We Have a Plan

Scripture: Acts 1:1-11

New International Version (NIV)


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 presented himself to them 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 baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and 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.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.11 “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.”


The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon

Today is the day we observe Jesus’ ascension. The day he ascended back into heaven. We confess in the Apostles Creed:

“Jesus rose from the dead ….AND he ASCENDED into heaven.” 

This particular text – Acts 1 – tells us where we are in the story. In God’s story.

The author of Acts is the same author of the gospel of Luke. Thus, he begins by addressing Theophilus and reminding him of what he wrote about in the gospel of Thomas:

Gospel Story

Birth: God breaks into the world in the form of a baby. 

Ministry: Jesus teaches, works miracles, draws people to himself, heals, loves.

Death: Jesus is accused, betrayed, and killed as a criminal. 

Resurrection Jesus’ is raised from the dead and into new life. 

Appearances: In his risen form he appears and eats with his followers, revealing the truth of his resurrection to them.

Ascension: And now, on this day at the ascension, Jesus, in risen form, “is taken up” into heaven. This concludes the visits of the risen Christ. He is now in Heaven…not wandering around, showing up, convincing us that he is indeed alive. He is going back to heaven.

God’s verb in this passage is “to be taken up.” Jesus is taken up to heaven. It’s a passive verb “To be taken up” and we know that it is Abba, God in heaven in action, doing the taking. The Greek verb “to be taken up” can also be translated “to receive up.” Jesus is taken up to be received by God.

Jesus knows that when people leave, we get anxious. So, he gives us the plan. 

“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Of course he doesn’t give us a detailed timeline… but he does tell them what to look for. What to expect as we wait. 

That’s our verb – to wait. While Jesus is taken up… we are to wait. 

Waiting is not my favorite thing to do. And by spending time in airports or traffic or in a line for a cup of coffee… I realize it’s not anyone’s favorite thing to do. 

Waiting feels like wasted time. 

Time we could spend doing something productive.

Making change.

Or at least having a few extra minutes of time at home to relax. 

So why then does Jesus tell us to WAIT? In Jerusalem, away from our homes, our families, our work. 

Why would we wait? 

Why does Jesus want us to wait?

Jesus tells us to wait for the Holy Spirit. To wait for something that is about to happen in Jerusalem where we will be baptized. Some sort of baptism, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. And the entertainment factor alone of that promise is enough to peak our interest. To wait around with these strangers we’ve traveled with for a little longer and see what Jesus is talking about. 

I wonder if people went to sleep after the ascension…

Or if they just waited up… looking for something to happen… like some of us do on New Year’s Eve. Or the night an election is announced. 

We wait with great anticipation. Ready for things to get started. Maybe some of us fearful of what it will be… or what it will mean..

We’re given a few more verbs while we wait:

– stay 

– watch

– gather together

– witness

I like that Jesus tells us to gather together. It makes waiting a little more doable when we know we’re not alone. 

This last week I was at a conference with a few friends of mine who are fellow pastors. I was the one with the rental car and so I shuttled people around from one event to the next. 

My colleagues learned pretty quickly that I don’t like to wait. 

At one point we had finished one seminar and had planned to meet at the car at 2:30 to travel to the next place together. One of my friend’s sessions ran late and by 2:38 I was getting antsy, starting the car and ready to start circling the block. 

My buddy was in the passenger seat and he just starting laughing. “You really are impatient! It’s 2:38. Chill!”

He said, “If you start circling in this traffic, what good will it do? She’ll come here looking for you and you won’t be here. You’ll be putting yourself in more traffic for no reason.” 

“Be patient. Wait a little longer. It’s better this way.”

Of course he was right. A few minutes later, she hopped in the car apologetically and we were on our way. 

It can really help to have a friend beside you reminding you of the plan. Reminding you that your job right now is to wait. That’s your verb. That’s all you need to do, Jesus says. Wait and watch for what is next. 

* * *

Though the early followers got a plan… they were definitely confused by it. 

They couldn’t understanding WHY they couldn’t go with him. Why is Jesus being “taken up” alone? Shouldn’t we, adopted as God’s children through him, get to go, too?

They also couldn’t understand WHY he was leaving when the kingdom of Israel STILL has not been restored?

Wasn’t that why we needed a Messiah? To restore the kingdom of Israel?

To reestablish peace and justice and love as the values of our society instead of empire?

And as far as we can see, that has not happened. The world is still a mess. The empire still has power. Violence and execution are still daily news. 

WHEN will the Kingdom of Israel be restored?

Why Are you being taken from us? When God’s work is clearly not finished?

There’s a song in the musical Godspell that is really moving. Jesus has told the disciples the plan. He is going to die and be raised and this one follower begins to sing this song:

“Where are you going? 

Where are you going? 

Can you take me with you? 

For my hand is cold and needs warmth. 

Where are you going?”

The emotions of the song open up for us the depth of this moment. The confusion, the sadness, the fear and realized pain of abandonment. 

Jesus tries so hard to tell us the plan, to help us be patient in our waiting and trusting with our future. He tries so many times to tell us the whole story…and we still are stuck with the questions that affect us –

Where are you going? 

Can we go with you?

Is it time yet?


The question of where has always piqued interest for people inside and outside of the church.

Where exactly is Jesus going? Where is God “taking him up to?”

My question for us to consider today is this one: What is heaven? Where do you think Jesus ascended to?

  • – A place with no evil or heartbreak or violence. A place of ultimate peace.
  • – Where my scars on earth will be gone
  • – Customized for each person’s personality. Extroverts get to be at a party with all their friends. Introverts get alone time. 
  • – I like the way it’s portrayed in a movie where we all get a lawyer and go before a judge to see if our overall life was faithful. Specifically to replay parts of our life where we acted out of trust and courage and the parts where we acted out of fear. 
I heard author Diana Butler-Bass speak this last week at the Festival of Homiletics about heaven. She’s writing a new book called Grounded due to release this Fall and in it, she claims that the hierarchical understanding of salvation no longer makes sense in our 21st century context. 

This idea that heaven is above us, earth is here and hell is below us was shattered in the World Wars with the darkness of the Holocaust. 

All of a sudden during the war, we didn’t need the images of lakes of fire in our scriptures to imagine Hell and use fear to gain salvation. 

Now, we just turn on the daily news. Our minds filled with images of destruction. Hell is here. 

So, what does that mean for Heaven? She claims that we can get glimpses of Heaven here as well. Glimpses of the kingdom being revealed… being made new. 

As we focus on our verbs:

wait

watch

draw together

witness


We may catch glimpses of the kingdom being renewed or of God’s very self with us through the Holy Spirit. 

* * *

We could spend all day pondering this question… Where is heaven?

But we must be careful not to miss the good news. 

The GOOD NEWS is that “taken up into heaven” means that Jesus was received by God. Reunited with God.

We, like the disciples, might be sad or confused because we’ve gotten used to God being here. With us. God Emmanuel. 

But, Jesus doesn’t really belong here… in human form on Earth. He belongs with God, our Creator, his “Abba.” We just got to borrow Jesus for a short time so that we ourselves could be redeemed. 

It is GOOD NEWS that Jesus is taken up into heaven. 

Because Jesus is God. Comes from God. Must return to God. 

And it’s good news that Jesus isn’t done with us yet. There’s a plan.

We wait and watch and draw together because God is not done with us or redeeming the whole world yet. We must wait and watch for what is next.

The GOOD NEWS is that we don’t have to think of the earthly realm and the heavenly realm as completely separate non-permeable boundaries. 

Jesus breaks those boundaries open. The first to travel from God (heaven) to us (earth) back to God. And he paves the way for us… to be forever connected and reunited with God. To trace glimpses of heaven among the glimpses of hell. 

