May 24, 2020 Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 John 17:1-11
Ask questions but know your limits
Asking questions is an important way of learning new things. Asking questions has always been part of the Jewish approach to life and religion. Socrates the great Greek philosopher and mentor of Plato, was in the habit of asking questions. Now known as the Socratic method.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review the authors point out that questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds trust among team members.
Psychologists have taken this a step further explaining that asking why is what drives not only everything we do, but it also determines our emotional reactions to everything that happens to us. For example, your frustration of being in a traffic jam will quickly turn into sympathy when you see a totaled car and an injured person.
We are simply far more likely to accept a change if we understand the reason for it. Asking questions is a good thing – generally!
There is another reason why people ask questions. They want to be in control! A life coach gives this tip: Whoever is asking the questions is in control of the conversation. They are the ones that are dictating where the conversation goes next. So, you want to always be asking questions because you stay in control.
Now we don’t have enough information to really know why Jesus’ Disciples asked a question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They obviously wanted Christ to fulfill his promise of restoration, to finish the work he had begun.They may have known intuitively that Christ’s resurrection was the victory and perhaps they wanted to share in it. They may have thought that the time had arrived to benefit from their relationship with Jesus, sharing in his power. Or perhaps they wanted to be in control!
Jesus answer therefore is telling: “It is not up to you to know the times or periods that the father has set by his own authority.”
There are certain things that we, as human beings simply don’t know. We don’t always fully understand the complexities of our world or life. There are times when we think we’ve figured out our world and life. But often we get a rude awakening: we are not in control. We have our limitations.
We don’t have the capacity to fully and completely understand God and God’s work. Sure, we see glimpses of God’s goodness. We received enough assurances that God loves us, forgives us, and will always be with us. We have received God’s Word that God’s love for the world is unlimited, and we know that God in Christ has conquered our biggest enemy death.
And it certainly is a good thing that over the centuries theologians and others have asked deep and relevant questions of faith. We too have to continue to define our faith anew in an ever changing world. But we need to be cautious that we don’t think that we are in control of God or that we can, by asking questions manipulate God.
You see, I believe Jesus’ answer, “it is not for us to know the times or the periods that the father has set…” implies that there are limits to being human. Remember that asking questions is good for we can learn and we get answers. Asking questions expands our intellectual capacity. But asking questions can also be a form of wanting to be in control! And when it comes to God, faith calls for a leap, not control. Our faith requires that we have to let go of our natural instinct to control and manipulate others and even God.
I wonder about these words of Jesus, for they come to us as well. It is not for us to know the times and the periods that the father has set. His words obviously rule out the age old effort of people to predict when Jesus would return. I always find it fascinating and disturbing that so many people over the years made predictions when Jesus would return. I find it even more fascinating that there are people who actually believe these predictions. The first prediction was the year 500. Some are saying 2020 is the year. It is a waste of time to try to predict for it is not for us to know.
I think these words go beyond the predictions of Christ’s return. I think they set a limit to our natural instinct of trying to be in control. We are not in control of God, life often is a mystery and we should not manipulate others. It is not up to us to determine the destiny of others based on how they live, who they are and what life choices they make. In short, we cannot and should not play God! There are areas of this life, this world, the complexities and intricacies of being human that we can neither control nor fully understand. The best way is to accept our limitations and to trust God for God’s times and periods are perfect!
Jesus does not leave it at his honest answer of “it is not for you to know.” No, he continues with a promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit who would enable them to be Jesus’ witnesses.
I have said this before, but I think it is important to say again: We are called to be God’s witnesses. We are not called to be God’s lawyers to build a defense, develop a case strategy or negotiate or bargain with the world. God does not need defending. We are God’s witnesses.
We are not called to be judges with authority to hear, determine, preside, rule and condemn the guilty. We are called to be witnesses.
We are not God’s jury to decide whether a person or the world is “guilty” or “not guilty”.
The distinction between a witness and a lawyer, judge or jury is significant. A witness speaks about what she has seen, a witness speaks about what he observed. We, through the work of God’s Spirit are witnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are witnesses of God’s love of human kind, of forgiveness of sins, of new life in Christ. Being a witness is an honor and responsibility but it has its limitations. Perhaps we should accept the limitations of what it means to be a witness of Jesus. We can only point towards Him who conquered death. It is not up to us force or move people to faith. We are only witnesses!
But there is another question in this paragraph. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” These men had experienced a lot over the previous 40 days, the turmoil of their friend being arrested, killed, and his resurrection to this point when he ascended into heaven. And now they just stood there, looking up, perhaps wondering, “what now?” They had to wait 10 more days for Pentecost. They had no control over God’s timetable.
And as we all know, waiting is not easy. It is incredibly difficult to have a pause. I suspect that we have now a better understanding of the challenge of waiting and pausing. I am sure they were frustrated, perhaps wondering when they will be able to go out and be witnesses. Doubt may have seeped in. Whatever it was, the result was that they became passive staring up toward heaven. Heads in the clouds, one could say.
It was not until the angelic men in white robes asked them: “why do you stand looking….?” that they got moving again. They returned to Jerusalem where the 11 of them stayed in one house! Now imagine that, 11 men in one house! And they devoted themselves to prayer!
The time between Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost has been described as a significant pause. A pause between the mighty acts of God, a pause in which the church’s task is to wait and pray. The Disciples’ waiting however was not empty-handed. They waited in hope. It was an expectant waiting for God’s Spirit. They waited actively and prayerfully. They used their pause productively – in prayer.
As our current pause is causing frustration, I wonder if we, as people of faith make efficient use of our pause: Are we using this opportunity to wait expectantly, prayerfully, studying scriptures, lifting up to God’s loving care those who are suffering, prisoners of anxiety and uncertainty. When we look back on this time, will we regret that instead of filling the time with spiritual disciplines, we were frustrated, complaining, angry and anxious?
When Peter writes his letter the church in Asia Minor in the midst of suffering. Peter calls their situation a fiery ordeal and a test. Their situation was of course one where they were persecuted and killed. In this situation Peter calls on them to be witnesses! How? By rejoicing, knowing that they are sharing Christ’s suffering. What stands out in verses 6-9 are the number of verbs: “Humble yourselves so that God may exult you! Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares. Discipline yourself. Keep alert. Resist evil!”
In essence, I believe Peter is saying: “Seize the opportunity to witness.” And the way to do so is by being humble, casting all your anxiety on God, by being disciplined, by keeping alert and by resisting evil!
There is one more point in verse 9 that I find relevant for our time: “Your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same suffering!” They were to find strength and comfort knowing that they all share the same suffering. They were all in it together!
We are all in it together. It is not, or should not be that one country is set against another, or one group against another. Here is an opportunity for us to witness that we are all God’s people! We are all in this together. This was Peter’s message back then. I think it is still relevant now. As a matter of fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus in his prayer for his disciples and the church prays for their protection and to be one!
Peter continues: “After your suffering for a little while, the God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen and establish you.” He is saying: “This too shall pass!”
Challenges have always come in many and various ways. Today we have our own particular challenges and problems. These challenges and problems are different than the challenges and problems we read about in the book of Acts or in 1 Peter. Today’s challenges and problems are different from the ones of previous generations. They are unique to our time. The question is how do we respond to these challenges. Do we ask the right questions and do we know our limitations? Do we use the opportunities to be witnesses of Christ? Do we spend enough time praying and growing spiritually? Do we embrace the fact that we are all in this together? In short, what verbs will future generations use to describe our actions today? Amen.