02 May 2016

Sermon – “Left Behind” (Acts 1:1-11)

I wonder how many of you may have gone to see the film The Martian when it was playing in theatres last fall. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a botanist who is a member of a team of astronauts exploring Mars. Early in the story an emergency arises and the crew suddenly has to abandon the planet, with the result that Watney gets left behind. Without giving anything away, much of the remainder of the film is spent with him learning to survive in a hostile environment, while mission control and the rest of the team desperately search for ways to rescue him.
As we think about Jesus’ ascension this morning, I am wondering if that film might not have some parallels with how the disciples must have felt as Jesus departed from them for what they knew was the last time. Forty days had elapsed since the angels had stood at Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb with the message, “He is not here; he has risen!” Over that time Jesus had met with them in numerous places and on numerous occasions—outside the empty tomb, in the upper room, along the road to Emmaus, and on the shores of Lake Galilee. And Paul tells us of a further occasion not recorded in the gospels, when Jesus appeared to a crowd of more than five hundred people. They must have been exciting times. For myself, I know that I never tire of reading those last chapters of the gospels that recount Jesus’ meetings with his followers after the resurrection.
Now, however, they would not be seeing Jesus again. What must have been passing through their minds? What would happen next? How were they going to manage on their own, without Jesus? I can only imagine the eerie silence that must have descended on them, as they stood looking at one another with Jesus no longer in their midst.


Unlike Mark Watney the astronaut, however, who was left entirely alone in a vast and lifeless terrain, Jesus was not leaving his followers to themselves. For sure, they would no longer enjoy his physical presence. Yet they would not be alone. Twice in this morning’s verses Jesus speaks with them about the Holy Spirit: “John baptized with water, but … you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
It seems to me that there were at least two truths that Jesus was seeking to get across to the disciples about the Holy Spirit as he spoke with them. First, he told them that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Now I know that that phrase, “baptized with the Holy Spirit”, has brought a great deal of controversy into the church over the past century or so. It has led to congregations and entire denominations splitting apart. To my mind that doesn’t mean that we should just avoid the topic in order to avoid controversy. Quite the opposite: These are the words of Jesus. They are the words of life. We need to study them, to understand them, to appropriate them for ourselves. So let me ask, what did Jesus mean when he spoke about being baptized with the Holy Spirit?
In our western, Reformed tradition, when we hear the word “baptism”, we are more likely than not to think of a little baby being brought to the front of the church and being sprinkled with water. We call it baptism by affusion, as opposed to baptism by immersion, as practised in some other traditions. Now I am not arguing against this practice. In fact I believe it based on good biblical, historical and pastoral warrant. However, I don’t believe we should have it in mind when we read Jesus’ words about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. The truth is that the verb baptizo in the New Testament, from which our word “baptize” is derived, really means to plunge, to sink, to drench, to overwhelm. It is derived from the verb bapto, which means to dip something into dye. We find it in the book of Revelation, used in the depiction of Jesus as the great rider of the white horse, whose robe, we are told is dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13). So what does it mean, then, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?
Quite simply, I believe it means to be drenched with the Holy Spirit, to allow his presence to seep into every area of our lives. Unlike the sacrament of baptism, I do not believe that this is an instantaneous event but a lifelong process, as we learn to yield ourselves more and more fully to Jesus and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and renew us—and that brings us to Jesus’ second words about the Holy Spirit: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
I probably don’t have to tell you that the word for “power” in the New Testament is dunamis, from which we derive our English words “dynamic”, “dynamo” and “dynamite”. I may be way off the mark in saying this, but I prefer to think of the Holy Spirit’s power as more frequently like a dynamo than dynamite. Yes, there are undoubtedly those occasional bursts of power, when God reveals himself to us in new and sometimes life-altering ways. (And thank God for those experiences!) Yet by and large, I think it is true to say that the Holy Spirit works as a steady and ongoing presence, increasingly making Jesus known to us and enabling us to follow more faithfully in his steps as we yield ourselves more fully to him.


