Standing Around Doing Nothing

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ascension
May 26, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Jesus taught the disciples that the kingdom of God was at hand, and they all had a part to play in it. The kingdom continues to this day, and we all have a part to play.

"The problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you're finished." So said Benjamin Franklin. "I need so much time for doing nothing that I have no time for work," said French poet Pierre Reverdy. "The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the time when you're apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times," said British musician Brian Eno. And Malcolm Forbes said, "The hardest work of all -- doing nothing."1

Some people have "doing nothing" down to an art. Anywhere you go, you will see people "doing nothing." Of course, today almost everyone has a "doing nothing" gadget: the cell phone. People walk off curbs while "doing nothing" on their phones. Drivers are distracted by their phones even though, when asked, they will say they were "doing nothing" but driving. One man in California almost bumped into a bear while staring at his phone while walking.

Our scripture today includes the question, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand around looking up toward heaven?" which could probably be asked another way, "Why do you stand around doing nothing?" It's probably unfair to compare "then" to "now" for life was far different "then." Indeed, the people surrounding Jesus at his ascension into heaven did not know what to do. They had experienced the miraculous and they were stunned into doing nothing, at least for a little while.

Faithful followers of Jesus

So many things had happened to Jesus' disciples since they first met him. So many changes in their lives and in their outlook on life. Called from the life that was familiar to a whole new life with Jesus, they found themselves not only with him, but also with this odd group of followers.

Think about what these men witnessed and experienced with Jesus. Many miraculous events: demons cast out, the lame walking and the blind receiving their sight. Miracles of nature: great hauls of fish in the morning when they had fished all night with no luck, the wind and waves obeying Jesus' commands, water turned into wine. Great miracles of healing, yes, and beyond that, on more than one occasion, the dead were brought back to life! They were experiencing life in ways they never could have imagined.

In addition to the miracles, these men saw lives changed. They saw Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector, suddenly become the most generous man in town. They saw Jesus talk to the woman at the well, who then evangelized her whole town. Jesus was changing lives, but so were these men. Sent out two by two they "proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them."2

For three years they lived with Jesus and learned new things every day. In this process they were changed. While it certainly was not evident all the time, and while there were setbacks in both their faith and understanding, it is undeniable that this hodgepodge group of men were being shaped into Jesus' disciples.

The disciples were witnesses to Jesus' love and compassion. They saw him weep over Lazarus' death even while he knew he was about to raise him back to life. They saw him heal Peter's mother-in-law. They saw him take care and pay special attention to the children. Indeed, he said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."3

The gospels, of course, do not tell the whole story of their three years together with Jesus and with each other. There was so much more. We wish, sometimes, that the gospels were much longer, and that they told us more.

But they tell us enough.

From those gospels, we know that the crucifixion and Jesus' resurrection were fresh in their minds. And they did not want to lose him again.

A promise from Jesus

We can imagine the range of emotions the disciples had gone through during the time from the crucifixion to now -- heartbreak, grief and despair at Jesus' horrible death; disbelief, doubt and joy as Jesus appeared to the women at the tomb and then to the disciples. Now things were beginning to take shape as Jesus appeared to them and taught them about what would happen next.

In today's reading, Luke, the writer of both Luke and Acts, said, "After [Jesus'] suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." The kingdom of God; three years earlier, when Jesus began his public ministry, he declared, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."4 Jesus never wavered about his purpose. He came to usher in the kingdom of God, and now he told his disciples they must carry on the work of the kingdom. That's a tall order for anyone! Yes, they had done kingdom work while he was with them, but it sure sounded like he was going back to the Father. How were they supposed to carry on in his absence?

Jesus had an answer for that very question.

"John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

The disciples had lots of questions. Luke records only one of them. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom in Israel?"

Jesus replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

The Ascension

With Jesus' words still running through their minds, along with many, many questions, while they were watching, Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." As they continued to watch and gaze up toward heaven, "suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'"

Did the heavenly messengers just ask them why they were "standing around, doing nothing?"

Who could blame these men? "Did you see what I just saw? Did that really happen?" Surely, they were questioning among themselves as to what they just experienced. So, what did the disciples do? They stood looking up for a while.

Then they listened to their instructions. They stayed together in Jerusalem, they prayed and they chose Matthias to replace Judas. "... and he was added to the eleven apostles."5

The disciples continued to do the work of the kingdom of God, which began with Jesus. They waited to "receive power" from the Holy Spirit and saw incredible growth on the day of Pentecost. The work of the kingdom of God continues to this day with his faithful followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Doing the work of the kingdom

We believe that the Jesus who broke into history once will break into history again. How will that happen? Well, it happens through us, through the church, if we are faithful to kingdom work and don't "stand around doing nothing."

It's possible to look incredibly busy, while at the same time, do nothing or accomplish nothing. It's easy to fill up our calendars and our to-do lists every day with meetings, with service opportunities, with this group or another, all while really accomplishing very little in the kingdom of God. Even good things like worship or administrative duties or Christian education can get in the way of doing kingdom of God work if our priorities get out of whack. We need to guard against looking busy when we are, in fact, standing around doing nothing.

Learning from the disciples and from Jesus

We have no way of knowing the full discussion between the disciples during the days between the Ascension and the day of Pentecost. But we do know they listened to the counsel of the heavenly messengers. They took care of the business of choosing Judas' replacement, they stayed in Jerusalem in one place and they waited for God to work in and through them, making themselves available in whatever way God saw fit. So, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire upon each of them -- and the church was born.

Jesus set the example of pulling away from the busyness of life to spend time with his Father in prayer. He stayed true to the kingdom work, in part, through regular contact with his Father and the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, a pastor in Ohio went on a spiritual retreat at a retreat center. This week-long event included a session with a spiritual director one hour a day. The rest of the time was up to him. He journaled each day and noticed a definite trend as the week went by. Both his writing and his praying grew in length and depth as the week progressed. His focus on his life, his family and his ministry became much clearer during that time.

When he returned home, one of his parishioners asked him what he did with all his free time. While he was tempted to say, "Not much," he instead answered, "I got quiet and listened for God to speak ... and he did."

As we remember Jesus' life and death and ascension, let's listen to what God has to say to us all.


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