Thursday, 9 May 2013

Being in the right place at the right time

Some of you will know the saying, the devil is in the detail: possibly not the most appropriate saying with which to open a sermon in a church… but you know me!
The detail on which my eye has settled when reading the passages for this evening is on the question: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” It takes me back to Easter Day, when we heard the men in dazzling white addressing the women who had come to anoint Jesus’ body, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Now those of you who know your bible inside out, or at least the relationship between writers and particular books, may already be ahead of me when recalling that scholars hold it to be that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke from which the account of the resurrection I have quoted comes, as well as book of Acts. No wonder then there is similarity of sentence construction: Why do you… stand looking… Why do you… look for the living… continuing on to say what has either happened or what will happen.
If we conflate these two questions for the moment into Why are you looking… I find that the asking of this question is quite fascinating. Personally, I don’t find it unreasonable that the women would be at the graveside on the third morning, having come to anoint the body of Jesus. It would have been the first day after the Sabbath that they would have been able to come and so, in love, they came. Not only in love though, but also in service, dedication – and grief too. On finding that the body of Jesus was not there, we read that they were perplexed – and this is not unreasonable either. Neither do I find it unreasonable that that the disciples, on seeing Jesus ascend into heaven just moments before, would be looking upwards towards the sky! Recall another, more child-like saying, no-one likes a smarty-pants: in the detail of clever men in white robes appearing at gravesides and on mountain tops – there is more than just a slight feeling of a pair of smarty-pants being in the building! To this I shall return!
This ‘Why are you ‘looking is not the most important part of the questioning though – it is about where and when they are looking. Neither of these places is the place to look because Jesus is no longer there. The women by the grave and the disciples on the hill top are challenged to remember and to respond.
The women are reminded to think about Jesus’ prophecy, his promise that he would rise again after three days. They do indeed remember, and go to tell the disciples that what Jesus said would happen has indeed taken place. Alas, the men did not believe them – but that’s another story! The women see, the women look, the women remember, the women respond.
As we have heard in Gospel reading this evening, just moments before the men in white robes appear, the disciples have been told what is to happen and what they are to do. Rather than standing looking up to the heavens, they are urged to remember, and to respond with alacrity. They are challenged not to just stand there and wait, but to get on and go to the city and wait there for the Spirit to come. The disciples see, the disciples look, the disciples remember, the disciples respond – just as the women at the grave did.
The women and the disciples are being told, this is not the most important part of the proceedings because Jesus told you what would happen. Believe it to be so, and move to where he will be because you know what he says is true. ‘Why do you stand looking here when…’ really means, ‘You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
As we will know, this theme runs persistently through the Gospels, of the disciples seeking to understand, seeking to do the right thing, seeking to be in the right place – but often getting it ever so slightly wrong. It’s not for want of trying though – and they do learn and they do succeed – they must have done or we wouldn’t be here today. The women at the graveside, the disciples at the top of the mountain needed someone to assist them as Jesus is no longer here to do it. The smarty-pants in white robes are, in fact, angels – doing what angels do – giving a message, reminding, prompting – sharing the words, works and purposes of God. Jesus is no longer there to remind these people, the angels cannot stay to do this either – and so they remind these people of what Jesus foretold and encourage them to move to be in the right place at the right time. The women are to be the apostles to the apostles and the disciples are to be in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit.
People who can ask us – kindly – why are you looking here when you have already heard, or you already know, are useful people to find. Sometimes we may be stuck; we may be pausing and waiting in familiar territory, fearful of what is to come, or forgetting what we already know. In these situations, God will often send someone with the right word, a reminder that will set us on the right track that will give us courage to walk towards what is to come to us. The promises of God are many and generous and are there for us to step into.
So what of the next events – for what are we waiting? What might be for us in this period in which we, like the disciples, wait for Jesus to descend in the way he ascended? What might we be hoping for as we prepare to celebrate again the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?
Well, to begin with, what have we been promised? What has Jesus revealed to us that will change our world – even now, these two thousand or so years on? For you as an individual, what already that ‘fits’ with what you know to be God’s purposes for you, and for those around you? What has been offered to the people of God that you know could be in accord with your ‘skill set’ and therefore could be the task that is assigned for you to do? Who are the people around you in metaphorical white robes who are reminding you of what you already know and what Jesus has promised and therefore where you should be going to next.
This time from Ascension Day to Pentecost is set aside by the church as a time for praying in the Holy Spirit into our loves again. Perhaps these questions that we might ask are ones you might spend these next days praying with and pondering – thus moving yourself spiritually to the right place so that you are prepared for what is to come for you and those around you. Not using them just as questions, but rather as an invitation to God to make you ready to respond to what God wants you to do with him to change your life and the life of the world.
A prayer for these days towards Pentecost:

Lord God,
show me where you want me to be
and give me courage to go there;
show me what you want me to do
and give me strength to fulfil the task you have assigned;
show me who will help me
and give me grace to receive your guidance through them;
show me your will
and give me humility to accept the gifts you give to me.

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