Grace Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2020, Easter 7A (livestreaming)
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith; you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
It has finally happened. Scripture and circumstance have come together in such a fashion that I’m able to quote a Tom Petty song lyric in a sermon given in Gainesville.
Waiting is one of those things that is easy to overlook unless you’re in the middle of it. For example, accounts of D-Day focus on the crossing of the English Channel, the fierce battles to hold the beach at Normandy and finally to move inland against ferocious enemy fire. Less often recalled are the weeks and months of planning and preparation and, yes, waiting, for weather to be better, for the Channel to be crossable. Yet without the patience to endure that time of waiting and preparation – had the invasion been launched against an impassable crossing or impenetrable weather, D-Day would have come to naught.
No matter our eagerness, no matter our desperation (or what seems like desperation), no matter what, there are times when we simply must wait.
This is where the followers of Jesus find themselves at the end of today’s reading from the book of Acts. A lot has happened in these few verses, where the author Luke has filled in a few details that he didn’t include in his first account of the Ascension, at the end of his gospel. The disciples ask a question, Jesus brushes it off, offers up the promise of verse 8 that also includes a charge that will change their lives forever (if they haven’t already been so changed), and is lifted up to heaven. Some angels chastise the disciples for staring up into the sky (which seems unfair to me; it’s not every day you see someone lifted up into heaven!), and promises that one day Jesus will return the same way they’ve just seen them depart.
With those words ringing in their ears, the followers make the short trip back into Jerusalem, return to the “room upstairs” where they have been staying (maybe the same “upper room” where they had that last supper where Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup and gave them that new commandment about doing in remembrance of him, but we don’t know for sure), and there they waited.
Waiting for…what? It’s entirely possible they didn’t know what they were waiting for.
Jesus had told them to wait, way back in verse 4. He told them to wait for “the promise of the Father.” In the next verse he tells them that they will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (This is an echo of a promise from the end of he gospel account, Luke 24:47, in which Jesus says that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be “proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”) A couple of verses down back in Acts, just before he is lifted up, he makes that big promise that “you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And finally there was that angelic promise that Jesus would return one day just the way he had left.
Yet, quite likely if the disciples were honest with themselves, they had no idea what any of those things meant. So, not much to do but follow Jesus’s orders, and wait.
The eleven disciples aren’t alone at this point. Luke observes that “certain women” were joining them, including Jesus’s mother Mary, who hasn’t shown up in Luke’s story since the trip to Jerusalem back in chapter 4 of the gospel, where twelve-year-old Jesus got separated from the family and took up residence as the Temple’s youngest visiting scholar. We can guess that the “certain women” probably included at least the same women who had shown up at certain points in the gospel narrative, such as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, an unknown woman named Joanna, and others who were mentioned in Luke 23-24 as coming to the tomb to prepare his body with spices only to find the tomb empty. Also, Jesus’s brothers are now included in the company.
Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa makes a wonderful point about verse 14 in its original Greek. The verb for the first part of the sentence actually has a root meaning of “persist”; read this way the first part of the sentence tells us that “these were all persisting together.”
Persisting together. Now that’s an image, made all the more powerful with the addition of the words “to prayer.” Persisting together to prayer.
Prayer’s never a bad idea, of course, but perhaps in a time of “nothing to do but wait” it’s all the more powerful a recourse. I suspect, though, that we’re not talking about any old kind of prayer.
There is the kind of prayer that is familiar from your average church service, even like this one – spoken out loud, directed toward God, with some statement of praise or petition at its core. We speak the Lord’s Prayer together, or there’s an opening Prayer of the Day or a Prayer for Illumination before the scripture is read. In these online services there is a time for prayer that does at least outwardly consist of silence, or at least no words spoken over the music, in which we are all invited to lift up prayers of intercession. Those are all good and needful prayers, and we will continue to pray them in some form or other as long as we gather this way and when we again gather in person.
I suspect, though, that’s not necessarily the prayer this little company of Jesus’s followers was most in need of praying in this waiting time.
About seven and a half years ago the best-selling author Anne Lamont put out a volume on the idea that most prayers can be boiled down to one of three essential prayers, encapsulated in the book’s title: Help Thanks Wow.
That’s not a bad summary of prayer, and one could argue that the Lord’s Prayer actually summarizes all three of those facets. Still, though, I’m going to suggest there’s something slightly different at play in the followers’ persisting together in prayer during this waiting time, and maybe that might need to be a large part of our prayer in our own current waiting time. How’s this for a prayer:
Yes, Anne Lamont could probably argue it’s a kind of “help” prayer, but I think there’s something different at play. It’s not a prayer about getting help with some specific thing. In fact, it isn’t necessarily a prayer where we ask for much of anything at all.
It’s not a prayer about getting back to normal or returning to anything, not about restoring or regaining or re-anything at all. The primary principle of such a prayer is to wait for that promised baptizing with the Holy Spirit (whatever that means), that power (whatever that means), that something wrapped up in Jesus’s words that we don’t understand or grasp in any way but we trust, somehow, that whatever is behind it really is the Lord’s doing.
We wait. We persist together. We pray.
We can’t, if we’re honest, say exactly what we wait for, what we pray for.
But we wait, persist together, pray. And what happens?
To be continued.
[Insert stanzas 1 and 5 of “For God alone my soul does wait“]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine