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Balancing the In-Between

This is the sermon I'm preaching at St. Timothy Lutheran Church for our first Drive-In Service. We will be celebrating Ascension Sunday. The gospel text is Luke 24:44-53. If you like, here is a video of the sermon. 
There are three movements in today’s gospel: the past, (vv. 44-47), the promise, (vv. 48-49) and the “while you wait,” the meantime. Each has its role. In the past we find the foundation that connected Jesus’ followers with their history. For us, that is BC—before Coronavirus. We also have the promise of Jesus: the call to be his witnesses (vv. 48-49), which is the disciples’ future. That is when things will be “back to normal,” a future that we long for. The final section is “While you wait” or what to do in the meantime (vv. 50-53) (Troy Troftgruben, This is where we find ourselves today.

In this in-between time, don’t we long for the days of being able to come and go freely? Oh, if only we could just gather together like we used to! But while we were in that time, did we appreciate it? Weren’t there Sunday mornings when we just couldn’t get going to make it to worship, thinking, there’s always next week—until there wasn’t? If we cling so tightly to the past, we will fall as we try to move forward.

The promises for the future give us hope. They keep us going. But if we focus exclusively on the future, we become disgruntled with the present. Whether we like it or not, the present is where we are and it’s only by living fully into our present that we can embrace and appreciate both the past and the future.

To reconnect the disciples with their faith history, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 46). They likely understood much about scripture, but not the way Jesus did. It was this understanding that was at the heart of the earliest preaching in Acts. Jesus taught his followers, “Thus it is written…” The suffering, death and resurrection were God’s plan all along. The Hebrew Scriptures testify to Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus told his disciples to “stay” until they had received the power of the promised Holy Spirit. We get excited about the future and want to get going before we are ready. God says, “Stay!” What would our faith look like today had Jesus’ first followers not waited for God’s power? Would it have been a mere footnote in history about Jesus who thought he was the Messiah, but the movement died out after his disciples died?

The movement did grow and brought Christ’s followers into places they would not have naturally wanted to go—places of poverty, illness, non-Jews, places where a different language was spoken, different cultures and religion. Because Jesus’ followers waited for the Holy Spirit, they were able to embrace God’s desired future. They needed to be anchored in the past, understanding God’s faithfulness and looking to the future of what God wanted to do. Because they could see God’s past faithfulness, they could look forward in the full knowledge of God doing what God said God would do. Both are needed to make our way through the narrows of the present time.

How many of us watched Nik Wallenda walk across long, high distances, such as his walk directly over Niagara Falls in 2012? That long pole that Nik used for balance was impressive. At that time,  Ray and I were in Olean interviewing for my first call in Portville, NY. I was so excited and focused on the future. Finally, I would be a pastor—after all the requirements and pre-requisites of seminary. But here too, we were at an in-between time. To manage that time, we had to reach back to our faith history and forward in assurance that God is faithful. If we spend too much time looking down at where we are, will we get to where we want to? We need the pole for balance.

When Jesus ascended, the period of his post-resurrection appearances ended. The disciples needed to look forward to Jesus’ return, but in the meantime, they had to wait for the promised power from God. Ascension means that Christ has entered into his glory, exalted and enthroned at God’s right hand (v. 26) (Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation, Luke).

Jesus’ disciples were not just a support group of individuals celebrating their own spiritual quest, but were the continuing people of God with a mission to the world. The gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached now becomes the gospel of what God has done in Christ.

We long for exact dates and times and we expect answers for when we can gather together indoors like we used to. But we don’t know exact times. We have the promises of God’s faithfulness and we know that gathering together is an important part of our faith, but when that will be is something we cannot be 100% certain of. Might our greatest spiritual growth in our lifetime come as a result of having to do things differently?

Today’s gospel lesson tilts toward tomorrow: something is going to happen. When we learn to live with that kind of expectancy, we can experience the excitement and anticipation of a child who sees a still-unopened package under the Christmas tree. What is the surprise that God will give? When we get to the tomorrows of our lives, God is already there, and God’s grace is sufficient for this time (F. Belton Joyner Jr., Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide).


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