I like dogs. I always have. Growing up we had dogs in our home, and shortly after Denise and I got married, we got a dog, a little Pomeranian called, Holly, and for fifteen years she was a wonderful pet. We have two cats now, and they are nice, but I miss having a dog. As a matter of fact, this past fall, we found ourselves watching many of the Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel and it was heart wrenching for me because so many of the movies had dogs in them. I even told the rest of the family one day, “I think that I am going to have to stop watching any movie that has a dog in it.” It was just too much. It was a struggle for me. Despite having the two cats, I almost broke down and got a dog. That’s how much I like dogs.
I think what I like about dogs so much is their devotion. They just want to be with you all the time. You get up from your chair and walk to another room, and they get up and follow you. When you have to leave the house, they follow you to the door and they turn their head slightly and stare at you as if to say, “Please don’t go.” Then, you come back home and open the door and there they are waiting and wagging their tale as if to say, “I have been here waiting for you the whole time. I am so glad you are back.” It is that image of a dog waiting with patient devotion that came to my mind as I thought about the disciples in this opening chapter of the Book of Acts. It has been about forty days since Jesus’ resurrection and the disciples have had many opportunities to be with Jesus and talk with Jesus. Jesus just shows up, spends some time with them and then disappears again only to show up a few days later. That has become their post-resurrection routine. But, on this day, it all changes. They meet up with Jesus and learn that it is time for Jesus to return to the Father. They were hoping that Jesus was going to restore Israel, that Jesus was going to usher in the last day, but Jesus said, “Don’t worry about when that is going to happen. God will take care of that, but you are going to receive the Holy Spirit so that you can be my witnesses here and all around the world.”
And, so the moment comes. The veil that separates heaven and earth is drawn back, and Jesus returns to the family. Then veil closes and Jesus is beyond their sight. One moment he is there and the next he is not. And the disciples, they are just waiting there, wagging their tales, and waiting with patient devotion for Jesus to come back. That’s when the angel shows up. “What are you doing just standing there?” “Don’t worry, he’s coming back. One day the veil will part again for the last time and Jesus will come back just like he left.” In these words, we hear the angel giving some gentle advice to the disciples. It is as if the angel is saying, “Waiting for Jesus to return is not what you are supposed to be doing right now. Instead, it is time to get to work.”
I know that the return of Jesus is something that fascinates us in the church. It is something that we desperately want because we know that when Jesus returns everything will finally be set right. All of the evil and the chaos and the pain of the world will finally be gone. Everything will, at last, be as it is supposed to be, as it was supposed to be from the very beginning. We want Jesus to return. Such a desire was the earliest prayer of the church as faithful followers would pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.” But, simply waiting for that moment to happen accomplishes very little. I know some people have devoted their entire lives to trying to figure out when and how it is going to happen, but the return of Jesus is something that is complete out of our control. We don’t know when it is going to happen. And, we really don’t even know how it is going to happen, despite what we have written down in the Book of Revelation. All we can really know is that it will happen when it happens. Until then, all we can do is get to work. So, what is the first thing we need to do in order to get back to work? We need to wait. But, you just told us that we are not supposed to wait. That is true, but the waiting that I am talking about is waiting with purpose.
Prior to his Ascension, Jesus gave final instructions to the disciples. Wait in Jerusalem until you have received the gift that I have promised to give you, which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants them to be his faithful witnesses to the ends of the earth. But, in order for that to happen, they need the power of the Holy Spirit. Without the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples are nothing more than a flash light without batteries. They may look like a flashlight on the outside, but on the inside, they lack the power to do the work to which Jesus has called them. So, what did the disciples do? They went back to Jerusalem and they waited, but they waited with purpose. The writer tells us that they devoted themselves to constant prayer, no doubt, asking God to send upon them the gift of the Spirit. They waited with purpose by praying for the power to do the work that they were called to do.
As it was for the disciples, so it is for us today in the church. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, our light simply does not shine. We can look like a flashlight on the outside, but on the inside we simply lack the power to effectively engage in the work to which we are called to do. It is for that reason, that like the disciples before us, we too are called to wait, but to wait with purpose, the purpose of praying and asking God to empower us with the Holy Spirit.
I know that we all pray. When we hear of some disaster we turn to God. We pray for people in Napal trying to recover from those earthquakes. When an Amtrak train crashes we cry to God, lifting up those who are hurting and those who have lost loved ones. Of course, we also pray for our loved ones and our friends. We pray for our own needs and desires. Each week I ask for prayer requests and rarely does a week goes by that we do not ask for at least one prayer. So, we all pray. Which is why, it may seem strange for me to say that, like the disciples we need to wait with purpose by waiting in prayer. Why tell us to do something that we already do? Because even though we pray, we have to ask ourselves, “How often do we pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives? How often do we ask the Holy Spirit to empower us for the work to which we are called?
This passage from acts, challenges us this morning. It challenges us to think about the prayers that we lift up to God. It challenges us to consider whether or not we are willing, like the disciples, to be in constant prayer, asking for the filling of God’s Spirit, to pray until we have, in fact, received that power. In our times of gathering as a discernment group, we have said that one of the things that we want more than anything else is to grow as a church. We want to bring people into the fellowship of God’s family. In other words, it is our desire to be witnesses for Jesus here in this place, but how many of us are willing to persistently ask God for the one thing we need in order to be effective witnesses? How many of us are willing to be in constant prayer, asking God for the power of the Holy Spirit? After all, it was Jesus who said, “Ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Asking for the Holy Spirit, asking for that power to do ministry is encouraged by Jesus himself. What better way to wait with purpose than to wait in prayer, asking everyday, maybe even every hour, for the power of the Spirit to be present to us as we engage in ministry both in our personal lives and in the life of the church.
This idea of constant prayer, of persistently asking God for the power of the Spirit reminds me of something that Eliza does. I can tell this story because she is not here. You may not know this, but Eliza is very persistent. When she wants my attention, she will tap me on the shoulder. And she doesn’t just tap once. She taps and keeps on tapping until finally I turn and look at her. Even then, that is not enough. She will keep on tapping until I say, “Can I help you?” Lately, when Eliza is tapping me on the shoulder, I will reach out and start tapping her on the shoulder and we will not stop until we are both laughing about it.
I wonder how many of us are willing to be as persistent in our prayer to God. I wonder how many of us are willing to pray, and pray, and pray until receive the power of the Holy Spirit. And in case you are wondering, Yes, I will talk next week about what receiving that power of the Holy Spirit is all about. Until then, we wait. We wait with purpose by praying. We pray and ask for the power that God has promised us so that we can do the work to which we have been called to do.