Saturday, June 29, 2019

"Elijah Is Gone" - June 30, 2019

II Kings 2:13-18

            A short but classic book by Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art, closes with this story:
 “The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren once built a structure in London.  His employers claimed that a certain span Wren planned was too wide, that he would need another row of columns for support.  Sir Christopher, after some discussion, acquiesced.  He added the row of columns, but he left a space between the unnecessary columns and the beams above.

The worthies of London could not see this space from the ground.  To this day, the beam has not sagged.  The columns still stand firm, supporting nothing but Wren’s conviction.

Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.”[1]
 It seems to me that Christopher Wren and the prophet Elisha were cut from the same cloth.  Both had enough confidence to listen to others and yet stick to what they knew to a certainty in the face of other people’s doubts.  There was at least one difference, though.  Wren kept quiet about things and let the others think they knew better than he did.  Elisha couldn’t help saying, in at least one case “I told you so.”

            Maybe it was best that Elisha allowed the people who questioned what had happened to Elijah to look for themselves.  There are always going to be people who for one reason or another do not accept somebody’s account of extraordinary events.  It makes sense not only to allow but even to ensure that there is a strong system of verification to answer the objections of those who would deny what others identify as fact.  When General Eisenhower saw the concentration camps his troops were liberating and realized the depth of evil that had ruled them and the depravity committed against the prisoners, he ordered his men to go and see for themselves.  He said,

“Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some [fill in the blank] will get up and say that this never happened.”[2]
Sadly, he was right.  But the films and the stories persist to bear witness to the ugly truth, even when those who would perpetuate hatred say otherwise.

            Elijah’s disappearance does not fit that category, but those who did not at first take Elisha’s account as complete may have had their own reasons for reluctance.  It can be hard to let go of the good that you have known in the past to reach toward another, uncertain good yet to come.  Sure, Elisha is a worthy prophet himself, they might think – they did show him honor when he returned from seeing Elijah off, and they did recognize that he crossed the Jordan by means of a miracle.  But, really, would he ever measure up to Elijah?

            I do not care what you say; Justin Bieber will never rise to the level of Billy Joel, and it is ridiculous to put the names Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks in the same sentence.

            Was it possible that the fiery chariot sent by the Lord to collect Elijah left him off someplace?  Sure, it was possible.  But what lies behind the search is a desire to hang onto the way things have been lest they descend to something less.  That happens, you know.

            The United Methodist Church has been going through some troubling times lately.  This [picture projected on the screen] is the delegation that went from Eastern Pennsylvania to the special General Conference held in April of this year to try to move things forward and break the log jams we’ve created.  One of them was ordained the same day I was.  One of them is married to an old friend ordained the same day I was.  One of them I have known since she was in high school.  One of them I have worked with in various ways since 1998.  I babysat the youngest children of another.  This month we elected a new delegation for the regular General Conference in 2020 that will have to consider the fallout from 2019, and for the Jurisdictional Conference that will meet next summer to elect bishops for the Northeast.  All but two of the people in this picture are gone. 

  Of the delegates who are coming on, not one is over 40, which is especially interesting considering that, according to a study by the Pew Research Center,
“the share of U.S. adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated.”[3]
So, here are these under-forties who are not only religiously affiliated, but whose commitments have led them, both clergy and laity, into religious leadership.  Who better than they to look seriously at the situation of their peers?  Who better to understand the word of the Lord for the coming days?  What greater support could someone like me offer than to say, “I’ll be over here for now.  If you need me, just holler,” and then to stay out of the way?

