Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Abandoned by the Lord?

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Redeemed by our Crucified, Risen and Ascended Lord:

This morning we find ourselves in twilight time, in that fuzzy gray time of transition between day and night. These days in the Church year are like no other as Christians around the world observe both Ascension Day (last Thursday — forty days after Easter Sunday) and the Feast of Pentecost next Sunday (fifty days after Easter Sunday).
For all who follow Christ these ten days are peculiar days, days to mark and ponder and take to heart. Days between our Lord's triumphal ascension to the right hand of God Almighty and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon all his children.
These ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost were difficult days for the disciples. They remained — for the most part — clueless as Jesus gave his final farewell — his final commands and promise — before being taken up into heaven.
We hear how the disciples were left with their mouths open and their heads and feet motionless on that Ascension Day through the inspired pen of Saint Luke when he writes these words in the first chapter of the book of Acts:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [Christ candle extinguished.] And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:1-14 ESV)

Confused, under threat of persecution and death, numb from the events of the last forty days, and tempted to believe they had been abandoned by their Lord.
But, with words of encouragement from the two heavenly angels, the disciples held tight to Jesus' Word and Promise, the one thing that could keep them together and give direction and words to their continuous prayers during those ten "up-in-the-air" days between Ascension Day and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
This is the reason why more than a few Christian groups have, for generations, set aside these ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost as a time of fasting and prayer and devotion and acts of mercy to their neighbor-in-need. Some congregations observe this week-and-a-half by offering a continuous (240 hour) prayer vigil in the sanctuary.
But what do you pray for for 240 hours?
Well, what did the disciples pray in that upper room — that upper room in which they had celebrated the Lord's Supper, that upper room in which they had seen the risen Christ and the saving marks of his sacrificial death upon a cross, that upper room in which they had — as apostles and pastors of the Church — received through the Holy Spirit their calling to forgive sins in the stead and by the command of Christ himself.
What did the disciples — the Church — pray in their time of need and bewilderment and fear and uncertainty?
That is a good question to ask for congregations who find themselves in their own "twilight time" as they struggle with declining membership and resources and changing neighborhoods — for husbands and wives who find themselves in times of temptation and uncertainty — for parents and children who find themselves at odds with their respective roles in the family and the world around them — for individual Christians who find their faith under attack and their hope in heaven shaken.
What do we pray?
The prayer the Church has always prayed — a prayer based on the sure foundation of Christ's Word for us: the collect for the seventh Sunday of Easter — the collect for the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost:
O King of glory, Lord of the heavenly hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of truth whom you promised from the Father.
The prayer of Christ's Church — our prayer — your prayer — is to be found in the one source of all hope and comfort and consolation: the Holy Scriptures. In the Introit — the entrance psalm — for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (also known as "Waiting Sunday"). Psalm 27 — a psalm from the inspired king David as he proclaims from God:

"Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14 ESV)

This is the same Lord who spoke pure comfort and hope and strength to his own as he prepared them for his betrayal — his holy, innocent, suffering and death.
Imagine, if you will, the head of the household gathering his family around the Thanksgiving Day table. Everyone is in attendance. Everyone in the family is seated in their proper place. All individual quarrels are put aside as the household circles around the gifts presented: an enjoyable meal and the enjoyable company of each other's presence. The head of the household leads those gathered in giving thanks for the table prepared, for the fellowship created in, with and under bread and wine and the care of the Master of the house.
But as the plates are cleared, the householder announces that he has decided to go ahead with the plans he had made to join the armed forces and fight to defend the life and liberties of his family and fellow countrymen. He will be leaving them now, to lay down his life that the life of his family might be defended, preserved, secured.
Think of the resolve of the Master of the house as he announces what will happen in the days ahead. Think of the fear and despair of those gathered at table as they hear the words:
"I am leaving you now. But it is for your good. If I don't go this house cannot survive and flourish. I must leave you now. And you must wait for my return — in faith and hope and confidence that this is the way it must be — for your good. Hold tight to my word of promise: you will see me again. I will not leave you as orphans."
Hear again Jesus as he prays for his own on the night he was betrayed. The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the Seventeenth chapter:

[Jesus prayed,] "Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth." (John 17:11b-19 ESV)

For a Church that would rather hide in a bomb shelter — behind closed doors of an upper room — until their Lord's return, Jesus sends out his own into the world. But he sends them out as his own — marked by his holy Cross, his holy Name, his sanctifying Word.
In these ten uncomfortable days between our Lord's Ascension and the pouring out of Christ's Spirit at Pentecost, we are called to live Christian lives of faith in Christ's Word, lives that reflect Christ's Word and Promise — in our prayers and worship, in our Christian witness, and in our service to those God himself has placed in our lives.
Our Lord has gone out to do battle for us and for all fallen children of Adam and Eve. But he has not left us to helplessly try to fend for ouselves. We have not been made orphans — for we are, even now, held safe in his saving Name, his eternal Word, his enlivening Spirit and Baptism — that we may live lives of thanksgiving by serving each other in the bond of peace.
Is your world upside-down this morning? Are you wondering why Christ has left his own to return to heaven?
Hold tight to Christ's Word of promise as he embraces you, treasures you, keeps you and preserves you for eternity.
Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. And wait for the Lord. He is faithful.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.