Devotional – Psalm 96.9

Psalm 96.9

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

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When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.

This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.

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However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.

Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.

Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

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Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

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When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

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Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Confronting Conflict – Sermon on Isaiah 6.1-8

Isaiah 6.1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Then seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

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Tell me about your last fight.” So began one of my recent premarital counseling sessions. The couple danced around the question for a few moments, claiming they couldn’t remember the last time they had a fight, but when I started to ask more specific questions the answers started pouring out. Their conflict could be boiled down to a lack of communication, and when I sat there with them I saw them begin to share things with one another for the very first time. Before we went on, I couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why haven’t you talked about this stuff before?”

The woman sat in my office with her head hung low. It took her a few minutes to muster the courage to begin telling her story, and when she started it came out like the floodgates were opening. She felt invisible to her husband, no matter what she did, he would brush it off and continue to focus on the task before him. She was afraid that she had done something wrong and didn’t know where else to turn so she came to me. We talked together about her situation, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “Why hasn’t she told her husband how he makes her feel?

We were sitting on the edge of a property in West Virginia after nearly a week on our mission trip. The young boy was from a different church, but I could tell something had sent him over the edge. His tears fell slowly and deliberately as he confided in me about his struggles. He could not longer stand being treated like an infant or a child. He had important ideas and things to share but everyone brushed him aside instead of treating him with worth. Rather than being supported in his discipled journey, he felt like he was all alone and he was worried. I listened, but I also knew that when the end of the trip arrived he would be going home to a different community and a different church so I asked, “Is there someone from home that you can share all of this with?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m afraid.

In each of your bulletins you will find a piece of paper about the size of an index card and I would like you to hold it in your hand. We’re going to have some time for silence, and during that time I want everyone to write down the name of one person that you are currently in conflict with.

Maybe your mother-in-law has been driving you crazy with her relentless need to tell you how to raise your family. Perhaps your boss continues to heed your advice, but then takes all the credit when things go right. Maybe your son has made some poor choices and you can’t remember the last time you had a decent conversation about anything. Perhaps one of your best friends is letting their backwards political opinions isolate them from what it means to be a decent human being. Maybe your pastor has been preaching all sorts of sermons that you definitely do not agree with.

So take a moment, and write down a name. No one will see it but you. When you’ve finished, I want you to hold the card in your hand for the rest of the sermon.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. God encountered the soon-to-be prophet in the midst of something important. Uzziah was an arrogant ruler, and his arrogance led to his death. Even though his reign brought economic prosperity, he neglected to respect the temple and the worship of God. It was at this particular time, in the wake of Uzziah’s death that Isaiah was called to speak.

The call is frightening. The Lord is high and lofty with the hem of his robe filling up the entirety of the temple. Seraphs, winged creatures, were flying above the Lord, each with six wings. One of them called out to another and declared, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Everything around Isaiah began to shake and tremble and the room filled with smoke. Only then does Isaiah muster up the courage to say anything at all, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Isaiah was confronted with the utter and radical holiness of the Lord. With wind spinning, floors shaking, and voices trembling, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. Have you ever felt unworthy when confronted by something greater than yourself?

When I saw my wife Lindsey walking down the aisle at my home church to meet me at the altar for the covenant of marriage, I felt completely unworthy. When I held Archer and Abram Pattie in my arms above the baptismal font and brought them into the fold of God’s kingdom, I felt completely unworthy. Every month when I serve communion here at the front of the church, I am met with eyes of Christians who have lived far more faithfully than I ever will, and I feel completely unworthy.

God’s majesty, whether through the beauty of creation, a call vision, or the people in our lives often leaves us feeling pretty feeble. When we discover the divine we can only feel that much more mortal. When we encounter the infinite, we are reminded of our finitude. When we meet the living God, we can’t help but wonder about the lives that he gave to us.

