Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seven Easter
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places: The God of Israel, he giveth strength and power unto his people. Blessed be God.

Have you ever been at a campfire and tried to avoid the smoke? It doesnít matter where I sit, the wind always turns in my direction. When I move, the wind blows a new way. I sometimes feel as though Iím being chased. Iím not, I know. It just seems that way. The wind might blow in a general direction, but that is never perfectly the same. It is probably better to just stay in one place because the wind will eventually blow the smoke a little to the left or a little to the right, and then someone else around the campfire will have to put up with it. It is hard to sit there, though, because the smoke burns your eyes and makes your clothes smell. The question is: can you put up with the disadvantages to have the fun that can be had around a campfire? I think, perhaps, símores are worth the hassle.

Have you ever felt like nothing will go right? I think we have all had times when our lives seem out of control, although I suspect that there are many people who feel that way right now. Theyíve lost their jobs so they canít pay their mortgages and they face foreclosure. If you add to those circumstances health issues and relationship troubles that come from the stress and uncertainty, anyone might feel like someone is out to get them. It is bad enough to face one problem, but one often leads to many and then it becomes a burden that even the strongest among us have a hard time handling.

So, you are a disciple in Jerusalem. Jesus has died, but rose again. He spent forty days teaching you everything you need to know. Then one day, when you are out praying, He tells you that thereís no way for you to know the timing of Godís plan, but that youíll be called upon to continue His work in the world. Then He suddenly disappeared, flying off into heaven on a cloud. You know that trouble awaits you in Jerusalem. The authorities are already disturbed by the events of the last forty some days, although it is likely that they were afraid to deal with Jesus.

Now, Jesus is gone. The disciples are alone. They know things, but do they know enough? How are they supposed to continue Jesusí work? How are they supposed to do the miracles, speak the words, teach the lessons that will change peopleís lives? Theyíve lost their teacher. Theyíve left their families, and in many cases canít return home because the families have rejected Jesus, the Messiah. The world is now opposed to everything they believe. How do you deal with that? Do you think those disciples felt a little like a person who canít find a place away from the smoke?

It is no wonder that the disciples stood looking at heaven after Jesus was taken up. I think, if I were one of those disciples, I would just want to go to heaven, too. I surely would not want to go back to Jerusalem to face the challenges of living without Jesus and continuing His work. It wasnít going to be easy. It was even going to be dangerous. Besides, what glory could be found in the suffering that was inevitable?

We learn in todayís Gospel lesson that glory is found in suffering. Christ was glorified, not in heaven or on earth, but on the cross. It wasnít Jesusí words or His miracles that brought Godís blessing on Him, but His willingness to face death for the sake of others. He hung on the cross and God raised Him up, as was Godís purpose all along. Jesus was never meant to try to get out of the smoke, but to stay in it so that others could live. He blocked the smoke so we can breathe.

Doesnít sound very glorious, does it? Neither does the cross. The world cannot see the glory of the cross, after all it was a weapon of torture. But God sees the world in a different way. The glory was not in the instrument, but in the one playing it. Christ was glorified, not because He died, but because He did what God sent Him to do. We will glorify God by doing just what He has sent us to do. It might not be pretty. We might find ourselves in the midst of suffering, having to sit in the smoke for the sake of another. It wonít seem very glorious. But as we live in complete obedience to Godís intention for our lives, He will be glorified. God tells us to go forward, to do His work and not to worry. Whatever the circumstances, Heíll be with us and will help us overcome.

Thatís what happened to those disciples who were watching the sky. Two angels came and said, ďDonít just stand there!Ē They went to Jerusalem to wait for the promise of power that Jesus said that they would receive. That power would give them all they would need to be His witnesses in the world. They would receive the power to tell Godís story, to tell others about Jesus. They didnít sit idle; they spent the time in prayer.