* * *

At the end of our story today, the two men (maybe angels, maybe bystanders) say, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

…. Don’t you know Jesus can cross the barrier? Don’t you know this same Jesus going to heaven will come back?

Since the ascension and all Jesus has done for us, we do not have to fear what is next. We don’t have to get anxious or remain sad or confused.

For we know that Jesus is not yet done with us.

We know that Jesus is preparing our place with him.

We know that Jesus has already crossed our perceived barriers between heaven, earth and hell and invites us to do the same…

Next week is Pentecost – the birthday of the Christian church… when we remember that the Holy Spirit does come, just as Jesus said, and the Holy Spirit fills the followers with the breath of God. Baptizing them with fire to be Christ’s witnesses and live out the story – God’s story – in this world.

But this week….we WAIT

we WATCH.

we DRAW TOGETHER.

and we WITNESS what God is about to do. 

Because Jesus has told us the plan.

And for this, we give thanks.
Amen



Salt and Light

Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus says,
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon

On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal:
Star athlete,
bright student,
beloved friend.

But these photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.

Madison was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania when she chose to end her life.

She had always been a high achiever – succeeding in school and in sports. Her family and high school community were used to seeing her name in the newspaper – a beautiful photo with stats of how many goals she had scored or track awards she took.

To the outside world, it appeared that she could do no wrong. She succeeded in everything that she did.

But on the inside, she was crumbling to pieces.

On January 17, the last day of her life, her dad called her and asked if she had found a therapist at school. She said, “Not yet.” As her biggest supporter and close father, he knew she struggled with perfectionism and finding happiness in herself. He was proud, but worried, too.

When news spread of Madison’s death, her family, friends and sports community rallied together – wishing they could breathe her back to life, to somehow communicate to her that they loved her simply for being Madison, not because of her achievements, or looks, or success.

In reflection on the disconnect Madison experienced between her online image and her inside one, five of Madison’s friends decided together that they would begin to share their unfiltered lives online.

“Intentionally, they peeled away the filters (literally and metaphorically) from their social media accounts to disclose their true feelings during shared moments in their lives.”
 Source – (http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story)

They use the hashtag #LifeUnfiltered with the message – “It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to let people know that you’re not ok.”

#LifeUnfiltered is an invitation to be more real in the image we portray online.

It’s an invitation to be vulnerable with our insecurities, failures and fears and find support in others.

It’s an invitation to find peace in who we really are instead of the image we feel like we have to create to fit in…

John Steinbeck once said, “and now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Now that you don’t have to be perfect…

You can be good…

You can be who God intended you to be.

* * *

Today’s scripture passage is so important because Jesus tells us who are to be. He gives us our identity.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

“You are the light of the world.”

What does he mean?

You are the salt of the earth.

I’m going to pass around salt and I invite you take a piece. Hold it in your hand. Consider it.

…..Salt is a catalyst for change.

We use salt to enhance or change the flavor of our food. We put it on all sorts of things – vegetables, fruits, meats, chocolates. And the salt changes the flavor of the food.

I invite you to put the piece of salt in your mouth. Feel it dissolve. Taste how it changes the flavor of your mouth.

Consider the change one granule of salt has on your mouth.
The change is noticeable. It fills your whole mouth!

Salt is an important resource to us.

We use salt to preserve foods.
It creates a hostile environment for certain microorganisms, keeping them from spoiling our food.

We also use salt to change the substance of our food.
—-My favorite example is the use of rock salt to create ice cream.

Salt also has played an important role in our history by being a sort of currency.  The word “salary” was derived from the Latin term “salarium” which was the name for a soldier’s pay in the army of ancient Rome. The pay included a large ration of salt, which was a spice of high value and also a medium for exchange; thus the origin of such expressions as “salt of the earth” and “worth your salt.” 
Source – http://www.food.com/about/salt-359

So what is Jesus trying to tell us by saying WE ARE the salt of the earth?

