Text: Acts 1:6 “And they asked him, ‘Lord is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel.'”
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May 13, 2018
When I left home to go to Bible College in 1962, one of my first assignments was to read a book that was published the year before. It was entitled: “Your God is Too Small,” by J. B. Philips, a Scottish theologian. He argued that we tend to keep pulling God down to our size so that we can control Him. We put Him in box to serve our own needs. As a result, he argued, paradoxedly many people have come to believe the God they worship is inadequate, a cramped and regulated God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or within the four walls of a church. Their experience of life has grown, and their knowledge of world events and scientific discoveries have expanded their metal horizons to the point of bewilderment. But, he suggested their ideas of God remained static. In his book he sought to help the reader move beyond their narrow ideas of God. One of his suggestions is that we should step out of our shoes and try to look at this from God’s perspective.
Reading this book just as I was beginning my theological education proved to be excellent timing. As I was exposed to different ways of thinking about God, I kept finding myself comparing my theological understanding at any given point with that which I had when I first entered Bible College. But though my understanding deepened and broadened in countless ways, I would discover that my perspective had not fundamentally changed until 1969, some seven years later.
I thought of this book as I was preparing today’s sermon. Today, in addition to celebrating our mothers, we are also celebrating the feast day commemorating our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven. We have just heard the only two accounts of the Ascension read. Both were written by Paul’s traveling companion, Dr. Luke. The first account comes at the very end of his gospel. The second account comes at the very beginning of his second book, which we call the Acts of the Apostles. Although written separately, Luke and Acts is really one book written in two parts. Part one is tells about the life and ministry of Jesus. Part two tells how his ministry and influence was extended through the work of his disciples.
By placing the Ascension of Jesus at the end of part one and the telling it again at the beginning of part two, Luke makes this event the climax of his story. Luke-Acts, taken as a whole, is the story of the enthronement of Jesus. His gospel tells us how Jesus through serving and suffering was enthroned as king in Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews. In tell the story in this manner, I suggest to you, that in J.B. Philips words, Luke had grasped the big picture and understood it from God’s perspective. At the same time as he wrote about the disciples who were with Jesus that day he departed, it is equally clear that their understanding of God was still too small.
A, There is irony here of course. Our Lord’s throne was a cross. His crown was made of thorns and his title “King of the Jews” was written to mock him. All of holy week, from our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, to his arrest, trial, beating and crucifixion, was the ultimate Greek tragedy. But as Paul wrote, “what is foolishness to the Greek is the wisdom of God.” God took this tragic drama and stood it on its head. Three days after Jesus died there was Resurrection! Now 40 days later Jesus ascended in to heaven and sits on a throne. He is not just king of the Jews, He is king of the Universe! That is the climax to the story that Luke tells in his gospel!
It is precisely this news that the disciples are commissioned to convey at the beginning of part two of Luke’s work. They are to remain in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high. Then, beginning in Jerusalem, they are to proclaim this great news. Using the same methods that Jesus used, by serving and suffering, they are to leap over fixed geographical borders, spreading this news to all of Judea, then to the uttermost part of the earth.
When I first heard those instructions, I understood the uttermost part of the earth to be somewhere in Africa, or maybe China or some Pacific Island. Luke understood it differently. He knew from a human perspective Jerusalem was the backwater edge of the world. Rome was at the center of the universive. Again, using his own sense of irony when Jesus said the disciples were to be witness unto him to the “utter most part of the earth,” Luke understood it to mean Rome!
Rome, the citadel of earthly power. Rome, where Caesar reigned as undisputed Lord. This was to be the ultimate destination where they were to take the message. When Luke concludes his book, Paul has finally reached Rome. He ends the book by stating for two years Paul “boldly and without hindrance preached the kingdom of God and proclaimed that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord!”
B, That was Luke’s perspective. He was able to look at things from God’s perspective. But what about the disciples on that last day before our Lord ascended into heaven. When they had their final conversation with Jesus, did they understand what he was talking about? After all they had sat under his ministry and watched him perform miracles for three years. True their hopes had been shattered when Jesus was arrested. But now that he had risen from the dead, and recounted so many things that he had told them. Surely, they could now see the big picture from God’s perspective.
But listen to the very last question they asked him before he ascended to heaven. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? It seems this incredible miracle of our Lord’s resurrection hadn’t changed anything in terms of their understanding of their mission. They had signed on with Jesus because they thought he was the Messiah. And like all the devoted Jews of their day, they thought that when the Messiah came, he would liberate their country from the power of Rome. Their hopes had been dashed when Jesus was arrested. They were rightfully fearful that they also would be arrested and put to death as part of a plot to overthrow the government.
But then Jesus returned from the dead. Their hopes and dreams had been revived not transformed. You can hear it in their question. “Lord, now that you have defeated death, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?”
I think if I had been Jesus, I would have been totally frustrated. Instead he simply says, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.” I would translate that to mean, “Guys, it’s none of your business.” If J.B. Philips were there, he would have said, “Guys, your God is too small.”
After his mild putdown, Jesus tells his what their business is. It is their new job description. He says: “Go to Jerusalem. Stay there until the Holy Spirit empowers you. Then witness to what you have seen and heard, first in the city, then in all the countryside, then in Samaria, and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth.
After Jesus had given these instructions, he blessed them. In the midst of his blessing he was taken up into Heaven. The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They still may not have grasped the big picture, but something significant had happened to them following the resurrection. I think I know what it was, and I think I know why.
At the beginning of my sermon I told you that seven years after I started Bible College I had a breakthrough in my thinking. What happened in 1969? We landed on the moon, and I saw first time, in the words of Eucharistic Prayer C, what “our fragile earth, our island home.” looks like from the surface of the moon. I began to realize what a gigantic leap it takes to try to look at things from God’s perspective.
I believe it was something like that which happened to the disciples following the resurrection. They still didn’t see the big picture – but they had experienced a transforming level of trust in God. They were no longer afraid to face their future, for they knew they could count on God to face it with them. They could follow God’s commands, now freed to experience the joy of new discovery as their experiences led them to a deeper and more profound understanding of God and what He about.
When I greeted you this morning, I asked you to reflect on your understanding of God when you began your Christian journey and then to think of your understanding of God now. I asked you to think, how it has changed and what circumstances in your life triggered those changes of understanding.
I don’t for a moment want to suggest that your experiences were anything like mine. Nor should they be. We are all unique individuals, and God reveals himself to us in our unique circumstances
What I am suggesting is that this question of “What is God up to” is at the heart of the Feast of the Ascension that we celebrate today. We serve a Lord who is King of the Universe, and we have been chosen to participate in bringing forth his plan. You and I, my friends, are part of something HUGE!