by: Betsy Lyles
April 3, 2016
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of
God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or 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 up 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. 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. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
I have to be honest with you – when I sent Marthame a sermon title, I tried to pick something generic since the sermon had yet to be written. “Keep Watering the Easter Lilies” seemed like a good post-Easter title. When I sent that title, I didn’t own an Easter lily to water. My mother gave me one a couple weeks ago and every day when I see it, I’m reminded of this sermon title. I have a brown thumb . . . if you could even call it that. The blooms have gone from my lily and now I’m waiting (and watering) and waiting some more. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the plant, but this sermon title has become a little convicting even in my uncertainty. “Keep watering the Easter Lilies” pops into my mind as I wonder about this plant. I’m waiting on something, but I don’t know if I’m waiting on more blossoms or the assurance that it’s really dead.
I’ve been thinking about waiting a lot lately and not just because of the lily. It seems that I’m surrounded by people who are waiting. When I shared news of my engagement with family members, the response was more often than not: “we’ve been waiting for this!” My grandfather makes comments about his bucket list to imply to his grandchildren that he’s just waiting on events in our lives. I’m surrounded by people who are waiting – waiting to give birth to a healthy child, waiting to find that perfect relationship, waiting for the perfect job offer, waiting for the next big life event – whether that’s buying a house or a dog. Waiting. And, I’m in a season of waiting too. I’m waiting on lots of things: waiting until I’m just a little more flexible and can do that one yoga pose, waiting for the pollen to clear, waiting for the political climate to feel less anxiety-inducing. Even at work I’m in a season of waiting – I’m waiting on our newest students to accept our offer of admission. My surroundings are a constant reminder of the “hurry up and wait” that seems to be everywhere.
I’m not good at waiting. I was the kid who unwrapped (and very meticulously re-wrapped) all her Christmas presents before Christmas. Advent and Lent are hard for me – seasons dedicated to this holding pattern of waiting. “Unto you a child will be born . . . so wait.” Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days so you should too. Go into the wilderness . . . and wait. Wait on Good Friday. Wait on Easter. The monumental events of Jesus’ life marked for us by seasons of waiting.
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” For them, this is the question – when will Israel be restored? How long do they have to wait for the good old days to return? I’m comforted by the fact that the disciples are just as bad at waiting as I am. “Is it time yet?” “Remember what you promised us – hurry up . . . we’ve been waiting.” You’d think that the disciples wouldn’t be as whiny after Jesus’ return. But true to form, they are whiny and they are impatient. And, equally true to form, Jesus gives them an answer that leaves them scratching their heads and a little unsure about what is going to happen and their part in all of it. He has been talking about a different and much grander kingdom. “It is not for you to know the times or 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.”
So what do we do with this? Since December, we have be on an extraordinary journey of waiting accompanied by revelation. We wait during advent and then it’s Jesus’ birth. Jesus begins his ministry and then is sent to the wilderness . . . so we wait yet again for him to resume his ministry. We wait to see what the politicians are going to do with this man who defies everything they know of power and leadership. We wait for him to die on a cross and then we wait in grief not knowing if we are waiting for new life or just the assurance that he’s really dead. For all that he accomplished in such a short life, Jesus sure does make us wait a lot. And, as if we don’t get enough waiting while he’s alive, his first instructions to the disciples before he ascends to be with God are to wait. The Holy Spirit could’ve come down as he ascended. It would’ve been a game of divine tag – Jesus tags out as the Holy Spirit tags in. Instead we wait. So today, Ascension Sunday marks the beginning of a new season of waiting. We wait for Pentecost – the Sunday that Holy Spirit comes to us.
Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the same build-up that other liturgical holidays do. It’s a little bit like the red-headed stepchild of liturgical holidays. No pomp. No special bulletin covers. No Easter egg hunts or stuffed stockings to celebrate. And yet, it’s this day of the church year that so clearly lays out how we are to live. Jesus’ parting instructions are to wait. “It is not for us to know the times or periods that God has set by God’s own authority. But we will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us; and we will be God’s witnesses in Atlanta, in all Georgia and the southeast, and to the ends of the earth.” And, Jesus’ instructions clearly remind us that we are often like the disciples – waiting on our own idea of the restored kingdom. I know for some of my colleagues the kingdom will be restored when millennials grace church pews, or when the PC(USA) doesn’t have so many churches struggling to keep on the lights. Just like the disciples, it’s hard not to ask in exasperation: “Is it time yet? We’ve been waiting and we’re ready for the good old days.”
We wait, not for the next big event worthy of a Facebook life event post or a grand party or news worth shouting from the rooftops. We wait because that is our primary task as people of faith. And that is what we remember on this Sunday in particular. We wait because in our waiting we become witnesses. Waiting does not give us assurance that the next big thing is coming, but it does force us to recognize the sacred in the mundane. There’s a quote I always come back to by Annie Dillard. In it she says, “The answer must be I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can try to do is be there.” God will command the sun to rise each morning and to set each night whether or not we’re watching. Stories of churches opening their doors to immigrants facing deportation will continue to come out regardless of whether the mainstream media is interested in reporting them. Organizations like the Georgia Justice Project will continue to advocate for and walk alongside people accused of crimes regardless of how society tells us criminals should be treated. Communities, like this one, will continue to boldly cross racial boundaries to create relationships that embody the radical love of Christ. And, seemingly more mundane, (but no less holy) things will continue too. Alarm clocks will continue to sound far too early on Monday mornings reminding us that we have yet another week. Families will continue to gather around the table for meals and teenagers might even respond to their parents when asked about their days. Toddlers will continue make comments reminding us how much more they absorb of their surroundings than we realize. More often than not, we will continue to drive through this congested city without accidents. Each of these things acts of beauty and grace.
So, we wait. Not passively or apathetically. We wait because we’ve experienced Easter. And, now that we’ve experienced it, we are witnesses. Yes, waiting — the thing that makes us yearn for the picture perfect moments to come or dream about those perfect moments we’ve already experienced. Waiting — the holding pattern — this is our most basic function as people of faith.
So what do we do while we wait? Luckily, the disciples gave us an example for that too. They went into an upper room and “devoted themselves to prayer.” And, so should we. Holy waiting is active waiting with eyes devoted to seeing the holy and hearts devoted to offering thanks for what is seen. Waiting in prayer does not mean you have to sit along with your eyes closed and your head bowed down. When we wait prayerfully, we proclaim that beauty and grace do indeed happen regardless of whether we’re paying attention. We proclaim our belief that the holy doesn’t depend on Jesus’ physical presence on earth. In fact, through our waiting, we proclaim our trust in Jesus’ parting instructions – conviction that the Holy Spirit will come and we will get to be witnesses. Barbara Brown Taylor says it better than I can that joy we should find in this conviction: “what is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
So, I offer you the same invitation Jesus offered the disciples: to wait. And, as you wait, my hope is that those divides between the secular and the sacred begin to disappear. And, that those instincts to yearn for the next big moment begin to fade too. And, that your waiting can become a lived prayer: prayer that expects to encounter the holy in the most mundane. Prayer that enables you to be ready when the next “big thing” does happen. Prayer that finds your ready to participate in God’s work in our world. Prayer that nudges you to keep watering the Easter lilies even when you aren’t sure whether you’re waiting on more blossoms or assurance that it’s really dead. Prayer that allows you to trust that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world. So . . . hurry up and wait. It’s our task and our privilege. AMEN.