I have a confession to make. I’m tired of waiting for this pandemic to end and I know I’m not alone. It’s Memorial Day Weekend and it’s finally getting warm outside. We’ve been cooped for more than two months and we want to spread our wings. Along the way, we’ve watched as Baseball’s opening day has come and gone without any games being played, while a lot of other events we might have enjoyed have been canceled. Some of us have travel plans that are on hold because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The Governor is loosening some of the restrictions, but the stay at home order has been extended because we’re not out of the woods yet. While waiting can be difficult—just ask any child at Christmas time—sometimes good things come to those who wait. This includes waiting for the Spirit of God to come upon us with power so we can be Christ’s witnesses in the world.
Today we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, which according to the Book of Acts occurred forty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Although those forty days actually ended on Thursday, this is when we normally observe Jesus’ moment of departure. The message we hear in Acts is that the ten-day period extending from the Ascension to Pentecost was a time for the church to wait for the coming of the Spirit in power.
Although the Book of Acts is really an action-adventure story, it begins with a call to wait. In Acts 1, just before Jesus departs, he gives the church, then and now, its marching orders. He tells them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But, before they head out on this mission, they have to wait for the Spirit to move in their midst.
Luke tells us that Jesus walked with the disciples for forty days teaching them about the realm of God before he departed from them. This reference to forty days of preparation has deep biblical roots. Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God where he received instructions for Israel as they journeyed to the Promised Land (Ex 24:12-18). Elijah spent forty days on a mountain with God after fleeing Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8-10). Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before he began his ministry (Lk 4:1-12). So, now, after forty days of preparation, Jesus tells his followers to stay in Jerusalem and “wait for the promise of the Father.” That promise is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which John the Baptist spoke of during his ministry (Lk 3:15-17).
When the day of his departure arrived, Jesus gathered with his followers on the Mount of Olives. After he commissioned them to be his witnesses and departed from their midst, the disciples returned to the Upper Room and waited for the coming of the Spirit. They didn’t just sit around doing nothing, any more than we’re sitting around as a church doing nothing despite not congregating in the building. According to Luke, they devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14). He even tells us who was there for these prayer meetings. He names the eleven Apostles, along with certain women, including Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. In other words, even though they waited for the Spirit, they were productive.
Right now our ability to actively pursue our mission in the world is being restricted to some degree by this virus, but the church hasn’t closed down. Right now we’re spending time in worship, in study, and fellowship. We’re finding new ways of caring for each other and envisioning new ways of being church. We may not know what the future holds, but we have the promise that the Spirit will empower our witness.
When it comes to times of waiting, Robert Wall suggests that “waiting for this dynamic future to unfold involves a measure of uncertainty and urgency.” I can say without any doubt that we’re experiencing a great deal of uncertainty. We might also be feeling a bit of urgency. That’s natural. Nevertheless, what makes this time of waiting possible is God’s record of faithfulness. Wall writes that “our capacity to wait expectantly for God to act according to ‘the promise’ is cultivated by the memory of the record of God’s faithfulness in the history of others” [NIB 10:45]. In other words, because God was faithful to Jesus, by raising him from the dead, we can trust God to be faithful to us. Wall also writes that “waiting for God to act is also a community’s project. Waiting with others is an act of solidarity with friends” [NIB, 45]. So, even though we can’t gather in person, we’re not experiencing this moment of waiting alone. We’re in this together, knowing that God has acted in the past and will act in the future.
So maybe, right now, God is calling us to “be” rather than “do.” I know this can be difficult. When I announced the date of my retirement back in February, I didn’t envision us being in this position as summer approached. I had visions of important conversations and activities that would prepare the congregation for the future. Instead, it appears that God is calling us to wait on the Spirit before we can get started on those projects. Indeed, maybe we’re hearing God say to us, don’t get ahead of the Spirit who will empower our future witness in the world. Right now, however, the best way to bear witness to God’s love and grace is to stay put and stay safe!