Scripture: Acts: 1:1-11
In 1917 the elderly Phoebe Webb utilized her local library in San Francisco and checked out a collection of short stories entitled Forty Minutes Late. I am guessing the stories within the book must have been dripping with irony, because Forty Minutes Late was returned. . . a little more than forty minutes late. At the age of 83 Phoebe Webb passed away a week before the book was due. Her family, unaware that the book was from the library, packed it away in a trunk with some of her other possessions. This trunk became a family heirloom, passed along the generations but unopened. Finally, in the 1990’s Phoebe’s great-grandson Webb Johnson finally opened the chest and discovered the book. However, since it had been checked out nearly 80 years previously, he assumed the book now belonged to his family. Twenty years later though he had a change of heart, and decided to return the book. On January 13th of this year, Forty Minutes Late was finally returned about 100 years late. Webb judicially waited until the San Francisco libraries had a two week amnesty program where any book returned late would not be fined. That was smart on his part because it allowed him to avoid a $3,650 late fee.
This was all reported in the January 16th edition of the San Francisco chronicle, but there is so much more to this story that I want to know. I am curious just how a book gets so overdue. I know that in 1917, the library could not just call or email Mrs. Webb’s estate. Did they send letters that went unanswered? Presumably there was a ledger or catalog system that kept track of books that were checked out. I know at some point the library went to a digital check out system, when that happened did they move over their ancient records. I am really curious if when they returned the book if the library had forgotten it ever owned that book, or if truly was an open unreturned book in their system. I like to imagine that the library system knew the book was overdue, and it was on a list that the librarians were patiently waiting would someday be returned. It took a while, but Forty Minutes Late was eventually returned. This morning’s scripture reminds us that collectively the church has been waiting a while. This morning’s scripture ends with the angels telling the disciples that Jesus will be coming back. However, like a wizard messiah’s are never late nor early, he arrives precisely when he means to. That time has not yet come, and collectively as the church universal we are still waiting. Jesus has gone back to heaven, but we believe he will come back again. This morning’s scripture is about more than the second coming, it is a challenge about what we will do during the waiting.
This morning’s scripture takes place at a unique time in biblical events. This is after the resurrection, after the amazing events where Jesus first appeared to his disciples. As this morning’s scripture states Jesus made multiple appearances to his disciples. He convinced them fully that he was alive. He continued to teach them about the kingdom of God and about the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be one of the disciples at this point? They had to know they were at the ground floor of something special. They had all sacrificed much to answer the call to follow Jesus, and now their obedience to that prompting to follow him had paid off. They had truly found the messiah, the Christ, the savior of the world. Can you just imagine how much joy, confidence, and excitement the disciples must have had? The atmosphere around them had to be electric, their enthusiasm must have been contagious.
They had to all be trying to figure out “so what’s next?” That is what is at the heart of verse six. This is why they ask if Jesus is going to now restore the kingdom of Israel. Even at this point the disciples were still thinking that Jesus might be an earthly king who would reign over Israel, but the disciples also knew that Jesus was more than just a political savior. They now knew that he was a spiritual savior, so when the disciples were talking about the restoration of Israel, their scope had broadened. They were no longer just referring to the restoration of Israel as a sovereign nation state. They were referring to Israel as it was meant to be. Israel was originally called by God to be a holy nation, where God was their God and they were God’s people. It was a restoration to this understanding of Israel that the disciples were referring to. This was before the Holy Spirit had descended on Pentecost and before the apostle Paul had started preaching to the gentiles, at this point they did not realize just how big God’s plan was. They did not realize that God’s people was to expand beyond just ethnic Jews. However, they were beginning to get a sense of it.
After the disciples ask Jesus if the time to restore Israel is now, he reminds them that only God the Father knows the times and place when all of creation will be restored. Jesus then answers the questions for the disciples, he tells them what is next. They are to be his witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. This happens to serve as a summary for the entire book of Acts, because that is exactly what happens. The disciples start sharing the gospel first in Jerusalem, then the rest of Judea and Samaria. By the end of Acts Paul is taking the gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of his death and resurrection, and the good news of salvation through the forgiveness of sins as far as Rome. Church tradition tells us that by the end of the disciples’ life they had spread the gospel as far East as India, as far South as Ethiopia, and potentially as far west as the Iberian Peninsula. We continue in that fourth phase as there are still people living today scattered all across the earth who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus.