            Not that that’s easy for everybody, and I include myself.  I understand the way that Christopher Wren’s uninvited supervisors must have felt.  In Allentown, I helped one of my churches to get a young adults’ ministry started.  It wasn’t huge, but it brought a dozen or so people together in meaningful ways.  Yes, it began with bowling and movie nights, but they broadened out into some wonderful discussions on deep matters.  That was about when the person who had really done most of the hard work came to me and said, “How are we defining ‘young adults’?”  And I said that it generally meant people between about twenty and thirty-five years old.  And she said, “Your birthday is coming up soon, isn’t it?”  She and her husband really loved to throw cookouts and were always looking for an occasion, so I was feeling pretty good until she said, “You’re going to be thirty-seven, aren’t you?”  (Yeah, well you’re forty-seven now, Michelle!)

            I am not saying to push us oldsters out of the way.  I am not saying anyone gets to retire from discipleship until the Lord calls them home.  Nor am I saying that the leadership God calls is all younger than forty, or ninety, for that matter.  I am saying that it’s a big mistake (but one familiar even from the days of the kings of ancient Israel) to discount someone for inexperience.  The goals that the Lord sets out for his people do not change, but the best methods of working them out may shift and sometimes a new perspective is not just helpful, but necessary and it’s important to know when to step back.

            Elijah was a great man.  And when it was time, God sent a chariot of fire to take him out of the way, so that Elisha could continue what Elijah had begun. The work that they achieved together has outlasted them both.

[1] Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 147-148.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

“When a Prophet Departs” - June 23, 2019

II Kings 2:1-12

            This morning I’m starting a sermon series on the Second Book of Kings.  It isn’t exactly Game of Thrones, but it comes close to it sometimes, without the dragons.  It describes the ups and downs of the Kingdom of Israel and some of the surrounding kingdoms over a period of generations, and uses as one of its main frameworks the life and career of the prophet Elisha. 

            It’s easy to confuse Elisha with his mentor, Elijah.  It’s like being around here when David Bretzius, David Bryant, David Hayes, David Shaw, and David Stauffer are all taking part in Bible School with Kathy Hayes, Cathie Shaw, Cathie Yeagle, Karen Bretzius, Karen Stoltzfus, and Karen Kerwin.  Elijah was the prophet who faced off against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and whom we hear about in today’s reading.  Elisha is the one we’ll hear about in the coming weeks.  Today we’ll consider the handoff between them.

            Elijah at one point was told by God to find Elisha and let him know that he would be his successor [I Kings 19:16], which he did.  He found Elisha just going about his business, plowing a field.  In one of those dramatic gestures that prophets are so good at, he just walked up to him, threw his mantle – his cloak – over his shoulders and kept on walking.  [I Kings 19:19-20]  Elisha understood the symbolism, went home, threw a goodbye party with his family, and left to become an apprentice prophet.

            Where we begin in the story today, though, is where the apprenticeship comes to an end.  It seems to have been common knowledge, at least in prophetic circles, that Elijah’s time was just about up.  We have this great opening sentence:

“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” [II Kings 2:1]
Elisha was not ready to leave him, or to let Elijah leave.  The other prophets kept raising the issue with him, and he didn’t want to hear anything about it from them.  When Elijah brought it up, Elisha refused to say goodbye.

“As the Lord lives,” he said to him, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” [II Kings 2:6]
Elijah tried to wind things up the best that he could, asking one of those open-ended questions that can get to the heart of things.  And he got an honest answer about what was going on with Elisha.  It wasn’t just that he was losing a teacher and a friend, but that he wasn’t sure that he would be ready to carry on the work that Elijah had dragged him into.

“Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’  Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’” [II Kings 2:9]
Elijah wanted to give him that confidence, but what he had done all along, throughout his life, had not been done under his own steam.  It had been the power of God that had supported him, and it would have to be the same helper who would be with Elisha.  The choice would be God’s.

“You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” [II Kings 2:10]
            Right here lies the source of Elisha’s effectiveness as a prophet.  Right here is a crucial element in the character of anyone who is going to be a leader in any situation – at work, in the community, in church, in the military, wherever.  It’s called “humility”.  It’s an openness to self-criticism, maybe, but certainly to hearing the advice of others, but above all the advice and guidance of the Spirit of the Lord.

