Sunday, June 02, 2019

Sermon: Acts 1: 12-26 Waiting for the Promise

What are you like when it comes to waiting? What sort of person are you when you have to wait for something? Are you patient, happy to wait for as long as necessary, keeping cool, calm and collected? Or are you more impatient, always agitated, ready for action, wanting to get a move on? Or maybe you thrive on distraction, so waiting for one thing is an opportunity to do something else - like the people who sit at traffic lights doing their hair and make up, or eating a bowl of cereal, or checking their mobile phone. What are you like when it comes to waiting?

Perhaps it depends on what sort of waiting it is. You see, sometimes, you know exactly how long you’re going to have to wait. While the traffic lights seem to be taking an age to change from red to green, you know it’ll be a minute or two at most. And if you’re expectantly counting down the days to your birthday or to Christmas, then you know exactly how long you have to wait (206 days to Christmas, in case you’re wondering!). But waiting when you don’t know how long you’ll have to wait can be a different matter.

When you’re waiting in a queue on the phone, and you hear the same music play over and over and over again, and then the same recorded message saying, ‘your call is important to us, you are number 300 in the queue...’ Or when you’ve been told something will happen, and you wait to see when it finally happens.

In our reading today, the disciples are waiting. And they don’t know how long they will be waiting. All they know is that they are waiting for what Jesus has spoken about, and what God the Father has promised. They’re in the in-between period between when Jesus is taken up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit is sent down from heaven. And so they find themselves waiting.

Last week we saw how Jesus had prepared the disciples to continue his work (by showing them he was alive; and speaking about the kingdom of God; and promising the Spirit). It would involve the apostles being sent out to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to be his witnesses, but they needed the power of the Holy Spirit to do all this - they couldn’t do it by themselves. And so Jesus had told them to wait - 1:4 ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...’

As our reading begins, then, it’s the aftermath of the ascension. Jesus has been taken up to heaven. So how will they wait? Impatiently or patiently? Passively or actively? Well, let’s see, as we dive into the passage.

We can see that their waiting is obedient - verses 12-13: ‘Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they want upstairs to the room where they were staying.’

Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem, and that’s exactly what they do. Jesus had ascended from the Mount of Olives, about 3/4 miles from the city. So now they return into the city, and into the upstairs room where they were staying. This was probably the same upper room where Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples just six weeks before; the same upper room where he had appeared to the disciples after he was raised on Easter Sunday. And it’s here that they wait.

We’re given the roll call of those who are present. There are the apostles themselves, and they’re all named for us in verse 13; but there are others present as well. We’re not told all their names, but we’re told who they are: ‘with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’ (14)

So what do you make of the roll call? We shouldn’t be surprised to find that women were part of the first followers of Jesus - all the way through Luke’s gospel he mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1-3; Mary and Martha in 10:38-41; 23:55-56, 24:1). And, as the recent Church of Ireland census results have shown, women make up a majority of those attending services on Sundays.

But you might be surprised to find who else is there - Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. Back in the gospel, Jesus’ family had turned up to take him home because they thought he had gone mad. And Jesus had said that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do God’s will (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21).

Yet here they are, being numbered among Jesus’ disciples. Here’s a question for you - what would it take to convince you that your brother was God? Yet that’s what James and Jude (the authors of the New Testament letters) did. In 1 Corinthians 15, we’re told that Jesus appeared to James, his brother. He was then convinced that Jesus was indeed God, that he was alive, and that he would follow him.

It’s probably hardest to witness to your own family; to speak to them about Jesus - but here we find Jesus’ mum and brothers among his disciples. The roll has been called. We know who’s there. But what are they doing? How are they waiting?

The upper room is the waiting room, but it is also the prayer room. Verse 14: ‘They all joined together constantly in prayer...’ They committed themselves to praying, and they did it together. They were asking God to fulfil the promise he had made, to give the Holy Spirit, to equip them for the work he had called them to do.

You may have heard of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative. It takes these days from Ascension Day (last Thursday) through until Pentecost (next Sunday), praying in a particular way for God’s kingdom to come on earth. There are online resources you can use to help as you pray in these days.

The disciples were waiting obediently and prayerfully. But they also waited practically as well. They knew that there was a job to do, and so they continued to get ready for what would come next, when the waiting period was up.

And as they wait together, they’re very aware that someone is missing. There are around 120 believers. They’re all there, but who isn’t? Look back at verse 13 - the apostles are named. How many? Not the twelve we would expect, but only eleven. There’s a vacancy among the apostles. That’s what Peter addresses in the rest of the passage.

He reminds the group of Judas, the betrayer. What he had done had been shocking, but Peter says that his actions were in fulfilment of the Scriptures spoken by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David. (16) From Psalm 69, his place is deserted (as the bracketed explanation shows that his land was the Field of Blood), and from Psalm 109, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

Already we’re seeing how the apostles have been trained by Jesus to understand the Scriptures and apply them to their life. And so, they decide to appoint another apostle. And do you see what the criteria are in verses 21-22? It has to be a man ‘who has been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.’ Someone who has seen and heard everything - and more particularly, a witness of his resurrection.

They have two candidates - one with three names, Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus), and another with one name, Matthias. But notice that they don’t put it to a vote. There aren’t election papers or voting by card or hand. Rather, they pray, then they cast lots.

Their prayer might seem familiar - it’s the basis of our Collect for Purity: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to to where he belongs.’ As we prayed earlier: ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known...’

It is the Lord of the Church, the Lord Jesus, who chooses his apostle through the lot. Matthias becomes the twelfth apostle, a witness of the resurrection, a sharer in the apostolic ministry. And that’s the last we ever hear of him in the Scriptures. Early church histories refer to him being martyred either in Jerusalem or in modern-day Georgia, having witnessed to Jesus.

The apostles waited obediently, prayerfully, and practically. They were committed to the task that Jesus had given them, and were waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. With them, we find ourselves waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s promises - the return of Jesus and the consummation of the new heavens and the new earth, with new resurrection bodies.

As we wait, we’re called to wait obediently - getting on with what Jesus has called us to do; to wait prayerfully - as we seek God’s help, and presence, and power; and to wait practically - living out what the Scriptures say.

We’re waiting for God to fulfil his promises, but we are unlike the apostles. You see, we don’t have to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we trust in Jesus, we are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. So if you’re a Christian, then you already have the Holy Spirit. (But does the Holy Spirit have you, all of you?)

And if you’re not a Christian, then you can receive that gift today. You don’t need to wait any longer. You can come to Jesus today. He already knows your heart. He knows your sins. And he has provided the way to cancel them; to find forgiveness and joy and peace, as you trust him as your Saviour and your Lord. Commit to him, and he will give you the gift of the Holy Spirit today.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd June 2019.

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