Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 28, 2017
“These things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.”
OUR PRAYERS go up through space and time, ascending like Jesus ascended to His Father, like the Ascension we celebrated last week. Our prayers lift up with Him, being purified, and are finally presented by Christ, who is our advocate. The Father hears them, and considers. From the greatest wisdom that exists there comes an answer. And there are three possible answers to any prayer.
God may immediately grant the prayer. That is a Yes. And He may send a wise and compassionate No. I prefer the reframing of that negative answer to I Have Something Better Than That For You.
There is yet a third answer to our heartfelt prayers. And it’s not “maybe.” God doesn’t answer maybe, though it can feel that way. His response, without it being either Yes or No, is Wait. Wait for the answer. Wait for my decision. Wait for Me.
Why does God keep us waiting? It’s sometimes an infuriating answer, a test of our patience. We want a God of miracles, and miracles require Him doing something immediate, out of natural order, right before our eyes. “Young girl, Arise!” cries Jesus, as the daughter of a weeping family rises from the sleep of death. “Be opened!” He says as a deaf man suddenly hears. Peter walks on the raging waters in the storm. The bread through the Apostles’ hands instantly increases. God does miracles at moments of need, and right now I need a miracle, and He is telling me to wait.
Some people have never seen a miracle happen. Or at least, what miracles they’ve witnessed didn’t impress them as miracles, but as lucky chances, happy outcomes, circumstances just coming together, or even good planning on their part. A baby is conceived and is born. And no one says it’s a miracle. As 350,000 babies are born on earth each day, it’s the most common miracle on earth. But it is a miracle. In fact, every life is a miracle, every moment that we live.
Time is the factor we want to run around. Why can’t time just stop and we travel up to the outcome we’re waiting for and get back on the conveyor belt so they can switch it back on? If I had a time machine, I’d be all over the place, finding out how things turn out, seeing what led to what outcome and perhaps getting a little smarter about the choices I made now, being smarter about the things I asked for.
Ever seen the girl you once thought you’d love forever, now years later? Happy it didn’t work out? Oh yeah. Did you think God was cruel when things intervened and you broke up? Were you angry with heaven for its lack of sympathy for your heartbreak? You didn’t know, then, what a lucky guy you were. Or for you ladies, what a fortunate thing it was that such a handsome man lost interest in you. Brad Pitt is not Prince Charming. But you once thought he was… or George Clooney, or Cary Grant, or whomever.
We don’t know the outcome of some of our prayers, the harm they may do, or how much we aren’t ready for them to arrive. Jesus looked at His Apostles at the Last Supper, promising them the Comforter, and yet He admitted to them, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth… He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.” Jn 16:12-14
The Apostles got the joy of walking and talking with Jesus again, after the Cross, after His Resurrection. He was clear with them, however, that He was only temporarily with them. It was still expedient that He depart. To fulfill that promise of a new and a better way, literally a new humanity, created in them with the coming of the Holy Spirit, He had to leave. So He did.
I have come to admire Christ’s disciples who watched Him leave this world, up into the sky, through some clouds, and gone—and then rejoiced as they returned to Jerusalem to worship and sing His praises as they went. Why weren’t they frightened or disappointed, lonely without Him, feeling bereft of their leader as they had felt when His body was laid in the tomb? He was alive, that that’s something, but selfishly, couldn’t they have been feeling abandoned? He wasn’t coming back for a long time.
And the Spirit had not yet come.
As it turned out, Jesus was right even in our terms when He said, “John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” Act 1:5 It was more than a week, but only just a few days more. On a Sunday, the first day of the week, a day of new beginnings, a new creation, God sent the reward of their patience. We don’t know if in the ten days of waiting, some of the disciples got scared or discouraged and walked away. 120 of His followers were assembled together in a large room, praying and worshiping when the Spirit came to them in this new and intimate way. After that day, the direction was set, and they were fully empowered to walk the earth with zeal and God’s wisdom.
The disciples were answered in ten days. Their waiting was rewarded in ways they couldn’t have predicted. Peter went outside to preach a hard sermon to a multi-national crowd, and saw 3,000 people seek baptism and the same Holy Spirit as a result. Clearly, Jesus’ promise was being fulfilled.
But how long have you been waiting? If you’re like me, you have had prayers for something going up for years. The waiting is what kills me. And yet, I feel that certain prayers need to be prayed for a very long time. It’s not the absence of our faith that delays it, not always. The unwelcome answer to wait isn’t necessarily audible—we don’t hear God’s voice saying, “I will after a while, but wait and keep praying.” But we sense that, at least, He is not displeased with this prayer. It’s a good prayer, like the conversion of a loved one, or the healing of a chronic condition.
