’ followers looked to him when they were left in an uncertain middle time and turned to prayer. They could no longer physically see him with their human eyes, but they looked to Jesus in anticipation of the coming of the Spirit. Suddenly, they were stuck in a middle time and they followed Jesus’ example of constant prayer and they joined together to exemplify the unity that Jesus prayed would be the foundation of the God-glorifying church.
As we prepare for Pentecost –let’s remember that our focus matters. It matters even when we might not know what exactly Jesus is up to. That’s precisely when we need one another – we need to join together in prayer as we wait for the Spirit to reveal the “now what?”
Amen




[1] Adams, Douglas (2007-12-18). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (p. 17). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[2] Adams, Douglas (2007-12-18). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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