Sunday, May 24, 2020

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12-26
Psalm 68:1-10
1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

I have been studying the psalms, preparing for a class I will teach beginning in the fall. One of the things I learned early in the study is to remember that though we do look at the Old Testament through Christian eyes, it is important to remember that the psalms were written and originally sung by people with a very different mindset. The psalms are filled with verses that make us uncomfortable, curses and demands for vengeance that seem extreme. Some of the verses are even disgusting. The psalmist often wants his many enemies humiliated, subdued, and killed. We donít see it in the text for today, but Psalm 68 is filled with images of warfare, flesh, and blood.

Psalm 68 is difficult for us to understand because there are thirteen Hebrew words that do not appear anywhere else. We might be able to guess at the meaning of those words based on context, but we do not know for sure. It is interesting because God is named dozens of times in the thirty five verses, and the psalmist used ten different names. The psalm extols Godís past, present, and future. He is the Divine Warrior who defeats the enemies of His people. Though we do not know everything about the Hebrew language, culture, or modes of praise, in this psalm we understand that God can be seen and given glory for His innumerable deeds great and small.

Psalm 68 is one of the few psalms that we can look at with a post-Christian perspective because it has an eschatological insight. It looks forward to the coming of Christ, His resurrection, ascension, and the giving of His Spirit at Pentecost. It looks forward to the time when the God of Israel will be worshipped by people from every nation. So, this God who goes by many names is worthy to be praised. This psalm, and the character of God found in the words, is attributed to Jesus Christ.

Despite the curses in the psalm, it is a song of praise and thanksgiving. It was probably written for the time when the Ark of the Lord, which represented Godís presence among His people, was transferred from the house of Obed-edom to the new location on Zionís mountain (2 Samuel 6:2-18.) Whether it references that event or some other, it describes a significant procession.

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.

The ancient people worshipped God with great joy and celebration. The story in 2 Samuel describes David dancing and leaping as they moved the Ark into the city. While joy is certainly a part of our worship, we tend to be less festive. For many, attending worship is more an act of duty than delight. Social pleasure, hymns, fellowship, and joy were a part of their whole lives. We are often more like Michal, Davidís wife, in the story. She did not join the party, but watched from a window, and was disgusted by the display of David as he danced in the streets. This psalm reminds us to have an appetite for God, to desire and delight in His presence. We, too often, hide our joy under decorum, but we are called to celebrate. The gift of Godís presence was centered in the Temple (or in the Tabernacle in Davidís Day), and they celebrated and praised Him on the streets. We can seek the joy of His presence wherever we are. Do we celebrate Him with joy and song and dancing in the streets?

This is important to remember as we come to the end of the Easter season.

In the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus spent time with the disciples clearly teaching the scriptures and telling them what they are to do in the world. Though many of His teachings were parables, in these days He spoke the plain truth so that there would be no confusion. The power and the presence of the Holy Spirit would soon follow; the Spirit continued to teach the disciples and gave them the faith to believe all that Jesus had spoken.

For three years and those forty days, Godís Word dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new creatures. Jesus had to go to heaven so that the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, the helper that would give them everything they needed to share the Word with the world.

The Day of Ascension is tomorrow and Pentecost is not for ten days, so this Sunday falls in the middle of a time of transition. These were days filled with prayer. The last time the disciples had to transition was between the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were frightened and confused. They didnít know what their future held. They didnít know if the next knock on the door would be someone who wanted to hang them on a cross. They probably wondered if they should return home and return to the lives they had before Jesus.

Their attitude during this transition was much different than the first. Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to them on that first Easter. He spent forty days with them, teaching them everything they needed to move forward. He encouraged them to continue His work in this world. He heartened them with words of comfort; ďDo not fear,Ē He said. He breathed on them and promised to be with them forever, changing their fear into faith. They were in transition and though there was still uncertainty about their future, they trusted Jesus and obeyed His command.

Jesusí ascension left little room to question the nature of this man they had known for three years. He was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. Now He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but the promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. However, Jesus did not intend for them to wallow in the past. I can imagine there were some tears in their eyes and nostalgia in their conversations as they remembered all Jesus did and all that He was to them.

Their attitude was different than forty days earlier, but I am certain they still felt grief. Though they knew Jesus lived, He was no longer in their presence. Isnít that how we feel about those we love who are no longer with us? We know that by faith they still live and dwell in heaven. We even comfort ourselves with the idea that they watch over us. We talk to them even though they are not here to hear. We know they are blessed by life in a better place, but we long for their touch and to hear their voice. We miss them. The disciples were going to miss having Jesus physically in their presence.

Jesus was gone. The disciples were alone. They knew things, but did they know enough? How were they supposed to continue Jesusí work? How were they supposed to do the miracles, speak the words, teach the lessons that would change peopleís lives? They lost their teacher. They left their families, and in many cases couldnít return because their families had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The world was opposed to everything they had come to believe. How do you deal with that?

It is no wonder that the disciples stood looking at heaven after Jesus was taken up. I think 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. They had enemies both in flesh and spirit. Besides, what glory could be found in the suffering that was inevitable?

Jesus taught them that there is glory in suffering. Christ was not glorified 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. Godís purpose for Him was to hang on the cross, and God raised Him up in victory. This is reason for us to celebrate, to sing praise to God the Divine Warrior who defeated the true enemies of His people: sin, death, and the devil.

The cross doesnít sound very glorious though, does it? The world cannot see the glory: 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. Jesus 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. 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.