(long pause)

He’s saying that we are good. (pause)

Theologian Dietrich Boenhoeffer points out:

Jesus doesn’t tell us that we WILL be salt or that we CAN be salt.

But that we ARE salt. Right now, in your very being: “You are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus is telling us that we are good. Simply because we are of God. We are created by God… we have all the goodness we need to change the world around us.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and he’s saying that you are worth something. You’re worth a lot!  To God, to yourself, to the world.

Not by anything that you are doing or becoming, but because of who you are.

* * *

Jesus says, You are the light of the world.

Again, we are a catalyst for change. Light changes things. Makes them better.

If we think of a completely dark room, and then one candle lit….we are aware of just how much change one flame can have.

Light gives us vision. It allows us to see things that we otherwise could not see.
It gives things color.

Light is also a kind of energy.
Light allows vegetation to grow.
Light can be captured as solar power for electricity.

Light is an energy, a power, a catalyst for change and growth.

Later in the gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” Christ’s life and ministry among us brought us out of darkness and into a path of light. The light that provides warmth and direction and comfort.

So the fact that Jesus is including US in this identity is significant. Jesus is the light of the world. And we, too, are the light of the world. We, as disciples of Christ, have the light of Christ within us…. a light that can change the world.

* * *

These identities sound pretty good….

They are given to us as our identity in Christ and we don’t have to DO anything to be them.

But… there is something at risk.

Jesus goes on and says that we can LOSE our saltiness. If we lose sight of who we are.

If we put our light under a bowl instead of on a stand… our light will go out.

If we lose our identity –

not only are WE no longer good, but we no longer have the ability to add flavor and light to the world around us.



* * *


Jesus is making an important point for us that we have to accept our identity as salt, as light, so that our lives and discipleship will benefit the world around us.

We have to accept our identity, our goodness, and through it allow God to create change through us. 

We are the catalyst, God is the movement. It seems straightforward, but the implications are huge.

When we truly claim our identity in Christ… Salt. Light. We can not hide who we are. We cannot seek to become something other than ourselves.

Like Madison, the star athlete, successful student – we have to find our identity and our worth in our being. In our one identity as people of God and NOT in the identities uplifted by our culture. Not in other people’s perception of us or of who we should be or of who we think we need to become.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

So, be the salt of the earth. Be good.

Be the light of the world. Don’t hide true self, but bring that to the forefront… to your online image… so that Christ’s light may shine through you.


* * *


There’s a classic movie, often played around Christmas time, called It’s a Wonderful Life

In it, there’s a main character George Bailey, a business man who has given up his dreams time and time again to help others. On Christmas Eve, George learns that a deal has turned sour and that there will be a warrant out for his arrest. In despair, he considers the worth of his life. 

An angel in the form of a man named Clarence distracts him by drowning in the river. George saves him and Clarence takes the opportunity to show him the impact his life has had on particular people and his town.  He shows George what life would be like for the town and all the people George loves had he not been born.

His brother, his uncle, his wife, the poor in his town – all would have had negative experiences, had it not been for the one life of George Bailey. The one light of George Bailey.

The movie puts into perspective for us what really matters. It’s not the exquisite dreams of stardom and fame. It’s not the perfect life portrayed in instagram feeds.

It’s the goodness we share in our very existence. The light Christ shines through us simply in our being.

* * *

The challenge of discipleship today is getting back to our identity. Pushing away the expectations of the world, of other people, of ourselves…. to find the expectation of Christ.

To accept and simply live our identity.

To BE THE salt of the earth.
The Light of the world.

This identity will shape our daily lives and relationships.

And our light will shine. Our light will allow others to see the good deeds of God. Our light will give glory to God.

So, let your light shine. Stay salty. Allow the goodness God created in you to change the world.

Amen.

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