Staring into the Sky

Text: Acts 1:1-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our reading from Acts today reminds me a bit of a scene from the movie Mary Poppins. I loved that movie when I was a kid and have enjoyed watching it a few times with my own children. The scene I have in mind occurs right after Mary Poppins has been hired to be the nanny for the Banks children. She proceeds to go upstairs to where the children are, but Mary does not simply go up the stairs. No, Mary rides the banister up to the second floor defying the rules of physics and the rules of etiquette. The two children, Jane and Michael, are waiting at the top of the stairs when Mary arrives and they are both stunned. Michael, the younger brother, is standing there with his mouth agape in awe at what he had just seen. Mary Poppins quickly and calmly quips, “Close your mouth, Michael, we are not a codfish,” and proceeds to lead the children to their playroom.

Jesus’ disciples are left in a similar situation, I think, as they watch Him ascend into heaven. As unnatural as it seems for someone to ride up on a bannister, it is even more unexpected to watch someone disappear on clouds of glory into heaven. The disciple are left with that codfish kind of look on their faces, jaws dropped, staring up into the sky as they watch their Lord, their teacher, their friend disappear from sight into heaven.

Like Mary Poppins, someone comes along to snap the disciples out of their awe and to redirect their attention to the matter at hand. Two men appear dressed in glowing white robes, the same kind of “men” who were there at the tomb to tell the women that Jesus was not there because He is risen from the dead, these men are angels. The angels say to the disciples, “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.” It is as if they said, “You are not codfish, gentlemen, close your mouths, stop staring at the sky, and get back to reality.”

But what is so wrong with looking up into the sky as Jesus disappears from sight? It’s hard to blame the disciples for staring up into heaven the way that they did. If I were in their shoes I think I would do the same thing. Airplanes from the warplane heritage museum flew over on Victoria Day and I stood there staring into the sky watching them. They are just airplanes (really cool old planes, but just airplanes) and I stood there watching them. Surely if I saw Jesus ascending into heaven I’d be staring at that too and for good reason.

If there ever was a good reason to stare into heaven it is to see Jesus ascending. Ascension Day doesn’t get the attention that other Christian holidays get. We don’t treat it the same way that we treat Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday. But this is an important event. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus becoming a man like us. We call Him Emmanuel, God with us, and He really is with us. He is human like us in every way. That hasn’t changed now that Jesus has died and risen again. He is still fully human, a man just like us, and as Jesus ascends we see something amazing, a man, a human being with flesh and blood, skin and bones just like you and me ascending into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God. That might not seem like a big deal at first, but it is. Human beings like you and me have no right to ascend into heaven or be in the presence of God, let alone sit as His right hand. And yet that is what the Son of Man, Jesus, does. He ascends into heaven and lifts up your humanity, your flesh and bones, your body and soul, to be with Him in eternity. When we think about Jesus ascending, when we watch Him disappear from sight with the disciples who were there, what we see is our own human life going up to life everlasting. That is worth staring into heaven to see, but our eyes can’t stay there. The angels come to us too and point us back out to the world we live in.

Getting back to reality would be important for the disciples because before He had ascended Jesus had given them a great responsibility: “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” You will be my witnesses. These disciples, these men who had seen the miracles that Jesus had performed, who had heard Him teach, who had travelled with Him for three years around Palestine, who had seen Him die on a cross, and who had now seen Him risen from the dead; these disciples who had seen all of these things would now be His witnesses.

But you can’t be a witness of Jesus is you just spend all your time staring up into heaven. That is why these angels come along to bring the disciples back to reality. If their eyes are left gazing up into the sky then they won’t be able to be witnesses of Jesus. In order for them to be witnesses of Jesus their eyes need to be looking at the world around them, the people around them. In order to be witnesses of Jesus to other people the disciples would have to see those other people, they would need to get to know them, they would have to know the cares and concerns of those people, they would need to know who they are and what their life is like. They would need to shift their focus and see the people all around them.

The disciples had this unique call directly from Jesus to be His witnesses. We haven’t been called in the exact same way or to the exact same thing, but as Christians we are all called to be witnesses of Jesus. This means, just like it did for the disciples, that our eyes need to be focused on the people around us. If we are gazing up into heaven or anywhere else we won’t see the people around us to whom we have been called to be witnesses of Jesus. If we don’t see our neighbour, if we aren’t taking the time to look at them and notice them, then how can we be witnesses of Jesus to them?

Last week when my dad was here he preached about our tendency to look back into the past and get nostalgic rather than seeing what is happening right before our very eyes. That is one of the ways that our focus gets taken away from our role as witnesses of Jesus in this world. There are other ways too.