So, what are we doing with our lives? Are we standing, watching heaven for Jesusí return? We know He will come again. We want to be with Him. It is tempting to stay on that mountain to wait. But the angels are speaking to us, too. ďDonít just stand there!Ē We are called to keep moving forward, to go toward our own Jerusalem, to face both the opportunities and the problems so that weíll glorify God. There is work for us to do. There are people who need to hear Godís grace. There are too many who canít breathe because the smoke around them is too thick. They need to see Christ, to experience His mercy and receive His forgiveness.

This is disturbing to many in our world. Then again, the glory of God is disturbing to those in this world. They canít understand when a Christian rejoices in the midst of difficult circumstances. They donít see value in faith or in trusting God. The cross doesnít make sense to them, and they canít wrap their minds around the reality of Christís return.

But Christian faith means rejoicing in all circumstances and moving forward in faith. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to pray the prayer in todayís Gospel lesson? He didnít ask God to remove the cross, but for God to fulfill His promises found there. In this prayer we are reminded of all the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of His life for us to hear; they were written by John so that we might know Christ. Then Jesus goes on to speak on the lives of His disciples: they will go on to continue glorifying God is the same ways.

When Jesus said those words, He wasnít just talking about the disciples; the prayer is for every generation. The prayer is for you and for me. We are called to relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father to the people of our own days. Those good words become part of our lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world.

It is a message that should be easy to share despite the persecution we might face. We need only speak about the good works of God, retelling the story that brought us into a relationship with Him. Psalm 68 describes the journey of God and His people from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. It was used in liturgical processions into the Temple. The people call God to arise while His enemies are moved by His power. The wicked will be afraid, but the righteous will rejoice in the presence of Godís glory. In the midst of this story, Godís people pray that He will continue to rule over the world and empower His people. The song ends in the sanctuary where God is glorified with the praise of the people.

The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of Godís power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.

Who are Godís enemies? We might think of enemies in purely modern terms, as in an opposing force in war that seeks to injure, overthrow or confound God. But the enemies of God are not so easily known as an army attacking a fortress. Godís enemies are those who are against Him, those who do according to their own will rather than His own. Before Christ, we were Godís enemies. In Christ, we are His people, no longer enemies.

God still has enemies: the devil is just one among many. He is against God and he tries to lead others away from God. He tries to lead even Godís people away, tempting us to do what is against His will. The tricks of the devil are sly, as he doesnít always try to make us do what seems to be wrong. He will tempt us to do what seems right even if it is against Godís will. Many well meaning folk are doing good works that do not glorify God because they are not according to His will.

Unfortunately, we will fail. Weíll follow the wrong voice; weíll do the wrong things. We will be fooled by the tempter. Weíll stand staring at heaven, waiting for Jesus to come when we really should be praying in Jerusalem until that day. When we do fail, it is important to remember that we are responsible. Yes, the devil is a tricky character, but he can only tempt us. When we fail it is because we have not been prepared. When we fall it is because we havenít trusted God or done what He has called us to do. But we can live in the promise that God is awesome in His sanctuary and He will give us the strength to withstand and overcome. When we do fail, as the disciples did and as we do, God forgives.

It isnít up to us to worry or wonder, but to go forward and do the work that will glorify God. We may not completely understand. Even the disciples misunderstood everything Jesus taught, even to that very last moment. They asked when the kingdom of Israel would be restored. Even then, they continued to think that Jesus came to make the nation golden as it was in the golden days of David. As time passed and the Christian church saw the Gospel in a ever changing light, the understanding of Godís Kingdom and Israel also changed. It stopped being a national identity and developed into a spiritual one.

How does our thinking change over time? Do we see Godís kingdom in new ways? Do we understand Godís Word differently? This might be true, but we must be careful that we do not fall for the tempterís tricks. We must not allow our thinking to be led astray. Is everything that is new real? Is it true? Does it glorify God? These are the questions we should ask in those times of prayer as we wait for Godís power to come over us. Let us trust in God, seek His Word and do only the work that will glorify Him. We might just be surprised by the times and ways that His grace will do amazing things.

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