            Go through the Bible and time and time again you will see these elements come together: God calls someone, they question their fitness, God promises to empower them for the task, and together they see it through.

            At the burning bush, God told Moses what to do: go back to Egypt, find the pharaoh, and tell him, “Let my people go.”  Moses, of course, said, “Sure.  No problem.  Give me a couple of days and I’ll be right back out here in the desert again, with the livestock.”  Right?  No.  He made excuses and hemmed and hawed.

“Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” [Exodus 6:30]
So God sent Moses’ brother Aaron along with him to be his mouthpiece, and they worked as a team.  Actually, when you look at Moses’ life, he almost always had somebody working alongside him.  If it wasn’t Aaron, it was Joshua, who would take over from him like Elisha eventually took over from Elijah.

            The prophet Isaiah also questioned himself when God called him.  Like Moses, he put things in terms of his speech and, by extension, his conduct, but he was really going deeper and saying he was just plain unworthy.  “Woe is me!” he said,

“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  [Isaiah 6:5]
God’s response was to grant him a vision of an angel putting a burning coal against his unclean lips, as if to burn off the wrong.

“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  [Isaiah 6:7]
Then God gave him a message to deliver and said, “Go!”

            It was the same for Elisha, I suspect.  Travel around with a great and faithful prophet like Elijah for long enough, and maybe you’ll grow to be more and more in awe at what you see happen.  You could develop a sense of your own smallness beside someone like that, and maybe that is a good thing if you can also see clearly that the people through whom the Lord does great things are still people, like anybody else.  Hold onto the awareness that it was not Elijah that did wonderful things and it was not his own word that he spoke, but the word of the Lord.  It was not Moses who parted the Red Sea, but God.  It was not Isaiah who gave a suffering people hope of redemption, but the same God who would redeem them.

            So when the time came, and God gathered Elijah up to heaven in the most miraculous way, Elisha found Elijah’s mantle left behind, the mantle that had been tossed over his own shoulders when he was first drafted. 

“He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’” [II Kings 2:13-14]
He didn’t look for Elijah anymore, but for Elijah’s God.  I should say “his own God”, too, because that is the whole point of the prophetic call.  It is for people to know that God is alive and present and involved in the nitty-gritty of daily life.  God cares what we do and what we feel.  God wants us to hope his hopes and dream his dreams.  God wants us to forgive as we are forgiven, and to love as he first loved us.

            Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah.  When he reached the Jordan, he bent over, holding it out as Elijah had done. He

“struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” [II Kings 2:14]
Then the work began.

            God is calling you for something.  God is calling all his people.  Do I know what each precise task is?  No.  But there is some word to speak, some kindness to show.  Are you up to it?  No.  None of us is.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s what grace is about.  None of us is in any place to speak, let alone act.  But God has provided us with complete pardon through Jesus, the kind of pardon that frees us up to live in better ways and beyond that to move the world toward a better situation because we aren’t (I pray) doing it for ourselves or under our own power.

            Just keep asking, “Where is the God of Elijah?”

Friday, June 14, 2019

“An Interlocking God” - June 16, 2019

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
To be totally frank about my first reaction whenever one of these readings from John comes along where Jesus speaks about his relationship to God the Father and to God the Holy Spirit, (and this is not the most convoluted of those passages) I feel a bit like Nathan Fillion in this brief clip:
I want to say something but recognize that I could get it totally wrong and do more harm than good.  I also recognize that I am in good company on that.  Carlo Carretto, in his book The God Who Comes, sums it up when he says,
“The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason.  It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.  [I’m going to come back to that, so let me read that last part again: ‘the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.’”]
The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.
It is so difficult to speak of these things.  We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, ‘Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.’”[1]
So, with the caveat that better people than I have babbled about this, let me babble, too.
                Of all the New Testament writers, John is the one who has the most highly-developed way of thinking about the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.  (And that word “Trinity” is not itself in the Bible, but is a shorthand word for a complex thought.  It is a word like “gravity” or “relativity” would be in physics, or “caramelize” would be in cooking.)  Matthew 25:19 gives us Jesus’ parting direction to make disciples and to baptize
“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
and Paul talks about how
“the Lord is the Spirit” [II Corinthians 3:17]
in the same letter where speaks of
“the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” [II Corinthians 4:4]
but Paul also calls Jesus “Lord” all the time and even says that
“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” [II Corinthians 5:19],
so it seems clear to me that the sense of what we call “the Trinity” is right there all the way along, even if the wording that we use when we get theological was only hashed out in later centuries with a lot of debate and sometimes even fighting.