We can get caught up looking into heaven like the disciples did if we get too hung up on trying to find the answers to big questions that we have no business worrying about. It’s like the disciples when they wanted to know if this was the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” We get caught up in trying to figure out things that are really none of our business.

We can also get caught up looking at ourselves. We get too focused sometimes worrying about our own needs and wants and making sure that we are happy that we don’t even notice people around us. Sinners are self-focused and self-absorbed. That is just how we are. Again, we are looking in the wrong place.

Instead, we have been called to see the people around us and be witnesses of Jesus to them. For each of us that might look different. For some of us it might mean boldly telling people about Jesus and sharing Bible verses with them. For most people, however, that might not be too comfortable. But we are also called to be witnesses of Jesus simply by loving one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you love one another.” Loving one another, loving our brothers and sisters in Christ and loving our friends and neighbours in the world, is one of the greatest ways that you and I have the opportunity to be witnesses to Jesus. By loving one another we show the world the love that Jesus has first shown for us becoming a servant to us and giving His life for us. But, if our eyes are distracted (whether we are caught looking up, down, in on ourselves, or anywhere else) we will not see the people around us let alone love them.

In our lives as Christians our eyes are moving all over the place. We look up to see what Jesus is doing and we look out to see the world around us. We look to Jesus, see Him healing, teaching, dying on a cross, rising from the dead, and ascending into Heaven. We look and see what He has done for us. Then, directed by Jesus we look out to the world around us and people around us to see where we, the disciples of Jesus in this world, can serve our neighbour. We see Jesus and we bear witness to Jesus. May this be the pattern for our lives, looking at Jesus and looking out, so that we can see Him and witness to Him every day of our lives. In Jesus name. Amen.

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Holy, Royal Priests

Text: 1 Peter 2:2-10

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few months ago I visited a Roman Catholic elementary school. It was a Wednesday during Advent or Lent, I can’t remember which, but we had a service that night so I was wearing my clerical collar. I was visiting the school because they were having a “faith fair” (like a science fair, but with religious themed projects). I always feel awkward visiting schools because I’m not a parent of any of the children who go to school there and nowadays there are different rules and regulations for visitors to schools and places like that. I walked in the front doors of the school and looked for the office or something like that where I should sign in as a visitor. I didn’t see anything like that right away so I started walking down the hallway. All of a sudden I heard a somewhat panicked voice from behind me say, “Excuse me sir!” It was the school secretary, turns out I had walked right past the office and the sign-in sheet without noticing. I turned around to look and when I did the secretary saw my collar. Right away she said, “I’m sorry Father” and had me sign the guest register. The rest of my visit to that school as I made my way around the faith fair in the gymnasium I got called “Father” at least 15 to 20 times and each time I tried to explain that I’m actually a Lutheran pastor, not a Catholic priest. What I learned from this whole ordeal was that if you want to fly under the radar at a Catholic school don’t where a clerical collar in there.

You probably have never been mistaken for a Catholic priest like I was. If you have been I would like to hear the story. Unless you’ve been running around masquerading as a priest or telling people that you are one someone calling you a priest it would probably be a pretty strange situation. And yet, that is what Peter calls all of us in our epistle reading today. He says that you are a “holy priesthood” in verse 5 and a “royal priesthood” in verse 9. You are a priest, believe it or not.

If that sounds strange, and I am assuming that it does, then we need to take some time to think of our identity as Christians; who we are and what we do. Peter calls us priest here (all of us, not just pastors) because that is part of our identity as Christians. If thinking of ourselves as priests seems strange then it means that we have forgotten a bit of who we are and what we do as Christians. We have forgotten part of our identity.

If we are going to reclaim this bit of our identity as Christans and realize who we are as the people of God there are two questions we need to answer: “How did this happen?” and “What do we do now?”

How did that happen? How did we become priests? Thankfully, Peter explains that for us a bit in verse 4 and 5 of our epistle today. He says, “As you come to Him (Jesus!), a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” As you come to Him, Peter says. As you come to Jesus this is what Jesus is doing in you. Jesus changes who you are as you come to Him. This should not be a surprise. You don’t come to God in human flesh who died on the cross and rose from the dead and expect Him to leave you just as you are. No, Jesus changes you. Jesus changes you into a priest.

In that verses I just read Peter uses the example of stones. He talks about Jesus as a “living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” This is picking up on a big theme from the Old Testament. In fact, Peter quotes the Old Testament a bunch of times here showing us that Jesus is the stone the builders, the people and their leaders, rejected by putting Him to death on the cross. But even though He was rejected, God has made this Jesus the cornerstone, the base and foundation, of His Church. “Christ is our cornerstone, on Him alone we build.” We sang those words at the beginning of our service today. But there is more than that going on here. Peter also says, “As you come to Him, you yourselves like living stones are being built up.” You, you are being built up like living stones. Jesus is the living stone, the stone rejected and killed but raised from the dead after three days in the tomb, and as you come to Him, as you are drawn to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit, as you hear His word and eat and drink His body and blood, you are being built up like living stones, like Jesus, on the foundation of Jesus. You are part of God’s building project for His Kingdom. You are a living stone.