I think it is funny what happens next, after giving the Disciples a mission to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, Jesus is assumed back into heaven. The disciples stand there looking up to the sky. How long were they there I wonder? All the bible says is that they were intently looking into the sky, but I feel like it was a silly long time that the disciples were just standing there looking skyward. I wonder if that is why the angels had to come to shoo them along and ask “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
Jesus had given the disciples a job to do, a mission that would take a lifetime. Instead of hitting the ground running on this, they instead chose to stare at the sky to see if Jesus would come back out of it. Today, we are still waiting for Jesus to come back. Unfortunately, to many of us, like the original disciples are still staring intently at the clouds. There seem to be a lot of Christians with an obsession about the end times. This is not a new obsession. Many of you have probably heard about the best-selling Left Behind series, which started in 1995 and ended in 2004. However, that was not the first bestselling book series about tribulations leading up to the second coming. Sydney Watson wrote a similar trilogy that was published between 1913-and 1916. Of course, Watson’s books saw World War I as a sure sign of the impending end of the world. This obsession with seeing the signs of when Jesus will return and mapping out what that will look like and when it will happen is a cottage industry. One of Amazon’s theology subsections is completely devoted to books on this topic and it has over 8,000 entries! Often these books will seek to map current events and argue how they fulfill such and such scripture. These books will float out hypothetical timelines for when certain event will happen and sometimes even conjecture as to when Jesus will return. Which honestly, is lunacy. I have to wonder if these numerous authors ever read this morning’s scripture where Jesus clearly states, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
The biggest problem with all of this speculation and guessing about when Jesus is coming back is that it amounts to nothing more than staring intently into the clouds. It is hard to love the hurting world next to us and around us if we are too busy staring up to notice them. Amazon also has a subsection about Christian books that are written on the topic of social justice. These are books about issues related to serving the hurting, the oppressed, and the marginalized in the world. Sadly, there are significantly less entries in this section than there are in the end time’s section. It seems that on a whole more Christians are more concerned with figuring out when Jesus is coming back again than we are with loving our neighbor as ourselves. The question is why?
I have to admit I do not understand the Christian obsession with the end times. Why put so much time and energy in figuring out when you get to leave this world, when you can instead join God in the work of redeeming it? It seems to me that we have a choice. Are we going to stare at the clouds or are we going to be Jesus’ witnesses to ends of the earth? I think perhaps the way to frame it is in mission. What is the mission of a church that’s primary focus is preparing for the second coming? I suppose it would be to wait and watch. It would spend a lot of time trying to interpret just how close the big event is. The mission would be to huddle tight and look to the clouds in expectant hope. I do not know about you, but that does not sound terribly appealing. It also does not sound like the mission that Jesus gave his disciples to be his witnesses to the very end of the earth.
A mission statement that sounds more in line with that is to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world. We make disciples by sharing the love of God made known through Jesus Christ. We share this gospel through our words and through our actions. We tell people that God loves and forgives them, but then we show them by being the very embodiment of that love and that human expression of that mercy. We be the people who love the unlovable, who accept the cast out unconditionally, and offer second chances to the people who have struck out at life. We nurture disciples by coming along beside them. We provide a supportive community in faith, and like iron sharpening iron we collectively strengthen our faith as we practice it together. We transform the world when we act justly and we love mercy. We be the body of Christ, his hands and his feet by taking God’s great big love and putting into action in the world to make this world a more compassionate, just, and loving place. When we do those things, we are being witnesses to Jesus. Our little witness might not reach to the ends of the earth, but we can bathe Edinburgh in light.
Do not get me wrong, I sincerely believe that Jesus is coming back. There will be a second coming, and it will be glorious. When Jesus comes back again, what is he going to find? Will he find his modern day disciples staring into the clouds or will he find them being loving witnesses in the world? Which one do you think Jesus would want to find? May we keep our eyes off the sky and instead keep our focus on sharing God’s love. May we be willing to get down and do the dirty work of radically loving people who have not yet experienced the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. May we as a church truly be the witnesses of Jesus Christ in all of Edinburgh, IN. Most of all, when Jesus does come back again, may we be living as the kind of disciples that he wants to find.