                But I digress.  It’s unavoidable on this topic.

                John, whose gospel has the most developed ways of expressing this aspect of God, also uses the simplest language in one of his letters, where he says,
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  [I John 4:8]
So at the risk of sounding foolish, I will share how I believe those go together: the notion that God is love and that God exists as the Holy Trinity.  If it helps, great.  If not, take a few minutes and pray quietly, ignoring me and using the time better.

                Start with the idea that God is love.  Now, that’s all very good to say, but how can love simply exist on its own?  Love is more than a concept.  It’s an activity and a relationship.  For there to be love, there must be someone to do the loving.  That someone is God. 

For there to be love, there must also be someone to be loved.  Without an object, the verb “love” is meaningless, like when someone says, “I love humanity.  It’s people I can’t stand.”  If love is real, it attaches to an object.  Even the pagans knew that – Cupid’s arrow was always aimed at a target, not just shot into the air.  

Now, here I’m going off into one of these metaphysical moments.

Since God is eternal and existed before creation, that someone who is loved must also be eternal, which means the object of the divine love must be God as well, but in some way differentiated from that which loves.  So what we end up with is God, who is love; God, who loves; and God, who is loved. (And since love is reciprocated, neither is subordinate except in the way that love leads someone to put the other first, so that what one wills the other wills also, and so forth.) What we end up with is a three-personed God, no part of which is identical, yet each part of whom is necessary to the other two, and in agreement with the other two in all things.

Jesus expressed what it would mean for his disciples to worship this interlocking God.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” [John 16:12-15]
Confusing?  Yes.  But a true and living God is not ever going to be totally understandable to anyone but himself. 

                    The creeds that the Church worked out by trial and error over the centuries reflect not a precise definition of God, but a statement of faith.  This, they say, is what we have known and what has been shown to us.  This, they say, is what is central to keeping our own loving response to a loving God focused and direct.  So, when you look at any of them, and when we recite them together, including the Apostles’ Creed that we will share in a moment, you will see them built around the three persons of the Trinity, understanding that we cannot speak of any one of them without the other two.  Nor can we speak of just some vague divine being without reference to the concrete life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of his followers.

So I invite you to stand with me and together confess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed, and as we do so, to bear witness to the eternal God, three-in-one and one-in-three.
[1] Quoted in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), 194.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

“Blowing in the Wind” - June 9, 2019

A Call to New Birth
June 9, 2019

Pentecost was a unique and holy moment, with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people, but it isn’t as if Jesus had never spoken of the Spirit’s unlikely doings.  He told Nicodemus that 

The wind [or the Spirit – the word in New Testament Greek is the sameblows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

From time to time the Holy Spirit has decided to turn up its normal, gentle breeze, it’s constant and quiet breathing of life into the Church to the level of a gale.

In August of 1801, a small Presbyterian log church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky announced that they were going to offer a couple of days of preaching services to conclude with communion on the last night. They were hoping the local community would find When thousands of people started pouring in from the backwoods, the local clergy called in extra preachers from the neighborhood and built a bunch of outdoor platforms for them to stand on in front of the crowds.  Peter Cartwright, who was nineteen at the time, recalled, 
“The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with victuals mostly prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbors around. The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy.
To this meeting I repaired, a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening of said meeting, I went, with weeping multitudes, and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.”
Our meeting lasted without intermission all night, and it was believed by those who had a very good right to know, that over eighty souls were converted to God during its continuance. I went on my way rejoicing for many days.
Apart from the good that it did for the people who responded, the events at Cane Ridge kicked off the establishment of camp meetings all over the country.  Places like Ocean Grove, Chester Heights, and Mt. Gretna were part of that.