As he left them, Jesus told his followers not only about the power of the Holy Spirit, but also about his purpose. I have said that Jesus has bestowed the Holy Spirit on us so that we might know his daily presence with us and in us—and that in itself is a wonderful gift. But there is more to it than that. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us not just so that we can have warm, personal feelings inside—our own private nirvanas. The Holy Spirit has come in order that we may carry forward Christ’s mission in the world. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” said Jesus. But then he went on (and here comes the scary part!), “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I wonder if there is anything that strikes more fear into the heart of Christians than the “e” word: evangelism? Our minds conjure up pictures of handing out religious tracts on street corners, or having to stand up and give our “testimony” in front of a crowd, or finding something religious to inject into every conversation. I remember a friend of mine telling how she cringed in her office one day. The weekend was coming up and someone exclaimed, “TGIF!” “Oh,” replied a cheerful soul who took every opportunity to make sure people knew she was a Christian, “you ought to be thanking God for every day of the week!”
Well, you and I both know there is more to being a witness to Jesus than that—and if anything it is considerably deeper and scarier. It has to do with the word “witness” in the New Testament, which is martus. That is the term from which we derive our English word “martyr”. It is no coincidence that in the earliest generations of the church that word shifted its meaning from one who bears witness to Christ to one who gives his or her life for Christ. Within a remarkably short time men and women would find themselves answering for their faith with their lives. Of the twelve apostles, all but one would die a martyr’s death. Peter, tradition tells us, was crucified upside down. Paul, because he was a Roman citizen, was spared the humiliation of crucifixion and mercifully beheaded. And the list goes on and on, right down to our present day, to the horrifying pictures that met us last year of the twenty-one men kneeling on the beach in Libya awaiting execution, refusing to abandon their faith and crying aloud, “Ya Rabbi Yasou”, “O Lord Jesus!”[1]
It is unlikely that that kind of fate awaits any of us, but the point I want to get across is that being a witness to Jesus, a martus, is more than just a matter of words. It encompasses our whole lives. It is not just speaking for Jesus, it is living for Jesus—and if our lives don’t match up with our words, then those words are worse than worthless. Would to God that the power of Jesus’ presence in our lives was such that people might start to ask questions because of them! I can’t think of a more powerful witness to Christ.


Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit. Jesus sends us out as his witnesses. As he departed from his followers, Jesus also left them with a promise. This time, however, the words are not those of Jesus himself, but of the “two men dressed in white”, as Luke simply describes them, whom the disciples suddenly saw standing beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they asked, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Jesus was gone—but he was not gone forever. And time does not permit me even to begin to delve into the details of his return. What is more, I don’t believe that the Bible itself reveals many of those details. I am convinced that God has purposefully left them shrouded in mystery, and yet given us just enough information that we should have a hope that is solid and sure. With the disciples we need to heed the angels’ warning and not simply stand around looking into the sky, so to speak, and waste our time in speculation. More than enough of that has been done already. Countless books have been written about Jesus’ return, ranging from the scholarly to the ridiculous. A Google search on “Return of Christ” will lead you to 86,500,000 results.
To go back to The Martian for just a moment and to astronaut Mark Watney, it seems to me that Jesus’ coming again differs from the attempts of the space crew to rescue their stranded colleague. From my own reading of Scripture, Jesus’ return will not be to rescue us from the world, but to wholly transform the world and ourselves in it—to usher in the new creation in all its glorious fullness. The Scriptures bid us look forward to the day when the trumpet will sound and Christ will put all his enemies under his feet, when death will be swallowed up in victory and our lowly bodies will be transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body, when God’s dwelling-place will be among his people, and he will dwell with them, when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away. That is the day that not only we, but all creation yearns to see.[2] It is a glorious hope and part of the reason it is not fully revealed to us is because it surpasses anything that our limited minds can even begin to imagine.
That hope, that sure and solid promise, is intended to lead us not to speculation but to action. The risen, ascended, glorified Jesus is calling you and me to be harbingers and heralds of the new creation even as the old is crumbling around us. But he doesn’t ask us to do it alone. We have his promise, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

[1]        Ramez Atallah, Bible Society of Egypt Newsletter, 17 Feb 2015. http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=017b6b7c5bf6d7468fcc6aedc&id=ea8fa5435c&e=b383928924

[2]        See 1 Corinthians 15:52,25,54; Philippians 3:21; Revelation 21:3-4 ; Romans 8:22-23

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