What Are You Waiting For?
Lots of folks nowadays are just waiting around for the ending. Some survivalists or “preppers” build fallout shelters with military-grade food rations, water purifiers, and supplies to rebuild civilization and simply wait for the world to fall apart. Others—whether due to disease or age or addiction—give up on life ever having real joy or purpose ever again and instead simply wait for the end to come. Still others claim they can calculate from scriptures when the world will end and how, though so far every such calculation been wildly incorrect. Employees wait for the end of each shift, ready for work to be over already and waiting for the clock to strike the final minute. And many on Sundays are just waiting for the sermon to be over already.
Folks in Biblical times were no different. Today's scripture is the first passage in the Book of Acts, the twin to the Gospel of Luke that picks up Luke's story. At the end of Luke, Jesus had risen from the dead, revealed himself to his disciples, and explained the significance of that first Easter to them and how all the scriptures were building up to that moment. Now it's time for Jesus to head back to God's heavenly realm, his work earthly complete and lessons taught. And so his disciples wonder if—since Jesus has done everything else he spoke about—if now at last God will restore the ancient kingdom of Israel, drive out the Roman legions occupying their lands, and rebuild the dynasty of King David. And if Jesus won't do it right away—if he wants to go back to heaven for a spell first—then his disciples want to know when he does plan to restore the ancient Israelite kingdom. They're just waiting for that ending to come, when God at last fulfills the final promise of ultimate restoration. But Jesus tells them they cannot know when it'll happen, and then he leaves. And so the disciples are left staring up into the heavens, watching for any final glimpses of Jesus before he's gone from their eyesight forever, wondering and waiting for what God will do next, ready and impatient for either Jesus to come back or for the next great task as believers to fall into their laps. And so into this chasm of waiting and anxiety, an angel appears and asks one of the dumbest questions of the Bible. With Jesus having just disappeared from eyesight up above, the angels ask: “Why do you stand around looking up?” The answer is obvious: Jesus just left from there, so of course we're looking up. You'd think angels would know that. But the reason the question gets asked... is a different story.
After college, I spent summers supervising and training new staff at a Christian retreat center. Usually new staff came straight out of high school, recent graduates leaving childhood behind to start careers, receive advanced education, or see the world. So I had the privilege of being the first boss many new adults ever had in their lives. Most of the young people I worked with were fantastic. But we're all human: we all have our struggles. For many new staff, they constantly wanted to go back to the way things used to be for them at our retreat center: when they were the camper and not the employee, when they were the kids doing all the fun stuff rather than the adults facilitating fun for others, when they could relax in nature rather than be on alert for possible dangers to those under their care. It was a hard transition for many, having the place of childhood joy now become a place of adult employment. Thus I often found new staff milling around: unsure what to do because all this responsibility and power were new to them; waiting for “an adult” to take charge because they forgot they were now the adults in the room; paralyzed by this new adulthood on their own as employees. So a large part of my job as these new staffers' first ever boss was to imitate the angels of today's scripture passage. I'd walk up to new staff milling around in uncertainty and ask the dumb question: “Why are you standing around looking up?”And then I'd remind them we all had work to do, that despite our uncertainty or insecurity something had to get done, so we all best start muddling through now.
The response to the disciples waiting around for the finale to arrive—watching the sky wondering when Jesus will come back or the end will come—is the response I used to give to the first-time workers under my watch who milled around unsure what to do: a swift but polite kick-in-the-rear reminder that we have work to do, even as we're waiting around for the next thing to come. When asked by his disciples whether God will at last restore the Israelite kingdom, Jesus explains: “It is not for you to know the times or periods the Father has set by his own authority.” But then Jesus' answer veers into seemingly unrelated territory: “But... you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” How is them receiving power related to the return of Jesus? How does that answer their question? When asked when the end times will arrive, when his disciples can stop waiting and worrying, Jesus' answers to their anxieties are: 1) You cannot know all the future, so why worry over when it will at last end? But 2) in the meantime, I will give you power to do good work while you are waiting. I will send the Holy Spirit upon you so that you can be my witnesses, agents of my work and teachings, not only in Jerusalem but across all of ancient Israel, out into its local neighbors, and around the world.” To the disciples then as to us today, Jesus may return tomorrow or in ten thousand years—we cannot know—but the when doesn't matter. What does matter is that Jesus gives us the power of God to work here and now, to share in the kingdom mission Jesus came here for in the first place.
So what are you waiting for? Why stand around looking up when Jesus has told us we can't know when the end will come, whether it be the end of the world, the end of our lives, the end of joy, the end of sorrow. It is not for us mortals to know the exact ebb and flow of every season. But what is for us as Christians... is to serve God faithfully here and now, trusting that God has the end we fret over already taken care of, putting good use to the power God has entrusted in us. To evidence this promise, Jesus points back to past demonstrations of divine power, saying that just as John the Baptist baptized with water in a display of Godly might, they likewise will be baptized... but now by God himself through the Holy Spirit. That word “baptize” in ancient Greek literally translates as “submerge” or “overwhelm,” and so you can envision this scene as Jesus telling his disciples they will be a flood across this world, overwhelmed by the power of God at work in them and themselves overwhelming evils and sins as the power of God through them blesses and spreads across the globe. You too—in your baptism, in your faith, in the life and talents that God has given you specifically—have been blessed with heavenly power. So why stand around looking up? What are you waiting for? You know what God desires: mercy, justice, love, compassion, and all the rest. You know that God says he will be with us always and that God says he gives us the power to do this work. So there's no need to wait around for the end! We cannot know when any of our ends will come. But we do know what we can do in the meantime, so let us get to work, flooding the world with the good news of Christ in word, action, and prayer. Praise be to God that we have been given such a gift and calling. Amen.