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Lesson from a Chipmunk

First Lesson Cycle A Sermons for Lent and Easter
In today's First Lesson the apostles are gathered with their families in an upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem. So much had happened during the past few months that it was hard to put it all together. They had accompanied Jesus into the city, receiving a royal welcome fit for a king. Then there was their last supper together, followed by Judas' betrayal and the arrest in Gethsemane, their own narrow escape from the soldiers, and that most horrible crucifixion. They had just about given up all hope when the risen Jesus appeared before them, ate with them, and then for six more weeks instructed them about the kingdom of God. Just when it all started to make sense, just when Jesus gave them a promise and a purpose, he left them again. This time they saw it for themselves. Immediately after Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit would give them power to be witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:8), "He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9).

Now what were they to think? When were they going to get this power? What were they supposed to do until then? And when the Holy Spirit did give them power (of course Jesus didn't even tell them when that might be, let alone when God would bring in the new kingdom), how is that going to help them witness to the very ends of the earth? Those earliest Christians must have been overwhelmed and confused trying to adjust to one life-changing experience after anther. What could they count on? Whom could they depend upon? Many questions. Few answers. Just a promise and a purpose, a gift and a mission.

How do you adjust to all the rapid changes in today's society? How does your congregation respond to changes within the community? Changes within yourselves? How do you respond when you are overwhelmed and confused by changes happening all around you? What can you count on when everything seems to be out of control? Whom can you depend on, really?

Pastor Tom was getting into his car in the church parking lot one afternoon when he noticed a tiny chipmunk nestled comfortably in the shadows just behind the driver's side front tire. This effectively stopped the pastor from backing out of his parking space. Unable to back up and unwilling to drive across the church lawn, Pastor Tom began clapping his hands loudly, attempting to encourage the chipmunk to move! This tactic worked immediately. The startled chipmunk darted away. Unfortunately, it settled behind the front tire on the passenger side. Again Pastor Tom clapped. This time our chipmunk ran to the right rear tire. By now you have already guessed that two more clapping episodes, accompanied by some yelling as well as a gathering audience of neighborhood children brought our little furry friend back to its original spot. Suddenly, Pastor Tom, the children, and especially the chipmunk heard loud and insistent chattering from a larger chipmunk sitting beneath the grape vines bordering the lawn. Hearing a welcome voice and seeing a familiar face, our little friend scooted off to safety.

Perhaps the chipmunk regaled his family and friends with stories of the many fast and scary changes he had experienced. Perhaps he chattered his thank yous to them repeatedly. Who knows, he may have gained a new appreciation for what really matters in life; for what you really need to hold onto when changes are happening all around you.

Here's a lesson for all of us. When the challenges of life become overwhelming, stay close to where you know the love is. Our chipmunk friend never strayed from where he could see and hear the creature who loved him. No matter how large the threat or how terrifying the sounds, the chipmunk stayed close to the sure and certain sights and sounds of love. The sounds of promise soon became a visible reality as the frightened animal scampered from tire to tire, always staying close to the chatter of encouragement and the visibility of supportive relationships.

Here is the core of today's text. Here the risen Christ gives the overwhelmed apostles a promise and a purpose, a gift and a mission. Here in his parting words, Jesus promises them that the Holy Spirit will soon give them power for an amazing mission. In Jesus' own words, after receiving this gift, the apostles' purpose was to "... be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Incredible promise! Impossible purpose!

Just how were they going to accomplish all this? Where could they start? Who could they recruit to help them? What was their strategic plan? Where would their funding come from? What were the most critical scripture texts and theological insights necessary to implement this mission?

Before they could ask these questions, or even think of more, Jesus ascended into heaven. What an awesome sight that must have been! So, now what? Just stay here looking at the sky while they wait for the gift of power Jesus promised? Maybe Jesus would come back down soon, descending as the Son of Man to do battle for Jerusalem. Maybe these are the last days that the prophet Zechariah wrote about. This was the Mount of Olivet, after all, where all this was supposed to happen! (see Zechariah ch. 14).

While the apostles were staring at the clouds, suddenly two angels interrupted their silent musing. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up at heaven? This Jesus... will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Doesn't this sound a lot like the two angels questions to the women visiting Jesus' tomb early Easter morning, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5). In other words, "Get busy. He gave you a mission to be his witnesses. So, get moving already."

Well, when the women first shared the angel's proclamation with the apostles, Luke states that "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11). At least until they could verify the angels' message for themselves, that is. The risen Jesus appeared to them many times over the next forty days, eating with them and instructing them about the kingdom of God (Luke 24:12; Acts 1:6).

So, this time when the apostles saw (the same?) two angels for themselves, they believed them and got moving. They heard the promise of Jesus. They had a purpose to fulfill for Jesus. Now what they needed was to wait for the gift of power that would proceed from the ascended Jesus. How did the apostles cope with uncertainty and confusion as they waited for the promised gift? How did they begin to develop specific methods to address the overall purpose of their witness mission?

Today's text describes the apostles' response as well as some possibilities for ourselves. After all, the Lord has given us the same promise and purpose, the same gift and mission. It is likely that we, like the apostles, find ourselves waiting for more specific directions.

Where did they go? What did they do? They went where Jesus told them to go, Jerusalem (Acts 1:14, 12). Jerusalem and its immediate context was the foundational center of the Jewish religion. It was also the focal point of the mission of the church. Here is where the church began. From here is where Christianity spread. For the apostles, Jerusalem was the very center of God's loving actions; the intersection of promise and purpose, gift and mission. So the apostles walked back to Jerusalem, about one half mile from Mount Olivet.

Where do you go when you are anxious and confused by life challenges? The risen Jesus told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. The ascended Jesus invites us to the center of God's loving actions for us and for the world. For us, that is the body of Christ, the church. Here is where we know the promise is heard and the gift of power is given. Here is where our mission is articulated and our specific purpose in life is clarified.

So, what did the apostles actually do when they got back to Jerusalem? What are we really supposed to do within the church? How does a general promise become a specific purpose? What is this gift and, how long do we have to wait before we get it?

Back in the city, the apostles remained close to where they knew God's love and encouragement were located -- among God's faithful people. Our text names them specifically, including several women in addition to Jesus' own mother and brothers (Acts 1:13-14). While they waited, these early followers of Jesus "were constantly devoting themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). They didn't have to wait long before they received the gift of the Holy Spirit and their mission began. Jesus told them it would be "not many days from now" (Acts 1:5). Most Christians celebrate that festival day as Pentecost, or fifty days after Easter and forty days after Jesus' ascension (Acts 1:3).

God has already given us the gift that Jesus promised to the apostles. With a splash of baptismal water and a word of promise the Holy Spirit welcomes us into the Body of Christ, the fellowship where God's active love is demonstrated. Within this community, God's promise of forgiveness is boldly proclaimed and the risen and ascended Christ is shared. Constantly living and praying within this community of believers, God's people do receive guidance for growth and purpose for living.

Hang in there. Learn from the chipmunk. Stay close to where God shows you the love is... at the cross, an empty tomb, a splash of water, some bread broken, and some wine poured. Listen for God's word of love and forgiveness. Watch for the Spirit showing you what love looks like and sounds like in your own life.

Today, the ascended Christ has given you a promise of love and a gift of his presence. Open your hearts to receive it. Within that gift is a mission and a purpose. Pray with one another for understanding as you begin to unwrap it. Amen.
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