I think I can report that my newly Christian bride, Giti, from 1979 began to pray for the Moslem world to receive Christ as their savior. That was a hard prayer. It was hard because most of the Christian world didn’t believe such a prayer was possible for God, or even worthy of Him. The Moslem world had resisted Christianity for 14 centuries, had killed many Christians, driven the Church out of northern Africa, Syria, Palestine, even western Spain. Why pray for them? But for her, it was praying for her family of origin, her parents, brothers, cousins, but also for folk unrelated to her. It was a hard prayer also because the Moslem world is well protected from such prayers by another spirit. It can be dangerous to pray certain kinds of prayers. You put yourself on the line. She had to wait for her prayer to be answered. She has waited 38 years.
And today? Millions of Iranians are converting to Christianity. Millions of Moslems in other countries are coming as well. It changes the world. It may be the only thing that keeps our world from completely destroying itself. We know that she was never the only person praying that intention, in fact hundreds and thousands joined in a hope for the conversion of Middle Eastern people. God heard and waited for the right moment, but He has acted and His heart is for those people. Clearly prayers are being answered, and these were tough prayers.
We pray and we wait, and for a time we see no result. Do we give up and think that’s His answer, that No is all He means by His holding His hand? The Bible says otherwise. Patience means waiting for the answer, for relief from a hardship. Isaiah wrote, “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:30-33 David sang, “Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land.” Psalm 37:34 St. Paul said, “Do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 And St. Peter wrote that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
And that’s a great point in what God is doing when He appears to be doing nothing. A greater wisdom than ours sees all things, knows all ends, realizes the optimum outcome of all events, and arranges circumstances to achieve the greatest miracles when we would have given up and gone home. He’s testing us. Time is a necessary element in the features of life we know either bring us into His Kingdom and Heaven, or not.
Faith, Hope, and Love – Paul says are all essential – and they all require time. Unless you are on death row and today is your execution, you come to faith in Christ and take His promises as your own, then your faith is tested over and over. And by testing, your faith grows new muscle, gains new strength, attains deeper and, by wisdom, more supple power. Hope is not hope if it isn’t on that conveyor of time, knowing an outcome and yet, for now, not having it arrive. And Love is not Love if it is momentary. Love needs to give itself to a worthy object and keep loving through thick and thin.
One of America’s greatest preachers, Charles Spurgeon, observed this admonition: “Keep the posture of an upright man, ready for action, expecting further orders, cheerfully and patiently awaiting the directing voice; and it will not be long ere God shall say to you, as distinctly as Moses said it to the people of Israel, ‘Go forward.’ If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts; for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for. The waiting itself is beneficial to us: it tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission, and endears the blessing when it comes. The Lord’s people have always been a waiting people.”
And the waiting changes not only the circumstances and other people. John Ortberg, a modern preacher, says that, “waiting is not just something we have to do until we get what we want. Waiting is part of the process of becoming what God wants us to be.”
We watch and we wait. The promise of Christ’s return was given long ago. Do you think it’s near? People have lost patience with it and given it up, changing the faith to suit a notion we will never see Christ come, that this world goes on and on. Or that the world’s end will be by man’s hand, global warming, nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, or a zombie apocalypse. The polar ice cap melting and the Blob returning, full of whales and tuna and now expanded to cover Canada appeals to my morbid side of an end of all things.
But the book says No. That’s His answer. The world does not end by our evil deeds, but because of them God brings it to a fiery demise. Yet not before He has removed us to a safe altitude. The game changes. The scene is set. We stand before the judge. And now how do you plead? Your prayer here is rather important. What will you pray?
I didn’t know! Nobody told me! I did what everyone else did. You never came, so I figured it was over. You have to let me in. I wasn’t all that bad.
Or, I am a sinful man, O Lord. I have only one plea. Guilty as charged, and yet, I have long held the promise You made so long ago, for which I’ve waited, and I’ve based my life on the blessed hope of Your redemption. I ask only your pardon, your forgiveness, though I don’t deserve it. I throw myself on Your mercy.
I don’t think you’re going to have to wait, not on that day, for your answer. Jesus told His Apostles, “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” He will look on you then. And His face will shine in love for you, saying:
Yes. I have always known you. I have waited patiently for you to arrive and I forgive you all your sins. Well done, good and faithful servant. Faithful in small things, I make you now ruler in greater things. Enter into my Kingdom. You don’t have to wait another moment.