A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 28, 2017
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 4:7-11 – The Gospel, St. John 15:26-16:4
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Ascensiontide and waiting
Don’t just do something, sit there. The ten-day season of Ascension, or Ascensiontide in traditional parlance, is a curious place. We’ve moved past Easter. Jesus has ascended into heaven, and we are now waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. Waiting. Before Jesus left on Ascension Day, he commanded his disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father” for “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5). We are now in the period of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.
But this is not only a period of waiting. It is also a period of prayer. Acts describes the post-Ascension activity of the disciples:
They returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet…. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:12-14).
- To wait and pray is a standard posture in the life of faith. It is also frustrating and aggravating. We want to “do” something, be productive, and make something happen. Those are our words. The real reason we cannot wait and pray is that we do not really trust God yet and we want to control things. To wait and pray is to let go of control and trust.
- The biblical pattern of waiting.
There is a parallel between the Ascension and what happened when God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to meet God, just as Jesus ascended into heaven to the Father. Moses would come back down with Law or Torah. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit, through whom the law is not written in our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33).
While Moses was receiving the law from God on the mountain, the people had to wait for him at the bottom of the mountain. Moses was gone for a while, and the people became impatient. Exodus 32 says,
When the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod. 32:1).
Aaron made two golden calves for the people and they worshiped the calves and had a drunken, idolatrous party that brought upon them God’s judgment—because they could not wait for God and his promise.
Saul was rejected as king, and David was chosen in his place, in part because Saul did not wait for the prophet Samuel to come and offer sacrifice before a significant battle against the Philistines. Samuel had told him to wait, but when the enemy approached and the people became afraid, Saul acted in haste and offered the sacrifice himself. Samuel said to him, “You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
- Waiting in the life of prayer
As we can see from these examples, when people do not wait and pray, things do not work out so well. We can do a thought experiment to understand why. Let’s say that, rather than the command to wait and pray, we were commanded to do whatever we wanted to do right now. Go, make your own happiness on your own terms apart from God. What would be the result? It would be the world we see today. People do not wait for God. Instead, they live for things in this world. And people in our culture have never been more discontented.
God calls to pray and wait because nothing we get right now can satisfy the inner longing of our hearts. God wants us to wait for him because he wants to fill us with himself, and he cannot do that unless we will wait and pray for him to come—for he will not come to us against our will.
Genuine faith keeps us in a posture of waiting and praying, for we can only get what we really want when Christ and his kingdom come. The good things we enjoy in this world give us a taste of the kingdom. They are sacramental signs of Christ. But genuine faith lets go of the things of this world when they become idols. The disciplines of the spiritual life can be understood as fighting for the balance between saying “yes” to the good that God gives us, and saying “no” to things that are not gifts and are, therefore, not from God.
We wait and pray for God to give us more of himself. This can be painful because our disordered desires cry out like spoiled children wanting to be satisfied now. This is the main reason waiting is hard. To make room for God, we must learn to say no to these desires, to put them to death to make room for the new life God wants to give us in the Spirit. As we say “no” to disordered desire and wait for God, we establish a new pattern that leads ultimately to fulfillment. This replaces the old pattern of fallen humanity, which demands fulfillment now, but is never satisfied.
- Praying for Pentecost
The good news is that we can have more of God in this world. We can, in the words of the Confirmation prayer, “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more until [we] come to thy everlasting kingdom” (297). As we pray in the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension:
We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before (BCP 179).
So, don’t just do something, sit there… and pray. During Ascensiontide, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us in a new way on Pentecost. Let us pray for a renewed experience of God’s grace and presence. Let us pray that God will stir up our spiritual gifts to serve others with greater zeal. Let us pray for new strength and virtue to fight the spiritual battle. If we will wait and pray, God will answer our prayer. As Jesus said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Lk. 11:13).