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Friday, 22 May 2009

Waiting for God

This is an edited version of a sermon I first preached back on the Sunday after the Ascension in 1996. I retyped it for another community, and thought I would also publish it on here.

Acts 1 - Jesus Taken Up Into Heaven

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit."

So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "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."

When I was a little girl, which was quite a long time ago now, I used to really look forward to my birthday. And the night before, it would be very difficult to go to sleep, just like it was difficult to go to sleep the night before Christmas. My mother used to say, "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner it will be morning." But that didn't make it any easier to go to sleep!

I wasn't very good at waiting for it to be Christmas, or waiting for it to be my birthday. I always used to peek at presents, to try to guess what they were. Of course, people who are good at waiting never peek, do they? That only spoils the surprise! But I'm impatient. I don't like waiting for things.

I wonder how I would have got on, then, if I'd been one of Jesus' disciples all those years ago. We heard in our first reading, from Acts, that Jesus was taken from the disciples. We don't know exactly how - Luke's account isn't very clear. It just says he was taken from them, and a cloud hid him from their sight, so we don't know if he just faded into the mist, or if he zoomed off up into the air like an aeroplane taking off, or what. And really, it isn't exactly important. What does matter is that it was made very clear to the disciples that This was It. Jesus wasn't going to be with them in quite the same way any more. And their job now was to go back to Jerusalem and wait.

The question is, what were they waiting for? It wasn't going to be their birthday. It wasn't going to be Christmas. Well, of course, they didn't celebrate Christmas then! It was going to be the Feast of Pentecost, but in those days that was a sort of Harvest Festival. But that wasn't what they were waiting for.

I don't think they knew exactly what they were waiting for. They knew, in theory, that they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, but they didn't know, in practice, what that meant. Jesus had told them lots of things about the Holy Spirit. But that didn't tell them exactly what was going to happen. Jesus had told them that the Holy Spirit would remind them of all the things he had said and done, and they would understand the things he'd taught them. He said that the Holy Spirit would give them power to witness to Jesus in all sorts of far-flung places like Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth. He had told them that the Holy Spirit couldn't possibly come unless he, Jesus, went away.

But he hadn't told them what it was going to be like. They had o way o knowing exactly what they were waiting for.

And I think it must have been very difficult to wait. We don't know, of course, exactly how long they did have to wait. It might not have been for very long. In the Church, we celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday, and we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next Sunday. We know the date for the coming of the Holy Spirit, because it was Pentecost, and we know that the Crucifixion and Resurrection happened around the time of the Jewish feast of Passover, and that these two feasts were about six weeks apart. But we don't know when the Ascension happened. It could have been a week after Easter; it could have been the day before Pentecost. So we don't know exactly how long the disciples had to wait. But no matter how long or how short a time it was, I bet that it felt like a very long time indeed! It must have been very, very difficult to wait patiently for Jesus to send the Holy Spirit. I shouldn't be surprised if some of the people nearly got fed up with waiting, and felt like going home to get on with their lives again. I think I might have felt like that, don't you? Perhaps some people did go home; Luke doesn't tell us. But we do know that 120 people didn't go home, including Jesus' mother, and Peter, James and John, and they were there in the Upper Room that morning when the Holy Spirit came down in tongues of fire and a noise like a rushing mighty wind. But if they had gone home, of course, they might have missed the whole thing.

It really isn't always easy to wait for God, is it? I'm sure you've had the experience of praying for something, and it not happening and not happening and not happening, and then all of a sudden it does happen. And you can't help wondering whether you had started to do something differently, or what, that made it happen, when, of course, it was just that not everything was ready for God to answer your prayer.

Waiting for God isn't a bit easy. Who was it prayed, "Give me patience, Lord, and I want it now!"? We always have to think we know better than God does - we want whatever it is now, and we don't see why God is delaying letting us have it. So then we whinge and moan at God, and some people even want to give up being God's person altogether.

Trouble is, of course, if you do that, if you try to know best, what you are saying, even if you don't realise it, is "Do it my way, God! Don't do it your way, do it my way!" And that is not a very sensible thing to say, because God can see round corners and we can't!

Sometimes we have to wait until we can say to God, "Okay God, do it your way! Don't do it my way!" Jesus had to say that to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, do you remember? He really, really didn't want to have to go through with it, and he had to absolutely fight with himself until he got to the point where he could say "Do it your way!" to God.

The other thing that sometimes happens is when something horrible has happened. When someone has died, for instance, especially if they are young, or if it was a terrible accident, or if they were killed. We get very cross with God, and say things like, "Well, what did you want to go and do that for? Why didn't you stop it?"

We forget that we can't see round corners the way God can. We aren't told what would have happened, but God knows And sometimes God doesn't stop dreadful things happening because it would mean interfering with someone else's freedom. And God doesn't interfere with our freedom. And sometimes God doesn't answer our prayers at once because to do so would mean forcing someone else to say "yes" to God when they aren't quite ready to. And again, God doesn't do that, either. But we do know that God always has a Plan B And that God works all things together for good to those that love him and are called according to His purpose. We might be going through a rough patch just now, but we know that, if we trust God, God will work it for good, and in six months' time we can probably look back and see the good God has worked from it.

I seem to have wandered rather a long way from the disciples, waiting patiently in the Upper Room for the Holy Spirit to come. But waiting is one of the skills we all have to learn to do. It's no good jumping up and down and being impatient, because it won't make God's time happen any faster. In act, I have a feeling that sometimes it delays things.

We have to learn to say to God, "Do it Your way!" And it's not an easy thing to learn. i find it incredibly difficult at times, and am terribly prone to go saying "No, no, you've got to do it my way!" But i we are to grow as God's people, then we have to say "Do it Your way."

And, of course, when we do learn to say that, then God the Holy Spirit is free to work in us. We mightn't necessarily see the tongues of fire or hear the rushing mighty wind that the disciples saw and heard, but we can know the power of God at work within us. We can be given gifts with which to do God's work; we can grow into the kind of people we were always meant to be. We will be the sort of people who have rivers of living water flowing from them - not that we can see it, or touch it, but that people will know that we are in touch with the source of all healing, and come to us for comfort. And we, we hope, will be able to point them to the right place where they can find healing for themselves - we will be able to point them to Jesus.

So learning to wait for God isn't just about learning patience; it isn't just about learning to say "do it your way" to God. It's about waiting for the right time, for when God is able to give you the gifts you need, the power you need, the love and joy and peace you need. To wait, as the first disciples waited, for the Holy Spirit to come. Amen.

Hmm. I'm not sure whether I would preach this like this today. Possibly. I can see several things I'd change - I don't think I would say that God has a Plan B, for instance; I think I'd say that God is never surprised! And maybe I'd talk about our need for control, and how hard it is to surrender control of our lives to God. But by and large I'd probably say the same kind of thing.

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