Rev. Teri Peterson
Wait for it…
May 4 2008, Easter 7A/Ascension
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Have any of you seen the movie the Princess Bride? It’s one of my favorite movies. There are a number of particularly memorable scenes—I might even suggest that the whole movie is made up of one memorable scene after another—but there’s one in particular that I am thinking of this morning. Wesley, the man in black, is climbing the Cliffs of Insanity. Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, is waiting at the top so they can have a swordfight to the death, since Inigo is part of a team abducting the princess Buttercup. Inigo looks down and sees Wesley climbing, by hand since the rope has been cut, very slowly. He calls down and says “I do not suppose you could speed things up?” And after Wesley’s response that this is not as easy as it looks and that Inigo is just going to have to wait, Inigo says, “I hate waiting.”
That’s pretty much my response to situations that involve waiting. I hate waiting.
I don’t think the disciples were such big fans of waiting either—we’ve seen them with Jesus going and going, doing and doing. But when Jesus goes off to pray, they get impatient. When he takes them to pray with him, they go to sleep. Waiting is hard to do. It takes more energy than it sounds like it should, and it looks unproductive—the cardinal sin of western culture.
But in this case, Jesus tells the disciples—no, he doesn’t just tell them, he orders them—to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit that has been promised to them. Before they obey, they first want to know if this is the big moment, the one they’ve been looking for, when Jesus will change their world. Instead of answering—because when does Jesus give a straight answer?—he tells them that question is none of their business. Instead he reminds them that the Holy Spirit is coming to them and, when they have received the Spirit—an event we will celebrate next week—they will be witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, then throughout the country, then even in Samaria, and then even in the farthest reaches of the world.
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like an awfully big job, and my response would be either: “umm, really? Us?” or “well, that’s a lot of work so we’d better get started now!” which sounds an awful lot like “I hate waiting.” But neither of those is the response Jesus is looking for or the response the disciples give. Instead, they head back to Jerusalem, where they wait and pray for the coming of the Spirit.
That’s right, for 10 days they just wait and pray, wait and pray, wait more, pray more. I wonder if they were impatient, ready to get on with it already. Or maybe they were wondering how they’d know when they had received the Holy Spirit? Would it be like Elijah’s still small voice? Or like Moses’ burning bush? Or like Job’s voice from the whirlwind? Or like the dove that descended on Jesus at his baptism? And what would it feel like? Would they be filled with power? Peace? Knowledge? Would they be lifted up into heaven like Jesus?
I hate waiting.
In the Princess Bride, after Inigo says this he decides that, rather than waiting, he will take matters into his own hands. He finds a way to bring Wesley to the top faster so they can get on with the duel already. I wonder how often we too would prefer to skip over the waiting and praying and just take matters into our own hands? It’s so tempting—there is so much work to be done, why wait? We can do all those things now, now, now!
I’m sure many of you know that there are some stereotypes about Presbyterians out there. One is that we are very good at talking. This is one of the ways we got the nickname of the "frozen chosen"--We talk about issues, we refer them to committees, we talk more, we might have a task force, and eventually we’ll bring it to a vote. The other stereotype is that we really like to fix things. We do mission and service projects, we give money, we send teams to respond to disasters. Even better if we can fix things with words—with social policy statements and stern letters. But I wonder, in the midst of all our doing and all our talking, if we have really practiced listening? Have we prayed and waited? Have we listened for God’s call and felt the Spirit? Or have we rushed past God in our determination to do good, following our own agenda and listening to our own voices rather than to God’s calling?
I am probably the least qualified person to stand here and ask that question. I am a woman of both words and action. I have passion and excitement and a strong desire to make the world a better place, more full of good news and less full of bad news. But I still wonder—what would our work look like, what would our world look like, what would our church look like, if we spent time together in prayer and listening for the Holy Spirit?
The story in Acts says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem, to their upper room, and together, as a community, they devoted themselves to prayer. This might be the first time the disciples actually do what Jesus asks of them! This is not pointless waiting, this waiting has a purpose, as most seasons of discernment do. The disciples are not waiting for someone else to do the hard work, not waiting for an out—they are waiting for the direction and the power to follow their calling. They are waiting for the gift of the Spirit, the gift of God’s own presence with them. They have a high calling to fulfill—they aren’t to run out and do their own thing, making their own plan of action. But as they follow this calling, they aren’t going to do it on their own—God is going with them…if they’ll just wait for it!
Once this period of waiting is over, once the Spirit comes and the church is born, once the gift of God’s presence and God’s calling is given to the community, then it’s time for action, time to be a witness to Christ’s love and power and grace to all the world. Not just in the neighborhood, not just in our own country, but to the ends of the earth. That actually is a part of the symbolism of the cross on your bulletin cover—it’s called a Jerusalem cross and the four smaller crosses represent the taking of the gospel out from the center (Jerusalem) to the four corners of the earth. It’s a big job, and it will require a lot of stamina—we, looking back, know the cost of sharing this news with the world. The apostles will encounter both friends and foes, both hospitality and violence, for centuries. They, and we, need all the help we can get—the prayer and the waiting and the encouragement of our community.
I hate waiting—but I know how important it is. Inigo takes matters into his own hands, and things don’t go well for him. He ends up back at the beginning, waiting even longer than before, and with considerably more anguish, until he finally ends up on the right track. Peter has taken matters into his own hands more than once, and it hasn’t gone well any of those times. This time he will wait—and with the help of the Spirit he will indeed become the rock of the church. I am sure there are times when each of us has taken matters into our own hands rather than waiting for God’s direction. And I suspect there are times when we as a congregation have rushed past God with our good intentions. Perhaps now is a good time to join the disciples in a week of prayer and waiting, listening for God’s call to us as individuals and as a church, that we might use our gifts for God’s glory and for the spreading of good news, even to the ends of the earth.
May it be so. Amen.