I like to think of it this way: It’s like we are by nature useless stones that are not good for any kind of building at all. We have cracks and flaws. We are misshapen. Our corners are far from perfect. We are weak a brittle, we break too easily. We are not suitable for building. But as we are brought to Jesus we are changed from useless stones that are good for nothing into stones with a purpose, stones that can be used for building and not just any building, but the holy, spiritual house that God Himself is building. Jesus changes us.

By nature we are nothing like priests. We are not deserving of that title at all and we are not capable of carrying out the work of a priest. We are not worthy of that title. But Jesus, changes us. Through His death He has forgiven our weaknesses and our flaws. He lives in us and because He is in us we are new creations, new people. Though we don’t look like it or feel like it then, we are priests of the Most High God, each and every one of us, because that is who Jesus has made us to be.

If that is who we are then, what is it that we should be doing? That’s the second question. Again, thankfully Peter clears that up for us too. He says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This is your purpose, this is your work as a priest of God: to proclaim His excellencies, His glory, His saving might because He has called you out of the darkness of sin and death and has brought You into the light of Jesus, the light of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.

Jesus has called you out of the darkness. He is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. On the cross darkness seems to have won the day, but by the darkness of His death on the cross the darkness of Your sin has been flooded with His light. As the light broke that Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead brining light to this fallen, broken world. Jesus has brought this light to you. You live in His light. He has not called you out of the darkness just to bask in the light, however. He has called you out of the darkness so that you too might call others out of the darkness by pointing them to Jesus, the light of the world who endured the darkness of death for us.

Part of the problem that we have is that we think that this kind of thing is just the pastor’s job. It’s just his job to tell people about Jesus. But that is not what Peter is telling us here. We are all priests. You, me, and everyone else who has been brought to faith in Jesus. We have come to Jesus and He has transformed us from useless rocks into living stones, from sinners lost without a hope in the world to priests living in the light with a hope for this world and beyond. We all have the glorious task of proclaiming this good news of what Jesus has done.

Last weekend I attended a workshop in Toronto called “Every One His Witness.” There was a lot of stuff in that presentation that I hope to talk with you about at some point, but the most striking point of the whole workshop was this: That God uses people like you and me to carry out His purpose, His will in this world. We know that God wants everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, He tells us that in His own word. The amazing thing is that God uses sinners like you and me to do it.

You are a priest of God who has been called to proclaim the goodness of the God who saved you by His death. If you feel unfit or unqualified for this work then you are right. You are not qualified. You are not fit for the task. But God uses unfit, unqualified people like us all the time. He takes useless rocks like us and makes us living stones. He makes us His priests. This is our identity. This is who we are. Let us live in that identity, in Jesus our Saviour, through all our days. In Jesus name. Amen.

Emmaus Exiles

Text: 1 Peter 1:17-25 (also Luke 24:13-35)

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

As these two disciples walked down the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus things seemed pretty bleak. This was not a pleasant evening walk, this wasn’t a nice stroll with friends; this was a defeated, depressed, discouraged, retreat from the holy city of Jerusalem back to their homes and families. They had followed Jesus with much joy and optimism expecting to see the world change before their very eyes and now they were left with nothing. Or so they thought.

Little did these disciples know that Jesus Himself would show up and walk with them. In fact, even when Jesus did approach them and join them there on the road the still did not know that it was Him. Their eyes were kept from seeing Him or recognizing Him, Luke tells us. It was not time for them to recognise Jesus, not yet.

Though they did not recognise Him, Jesus joins right in on the conversation that they are having as they walk this dismal road. “What are you talking about?” Jesus says to them. Shocked by the question and with deep sadness showing on their faces they reply, “Are you the only person who was visiting Jerusalem this weekend who didn’t hear about what happened?” They can’t believe that anyone in town could possibly be unaware of everything that happened. Of course, Jesus knows what happened but He wants to hear them explain it to Him. He wants to hear how they understand everything that has happened.

They say to Jesus, “[The things] concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Right here, in these two little sentences we hit the heart of their sadness. “Our chief priest, our rulers, delivered Jesus to be crucified,” they say. “It was our chief priests, our leaders, who orchestrated this whole thing,” they say, “our political and religious leaders had Him crucified, but we had hoped He was the one to redeem Israel. Our leaders, our rulers, our culture rejected Jesus, but we believed in Him.” For these men who had believed in Jesus they now see that the rest of their world, the rest of their culture did not believe in Him the way that they did.

This is a sentiment that we can relate to, I think. We too live in a world that does not think the same things about Jesus that we think. Our leaders and our cultural icons have not orchestrated the death of Jesus, but they don’t believe what we do about Jesus. Not anymore. Our culture doesn’t much care for Jesus to be honest. This can leave us as Christians feeling alienated from the world around us, from our culture, from our community, and maybe even from our own families.

Our epistle reading today talks about this too. Peter calls our lives in this world “exile.” He says, “If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…” Peter is saying here that our lives in this world are lives in exile, lives lived in a world that is not our home, that is not friendly to what we believe, and doesn’t really understand what we believe about Jesus. This is our life. We live in exile. We are foreigners and strangers living in this world.

For the disciples on the road that day this was a depressing, discouraging reality especially since the Jesus that they had believed in was now dead. They watched Him die on a cross and could not believe, despite what others had said about His tomb being empty, that Jesus could be risen from the dead. As they walked and as they talked to Jesus without recognizing Him their faces were downcast and sad. There seemed to be no hope anymore. But then Jesus started speaking.

You’d think that Jesus would try to comfort these poor men as they walked and talked because they were so discouraged and disheartened by everything that had happened. But that is not really what Jesus does at all. Instead, Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

You fools, Jesus says, don’t you understand that this is how it had to be? Don’t you understand that this was the plan of God all along? Don’t you understand that this is exactly what the prophets in the Old Testament said would happen? How slow of heart to believe can you be?

These disciples were so busy wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for themselves that they failed to see the very thing that had happened right before their own eyes. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, they said, and that is exactly what Jesus had done in His death on the cross. He had redeemed Israel! Better yet, He had redeemed the entire world! Yes, the world had rejected Jesus, their own people had rejected Jesus, they had carried out their wicked and evil plans to have Him put to death, but in all of that, in the rejection, hatred, and even in His death, He had won the victory and redeemed the whole world from the power of sin and death.

We too, as individual Christians and as a church, can often feel discouraged and depressed by the way we see things going in the world around us. The world around us rejects Jesus and refuses to believe that He has redeemed us from sin or that He has risen from the dead. We are exiles in a world that does not believe what we believe. We could very easily become discouraged by that, we could give up hope because of that, we could wallow in self-pity and feel bad for ourselves because of that, but we would be missing the whole point; we would be missing the reality of what Jesus has done in this world for us.

Jesus did not come into this world to be the successful triumphant king that the crowds wanted on Palm Sunday. He did not come to redeem people from God with a great show of worldly power and might. He did not come to win a popularity contest and entice everyone into believing in Him. He came to die on a cross and save us from our sins. In the same way, Jesus does not promise that our lives in this world are going to be a successful victory march. He does not promise that His church in this world will always be loved by everyone. He does not promise to make us, His people, fit in with the world. He makes us exiles in this world, strangers in a foreign land, waiting for a kingdom yet to be revealed. That is our reality.

So, Peter tells us today, “conduct yourselves with fear (in the fear of God, trusting and loving Him above all things) during your time of exile.” Peter’s words here encourage us to see beyond the dismal scene around us that would discourage and dishearten us and to look on the reality of what God has done. We have been bought out of this world by the precious blood of Jesus. That is why we are exiles in this world. That is why the world looks down on us. We don’t belong here. Jesus has bought us out of this world with His blood and this is not our home. We have faith and hope in something beyond this world, the eternal glory that comes from Jesus.

In the meantime, as we live in this world as exiles here is what we are to do: “love one another earnestly from a pure heart,” Peter says. Love one another because Christ has loved you. Love one another because Christ has bought you with His precious blood. Love one another because You have been born again in the water of baptism and that is what we have been born again to do. Live your life as an exile, a stranger, a foreigner, doing something that is really foreign and strange in this world: loving one another.

And, Peter says, when the world gets discouraging remember this, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” The Word Peter talks about here is the good news, Jesus is risen from the dead. That word remains forever. This world will die. That good news never will.

Those disciples were confronted with that good news on the road that day. Finally, at the end of the day when they sat down to eat with Jesus and He broke bread (shared Holy Communion!) with them, they recognised who He is. What did they do then? They ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others. They were still exiles, they were still among the few who believed in Jesus and they still lived in a world that did not care for Jesus much, but they had this good news and they shared it. So do we. Jesus is risen from the dead. We are foreigners, exiles, and strangers in this world, but we are foreigners, exiles, and strangers with good news to share. Our Lord is risen from the dead and we will rise with Him. In Jesus name, Amen.