Sermon: Begin with Prayer

Turn in your Bibles with me to Acts, chapter 1, verses 1 through 14. Acts 1:1-14. Acts is the fifth book in the New Testament, right after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Acts was written by Luke as a companion to his account of the gospel. It picks up right where the gospels end, with Jesus risen from the dead and appearing to his disciples. As we have been looking and listening to the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, the last one is found here at the beginning of the book of Acts. It’s Acts 1:1-14. But before we hear God’s Word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are a people waiting, waiting for so much wrong to be made right. As we wait, strengthen our souls with your word and send us to our knees in prayer. Open our ears to your word this morning, in Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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. 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. 

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

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

When will this be over? It’s the question we hear every night on the news. It’s the question on our minds as we wrestle with what it would mean or when it would happen to move out of quarantine back into social life. It’s the question we face as we consider the future – our plans, hopes, and dreams. When will this be over? 

We have spent this Easter season with the apostles as they beheld the risen Jesus, so that in this time of crisis, this time of waiting, this time of ‘when will this be over?’ we might behold him too. This morning’s passage is the last of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is his last word to the disciples before he is taken and is seated on the throne. He tells them to stay right where they are. Jesus tells the disciples to wait. And then they ask the question. It’s verse 6: Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

In other words, ‘when will this be over?’

Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? We have been waiting for a long time, decades of occupation by the Romans, centuries since a son of David sat on the throne, ages since we were led out of Egypt. Is now the time? Lord, the wicked slaughter your children, the powerful starve and oppress the weak while sitting comfortable in their palaces, the worship of your Name is mocked among the nations. Is now the time? 

Yes, the apostles were likely hoping for a political solution to their Roman problem and a restoration of the zeal of worship of the Lord, but the question was so much deeper than that. When will this be over? Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? They saw the signs – the kingdom of God had come near, the Son of David was risen from the dead, the LORD himself had come to deliver them – surely this was the time, this was the day that had long hoped for. 

Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? When will this be over? 

It’s the question that aches in our own hearts as well. When will this be over? 

Not just when will the quarantine be over, but when will this, all of this, this world so out of joint, where parents are forced to bury children, where fear, loneliness, and despair overwhelm, and where starvation, homelessness, and abuse happen, when will all this finally ultimately be over? That is what is contained in the question, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

When will this be over and everything finally set right? 

Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?

In response to this most honest question, in this passage we are given an answer to know, a promise to trust, and a path to walk on.

First, we are given an answer to know. We are not told when it will be over, but that it will be over. It’s verse 7: He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

It’s not for you to know. Really? This opening aching wound of our world and our hearts, when will this be over? Is this the time? and the answer we are given is ‘it is not for you to know.’ 

On the surface, it is a pretty unsatisfying answer. We are not told when it will all be over. We are not told when God will finally set it all right. ‘It is not for you to know.’ As difficult as it may seem, perhaps there is grace in us not knowing. 

Just over a month ago, Olga and I went online and ordered a bike for Elijah’s birthday. We couldn’t really go to the store, so we had to wait for it to be delivered. When the package came, it was in a big bright box with a large color picture of the bicycle on the side. Of course, Elijah himself was the first person to notice the box on the porch. Before Olga could swoop in and put it in the garage, Elijah had seen it. A full week before his birthday. And it turns out that week he was pretty unhappy. Now that he knew what he was getting and exactly when he was getting it, he couldn’t wait any more. He didn’t want to go outside unless he could have his bike, which he couldn’t because it wasn’t his birthday. He didn’t want his sisters to be able to ride because he didn’t have his bike. For the whole week ahead of time, instead of being filled with joy at what was coming, he struggled to wait because he knew it wasn’t there yet. 

‘It is not for you to know,” Jesus says. Perhaps there is grace in that for us. We are not told when it will all be over. Could you imagine what it would have done to the apostles to know that two thousand years later we would still be waiting, that it would still not all be set right? How well would you wait? Not knowing when enabled them to live every day in hope and anticipation. The same is true for us. 

We are not told when it will happen, when it will be over, but we are told that it will be. After Jesus speaks these words to his disciples, he is taken up into heaven. Christians call this event the ascension, from the latin word for ‘going up,’ both because Jesus literally is taken up into heaven, but also because here Jesus ascends to be seated on his throne at the right hand of God. After Jesus ascends, or is taken up, the apostles are standing still looking up into the clouds. Verses 10 and 11: They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “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.”

We are not told when it will happen, but that it will happen. As the apostles stare into the sky, two angels appear and declare that Jesus will come back. This same Jesus will return on the clouds just as he ascended. The rest of the scriptures proclaim that that day will be the day when it will finally be over. When Jesus comes again, he will set all things right and make all things new. The Judge of all the earth shall come and cast Satan and all whose names are not written in the book of life into the lake of everlasting fire. Jesus, the lamb who was slain, will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more mourning or death or crying or pain. The worship of the Lord will cover the earth like water covers the sea and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

There will come a day when it will finally be over. It might be today. It might be ten thousand years from now. It is not for us to know. We are called to live faithfully waiting. This is the answer we are given: We are not told when it will happen, but that it will happen. 

