October 5, 2014
Matthew 21:33-46
Philippians 3:4b-14
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19

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Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter

from the book
Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons
With an Eye to the New


Elizabeth Achtemeier



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Our reading for this Sunday includes verses 6 to 11, which were part of our stated text for last Sunday. The preacher, therefore, has to remind the congregation of what has happened. The apostles have asked Jesus when he will restore the kingdom to Israel, that is, when will the Kingdom of God come. Jesus has replied that the time of that coming is not for them - or even him - to know, thus ending all of the church's speculation about the time of the end. The Lord has promised that the fledgling group will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will empower them to become his witnesses throughout the world. And then Christ has been "lifted up" in his ascension, to rule at the right hand of God over all. Two angels therefore bid the apostles to stop gazing up into heaven. It is time to get to work.

It is interesting in our text for the morning that the ascension has taken place on the Mount of Olives, that mountain across the Kidron Valley to the east of Jerusalem that towers up over the height of Mount Zion. Olivet has great significance in both Old and New Testaments. It is the watchtower from which all attacks against Jerusalem were visible. But it is probably the mountain from which Second Isaiah told the people that they would see God returning to them (Isaiah 40:9--11), and Revelation probably means that it is from Olivet that the faithful will see the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10). Jesus pronounced judgment over Jerusalem from the mount (Mark 13:3). And it is the site of the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13:3 and parallels). Most significant as background of this Acts text, however, is the fact that Ezekiel pictured God's glory as departing from the Mount of Olives and then, later in the eschatological time, returning to it, to enter from there into Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23; 43:2). The implication is that Jesus' ascension not only takes place from the Mount of Olives, but it is there that he will return when he comes again.

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Because the angels tell the apostles not to stand gazing into heaven, the apostles descend from Olivet and return to Jerusalem, a hike which Luke says is "a sabbath day's journey away" (v. 12). That would have no significance if it were not for the fact that Jews do not journey on the sabbath! That's against the Jewish law! And so by this little phrase Luke is telling us that we have a new people here, folk who have known the resurrected Christ and whose lives have been changed, to be given a task of going into all the world and preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. The company is named - the eleven apostles who remain after Judas Iscariot's betrayal (Luke 23:47--48; Luke says nothing about Iscariot's death, but cf. Matthew 27:3--5 and Acts 1:16--19). In the passage that follows in verses 15--26, Iscariot will be replaced by Matthias in the company of the twelve.

This is the tiny band of those who will begin the spread of the gospel throughout the earth. Noteworthy is the fact that they are joined by some women. Luke repeatedly includes women in his stories of Jesus, and these in our text are probably the women who were earlier mentioned in Luke's Gospel - the women whom Jesus healed and who supported his ministry financially (Luke 8:2--3); the women who did not desert their Lord at his crucifixion and burial (Luke 23:49, 55--56); and who were the first witnesses of the resurrection to the disbelieving apostles (Luke 24:1--11). Included also are Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers, of whom we have heard earlier in Luke 1--2 and 8:19--21. So the little band of apostles is enlarged by others who have known Jesus and who love him.

When we in the church in our day are given a task to do, or appointed to a committee, or singled out for leadership, our tendency is to jump right to it, to get to work. A pastor who has just been called by a church is often heard to say, "I hit the ground running." But this group of apostles and disciples in our Acts text don't jump immediately into their task and start running. They're down on their knees praying! They have returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where the apostles have been lodging, and there they all unite together in prayer (vv. 12--14).

For what do they pray? Acts does not tell us, but it is clear from the preceding verses. Their risen Lord has commanded them to return to Jerusalem and to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. So they pray for that Spirit's coming. Only then will they be able to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine and the known world. They are obeying their Lord's command. From the very first, they are faithful to the word of the risen and ascended Christ. From this time on, their lives have changed, to let Christ rule over them. And so they are faithful to his lordship.

They also are a band pressing forward toward the coming of the kingdom - toward that time when Christ will return to set up his rule over all the earth (cf. Acts 1:6). They therefore undoubtedly pray for the coming of that kingdom. "Our Father ... thy kingdom come on earth, even as it is in heaven." The apostles and disciples are the messengers of that kingdom, the ones who are to announce to the world, "Behold! the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him" (Isaiah 40:10). Prepare, therefore, for his coming! "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15).

The message that we modern disciples are given to announce to the world is not a great deal different than that. Our Lord Christ is risen and ascended and reigns over all. And he will come again "to judge the quick and the dead." But by faith in Christ's work of reconciliation through his death and resurrection, we can know the forgiveness of all our sins and be counted righteous in the sight of our God and enter into eternal life in his kingdom of love.

To be faithful messengers of that good news, however, we must learn to wait, as the apostles and disciples waited. Not jumping immediately into the task of each day, not running around in the busyness of the church, but first praying - praying for God's empowering Spirit that can enable us to be obedient and to do his will and to accomplish the purposes for which he has called us. We do not own the Holy Spirit. For each task given us as disciples, we must ask anew for God's guidance and empowerment. And if we ask, in faith and sincerity, the Spirit will be given to us (cf. Luke 11:9--13). So first pray. Then work. God will do the rest.