A little over forty years later, the country was at war with itself.  Soldiers who found themselves close to death began to ask questions about the meaning of life, about justice and injustice, about what they were doing in combat, about all sorts of things.  That was when another series of spontaneous revivals arose in both armies.  This is from a history of Virginia by Stephen Woodworth:

Revivals in the armies took different forms. In 1862 a Georgia soldier serving in Virginia wrote that although there had been none of what he called "revival meetings"—large, enthusiastic, often highly demonstrative religious services—nevertheless a strong religious movement was in progress, characterized by nightly prayer meetings 
in many regiments and a large upsurge in Bible reading among the troops. At other times the army revivals included more traditional displays of heightened religious interest. During the first months of 1864, delegates of the United States Christian Commission, an organization established by Northern churches to minister to the spiritual and material needs of the soldiers, set up a tent in the Vermont Brigade of the Union's Army of the Potomac. Though the tent could hold two hundred men, it hosted overflow crowds at nightly meetings, with many men unable to get close enough to hear the preaching. Services lasted an hour and a half, with a short sermon followed by a lengthy experience meeting in which many soldiers took part. Similar meetings were taking place throughout the Army of the Potomac that winter, as well as in the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The time was right.  The need was there.  

Who would have expected that?  But I guess

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

In April of 1906, a spontaneous revival began at a chapel on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.  The Assemblies of God, that run the University of Valley Forge, and most churches that call themselves “Pentecostal” trace their beginnings to this. The happenings at Azusa Street went on until around 1915 before dying down.  Can you imagine a nine-year revival?  Five days of Vacation Bible School can be exhausting!  

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

And Jesus continues:

So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:9]

What happens when you do go with it?

Peter Cartwright, whose recollection of his conversion at Cane Ridge I shared earlier, became a Methodist circuit rider.  Most Methodist preachers, even today, start out assigned to a circuit.  My first appointment had three churches.  Another I served had two.  Cartwright was appointed to Illinois.  That was his territory – all of Illinois.  He wasn’t preaching to ten thousand people at a time, but to four or five here and a dozen there, but his work left its mark.  And he was just one of thousands who came to faith in Christ that summer.

As to the Civil War revivals, I like to think that it was the Christian witness offered to one another by people gathered from what were then distant places eventually allowed them to see even their enemies, when the smoke cleared, as brothers in faith and to begin the hard work of rebuilding across the lines of victor and vanquished, so much so that fifty years after Gettysburg some of the survivors of those bloody days stood on the land where they once shot at each other, shook hands, and then sat down to a picnic lunch together.

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  [Matthew 5:44-45]

One of the blessings of the Azusa Street Revival was that those present saw the gifts of the Spirit being shared out among both dark- and light-skinned people.  In the time when Jim Crow laws were being laid down across the continent, the Holy Spirit was at work breaking down the barriers that humans were trying to reinforce.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, 
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.” [Acts 2:17]

There is no one way, but an infinite number of ways, that the Holy Spirit makes its way into the human heart and soul.  It might in a crowd of people standing and waving their hands with tears running down their cheeks.  It might be at a campfire at Innabah or Pocono Plateau.  It might be when you’re called on to stand up for what is right, and you suddenly find courage you didn’t know you had.  It might be when you find words that don’t feel like they’re entirely your own and you say to yourself later, “Where did that come from?”  It might be at a moment when you are overcome by joy or beauty.  It might be right now, this very moment, or in the car on your way home today.  
“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

Wherever it is going, go with it.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

“On Your Mark! Get Ready!” - June 2, 2019

Acts 1:1-11

            Think back, if you can, into the past.  Not the far past, just two weeks ago today.  It was Sunday evening, around 8:00 or 9:00, just after dark, and the sky began to flicker.  There was a strange kind of lightning, at least in my neighborhood, that didn’t have a lot of thunder to go with it, but that kept flickering on and off behind the clouds.  Occasionally there was a bolt that shot down to the ground or more often from one cloud to another.  Mostly the sky just lit up and went dark, over and over and over again, like somebody was flipping a light switch on and off.  All of this continued for well over an hour.