As we wait, we are given a promise to trust. God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him. It’s verse 8: 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.” As we have spent this Easter season with the apostles, we have heard this promise of Jesus over and over again, but it bears repeating. God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him. This is Christ’s promise to us while we wait for the day of his coming. 

It is the same promise given in the great commission: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20) God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him. 

It is the same promise we see in the gospel of Luke: This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (24:46-49) God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him. 

It is the same promise we see in the gospel of John: Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (20:21-23) God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him.

This is the promise we are called to trust as we wait. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, will come to us and fill us with power. It is through the strength of the Holy Spirit and the very presence of God dwelling in us that we will be changed to become witness to Christ. 

We are strengthened by this promise. As we have waited, we must continue to wait – we do not know how long. But as we wait, Christians wait with the power of the Holy Spirit. As we wait, we wait as witnesses to the one who died and rose again, and the one we await to come again. 

The rest of the book of Acts is the unfolding of God keeping the promise he made here in verse 8. 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.” The Spirit does come upon the church and they do become witnesses – first in Jerusalem, then in all Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth, ending with Paul’s journey to Rome. And we are still in that story. We are still people called to trust in the promise, to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and be witnesses to the risen and returning Christ Jesus. The ends of the earth where we are called may one day look like Finland or Fiji, but right now, while we are told to stay and wait, the ends of the earth may be across the street. It may look like being witnesses in Waterford and Burford, Paris and Simcoe, Brantford and Mount Pleasant. 

When will this be over? Not just the this of quarantine, but all this – all the ways the world is out of joint and in need of being set right. When will this be over? We are not told when, but that it will one day be over when Christ comes again. In the meantime, we wait and we wait trusting in the promise of God. God will be with us – the Holy Spirit is the gift of God for all Christians, the very presence of God dwelling in us. We will be witnesses – to the ends of the earth and across the hall. 

Yet, when the apostles hear the answer and promise of Jesus and see him taken up to heaven with the announcement of the angels, their first move is to go home, go upstairs to their room, and pray together. They begin by praying. Verse 14 says: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.

In addition to an answer to our aching question and a promise to sustain us as we wait, we are also given a path to walk on as disciples of Jesus who wait for his return: Prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers. 

As we begin waiting and witnessing with the apostles, we should begin where they begin: with prayer. We are told the apostles were constantly in prayer. I don’t think that means they literally did nothing else, but that it was such a regularly pattern of their life that prayer became their daily bread that sustained them. Time in the presence of God and pouring out their hearts before God was a defining practice of their lives. And they prayed together, corporately, as the body of Christ. While I am sure the disciples prayed individually, what set them apart what their practice of praying together, of uniting their hearts in prayer before God. 

I have never met a Christian who feels like they pray enough. So don’t hear the example of the apostles as another layer of guilt, but as a call and invitation to being where they began. Their first regular response to the promise and power of God was not to get on their feet and run and move and work and do but to fall on their knees and pray. If you feel exhausted and overwhelmed with COVID and feel like your soul is shriveling, begin where the disciples began: with prayer. If you are groaning for when will this all end, all of the wrongs set right, and want to walk with God and see more of his kingdom here on earth, begin where the disciples began: with prayer. If you hear Jesus’ promise of the presence of God through the Holy Spirit and feel more like God is absent from your life or your life has been absent from God, begin where the apostles began, with prayer. If you hear the promise of Jesus that if you belong to him you are, in fact, a witness and feel overwhelmed – where do I start, what do I say, how am I a witness? – begin where the apostles began: with prayer. 

If you don’t know where the start, use the daily devotions we have provided to guide your prayers, or join us on Wednesday at 8PM on Facebook as we read a psalm and pray together, or follow the liturgy and prayers provided for Lord’s Day worship. More important than the method is simply to begin our life of waiting and trusting where the apostles began: with prayer. 

This is key because beginning with prayer is beginning with God. The longer we wait, whether for COVID or the New Creation, we can be tempted to just get moving, to just make things happen. But prayer centers our lives in Christ, centers our activity as something responding first to what God has said and what God is doing for us, in us, and through us. 

When will this be over? It is the question we hear every day on the news and it is the question that keeps us up at night as we consider all that is not as it should be. When will this be over? “It is not for you to know,” Jesus answers us, but instead gives us a promise. God himself will be with us and empower us to bear witness to him as we wait. But where to begin? Begin where the apostles began: with prayer. 

Friends, we wait with apostles for Jesus to come again just as he left. We wait for the day when he will come on the clouds to judge and redeem and set everything right. We wait, but like the apostles, not staring up into the sky, but first on our knees in prayer. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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