We are restarting a sermon series that we did last summer. If you remember last summer, we went through a book in the Bible called “ACTS.” Acts is a book that describes the “ACTS of the Early Church.” This, by the way, is the Early Church in which our church finds its roots. The goal of the series was to discover (1) What the Early Church found important to do and (2) Consider how we might refocus on doing the very things that they did.
Because I think it’s really easy for a modern church to get distracted.
Maybe you know this, but Facebook knows what you think. Their website records everything you do on Facebook. Then, they distract you with ads for the very things you’ve been searching for on your Facebook profile.
For instance, Friday was a teacher workday. The teachers had some food delivered from McAllister’s deli. And even though I wasn’t in charge of ordering that food…my account must have been logged into the computer that was used for ordering and... coincidence? I am getting all kinds of ads for McAllister’s Deli.
The same is true for being a pastor. Because I am a pastor, the majority of the ads I see on Facebook are about church from businesses aimed at churches. The ads usually go something like this: “Your Church NEEDS this!” It’ll lead to articles that say things like:
Now these things could be beneficial.
But when it comes to what church NEEDS to be doing…
I’m thinking the answer should come from God, not the advertiser paying good money to track my internet usage habits.
Today we are going to dive into chapter 2 of ACTs and use the story of Pentecost as a base point for review of the last year’s sermon series. (That’s about 14 chapters in one sermon). Our goal is to identify the thing “Above All Else” that the Early Church needed to be engaged in and understand why we need to be doing that same thing.
Before we do that, a prayer:
Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see, our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. God’s “Above All Else”
Acts 2 take places during Pentecost. It was an Old Testament festival that occurred “fifty days after Passover.” “Pente” a root form meaning “five.” That’s where we get the word “pentagon,” or “five-sided shape.” “Pente” meaning “fifty” hence, a festival fifty days after Passover.
It was a big festival. It happened every year. It drew thousands of practicing Jews to Jerusalem. This year was no different. The streets were filled with people. They were up early shopping the marketplaces and getting the items necessary for celebrating the festival later that day. It was just like every other year.
At about 8 o’clock in the morning, there was the sound of a hurricane-like wind. Only it wasn’t coming from the sky, but a small corner house.
After that sound was going for a while, out of the house, burst a group of men with what appeared to be flames of fire ignited on the top of their heads.
Men who, being from Israel, should not have known the 20-some different languages of the various people there in Jerusalem for the festival.
Yet they spoke clearly. Efficiently. Fluently.
It was amazing.
It was incredible.
It was…too good to be true.
Someone shouted: “They have had too much wine.” (2:13)
Because…getting drunk usually increases your language skills?
But the reality was that this was more than a house party.
This was more than a regular celebration.
This was divine and miraculous.
This was God!!!
And now with everyone’s attention focused exactly where God wanted it, God moves one of the men, Peter to stand up and speak this message:
“15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…’” (Acts 2:15-16)
That’s what’s happening! With the hurricane sound. With tongues of fire. With the different languages. This is God’s way of getting your attention.
About 50 days ago.
It wasn’t just 50 days until your 50 days celebration.
About 50 days ago.
You guys killed Jesus.
And this Jesus?
Wasn’t just some rebel.
Wasn’t just some teacher.
Wasn’t just some nice guy.
He was God.
He did miracles exactly like what you’re seeing here today!
He didn’t just cause storms; he stopped them.
He didn’t just make fire appear; but bread and wine and water.
He didn’t just speak different languages, but he spoke to dead people to make them alive.
He did the very things that only God could do because he was God Himself.
And you killed him.
You killed God.
And death didn’t stick.
I saw Him.
Now at this point the group that was listening started to get very uncomfortable.
Because some of the people who heard this were the very people that had been in Jerusalem 50 days earlier shouting for Jesus to be crucified.
And…if this was true…
Then, they had sinned.
And if this was true…
Jesus would be coming back to vaporize them.
What shall we do?” They cried.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2:38)
And that’s it.
God’s message to the very people who killed Jesus…
About how they could get right with Jesus was simply this:
Turn from sin. Turn to Jesus.
To turn from unbelief to turn to belief.
Their way into God’s kingdom was simply belief in Jesus!
And be baptized.
To have someone pour water on you in Jesus’ name.
And the miraculous God who did these very miracles here today will work through that water to bring you forgiveness.
Does that seem too easy for those sinners?
Does that seem too easy for any sinner?
Does that seem too easy for you, a sinner?
Guess what? That’s the main message of the God powered, God inspired Early Christian Church.
The Early Church’s main message, also known as the Gospel, places you above all else.
It’s kind of like an internet troll. Someone who logs in and gets updates on your social media page or your blog…only because they can’t wait to go on your profile and argue…maybe post an obscene emoji and make you generally angry. Send inappropriate emails to every in your contact list, too.
How many of you wake up on a day to day basis and say: “I hope that internet troll guy is doing good today. Hey, maybe I should call him to check in. Better yet…Let me send him some Uber Eatz…what’s his favorite? Chicken wings?”
We have rebelled against God.
Like a spiritual internet troll to God we have repeatedly gone against him.
Consciously or not – when we complain about his rules, sin, do the opposite - we are completely against God.
Yet, He still did everything to save us!
In fact, he put YOU above everything else. Peter’s words bring that truth to the forefront.
(1) Above the Father’s Other Plans
Check out verse 23: “Jesus was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.”
This Jesus thing wasn’t an accident.
It wasn’t an incident that got out of control.
It wasn’t an UNPLANNED thing.
It was planned by the Father eternities before you were ever you.
In fact, God set things in motion from the beginning of time to achieve your salvation, to bring you forgiveness and to connect you to his kingdom.
