Sermon for Ascension Sunday (Easter 7) 2018
‘Good things Come . . .’
“Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”] Acts 4:4
Just this week I learned that those who control global investments of money use data downloaded from Spotify, the music streaming service to predict with uncanny precision what will happen in the money, markets. The question ‘are people going to buy things or not?’ can be answered with great accuracy, by looking at their choice of music.
When you add to this Facebook’s apparently true claim to know its users better than they know themselves, and thus their ability to control the behaviours of its users, and experiment they themselves carried out, it is worth asking the question which occupies philosophers in these days, ‘is there really anything such as free will?’ If human beings are so predictable using powerful computer algorithms, is it not the case that we are all just caught up in a machine in which we are highly manipulable and dependable cogs. It is frankly a terrifying thought, yet the Modern World is founded on such a set of assumptions, not least that the human is no more than a biological machine. And the problem with machines is that they are without Hope in any meaningful sense. What will be is what is encoded and laid down . . . where does our help come from? Where might anything New break in to change this story?
The Church is meant to be that place. God in Christ has broken into our world to reveal a Newness of which we would never have conceived. The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, betokens this Life of God breaking into our existence as something beyond our way of understanding, and today as we look back not only to Easter and the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens, but look forward to Pentecost is time for not only considering the Nature of this Life, as we have been doing, but also how this Life is so transmitted in the world that we might be set free from the machine life we seem inexorably to be drawn into.
What is it that might be a lifeline, bringing in Life from outside of the machine? Or is it purely a closed system? Of course it is hard to answer that if we only use the language of the machine, of closed systems and our way of speaking about the World is so Modern as to offer few clues, but perhaps our Psalm, written from the non-machine age might speak to us of how Life comes to us from outside the machine, Life which may yet preserve Life in the World and call forth a Newness to a ‘tired and weary world’ And again we are in the world of trees 🙂
Blessed is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
So the Psalm speaks of one who is Rooted in something – namely the Life of God – mediated through His Word, written and of course Lived in Christ Jesus
We might say as St Augustine suggests, their restless hearts have found their Rest in God
And they are Still, at Rest –
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
Trees as we have been considering these past weeks are like ikons – they speak to us if we will hear, and in this case it is their fixedness which is drawn to attention – for unlike the wicked man, who is ‘like chaff that the wind drives away.’ – The Righteous man is ‘planted’ – fixed – rooted in streams of life giving water and thus
‘yields his fruit – – – in due season’
A tree, I suspect is not anxious about the future. It knows that planted by good streams, its fruit will come. It is Content – we might say, it is ‘at rest’. It is most unmachine like, not least because it doesn’t appear to be doing anything, rather it is Still. Perhaps this is why the Machine world is so at war with ‘the living world’?
It is that stillness, that restedness, that rootedness which makes all the difference. Human existence is impossible if everything is permanently on the move, as in a machine, perpetual change is literally, Radically disorienting. For something to be radically disoriented – it has to be ‘taken up by the roots’, it is rootless. Radical means just this – of the root. (It is a word which has come to mean the exact opposite of its root meaning.
To be radical nowadays is to be disconnected from time and space, from tradition, from human shared existence, it is to be isolated and cut off but we cannot live like this. Modern people with their disdain for what has gone before are cut off at the roots, they are radical in the modern sense, not the true sense.)
In the same way that trees and plants, rooted in the ground stabilise the soil and allow growth, and when they are uprooted the very soil of existence washes away – so too human society falls to pieces without those who are fixed place. If there is no-one stable, then everything is reduced to chaos. The Righteous, the Rooted ones, ‘preserve the city in peace’
We find this in the simplest ways. Children growing up without the stability of family life more often than not end up living lives of chaos. The Stability of the Mother and the Father, the Home is good soil in which the child may grow and acquire Virtue, Character, and all those things which we seem to have forgotten are important. These things are the necessary stability around which magical things may happen, the fixed points.
Today we remember the Ascension of Jesus, on the Sunday between His Ascension and Pentecost, and Jesus commands his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”. So we are in a period of waiting, but at the least, it has to be said that a society whose default state is rapid perpetual movement is not very productive of those whom might wait with a degree of contentment, at the worst, it destroys our capacity for waiting – for waiting on God.
