Want to have a little fun? Try this reality TV-type experiment (anybody remember Candid Camera ?). Stand in front of a crowded building and stare continually up into the sky while a friend secretly records the behavior of passersby. You know what they’ll do. If they’re not staring down at their smartphones, many will look upward themselves.
We just can’t help ourselves. We have to look.
You can’t blame the disciples for continuing to stare into the sky after Jesus ascended to the Father. But apparently, they didn’t stand gawking for long, as if waiting for something else to happen. Luke writes, “While [Jesus] was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (Acts 1:10, NRSV).
In other words, Jesus was still ascending when the visitors appeared. But the cloud had already hidden him from their sight, and it was time to move on. The angels prodded the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up 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” (vs. 11). As we’ve seen, this is probably a reference to the prophecy of Daniel 7:13: one day, the Son of Man will come with the heavenly clouds.
But until then, there’s work to do.
The book of Acts, as we’ve seen, is like Part Two of Luke’s gospel. Part One, of course, emphasized the words and works of Jesus. But Part Two begins with Jesus teaching his followers more about the kingdom, commissioning them to be his witnesses worldwide, and promising them the power they would need to do the work. And when he finished telling them all this, he left the stage in dramatic fashion.
The story therefore shifts, and the angels conveniently give us the opening and closing scenes of the now unfolding sequel: Jesus has been taken up into heaven in a cloud, and Jesus will return from heaven the same way. The chapters in between belong to you, to what you as his followers will now do in the power of the Holy Spirit. What are you waiting for? Get to it.
So what do the disciples do? They return to Jerusalem, as Jesus had told them, to wait for the coming of the Spirit (Luke 24:49).
But they’re not the ragged bunch they were before the resurrection, when they thought all was lost. To be sure, they do not yet understand all that will happen to them in the coming months and years. Still, Luke closes his gospel by telling us that they returned to Jerusalem in a spirit of worship (Luke 24:51). Their sorrow has turned to joy; their confusion to expectancy.
It makes me wonder. We so often feel discouraged in the Christian life, as if we were waiting and waiting for God to show up and fix some problem for us. That’s understandable: waiting on God is a common theme in Scripture.
But we have to get the story straight. It’s not about how God keeps us safe or comfortable. It’s not about God helping us to achieve our worldly ambitions. It’s about our being empowered to carry on the work of Jesus.
That’s not to say, of course, that God can’t or won’t give us the things we ask for. But first things first: our primary role in the story is as witnesses. What do others learn of God, of Jesus, from what we say and do? Do they see us discouraged and despondent because we’re still waiting for God to do something?
Or do they see in us an inexplicable, worshipful, Spirit-laden joy?
I’m not saying we should just suck it up and put a good face on suffering, lest people get the wrong impression.
I’m saying that when we get discouraged, we should ask ourselves if we’re living the right story.