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Sunday, May 24, 2020
Scripture: Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
In 2001 Jess and I had been married for just a few months. We were living in Eastown and working our first jobs out of college. Jess worked for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, which handled the international development work of the CRC. I can’t remember her exact job title, but she was kind of like Pam on the TV show “The Office.” She functioned as a receptionist, even though that really wasn’t her work, and she managed the work of several other people in the office. She was way overqualified and at times underappreciated in her position, but it was a start.
One of the perks of that job was that they liked to get the home office staff in the field on occasion to keep them connected to the work they were supporting. Jess got asked to go on 10-day trip to Zambia in Africa to attend a conference of mission partners and then to spend several days experiencing the area. We had no kids. We had no pets. We had no money, either, but we cobbled together the funds so that I could join in on this trip. It was a wonderful experience for us early in our marriage, meeting interesting people, seeing places like Victoria Falls that we never thought we’d see, and even eating interesting foods.
The worst part of that kind of travel is how long the flights are. I was not a nervous traveler. At least that was the case until the 12-hour flight between Johannesburg and Amsterdam on our way home. That flight started off uneventfully. For over two hours, everything was smooth. We ate dinner. The flight attendants were passing around drinks after dinner, helping the passengers prepare to sleep through the long flight.
But then we hit turbulence like I have never before experienced in my life. The plane dropped hundreds of feet rapidly. Drinks hit the ceiling. I can still picture Bailey’s Irish Cream dripping off of the ceiling, thinking “Uh oh. That doesn’t look so good.” People fell out of their seats. The descent was long enough I can remember having the thought, “So, this is what it feels like for a plane to crash.” It was one of the scariest moments of my life.
The pilots leveled the plane off, but the turbulence for the next few hours was horrible. They moved to a lower altitude hoping for clearer skies. If they succeeded in finding clearer skies, I’ll never know because the plane shook until we made it to the Mediterranean Sea.
What could we do? We were in the middle of a flight. As passengers, we had no responsibilities to help the pilots fix the shaking. None of us could make the situation better. All we could do was fasten our seatbelts, pray, and wait. In the middle of a hard situation, you pray and wait.
This is true in so many situations. You can’t exit the roller coaster in the middle just because the first hill scared you. You can’t get off the rope bridge that is hundreds of feet above the gorge halfway through. You can’t finish your drive to Florida if you get so sick of driving in Nashville that you just stop. If you watch the first ten minutes of movie and fast forward to the ending, you’ll never understand it, right?
The middle is part of our human story, and God uses the middle just as much as any other part of our story.
I know this is hard to keep track of since we are not able to meet in person, but we are now on the Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season. Can you believe it? Here at First Pres we often preach from series that the pastors put together on themes. With everything topsy-turvy right now, we’ve aligned ourselves with the Revised Common Lectionary, a series of set texts for Sundays. There is a method behind this, however. The texts in the Sundays following Easter are all about what the disciples are to do in between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – the middle, if you will.
How has life changed for them? What are they supposed to do now that everything has changed? What do they have at their disposal to be who God has called them to be in this season? We are one Sunday before Pentecost – the birthday of the church, the day the Holy Spirit came in power on the those waiting in Jerusalem for it – and the texts for this Sunday put us right in the middle of the waiting game.
John 17 takes place on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s a night filled with emotion and anxiety. What’s going to happen? the disciples wonder. After dinner together, Jesus speaks at length to his disciples about what is come. As he closes off what he has to say to them, he begins to speak directly to God in prayer, and the disciples are witnesses to the intimate relationship between the person of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m convinced that prayer is one of the most intimate things we do. I see it when people in this church offer prayers before meetings or for other people. Those prayers are honest and raw. Many of you worry about using the right words. (Don’t worry, you do just fine! God knows your heart!) Here we have Jesus laying himself out in an extensive prayer for his disciples and even for his followers in time to come. I’ve heard this prayer called “Jesus’ Great Prayer” or “The real Lord’s Prayer,” revealing how important this prayer is in the Bible and for us.
Jesus begins, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” What does it mean for the Father to glorify the Son? If I were to glorify someone, I would hold them up in the highest esteem, so that others would see in them what I see in them. It would be like this: Have you ever heard this person sing? No? Well, she writes the best songs and has a beautiful voice. You should listen to her music because it is amazing. That’s me glorifying a singer.
