This is a copy of my Ascension Day sermon given at Christ Church, Billericay on Thursday 10 May 2018. The Bible Readings were Acts 1:1-14 and Luke 24:44-53.
Some people can’t seem to be able to live without excitement and stimulation in their lives. Whether it comes from pleasure, or crisis, they seem to thrive on doing strange things and solving ridiculous problems. You know them, they are members of dangerous sports clubs. They do Bungee Jumping; Snow Boarding; Sky Diving. We might call them adrenalin junkies. Those involved in extreme sports and dangerous activities often regard the time between their activities as time that is lost. Time that is unimportant. Time that doesn’t count. Dead time. A waste of time.
In our reading from Acts 1:1–14 we see how the disciples found themselves having to face a period in which they would simply have to wait for Jesus’ promise to them to come true.
After the resurrection Jesus visited his disciples on several occasions. He taught and encouraged them and commissioned them to do a job. Then, on the day of his ascension into heaven – when they were anxiously asking him when his kingdom would be established, when the next instalment of the divine plan would take place. He tells them that it is not for them to know the times or seasons established by God – but that they should go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
For many of us, waiting is a dreadful thing – just ask any child – but it doesn’t have to be like that. Living between times, when our minds and hearts and energy are absorbed in something quite significant can, in fact, be very enjoyable. It can be a pause that refreshes. A time when we can gain strength. A time in which we can quietly grow and are prepared for all that will come next. God knows that we need periods of rest and of waiting. Periods in which we can be changed, refreshed and renewed so we can be strengthened and prepared for what is to come next.
Jesus said in Luke 21:36 that we should: Be always be waiting and praying … I’ve titled my sermon: Living Between The Times and I have two simple points: Waiting and Praying.
We need to remember that living between times are meant to be active times and not passive times; times in which we are meant to work at the present rather than that which is yet to come. Our attention is not to be so focussed so much on Jesus return, or on the next thing that we want to have happen in our lives, that we end up forgetting what else is going on and end up falling asleep on the job.
But living between the times; between one phase of our lives and the next; between one job and another; between the time when the first child has left school and the last has yet to start; between the period when we have lost one dear friend and have yet to find another; when we are between team vicars, can all be difficult times for us. Times of trial; desert; being changed. In the times between, our eyes are to be fixed on the present moment that God has given us and what it is God wants us to do with it and in it. We are called to live in the now rather than to live in the future.
This was one of the problems of the early church. Remember how many in the Thessalonians stopped working because they were waiting for Jesus’ return. They believed that Jesus would return in a few years, however, by the time Luke wrote the book of Act’s, they realised that Jesus’ return wasn’t as imminent as they had hoped. They realised he wasn’t looking at a calendar when he said he’d return soon, but looking at eternity. They realised the gift of His Spirit was ‘return’ enough for now.
When Jesus ascended into heaven to take his place at the right hand of God the Father, the angel asked them, Acts 1:11: Men of Galilee … why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven. The disciples listened to the word of the angel and then returned to Jerusalem as they had been commanded and waited there for Jesus’ promise to them to be fulfilled, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and while they waited they devoted themselves to prayer.
Prayer is not some mystical enlightenment for a chosen few – it should be a natural part of being a Christian and is, probably, the most important activity of our lives. We can pray about any situation/person/circumstance.
American Evangelist Dwight L. Moody:
The Christian on his knees sees more than the philosopher on tiptoes.
It’s amazing what happens when we pray. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple famously said:
When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.
The Thy Kingdom Come initiative started in 2016 as an invitation from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to invite the CofE to pray for more people to come to know Jesus – and has now grown into an international ecumenical call to prayer during this time of waiting between Ascension and Pentecost. Amongst other things, we are all encouraged to pray for five people we know and love to come to know Jesus for themselves.
When the disciples returned to Jerusalem they sought to be one as Jesus had prayed that they would be in John 17:21. They stayed together and they prayed together and, in so doing, they prepared themselves for the job Jesus had told them they would do when the Holy Spirit came upon them as he had promised. Acts 1:8: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The Holy Spirit fell because the disciples were waiting in prayer. They were praying with expectancy and anticipation. They were claiming the promises of Jesus. They prayed for something to happen. It should come as no surprise that the Day of Pentecost happened. The disciples had been involved in a ten day prayer meeting in preparation.
Philip Yancey is his book: ‘Prayer: Does it make any difference’ writes:
The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God. I need God more than anything I might get from God. And so we do.
There’s no quick fix in having God’s Spirit working through us. There’s no quick fix to spiritual maturity or to be in a place where God can use us. The only way to grow in what God has for us is through the discipline of prayer, of perseverance and the commitment of discipleship.
It was the Holy Spirit which enabled and guided the ministry of the disciples, and it is the Holy Spirit which enables and guides our own ministry as his followers and our own witness to Jesus.
Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit, and only the Holy Spirit, which allows us to be fruitful with our lives. Our task living between the times, whether it is a time between what is obviously the work of God in our lives, or simply a time between one event in our daily lives, is to make ourselves ready to be used of the Holy Spirit; which may come, as it so often does, as a result of prayer.
We need to follow the commands of God and keep connected with him through devoted prayer so that we are strengthened and prepared. We need to trust and have confidence that what has been promised to us by God will come to pass – whether that promise is of a spiritual gift or a promise of comfort and of a new life, or a promise to bless us and use us in some particular way in his service.
Living between the times means living in a state of urgency. We are not to lapse into complacency or lulled into a false sense of security; of compromise or conceit just because nothing seems to be happening. It is preparing for the inevitable. It is keeping the house clean, the books in order, the table set …
We are to wait on the Lord and to pray for His will to be done. As we pray, we pray for perseverance to cope with the trials of life. We pray for strength to walk positively and purposefully as Christians. We pray against despair and our doubts and fears.
We pray for God’s grace in our daily lives. We pray that God will enable us to be stronger disciples. We pray for opportunities to share with others the good news of Jesus’ return. We pray for the presence, and power, of the Holy Spirit to become known, and made visible, in our lives.
We pray: Thy Kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven.