A sermon based on Acts 1:6-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 24, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Those of us of a certain age may recognize the title of today’s sermon as the title of a popular soul classic from the mid-1970’s. The singers were a trio of women who called themselves The Three Degrees. The record is a stylish example of a musical trend then popular in music known as the “Philly Sound.” It was a song reached all the way to #2 on the chart and was The Three Degrees’ biggest hit.1
“When will I see you again” could also be descriptive of a question that the disciples probably harbored in their hearts and minds in today’s sermon text from Acts 1:6-14. In this passage, we are told that the disciples watched Jesus ascend up toward heaven. And then they were left behind to ponder the meaning of the event and the meaning of Jesus’ final words to them.
What draws my attention in these verses are the two questions that are asked in the passage. The first question is directed to Jesus by the disciples. The second question is the one asked by the two angels who suddenly appeared with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into the clouds.
In the verses immediately preceding our text, Jesus gave his disciples some instructions. He directed them not to leave Jerusalem. Instead, he told them to wait there until they were baptized in the power of the Holy Spirit. And then he promises the gift of the Spirit will given to them in just a few days.
Interestingly, the disciples’ response to Jesus’ statement is a question. But it is not a question that pertains to much of what Jesus had just told them. For instance, they do not ask our Lord anything about the Holy Spirit. Nor do they ask him how the Spirit will be given to them or what to expect when the Spirit arrives. None of those kinds of questions. Instead, they ask Jesus a question that betrays their continued lack of understanding as to who he is and of the nature of his mission—even at this late date. They ask him, “Lord, is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It is a fair, but misguided, question…
The concept of the Jewish Messiah during Jesus’ time was not one of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” According to the dominant understanding of the Old Testament prophets, it was believed all throughout Israel that the long-promised Messiah that God sent would liberate the land of Israel from
1 Information from www.wikipedia.com/when-will-i-see-you-again-song (Accessed May 20, 2020) The song that kept it from being #1 was the novelty song “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas.
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foreign domination. He would come to restore the kingdom of Israel as it had been in its glory days under the rule of King David, some 900 years earlier.
The disciples were not the only ones in Israel to believe that the Messiah would come as a victorious military leader and restore national independence. Jesus himself mentions it in Matthew 17:11. In that passage, Jesus was asked by his disciples why the teachers of the law taught that Elijah must come first before the Messiah appears. Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah must come and will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has come…” The key phrase there is “restore all things.” The implication is that the restoration of the kingdom to the glorious days of David’s reign was a part of the plan of God’s Messiah. And the clear implication is that it was currently happening…
Another example of this kind of misguided thinking about the nature of Jesus’ Messiah-ship is found in John 6. After the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, John 6:14-15 tells us that, “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew…” Because of the miracle, the people believed him to be the Messiah. They were ready to join his army to help him conquer the land of Israel for God’s people and remove the Romans from power.
We get another hint of it in Luke 19:38. This is the story of Jesus making his triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem—the event we celebrate each year on Palm Sunday. You remember how the people lined the streets as Jesus and the disciples processed into the city. Among all the things that the people shouted as Jesus entered the city, Luke records that they shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” They believed that political freedom was just around the corner and it would be brought by the hand of Jesus as God’s Messiah.
And it is probably no accident that one of the original twelve disciples was a man known as “Simon the Zealot.” He is listed as such in four lists of the disciples.2
The New Testament does not tell us anything specific about who the Zealots were. But sources contemporary with the New Testament tell us that the Zealots “agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.”3 They were a political group who agitated for a violent overthrow of the pagan Roman Empire and a return to self-rule by the nation of Israel. They were especially incensed when the Romans introduced the cult of emperor worship in Israel, requiring that all Roman subjects—including all Jews—pledge their loyalty to Rome by declaring that “Caesar is Lord.” Zealots found that requirement intolerable and fought against it. In fact, some commentators have suggested that the Zealots were probably some of the world’s first terrorists, violently working behind the scenes to overthrow Rome.
2 Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13.
3 The 1st Century historian Josephus as quoted in www.patheos.com/blogs/christcrier/2015/10/26/what-is-a-zealot-who-were-the-zealots-in-the-bible (Accessed May 18, 2020)
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Surely as a member of the Zealots as well as being one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon the Zealot would have been waiting expectantly for Jesus to instigate the reestablishment of Israel’s political independence. Frankly, it would not surprise me to learn that it was Simon the Zealot who was the one responsible for asking our Lord this question about when he would restore the kingdom…
The second question in today’s passage occurs in verse 11. After Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and that they will be witnesses “to the ends of the earth,” he is lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As they stand there intently gazing up into the sky, two angels appear and they ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
On the surface, it is an obvious question, isn’t it? If you and I had been there, and we saw Jesus rise up, be taken into a cloud and then disappear, I imagine that we would also be staring up at the sky. Who wouldn’t stare at a sight like that?! I know that I would certainly be staring up into the clouds! (After all, that’s not the kind of thing that one can observe just any old time!)
But perhaps there is something else at play here. The angels go on to say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Maybe as they gazed into the sky, they expected Jesus then and there to return and bring the kingdom of God back with him. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps the angels’ words served to remind them that the kingdom of God is not something that is simply up in the heavenly realm. It is right here and right now…
During the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus had a lot to say about the kingdom of God. He told lots of parables to describe the kingdom. He was also taught directly about the nature of God’s kingdom. One of the things that he consistently emphasized is that the kingdom is a not simply something that is far away—something off in heaven somewhere—a kind of “pie-in-the-sky” reality. NO—he emphasized that the kingdom is a present reality—available to all.
In fact, this is the very first message that our Lord proclaimed. Matthew 4:17 tells us that, “Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” Mark 1:15 has Jesus preaching in his first sermons, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”
In Luke 17:20, Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come. He responded, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
The point is that our Lord taught that God’s reign is not just limited to what goes on in the heavenly realm. God is at work in this world as well, and as his disciples, we are called to cooperate with the spirit of God in our society and in our daily lives. 20th Century Quaker author and philosopher Douglas Steere explained it this way. He said that, as members of God’s kingdom, we are called to
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“cooperate with God’s already active redemptive powers to let them work in a given person, institution or situation.”4 That’s the very definition of what it means for the kingdom of God to be within us.
So for the disciples to stare up in the sky expecting to see Jesus bring the kingdom of God back to earth—that was not going to happen. It is true that Christ will return for the finale of God’s magnificent re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus himself said that was part of God’s plan for him to return to reign. This is our belief. This is the Christian’s ultimate hope. But in the meantime, we do not have to wait. Our Lord teaches us that God’s kingdom is at work in the world around us—and within us.
“When will I see you again?” The disciples stood there looking for Jesus up in the clouds. But Jesus is not to be found residing only somewhere up in heaven. He is not gone from their sight—nor is he gone from ours. Instead he can be found elsewhere…
He can be seen at a homeless shelter, comforting those who are fleeing abusive situations or are down on their luck. He can be seen at a downtown mission soup kitchen, feeding those who do not have enough to eat. He can be seen swinging a hammer atop a roof of a Habitat for Humanity house, helping to provide decent housing for more of God’s children. He can be seen making deliveries for Meals on Wheels to lonely homebound people who might not see another person all day. He can be seen giving comfort and strength to one who struggles with the downward spiral of chemical addiction. He can be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with a grieving widow who has just lost her husband of 60 years. He can be seen wherever two or three of his followers are gathered in his name to offer praise and prayer for a world in desperate need of both.
He can be seen in the eyes of a young couple standing at the altar as they begin a new life together. He can be seen in the light of a child’s smile. He can be seen in a hospital delivery room as a new life is brought into the world. He can be seen whenever and wherever people work together to create peace and harmony…and do what is right and just for everyone. You can see Jesus in any of these places…because in all of these places, you can find evidence of the kingdom of God at work.
And you can see Jesus in all of these places—and many more—because the kingdom of God is among us. The kingdom of God is within those who follow the path of Jesus—those who work to bring God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
What about you? Are you standing there with the disciples, gazing up into the clouds looking for Jesus to bring the kingdom of God with him? Or are you cooperating with God’s redemptive powers through his Holy Spirit, helping to bring the kingdom of God here on earth? What will you do?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
4 Douglas V. Steere, On Beginning from Within (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943), 81.