As the disciples watched Jesus ascend to heaven, two angels appeared 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. The only thing they could do at that moment was to pray. Those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons were over; the time for work was at hand. They had no idea what the future held. They had to stand on their own two feet. They had to be responsible. They had to be more independent and the work was going to be so much harder without Jesus. Would they be able to do the job God was calling them to do? Would people believe them? Would people believe in Jesus because of their words? Would there be any joy? This was the beginning of the end of their time as followers; it was the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to do the work that Christ did. Instead of just one man, there were eleven and soon there would be more.

They didnít wait until Pentecost to make the first change amongst their group. Jesus originally selected twelve men to accompany Him. Sadly, Judas did exactly what Jesus expected him to do, but he did not know how to deal with his grief and his guilt. Iíve often wondered what would have happened if Judas had just waited long enough to see Jesus face to face after the resurrection. Would he have found forgiveness? The prophecies said he was doomed to destruction, but was that destruction destined to be the horrific ending we see in todayís passage from Acts? After all, though Peter did not betray Jesus, he did deny Him. Yet, on the beach after the resurrection, Jesus had mercy on Peter, forgave him and called him to lead the Church into the future. Might Judas have found a similar grace at the feet of his Lord?

Judasí destruction came because he was unwilling or unable to face Jesus. He sought forgiveness from the priests in the Temple who had no mercy. He saw no other way out besides suicide. How could the disciples forgive him? He never saw the whole story from the other side of the cross. He only knew that Jesus was dead and that it was his fault. He thought there was no hope. Suicide is never a good option, though many people think that it is better to die than to face the pain their situation. Death seems so easy when there is no hope.

Despite their grief, the disciples knew there was work to be done. The Church would not remain a group of eleven men. It would not be just a few women who supported and encouraged the work. It would not be just the few dozen followers that had been with them for the past three years. The Church was about to explode. The disciples gathered in prayer and Peter suggested that they should replace Judas. They chose two men out of the disciples and voted by lots for someone to be the twelfth. Matthias was chosen and he joined them in their work. They would have to add other leaders because the community of faith would continue to grow. In those early days they added to their numbers daily, sometimes by the thousands! This work required Godís help. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned, the disciples would succeed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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? The text can be divided into two distinct prayers. In the first section, Jesus prayed for Himself. He did not pray for the cross to be removed, but rather that He would be glorified. The prayer is a remembrance of the things that Jesus did, 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. The second half of the prayer describes how the disciples reflect the glory of Christ. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those touched by His ministry and message.

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.

The original disciples shared the Gospel with the first Christians, and Christians have continued to share the Good News with every generation since. They were His because they heard the Word and believed all that God has said and done. So, too, we are His by that same Word, the Living Word that once dwelled among a small group of disciples but now dwells among all those who believe. We give thanksgiving and praise for those who shared that Good Word with us, so that we too might know Christ and live according to His Word. The God who dwelled in the Tabernacle now dwells in the hearts of all those who believe. This is a reason to celebrate.

Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. He was writing to a people who were on the verge of being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. They faced trouble from the Romans and from the Jews, and they would eventually face even worse. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection, and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of Godís grace with anyone. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them. They danced in the streets, celebrating with joy and delight the God who saves.

The early Christians needed encouragement to get through. Peter wrote to remind his readers that we share in the glory of Christ when we share in His suffering. ďBeloved, donít be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christís sufferings, rejoice, that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy.Ē Our joy comes from being one with Christ in all things, including His sufferings.

Peter then listed a number of ways to live out our faith in this relationship we have with God. First of all, we are to be humble before Him. He is God, we are His servants. We will share in His glory, but it is not up to us to choose the time or the place. God calls us to live humbly and we will be exalted. Second, we are to give our worries and our fears to God because He cares for us. We often feel like we have been left alone, particularly when we are suffering from persecution. God loves us, He wonít leave us alone.

Third, Peter tells us to discipline ourselves. Jesus spent three years and forty days teaching His followers what it meant to be a Christian. He showed them how to be a servant. He was an example of prayer. He worshipped with them, walked with them, scolded them, encouraged them, warned them, and corrected them. It is not easy to live the Christian life; it requires the kind of relationship Jesus had with His Father. This relationship comes first through His grace, for He comes to us. We canít find Him by our own works. However, faithful living means constant devotion to building our relationship with God through prayer. We canít expect it to just happen. Peter warned his readers that Satan is prowling like a hungry lion waiting to pounce on prey; we must be alert and prepared. It takes training and practice. It takes discipline.

There is hope despite the troubles we will face. God has promised that He will be near and that He will restore, support, strengthen and establish us. He is indeed the God of all grace and He has called us to this life. He has promised that we will share in His eternal glory that is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have all we need to live this life, to go forth in faith, and to serve God in the world.

We canít do it by ourselves. We need one another. The witness of Peter and all the other disciples was passed on through generation after generation. We know Jesus Christ because of the testimony of those who have come before us and future generations will know Him because of the witness of the Church from every time and every place, including you and me. We are all bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are made one by Godís Word through Godís grace, together continuing the work of Jesus Christ in this world. This is a reason to celebrate. We have reason to dance in the streets. We have reason to praise God with joy, to delight in His presence because we are His forever. He has won the victory. He has defeated our enemies. He has made all things right and we are called to sing the song that tells the story of His innumerable deeds, His faithfulness, and His power.

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