[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
We were on our way to the Southern Ohio Synod Bible Bowl a few weeks ago, when I had to nip a problem in the bud. You see, two of our young people—whose initials are Jacob and Steven—were about to sing a rousing rendition of Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall. “No,” I said, “we aren’t going to sing that.” It isn’t that I object to singing about beer. It’s just that that particular song makes me nuts, all ninety-nine verses of it. It was for the safety of all my passengers that I stopped the song before we got anywhere close to that ninety-eighth bottle of beer on the wall.
Of course, the purpose of traveling songs is to help make the time pass more quickly. Parents and elders have been devising songs, games, and conversation-starters to entertain children during long trips for centuries. No parent wants to hear the most dreaded words of any journey: “Are we there yet?”
In a way, that’s the question asked of Jesus by the disciples at the beginning of our first lesson for today, from the book of Acts. Let’s set the scene. It’s forty days after Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter. The disciples probably figured that by then, they and all the people of God had already been on a long journey with God.
They had a point.
Sometime around 2000AD, God had called a wealthy couple named Abram and Sarai, who lived in what is modern-day Iraq, to go to a land that God would show them and, in spite of their advanced years, to become the father and mother of God’s people, the Hebrews.
Through the ensuing centuries, through slavery and exile, triumph and humble faithfulness, God would give His people a land and a promise that one day, the Savior of the whole world would be born among them. Through Israel, the light of the world, God the Son, would come to offer new life and eternity with God to all who repent of their sin and entrust their lives to Him. The Son would establish God’s kingdom and destroy the power of sin and death forever.
When that Son—Jesus of Nazareth—showed up and revealed the will, the heart, and the identify of God, few people believed in Him. Not even God’s own people believed in Him. But, fitfully, imperfectly, several hundred people became followers—disciples—of Jesus. When He died on a cross, they mourned. When He rose from the dead, they exalted, then spent forty days as He taught them and prepared them for the future.
They thought that the long-sought future had arrived. That was the moment, they were sure, when Jesus would finally, fully establish the kingdom of God. He would throw out the Romans, get rid of the gas tax, and put a chicken in every pot and a Maserati in every garage. Sin and death would be no more, too. Those made righteous by faith in God would be in charge and the bad guys, who they were sure was everybody not like them, would be their slaves.
So, they ask Jesus, “Are we there yet?” Actually, our lesson tells us that they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”
They may have been disappointed with Jesus’ answer. He tells them not to worry about when He will put things right for all eternity. “It is not for you,” He tells them, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” In other words, “Don't worry about how God will fully establish His kingdom. Instead, be about your mission until He does!"
But what is the mission that Jesus wants you and me to do as His Church?
That's an important question.
We’re on a journey, each of us. Followers of Jesus, like the rest of the human race, live on this planet for a length of time known only to God. How does Christ want us to use that time? Jesus could have taught us songs or games to pass the time. But Jesus makes clear in today’s lesson that He wants Christians, He wants His Church, He wants the people of Saint Matthew to do more than pass the time we have on this earth. Our mission is to share the Good News of new life for all who believe in Christ. In a wonderful sermon on this same text, Pastor John Jewell identifies three tools that Jesus gives us to pursue that mission.
First: Jesus gives us power. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses…” When you and I were baptized, we received God’s Holy Spirit, the very power of God for living. And throughout our lives, we can receive fresh supplies of God’s Spirit. God gives us His Spirit so that we can be about God’s business of sharing Christ with the world for as long as we live.
Some of you may have heard of Jim Cymbala. In one of his books, Cymbala recounts the struggle through which he and his wife went to keep that church alive. Some Sundays, he says, they were lucky to have twenty people. It was a challenge to his faith. No matter what Cymbala tried—and he tried all the newest church growth gimmicks, nothing changed. The Brooklyn Tabernacle was still the small, financially-strapped, conflict-ridden congregation it had always been.
In the midst of this, Cymbala became sick with a cough that wouldn’t go away. Two members of the struggling church, concerned for his health, sent him to Florida to spend a week at a condo they owned. While there, he went on an evening fishing expedition. But his heart heavy with worry about what would become of his church and him, Cymbala went to the back of the boat, away from the others who had lines thrown into the water. He sobbed and within his mind, he asked God what He should do.
“Pray. Just pray,” was the answer he sensed God gave to him. “Pray and I will give you a power that you don’t have yourself. Pray and I will send more people than you can contain in any building.”
When Cymbala first returned to Brookliyn, nothing had really changed much. He coughed less. But there were the same bills. The same twenty people. The same dilapidated building. But as he and those twenty people prayed, God sent them the power to keep going. Today, thousands of people worship each week at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. I don't agree with all aspects of Cymbala's theology, but I do agree that through God's Spirit, we're given a power to do and be more than we could ever ask or imagine.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” We are never so powerful as we are when we come to the ends of ourselves and admit, “I can’t fight my temptations, I can’t face my troubles, I can’t fulfill your mission for me, Lord, on my own. I need Your power.” Jesus promises to fill our weaknesses with His power when we're humble enough to admit our need of Him!
Jesus gives a second tool for us to do our mission as His people: His promise. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the angels told the first Christians, “Jesus is coming back.” We still believe that today and as you scan all the promises God has made in Scripture and consider how many of them have already come to pass, you have a confidence that this one will come true too. The Lord Who died and rose will make good on His promise. We shouldn’t worry about the fact that 2000 years have passed since Jesus ascended to heaven. As Peter writes in another place in the New Testament, “The Lord is not slow about His promise…but is patient…not wanting any to perish, but all come to repentance.” We have this time to turn from our sin and follow Christ. We have it too, to invite others to follow Jesus with us.
The third tool Jesus gives us for fulfilling His mission for us is prayer. After Jesus ascended, His followers devoted themselves to prayer. On the first Pentecost, ten days later, they learned that through prayer, we gain access to the power Jesus promises His people!
E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India in the middle part of the twentieth century and a good friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Once, at the end of one gathering at which he spoke, an obviously well-to-do woman approached Jones.
Jones writes: “As we shook hands, [she] said, “If I had what you have, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in.” [Later] she laid bare her tragedy: Her home was going to be broken up after Christmas--they would hold together till Christmas so as not to break the children’s hearts. We prayed and I asked her to pray when she got home. But she said afterward: “I belonged to the country club cocktail-gambling set and didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote God a letter: ‘Dear God, life has dealt me a very bad hand and I don’t know which card to lead. Please show me which card I am to lead.’ And I signed it.”
Reports Jones, “God heard that prayer expressed in the only language she knew.” Somehow, that woman and her husband were able to stay together and become reconciled. Jones says that the woman was able to hold her home together “by her changed spirit.”
One day, Jesus will return, finally establishing His eternal kingdom. Until then, He gives us a mission to make disciples of all nations and He gives us the tools with which to do it—His power, His promise, and prayer.
My prayer is that you and I at Saint Matthew will make full use of these tools.
That’s why I hope that every member will participate in this week’s prayer vigil, not as an end, but as a new beginning.
Let’s be the church most known in this community for its reliance on the three gifts Jesus gives in our lesson from Acts. Jesus’ power, His promise, and prayer are a lot less annoying that Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall and when we use them we’ll be doing more than passing the time. We’ll be changing lives, ours and the lives of all we touch!