God’s call is frightening. God calls the young and old, men and women, to abandon their former and sinful ways to live fully in Christ. God called a young prophet to speak harsh truths to a community that had grown far too complacent. God continues to call all of his children to be prophetic with our words and our actions.

The call is frightening and scary enough. But when we respond, when we answer the call, the real trouble begins.

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Then one of the seraphs flying high above the Lord came down to Isaiah with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with the burning coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah was dramatically changed through his encounter. The flaming coal not only cleansed him, but it also gave the him the power to speak on behalf of the Lord. In a matter of moments he went from crying out, “Woe is me! I am lost” to “Here am I; send me!

This whole story about Isaiah’s call is a lot like what we do in worship. We come together to praise the almighty God, we pray and confess our unworthiness, and then seek forgiveness. We pray for God to give us the grace and strength to hear the Word with faith so that we can respond accordingly.

How we worship matters because it shapes us into the disciples we are called to be. Every Sunday is like Isaiah’s call. We meet the Lord in the words from scriptures, prayers, hymns, and our brothers and sisters. Through that encounter we are called to live out our faith as soon as we depart in a way that will make God’s kingdom reign. All of these things that we do on a weekly basis, they are done to attune us to the voice of God who speaks into our lives.

Isaiah’s call, this dramatic and overpowering moment in the temple, reminds us that when we encounter the living God, there is not way to know God without being changed. Like a coal coming from the altar to our lips, we are tasked with speaking words like fire. Like a frightened prophet we are given the power to cry out “Here am I; send me!

The prophet was called to speak during a particular time, to sinners in the midst of sin. If we hear something from God’s Word today it should be a similar call. We should not be afraid to names the sins of our time, just as Isaiah did when he confronted the people’s political arrogance, spiritual pride, and economic injustice.

Abraham had to confront the Lord who promised to make his descendants more numerous than the stars. Jacob had to confront his twin brother Esau who sought to kill him for stealing his blessing. David had to confront King Saul who was jealous of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah had to confront a people who neglected to thank God for being the source of all their blessings. Jesus had to confront a religious elite who no longer practiced what they preached. Peter had to confront the gentiles and welcome them into the fold of the church. Paul had to confront his own sinfulness and call others to do the same.

Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront the conflict in their lives. To be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love. To be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong. To follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

What situation are you in right now that God is calling you to confront? I believe the holy Lord of hosts is personally addressing each and every one of us in the scripture today. Who do we need to call out? Where are the conflicts in our lives?

In each of our hands we have a name that represents a conflict in our life. Some of them can be confronted with a phone call or a conversation. Some of them can be confronted with our willingness to forgive a wrong that was done toward us. Some of them can be confronted with the simplest of gestures.

It might not go well. If we take the first step to confront one of our conflicts, it might blow up in our faces. But the longer we let these names stay on paper, the longer the conflict will keep us from fully living out our identities as disciples. The longer we let the conflict simmer, the longer we will be people of unclean lips living amidst unclean lips. The longer the conflicts remain, the harder it will be to hear the living God speaking into our lives.

The voice of the Lord is saying to all of us, “Whom shall we send, who will go for us to confront the conflict?” Our answer should be the same as Isaiah’s, “Here am I, send me!” Amen.

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Eyes On The Sky – Sermon on Acts 1.6-14

Acts 1.6-14

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 there were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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I was sitting in the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Lexington, VA for my first district event as a pastor. The room was filled, as you would expect, with older Christians (lay and clergy) dedicated to the kingdom of God as made manifest in the UMC. We listened to our District Superintendent discuss the challenges facing the church in our contemporary period and how similar they are to the problems that John Wesley faced in England when he initiated the Methodist movement of scriptural holiness.

All of the districts that make up our Annual Conference are required to gather annually for the purposes of restoring our souls for the adventure of doing church, and to discuss business matters as they pertain to our locality. Reports are filed annually for our review and approval as well as a new budget that needs to be considered by the body of Christ gathered together.