            I sat there watching it.  I was waiting for it to get closer or move further away, but the storm system seemed to have stalled.  I was waiting for thunder, but it never really went above a low rumble.  I was waiting for the first raindrops to pound down onto the roof, but they never came.  Yet for those couple of hours, I was sure that something was going to happen.

            Think back, if you can, to a summer right after you graduated from high school.  Maybe you would be going to college in the fall.  Maybe you had a brief period before you started your first full-time job.  Maybe you had a week or two or even a month before entering the military.  Remember, if you can, the strange period where something was getting ready to happen but it was not quite underway.

            Remember, if you will, some crucial point in your life when you were balanced precariously between what was and what could be.  Think of a time when you were eager to move forward with something but you had to wait, not like waiting for Christmas morning or a birthday, wonderful days that come and then go, but waiting for something you aren’t even quite sure about that will be less of a single event than a life-change.

            Robert Graves, the British poet, put a poem called “Leaving the Rest Unsaid” at the end of his selection of his best work.  It says,

Finis, apparent on an earlier page,
With fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?

Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.

Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?

But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.

So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing,
At a careless comma,”

            That’s where Jesus left the disciples when he ascended into heaven, telling them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit showed up.  He left them like runners at the starting block in the moment between, “Ready!  Set!” and…

            They didn’t know what to expect.  They only knew to expect something.  That kind of leaves you on edge, doesn’t it?

“Knock, knock!”
[Who’s there?]

The thing is, that you know something is to follow.  You might feel it as a kind of dread, you might feel it as a kind of hope, but you feel it.  You’re right there at the top of the first hill on the roller coaster and you see nothing ahead of you but sky and maybe you hear the sudden screams of the people in the third car ahead of you.

            The Holy Spirit would come to those disciples.  We’ll hear about that again next week, as we always do on Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit would come and everyone would be off and running and lives would change in a whirlwind of miracles and wonders, and there would be discussions and arguments about what was happening and why and how to handle it.  Generations would pass until people began to make any sense out of what it meant for the Spirit of God to be poured out on Jesus’ followers. 

“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 you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” [Acts 1:4-5]

In the narrow time between Jesus’ ascension and that day, they did stay put.  They did what they knew how to do.  They chose a man named Matthias to take the place of Judas [Acts 1:15-26].  They didn’t rush things, but waited to see what God would do.

“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” [Acts 1:14]

            We all need those times, as much as we like to get on with things.  Maybe it’s because we prefer to get on with things that periods of waiting and reflection are so important.  We build Advent and Lent into the church year so that we get the full impact of Christmas and Easter, and I’ve noticed that folks who take those periods seriously are generally those who experience their joy most deeply.  We have long engagements not just so that couples can spend more time sampling cake and rewriting guest lists but more importantly so that the realities and fears that can and should be part of something as serious as taking wedding vows can sink in.  It’s not always possible, but it’s a wonderful thing when somebody making a major decision about the direction of their life can take either a regular block of time out of each day for awhile or maybe a few days entirely to think and pray about what they should do.  Stay in Jerusalem, as it were, stay in your life as you know it, and pray until you get the word, whatever that word turns out to be.  If you are serious about your prayer life, you will hear.  If you let other concerns, including your own plans or your own thoughts even, interfere, then when God speaks, you might not be listening.

            God does speak, after all.  What God says, quite often, is “On your mark!  Get set!”