Sunday, July 29, 2018

“Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?”

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
I had always read this as the angels coming to stir up a sense of urgency about the Great Commission. “Why do you stand…” Recently I went back to look deeper into this text for what kind of direction they gave toward that end. I didn't find that. I found a far more loving message instead.

I've been known to stand and “look steadfastly toward heaven” and “gaze up into heaven” during and after a rocket launch. In the back of my mind often was this challenge from the angels to Go and reach the lost. Who has time to watch rocket launches when people are perishing for eternity?

The angels did indeed ask, “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?” The context of their question, though, unlike a rocket launch, is not the heavens. The context is the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The context for the disciples was not one of “getting to see the ascension,” like some of us might feel about a rocket launch. Instead any anticipation was of the opposite type. The ascension meant the departure of their Lord and close Friend for the last few years. He would no longer be with them in person. They didn't know what exactly to expect next. Understanding this context, there's no condemnation to be found in the angels' question.

The next thing the angels said let the disciples know they get what's going on: “This same Jesus,” the same Jesus you love, your Friend, “who was taken up from you into heaven…” It was not, “Look at Him go!” It was, “Our Friend is gone.” Just a few days earlier they grieved His death; some may have been ready to once again grieve His departure. That's the first half of the angel message here.

The other half of the angels' message is the rest of the story: This same Jesus “…will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” You miss your Friend now, but be assured, He will not be missed forever. He is coming again! That is a very warm, loving, comforting message for the disciples to hear in that context, encouragement they surely appreciated.

The disciples didn't get to see that second half fulfilled in their lifetime on earth. Even today we still await that return “in like manner.” Thinking of looking “steadfastly toward heaven” awaiting His return makes me wonder if it might be a little like how we can now watch SpaceX reverse a rocket launch.

In looking further at the context of Jesus parting words to them just before His ascension, His words speak to how the angels' message is not one of urgency. He told them not to Go—“not to depart from Jerusalem”—and spoke of waiting “for the Promise of the Father” (1:4). They would receive power “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8). When was that? Whenever it would happen. It was not an “if,” and it was not a “now.”

Perhaps the same thing holds true for us today. We no longer await Pentecost for the Holy Spirit, but waiting for a move of the Holy Spirit will be more powerful and eternally fruitful than any man-made, flesh-generated sense of urgency every time. We do well to seek the Holy Spirit in fulfilling our mission.

In the meantime, watching a rocket launch, or space station fly-by, satellite pass, meteor shower, eclipse or anything among the “lights in the firmament of the heavens” (Genesis 1:14) might just point our attention to “look steadfastly toward heaven” at the moment when Jesus indeed returns, “in like manner.” Who knows: perhaps we can reach more of the lost by showing an interest in rocket launches and landings.

“Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draws nigh” (Luke 21:28).

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