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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Waiting on God

I didn't record the children's talk. Please scroll down for the podcast of the main sermon.

 Children's talk: What are you waiting for?

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? My daughter and my husband never peek – always makes me so cross with them!

Are you any good at waiting? What, if anything, are you waiting for right now? I know soon it will be time to wait for exam results... and that is nerve-wracking.

Do you know what the disciples were waiting for? I don't think they did, really, but they were waiting for the Holy Spirit. They didn't know what that meant, but they knew it when they happened. They had to wait, though. It's okay to have to wait for God – things will happen in God's time. Not much of a consolation if you're as impatient as I am, but it's a lesson we all have to learn.

Sermon: Waiting on God


Our reading from Acts is really rather an odd story, isn't it? What did the disciples think they were doing? And why? And who on earth were Joseph Barsabas and Matthias? We have never heard of them before, and we practically never hear of them again!

The thing is, this story happens in a very odd time in the history of the world. Jesus has gone – we don't know the full details, other than the account a few verses earlier than the one we read, or the account in John's Gospel, but we do know that something happened to make the disciples realise that they weren't going to see him again exactly like that. Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come.

Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come. A very strange and disturbing time for them. They have been told to go to Jerusalem and wait, which they do, about a hundred and twenty of them, including Jesus' mother, Peter, James and the other nine apostles.

And, of course, they don't know exactly what they are waiting for. They don't know what it's going to be like when the Holy Spirit comes. They don't know that each and every one of them will be empowered to preach the Gospel with boldness and fluency and such power that many, many thousands of people will be converted and that the church they found will last down the years. They don't know this.

We're not told how long they had to wait. We give them ten days, until next Sunday, but it may have been longer. We don't quite know how long Jesus was appearing to them after his resurrection, but we do know it was at least a week – poor Thomas had to wait a whole week after missing Jesus' first visit and being totally sure the others must have been deluded. We do know that the feast of Pentecost, which we in the Church celebrate next Sunday, was the day when the Holy Spirit came, so that gives a last date – roughly six weeks after the Resurrection. So the disciples could have been waiting nearly a month between the final earthly farewells and the coming of the Spirit.

And waiting isn't easy, is it? Especially when you don't quite know what you are waiting for. How will they know when the Spirit has come? We know, of course, that She came in a rushing mighty wind and in tongues of fire, but they didn't know in advance that this is what was going to happen.

So it's not surprising that the first thing they thought to do was to make up the numbers of the Twelve – for Judas, who betrayed our Lord, had never repented the way Peter had, but despaired and died. And the eleven decided that, of the others in the group of 70 around Jesus, it was between Matthias and Barsabas, although we are not told why they thought it came down to these two. Peter said that the criteria were: “He must be one of the men who were in our group during the whole time that the Lord Jesus travelled about with us, beginning from the time John preached his message of baptism until the day Jesus was taken up from us to heaven.” There may well have been quite a lot of those around, and we're not told why specifically these two.

Anyway, they cast lots to decide which one it would be. These days, I dare say, they would have voted, but back then, casting lots – rather like tossing a coin – was thought to be a way of discerning what God wanted. And Matthias gets it – and we never hear of either him or Barsabas again, although I suppose that they were among those in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

Well, we never hear of Matthias again. Barsabas gets a couple of mentions – he goes with Silas to Antioch with the letter from the Council of Jerusalem, outlining the conditions for Gentile believers, and he is described as a prophet, and brought the believers “comfort and strength” before going back to Jerusalem, and we don't know what happened to him after that.

As for Matthias, the Bible never mentions him again, but there a few stories from the traditional sources. Although there are several different stories, it looks as though he ended up preaching and evangelising in what is now modern-day Georgia, and died there; there is, however, one source that claims he was stoned to death in Jerusalem, and still another says he died of old age. You pays your money and you takes your choice, if you ask me!

So were they wrong, do you think, to try to appoint another apostle? After all, it is not very long before Paul is converted and becomes the self-proclaimed “apostle to the Gentiles”. And God used his education and literacy to spread his interpretation of the Good News, as written in the Epistles, far and wide and so down to us today.

But I don't think it mattered. I am sure God honoured their decision to appoint Matthias, even though it turned out not to have been necessary. After all, they are fidgety. They are waiting for something, and don't know what it is or when it will happen. The temptation to go home, to go back to Galilee and fish, must have been almost overwhelming. They have done this once, though, and were told to go back to Jerusalem to wait.

And here they are, waiting. And waiting. I hate waiting, don't you? I am not a patient person, and I might have been tempted to have left Jerusalem and got on with my life. I hope I wouldn't have, but, well.....

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, quite apart from anything else, God can see round corners and we can't!

Sometimes it takes time 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.

And sometimes, of course, God's answer simply isn't the answer we would have chosen. The person for whom we were praying doesn't get better, but dies. The job is given to someone else. You child's going to be in the one class you hoped he wouldn't be next year. The election result appears to be disastrous. You know the sort of thing.

Part of it, of course, is that we can't see consequences the way God can. We can't see the future. The apostles had no way of knowing that Saul of Tarsus would experience a dramatic conversion and become possibly the greatest ever evangelist. So they appointed Matthias, who was probably fantastic in his own right, but not the person God meant to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

We can't see round the bend in the road. We don't know what's going to happen next. I'm sure some of us were very unhappy indeed about the result of last week's general election – I know some of my friends were, very. But again, we can't see what's going to happen next year, or even tomorrow. And we know, too, that God can't always stop dreadful things from happening as it might interfere with someone else's freedom of action. If I am walking down the street and a young man jumps out to stab me because I am a Christian preacher and he thinks that's God's will – well, I hope it won't happen, but I know that God won't, or probably won't, miraculously blunt that knife, and it would probably be very nasty....

But that is unduly pessimistic! This Sunday the Church throughout the world celebrates waiting, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Waiting isn't easy, but for those who held out, for the hundred and twenty in the upper room, for us, if we wait, we will, eventually know the power of God at work within us. We will be given gifts with which to do God's work; we will 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. Amen.