As far as I was concerned, the budget appeared fine. Sure, there were a few minor changes; some programs needed more money, and some programs had been receiving too much without being fruitful for the church. The only noticeable and significant change was found regarding the budgetary needs for “district youth.” I can’t remember the exact figures but it was a noticeable decline in funding for the young people of the district.

One representative present noticed this significant change and decided to make it abundantly clear to everyone how upset she was that the money had been decreased. She said, “I want to know why we lowered the district youth budget. The youth are the future of the church, and if we don’t invest in the them, the church will disappear.

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A worthy comment, don’t you think?

Our District Superintendent then calmly responded to her comment: “I appreciate what you are saying. We do need to invest in our youth. But I want to be clear about something; the youth are not the future of the church, they are very much a part of the church right now. The mentality that “the youth are the future of the church” prevents us from treating them as the church in the present. We will gladly restore money to the youth district budget, but for the last few years we have done nothing with and for them. I would love to hear ideas about what we can do right now for them, and then we can responsibly apply money to the District Youth.”

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After Jesus’ resurrection, he spent 40 days with his beloved disciples speaking about the kingdom of God. This forty day period was a great pause in the dynamic actions of God in the world; after the resurrection but before the day of pentecost, Christ had fellowship with his brothers and sisters to teach them about the coming days of ministry and service.

When they had come together after Jesus had completed his teaching, some of the disciples asked the question that was still on everyone’s mind: “Lord, is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection, they were so caught up in the drama of Roman occupation that their vision of God’s kingdom was limited to political ramifications alone. So Jesus did what all great teachers do, he ignored their question: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had finished saying this, he was lifted up toward heaven and a cloud took him out of the disciples presence.

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The disciples stood transfixed, as any of us would have, with their eyes on the sky, perhaps held is disbelief. Suddenly two men in whites robes appeared and said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return in the same way” So, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer.

Jesus made three promises to his disciples before he ascended into heaven: the gift of the Holy Spirit would come, they would spread their witness to the ends of the earth, and Jesus himself would eventually return. They had been given a job to do before he left: wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem and then spread the gospel, but when he was lifted up the disciples stood paralyzed with the eyes on the sky. Can you blame them? Jesus had come back from the grave, resurrected and clothed in the glory of God to teach them about the kingdom, and now he had left again. Their friend and Lord had departed, entrusting the future of the church and the kingdom to this group of uneducated, poor, and often ignorant community.

While standing with their necks craned backwards two men appear to remind the disciples of their purpose, a reminder that we need to hear as well: “Why are you looking up to the heavens?” You have a job to do. There is work to be done.

When the woman stood up to question the budget as the District Conference I could understand where she was coming from. Reducing the money from the youth budget sounds like a bad thing to do. But her notion of “youth as the future of the church” is just like the disciples stuck with their eyes on the sky. One of the greatest problems facing the present church is our inability to see the present. We become so consumed with the future of the church that we lose sight of our mission right here and now. 

It astounds me how often people ask me about the future of the church. And I don’t mean what the church will be doing next year. People want to know the long term hope for the church of the distant future. The questions I hear are regularly oriented to a future that is beyond our ability to grasp or imagine: Where are all the young people? How can we convince the millennials to attend church? How can we build 250 churches in the next 30 years? …

This is how many of us live our lives, consumed by the distant future of all things, not just the church: we think about the next war, the next financial rise or decline, the future of democracy in America and abroad, the survival of the “perfect” family model of a husband, wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. We no longer look at the horizon, instead we want to look over the mountains and imagine the great fields and grasses beyond our vision.

Jesus, however, was of a different mind. Begin now! Get your eyes out of the sky and start focusing on the present. Right here and now our task is to transform the present by witnessing to Christ, to the kingdom, and to his Word. This is not to say that we are forbidden from planning for the future; we can, but not at the expense of the present. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When the angels reproved the disciples for their transfixed gaze on the heavens, how did the disciples respond? They waited and and they prayed.