I saw this on a committee I sat on some years ago now. every half an hour a bell rang and for two minutes we were to ‘wait’ on God. But my experience of it was that it was like being in a Formula 1 pit lane, a drive through penalty, or a tyre change. When the bell rang again, we were off! Conversation carried on as if everyone present had been fixed on that thing they were about to say, hadn’t the bell interrupted us. It wasn’t waiting, it was merely pausing. For Waiting itself has also changed its meaning, to Pausing. ‘Wait for the lights to change’ In other words, the emphasis on Go, not Wait. For wait is to attend upon to pay attention to. It is a way of existence, to be a Waiter . . . And to be a Waiter is to purely be attentive on the One whom you serve. Stood, Watching. As John Milton puts it ‘they also serve, who only stand and wait’ – yet the machine world has little time for such Wisdom, not least because it is the servant of time, driven on and on,
But We are in a period of waiting, and we have been here before. The Easter season is bookended by two seasons of waiting. One is short, one longer, but the first sets the tone for the second. The first is the time between 3pm God Friday, and early on the first day of the week – Holy Saturday if you will. This Waiting reveals the true character of waiting as Christians, waiting on God. The waiting day is the Sabbath. It is a day as it were out of time. A Day to Rest. To Be righteous, to be like that tree . . . but under the old dispensation it was of course ‘just one day in the week’, it pointed towards something which was yet to come, and even in those days many chafed at The Sabbath, at having to stop. The bell rang, the sun went down, and everything had to stop . . . yet the prophets denounced those ‘who could not wait for the Sabbath to be over’ the ‘wicked’ who wanted to ‘get on with things’ buying and selling etc. etc. The Sabbath got in the way. So too the women are up and ready at daybreak to come to the tomb. They’ve paused as it were, but not waiting, having not believed the word that Jesus had spoken that on the thirst day he would be raised. Having not believed, they hadn’t waited
Easter Morning reveals the true nature of Waiting as opposed to Pausing. Waiting is not Pausing. Waiting is Watching and praying, Waiting ‘on the LORD’, to See what He will do. So Holy Saturday reveals what it is to Wait on God . . . For the Resurrection of Jesus is something which comes to pass entirely from God. It is Life come from God. But as such it sets the pattern for this second season of Waiting, and Waiting on the Lord in general
So Jesus having spent forty days, appearing to and being with his disciples, before he is taken form their sight commands them to Wait. “[Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” Waiting now has a different character from before. Not least in that it is no longer tied to The Sabbath. It isn’t ‘a day off the stuff that really matters’ any longer and should not be confused with it. Rather it is a new way of being in the World, in the New Creation which God in Christ has revealed, it is the way of The Waiter, the Servant who is also the friend. Ten days as it happens, but that is of no consequence. The command is to Wait, for as The LORD has done a new thing in Raising Christ from the Dead, now the disciples know that, their life being in Him, they Wait on Him and for Him.
John tells the story rather differently. He has the incident of the disciples gone back to their fishing. Without Jesus, although he had been raised, and without Him they fish all night and catch nothing, with him, they catch fish, one of every kind. Waiting for the Presence of the Spirit of Christ is revealed as fundamental. ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing’ Abide in me as I abide in you – rest in me, live in me, Wait on me, attend to me . . . and you will bear much fruit, in due season.
So the disciples Wait, in Jerusalem, ‘for the promise of the Father’ – ten whole days. We might ask, why didn’t they rush out into the market place and tell everyone as soon as Jesus had been taken from their sight? Simply because they knew that their Life was at his command, they waited on Him, they’d learned to wait, Holy Saturday when they’d had no choice taught them what happened when you waited. Now they waited joyfully in obedience, for they knew that Good things came from the father of Lights, when they waited on him.
Joyfully, prayerfully waiting . . .
I wonder if this attitude marks the Modern Church? I wonder if it marks us? Joyful, prayerful. Confident that ‘in due season’ our waiting will bear fruit. Or are we captive to the machine?
What could the disciples have done to bring about ‘The Resurrection’? Set up a working group perhaps?
What could they have done to speed the outpouring of The Holy Spirit? Establish a project!
What could they do to bring Life, to add a single day to their allotted span? There must be a way to fix the biological machine . . .
What in truth could they do to effect any of these things? Nothing
Except Wait – meditate on God’s word, delight in it. Enjoy his fellowship at table as he fed them with bread and wine. Love one another from the heart. Lay down their lives for one another, in confidence and trust. In Hope founded on the Resurrection of Christ – the deep Living Water from which we live and love. And in so doing be those trees planted by streams, whose roots spread and bind and hold things together until the day of the Lord’s appearing, for which we wait in the Hope to which we were called, through the ‘immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’
To wait is to be people of a Hope born of the Resurrection. People in tune with Being itself, knowing who they are, and from where their life comes. Living beings in the age of machines. Unpredictable for this life comes not from any source which the Modern world Knows
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give to us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait upon him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which all those who wait on him are called . . . and who knows how much life may be thus preserved