(A sermon based on Acts 1:1-14 for Sunday, November 16, 2008)
On the fortieth day after Easter, according to Luke, Jesus ascended from the earth to assume the place he occupies still today: his place at the right hand of the Father. During those forty days Jesus had appeared several times to his disciples. What experiences those must have been! He came and went, so they were accustomed to having him with them and then not having him with them. This time was different, though. This time he was going away and he would not appear to them again until he returned in power at the close of the age.
Who can blame them, then, for standing there, their mouths open and their hearts broken, staring up into heaven?
Who can blame them for being amazed and confused and dumbfounded and for being whatever else they were at that moment?
How long would they have stood and stared had not the two angels interrupted their reverie? Perhaps in their awe and fear they had momentarily forgotten what Jesus had just said to them: “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” (v. 8). He was telling them what he had told them before, which was that when he was gone the Holy Spirit would come and they would be empowered to continue his work in the world. Then he ascended, and they stood and stared until the angels broke it up: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (v. 11). “Then they returned to Jerusalem” (v. 12).
It was time for them to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet back on the ground.
They had work to do. They needed to do it. They had to do it.
Herein lies a call and a challenge to us today. There is much to be done. There is much witness to be born. We must do it. It is what we are expected to do by our Lord.
The apostles could not stay on that mountain; they had to go back to Jerusalem because there was work to be done. They had to be the body of Christ. They had to be the church. They had to be the work and witness of Jesus in the world.
We have that same job, and it is a very down-to-earth kind of thing.
I’ve been wondering why the angels addressed the apostles as “Men of Galilee.” There is the obvious truth that they were from the region of Israel known as Galilee. But the angels could have called them anything: “Disciples of Jesus,” “Friends of the Lord,” “Scared and Amazed Ones,” “Hardheaded and Forgiven Ones,” and they would have all been accurate. Why did they use a term as mundane as “Men of Galilee”?
I wonder if it was because the group that stood there looking up into heaven as men of Galilee would come down off that mountain and go back to Jerusalem as people of the world. I wonder if the angels were implying that those disciples were going to have to break out of their limited selves in order to move out into the world.
I know this: those men of Galilee ended up helping to take the gospel to the world.
In what ways are we “people of Galilee”? In what ways are we defined by where we are from and by who we’ve always been culturally and socially? In what ways do we need to break out of our box in order to do the work that we’ve been called to do?
Jesus said that the apostles would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they just happened to be. Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they were forced to go by persecution. Sometimes they were witnesses in places they chose and to which they planned to go.
But they couldn’t remain the men of Galilee and at the same time be the people who would turn the world upside down.
Let me ask you a question that I hope you will take seriously: where do you need to go to be faithful to the Lord’s calling in your life? For you it may be a question of vocation. Have you examined your life lately to see if you are spending it the way the Lord really wants you to? For you it may be a question of commitment. Have you examined your life lately to see if you really intend to live it in service to Christ? For you it may be a question of ethics. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are places you are living in ways that run counter to your Christian faith and witness? For you it may be a question of service. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are ways you need to be serving that you are not?
Sometimes I find myself thinking and saying that most of us need to do a much better job of doing the little things. But then I realize that they must really be big things if we have such a hard time getting them done. It is time for more of us to break out of our established ways of living and do some of those things, though. For example, you may need to be inviting people to church. You may need to be living a more Christ-like life in your workplace. You may need to share your testimony with someone who needs to come to Christ. You may need to work with children or preschoolers or youth. You may need to sing in the choir.
I can’t be sure what your Galilee is, but I can be sure that many more of us need to get out of it and get on to somewhere else.
There is work to be done, and we have to do it. We have to get our heads out of the clouds and our feet on the ground.
But let’s face it: if our hearts aren’t in the clouds, we don’t have a chance.
Look at what the angels told the apostles after asking them why they were gazing into 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” (v. 11). That’s the reality that they carried in their hearts with them back to Jerusalem. The reality is that Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God and from that place he reigns over all creation, over this world, and over our lives. The reality is that Jesus Christ will one day return in power to establish his reign completely and permanently; that is the blessed hope on which the apostles depended and on which we can count.
The apostles’ hearts were in the clouds and that’s where ours are, too: we love and depend on the only hope we have—the ascended and coming Lord.
The psalmist said, “I look unto the hills from which comes my help.” The apostles would have sung a variation on that theme: “I look to heaven from which comes my help.” For when the apostles went back to Jerusalem they went looking expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They went looking expectantly for the power of God to fall on them that would empower them for their work and for their mission. Their hearts were in the right place, for they were in an expectant place; they were expecting the power of God to come to them and enable them. So what did they do? They waited and they prayed (v. 14).
Sometimes we have to wait and pray. We must do what we must do, but we must do it only with the leadership and empowerment of God. We simply can never afford to forget from where our help comes, from where our power comes, from where our sustenance comes—it comes from heaven above where the Son is seated at the right hand of the Father and from where the Holy Spirit comes to us.
What finally transformed those disciples from men of Galilee into those people who turned the world upside down? It was their obedience to do the work, to be sure, but it was also their expectant waiting for the power that inevitably came. Their feet were on the ground but their hearts were in the clouds.
May it ever be so for us!