Lesson Focus: If we want to participate in the work that Jesus is doing in our world, bringing about the Kingdom of God, then we must pray and wait for God’s Spirit to empower us and send us out.
Catching up on the story: Jesus has died, and has risen from the dead. In Luke he has appeared to the disciples, explaining and teaching more things to them. Jesus has ordered them to say in Jerusalem so that they might wait for the gift that the Father has promised them. This gift is a baptism. Only this time, it is not like John’s water baptism. It will be a baptism with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
This is, if you will, part two of the story of Jesus’ work in the world. In this second part of the story the focus shifts from the work of the incarnated Jesus to the work of the Holy Spirit to build Christ’s church.
The Text: Like any good author of a work in two parts, Luke helps us transition from his Gospel to the Book of Acts. An account of the Ascension is given in both Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. Here, Luke places the disciples and Jesus gathered together one last time. The disciples have one last question for Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” By this question the disciples show that they still have not completely grasped the method and intent of Jesus’ work. Even though they have witnessed Jesus’ horrifying death, his miraculous resurrection and his unthinkable forgiveness, as he has not sought revenge on those who had killed him, the disciples have missed the point. Surely if Jesus were going to restore to Israel all of their earthly power and might he would have done so shortly after his resurrection. What better way to declare that one has won than by defeating death by resurrection and taking up arms to squash his enemies and Israel’s enemies?
This is not what Jesus has done. No, Jesus has defeated death and sin, he has healed the crippled and restored sight to the blind but he will not take up arms against his or Israel’s enemies. The kingdom of God does not work that way. Jesus’ mission of forgiveness, redemption and new creation find its power, not in military might and political power, but in self-less love and grace.
Jesus responds to the disciples, not by chiding them for their misunderstanding, but with simple trust that the disciples will soon understand. It is not for us to know the timing of the Father. The next sentence begins with a “but.” While it is not ours to know when things will happen, we will not be left alone, separated from the Father and what the Father wants to do. The disciples, we are told, will receive power, not the kind of power that will remove the Romans from their positions as conquers over Israel, but a different kind of power. The power they receive will be from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is the same power that Jesus has been working with from the beginning. It is the power to heal the sick, to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the power to participate with God in bringing about the kingdom of God.
God’s kingdom had already broken into this world through the person and work of Jesus. The disciples had been participating in bringing God’s kingdom already, but now they will no longer have Jesus. Instead they will have a new and fresh power given to them by the Holy Spirit. They will help bring God’s kingdom in Jerusalem first, then in Judea, then in Samaria (remember all we have said in the past about the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans!) and finally to the entire world. This is a pretty tall order!
When Jesus has finished promising the Holy Spirit and giving them this mission to be bearers of the kingdom of God to the whole world, he ascended into heaven. The disciples stood and watched him as he slowly disappeared from sight. Apparently they stood and watched for some time, just standing there gazing into the sky. Suddenly, two men in white robes appeared to them to move them along. These men, who we can assume are messengers from God, declare that Jesus will come back in the same way in which he left.
Now the disciples must wait. It is not an idle waiting, however. They gather together in the upper room to wait for the Holy Spirit and to pray. They pray because they know that the work that Jesus has given them to do is far beyond their ability to both grasp the scope of it and to carry it out. If the disciples are going to be faithful to Jesus and his call on their life, they must first wait and pray. The kingdom of God is not something that comes through force of might or from the will of those who want it to arrive in its fullness. It will not come through political campaigns or through any other means than by waiting, waiting for the Spirit to move in and through us, cleansing us, empowering us to go forth to bear witness in your town, your state, and in the entire world.
So What? Obviously we live in a post-Pentecost world, a world where the Holy Spirit has already been given. For centuries the Spirit has guided and built up the church. The good news about Jesus has indeed spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. At the same time, however, Jesus’ words in verses 7-8 still hold true for us today. As we wait for Christ to return, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we might participate in God’s mission to establish the kingdom of God here now.
All too often, however, we get impatient and ask the same kinds of questions that the disciples ask in verse 7. Only we are not so much interested in the liberation of Israel, our questions might sound like this, “Lord, is it yet the time when you will finally do away with all cancer?” “Is it yet the time when you will eradicate all poverty?” We long and yearn for the world to be put right. Jesus’ words for us today are the same as they were for the disciples. It is not for us to know when things will finally and fully be put right. In the meantime, our waiting, waiting for the kingdom of God in its fullness, waiting for the Spirit to do something powerful in our midst, must be done with prayer. Our posture, as we wait, should be a posture of prayer. The content of our prayer should be this: Lord, fill us with your Spirit. Cleanse us from unrighteousness. Enable us to see the good we must do. Empower us to be obedient. Our Father, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Luke, at the end of his Gospel (24:44-53), tells of the Ascension. Why do you think Luke tells us about it again here?
What do you think the disciples were asking for in verse 6?
In verse 8 Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” What kind of power do you think Jesus was referring to? How might that power be different than the power that might be used to “restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Why do you think the disciples stood gazing up into the sky after Jesus has ascended? How do you think the disciples understood what was happening?
The disciples’ response to Jesus’ absence and promise was to return to Jerusalem to wait and pray. What do you think was the content of their prayer?
Has there ever been a time in your life when you waited and prayed for the Holy Spirit? What was that like? How did the Holy Spirit have an impact on you? What would it look like for the church to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit?
Ways to Wait and Pray…
As a group, commit to waiting and praying for the Holy Spirit to direct you in our mission to make Christ like disciples and to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.
Set aside one half hour each day this week to sit in silent prayer. Begin your time by asking for the Holy Spirit to come in a fresh way. Then, spend the rest of the time in silent reflection and prayer.
Gather with a friend or two to wait and pray.
Next week, as you gather again, share with one another your experiences with waiting and praying through the week.
Critical Questions: How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
While God wants to use us to participate in bringing the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom never comes through our own power and might. The God of the Bible is a God who gives us a share in his own power and might through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
As a church, we will only be a holy people if we wait and pray together to allow ourselves to be guided and directed by the Holy Spirit. Our best opportunity at fulfilling the mission that God have given to us is to constantly be a people who wait and pray.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, we must be a people who take the time, together, to pray and wait. At the same time, however, when the Spirit comes, empowering us in word and deed, we must go!