In an age of activism and instant gratification, we would expect the disciples to something a little more “useful” than wait and pray. We would expect them to meet together in different committees to implement action plans like: creating contemporary worship services. To ask questions such as:“how can we build 250 churches in the next thirty years?” or “how can we convince the young people to start coming to church?” Yet, when they were told to witness to the ends of the earth, when they were tasked with spreading the Word of the Lord, their first response was prayer. While the world was ready to keep spinning, to forget about the political problem that was squashed when they crucified Jesus, ready to get back to life as usual, the disciples met in the upper room and devoted themselves to prayer.

Gathering to wait and pray are often depicted as the two primary actives of a faithful church. It amazes me how far I, and we, have fallen from this blueprint. When the church encounters a crisis we treat it as such and we immediately implement plans and programs to fix it. When I am asked about how I intend to get more people to start attending church, people want to know what I’m going to change in order to make church appealing immediately. Imagine, if you can, how people would react if, after they asked the question, I responded, “I should pray about it.

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We don’t want to wait. We want things to happen immediately. Thats why people still ask, whenever I introduce myself as the Pastor of St. John’s, “how many people do you have in worship?” We want numbers, and figures, and diagrams, and growth, and tangible results as soon as possible. Christ, on the other hand, wants patience and prayer.

Waiting and praying is a heavy burden for those of us caught up in the technically impatient world of the present. We live in an age of instant everything, and so many want the church to be exactly the same way. One of the toughest tasks that will face us as a church, and I really mean us, the people of St. John’s, will be to be a people of prayer, when the world expects us to be a people of instant results.

In life, all things come and go. Where there is life there is always death, where there is love there is loss, where there is hope there is sorrow, where there is joy there is pain. So too, Jesus came to be with his people, and then he left; he ascended into heaven. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes there is an unrecognized good that comes with the going.

Jesus wants persons, not puppets. We are not here to be controlled by the great puppet master in the sky who moves us to where we are supposed to go. Instead Jesus has left us to be his body for the world, to be true and full persons who are prepared to go and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Sometimes we have to be left on our own to really learn who we are, and whose we are.

A parent can never be there for every single thing their child ever does. If they were, the child would never learn how to grow, blossom, and mature into their true nature. A boss can never oversee everything their employees do, otherwise the business would lack the great imaginative capabilities of numerous minds, rather than a solitary and isolated vision. A pastor can never lead as a perfect disciple for everyone else to follow, because all pastors are like everyone else, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.

Christ ascended into heaven so that the church could become his body for the world, so they we could become his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samara, and to the ends of the earth.

So, how do we begin? How do we live into this call that Christ has placed on our lives? How can we start being his body for the world and have a vibrant and life-giving church?

We begin by waiting and praying.

Like the disciples, we need to be patient before we jump into “fixing” all of the “problems” that we see. Imagine a church that prayed fervently for the needs of our faith community in the hope of meeting the needs of so many on a regular basis. Imagine what this place would look like if we spent the first fifteen minutes of worship every Sunday in silence, waiting and praying to the God who calls us and knows us by name. Imagine what our family lives would look like if we spent five minutes with our children praying for them and their friends every morning before they left for school. Imagine a faith life where we prayed not just for what we want, but for the needs and hopes of the people who bother us the most.

It would be strange. For many it would be uncomfortable. Waiting and praying are no longer natural habits for the people who live in the world today. We have become so habituated into expecting “instant everything” that we rarely relish in the joy that is patience and prayer.

Today, let us become a people of waiting and prayer. As we take the steps to this table we are reminded that even though Jesus ascended to heaven, he never really left us. For he is here with us in the bread and the wine. He becomes manifest in our lives when we participate in his kingdom on earth. Do not let yourselves be burdened by the worries of the future, instead let us all get our eyes out of the sky and start doing the work of the Lord here and now, work that begins with prayer.