So, what is Jesus asking? Only that God would reveal Jesus’ true nature in what is to come. Why would he do that? I think there are at least a couple of reasons here. First, even though Jesus has done some remarkable things, even his disciples only glimpse the fullness of his glory. Second, he’s about to go through some horrific things. He wants them (and us) to see God’s love lifted up against the worst that humanity has to offer. Jesus is in very nature God, and this is something we can easily forget because we see him in all his humanity.
So, Jesus moves on in his prayer. “You have given him [that is, Jesus] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Jesus has authority to give eternal life. We tend to think of eternal life in terms of life after death, which is part of eternal life. However, the longer I’ve studied the Bible, the more convinced I have become that eternal life begins the moment a person awakens to the difference God’s love in Jesus Christ makes for that person and the whole world. Eternal life is now for those embracing God’s reign over their lives. It’s not just a future hope. It’s a present reality. Life in the middle encompasses the glorious reality that we live in the eternal love of God now and forever.
This does not mean that everything just works out for us as we experience eternal life. Jesus is very aware of this. Surely if it was true for Jesus’ disciples, then it is true for us. As his prayer continues, he talks about his guidance and protection of the disciples, but as he goes away, he is so aware that life is going to be difficult for those he’s leaving behind. While his prayer goes on, our text ends with verse 11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” He knows that they are still in the middle of the ride and that things to come may be frightening, things may get so hard that they want to quit, things may get so difficult that they want to leave behind all they’ve gained through Jesus, so Jesus tells them in his prayer to hold on. Things will be alright. God’s got this.
Our text in Acts moves us forward several weeks in time. It’s after the resurrection. The disciples have had time to adjust to this strange reality that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, only to come back from the dead – the same and yet different. Jesus is just about to leave them physically for good, so before he goes to the Father, the disciples ask him this, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The disciples gathering after Easter want to know when their hopes will be fulfilled. Is this it, Lord? they wonder. They’ve been waiting for resolution, and they’re hoping they’re about to get it. Is the ride over, Jesus? Are we at the end? So often Jesus’ answer to them and to us is this: Not yet. God’s plan for them continues and, in fact, requires their participation.
The disciples are wondering what Jesus will do. (When will you restore the kingdom to Israel?) Instead Jesus replies that they will be doing things. (You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.) They are still in the middle of it all, and Jesus has a mission for them and for all who dare follow Jesus.
But, here’s what’s really interesting to me in this. Jesus leaves his disciples to wait. They have a mission, but the time for action is not here. Instead of jumping straight into what their mission, they stay in Jerusalem. They wait. They pray.
Some of us are good at waiting. I’m not. Most of the past two months of being at home have involved me working, helping my kids with schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and when I’m done with those things, I jump on my long list of things I want to do around the house. I don’t sit still well. Some of it’s me, but I’m also a product of this time. I love how Fred Craddock describes this. “Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church. Our waiting implies that the things which need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort, our programs and crusades. Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays.”
This pandemic has put us in a season of waiting that is different than any other kind of waiting I’ve done in my life. Of course, like you, I’m impatient to get back to the way of life I love with the people I love. I want to be at the destination, but I know we’re still somewhere in the middle of this whole thing. Imagine with me that you were on that turbulent flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. Imagine that we polled all the passengers on the plane about what should happen. Some would say let’s just fight through the rough air and make it to our destination. Others would want to land the plane immediately and consider other options for how to get home. Some would want to pray. Others would want to drink – probably with lids so that it wouldn’t spill. Our lives were in the hands of the pilots, and even though we had opinions, we were stuck in the middle until the pilots brought the journey to an end.
So, while we’re in this turbulent time together, I encourage us to be the church. Let’s be the church that learns how to wait and pray. Let’s be the church that fixes our eyes on Jesus and is ready to do what he wants us to do. Let’s be the church that loves each other and our community even in this time. God has gifted us eternal life, so let’s celebrate that gift even now.
I know that I’m stuck in the middle with you, and I’d want it no other way. Thanks be to God.