God’s ultimate plan isn’t a fireworks celebration for himself.
It isn’t millions of people bowing down to him.
It isn’t to have his name be the most Googled name of all time.
In heaven with him.
(2) Above Jesus’ Own Life
Peter continues, “Jesus was handed over to you…and you put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (v.23b) Notice the phrase “Handed over.” It doesn’t say, “You actively took him by force,” but he was passively “handed over.”
Jesus knew God’s plan was to have him die.
And he still volunteered for it.
Not because it would be easy. It isn’t as if Jesus said, “You know what would be a lot of fun? To have nails jammed into my hands, to have my metatarsals separated by a spike, to press a crown of thorns deeply into my skull and to hang up there while everyone ridiculed me until my lungs gave up and I died.”
Jesus went to the cross because…YOU.
Because He placed you above HIS OWN LIFE.
(3) Above the Holy Spirit’s Inconspicuousness
Peter continues, “Jesus has sent…the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (v.33)
How much do you know about the Holy Spirit?
Briefly: He’s God.
One of the three persons in the ONE Triune God.
He’s always been around.
In fact, he appears at the very beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 1 it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…Now…the earth was formless and empty and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
The Holy Spirit is there.
He is only mentioned in passing in a few vague Psalms and prophecies.
He prefers to do his work in inconspicuous mystery.
And the Holy Spirit goes out of his way to draw our attention to his presence.
The Holy Spirit wants you to pay attention.
He wants you to see how Jesus’ put YOU above his own life.
He wants you to know how God put YOU above his other plans.
He wants you to know that the Gospel places YOU above all else.
II. The Early Church’s “Above All Else”
Now the scene is a courtroom.
Peter is there.
But this time…he’s in chains.
And the people surrounding him are not a crowd of believers.
Violent angry men.
The same violent angry men that killed Jesus.
And unlike some of the people at Pentecost, these people want nothing to do with Jesus.
In fact, that’s the reason they have Peter arrested!
They want him to stop teaching about Jesus.
They want him to stop preaching the Gospel.
They want him to stop…or else.
And Peter looks around.
They’re glaring at him.
He knows they’re serious.
Serious…and blood thirsty.
He doesn’t care.
“We must obey God; rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
In other words:
The Early Church would keep preaching the Gospel.
They would keep telling people about Jesus.
Because they would place the Gospel above all else.
This is just one story that illustrates that.
Because throughout the book of Acts, the devil does everything possible to try and shove the Gospel to the bottom of the Early Church’s priority list.
But the Book of Acts is filled with stories where the Gospel triumphs!
Where it is placed above…
(1) 1st Century Racial Prejudices
Because the Gospel started among the Jewish people.
And the Jewish people – they had developed a superiority complex.
They thought themselves as God’s special people.
Afterall, the Old Testament was all about them.
They were God’s special people – to the point that they wouldn’t interact with non-Jewish people.
They wouldn’t eat a meal with them.
They would definitely not spend time with them unless they were forced to!
Enter a guy named Philip.
He’s on the road to Gaza.
He comes across a man who is an Ethiopian.
Normally Jews avoided non-Jews, but the Gospel doesn’t discriminate. “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’” (Acts 8:29)
Philip walked right up to the chariot, got into the chariot, sat right next to him in the chariot and shared the Gospel.
The Early Church placed the Gospel above Racial Prejudices.
This isn’t the only time.
Acts 8, says Philip also went to Samaria to continue telling non-Jewish people about Jewish.
Acts 13 and 14, chronicles an entire missionary journey specifically to non-Jewish people!
At Pentecost itself, the Gospel was presented in languages beyond Hebrew of the common Jewish people!
The Early Church placed the Gospel above Racial Prejudices.
(2) Social Status
This is a big deal. Because at that time, the most common religious entity – the Pharisees—loved rich people.
They loved people who could contribute to the upkeep of their gathering spaces.
They loved people who could also afford fine jewelry and fancy robes.
They loved people who would make them look cool by association.
Peter and John?
In Acts 3, the very first individual described hearing the Gospel?
A blind beggar.
A blind, homeless beggar.
A blind, homeless beggar at the bottom of social status.
And yet Peter is sure to bring him the message about how Jesus gives him the status of God’s eternal kingdom.
The Early Church placed the Gospel above Social Status.
(3) Jewish Traditions
To be fair, the Gospel is above any tradition.
Specifically, for the Early Church, Jewish traditions had become an obstacle to the Gospel.
And some of the staunchest Jewish traditions at that time had to do with food.
The tradition was that Jews only ate certain foods.
The tradition was that Jews only ate after washing their hands in a ceremonial way.
The tradition was that Jews never at in the home of a non-Jewish person.
Acts 11, Peter, who is 100% Jewish and 100% a follower of Jewish tradition…receives a vision.
In the vision, God tells him to go ahead – to eat meat – from…traditionally, unclean animals.
In other words, God tells him to break tradition. Peter refused by saying, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:14)
As soon as the vision is over, Peter receives a knock at his front door.
It’s a servant from a Roman Centurion – a non-Jewish, Roman centurion – who has invited him over to eat.
That’d be breaking tradition…but God had told Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)
Peter went because he placed the Gospel above even his own traditions – all God’s doing. Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35
The Gospel was above Jewish Traditions.
(4) Above Personal Vendettas
One of the more famous accounts in the first half of Acts is the account of a guy named Saul.
Saul, who did not like the Gospel.
He did not like Jesus.
In fact, he persecuted those who followed Jesus by threatening them, beating them up, and throwing them in prison.
Jesus appeared to him.
Then he became a believer.
In fact, Saul became such a committed believer that he wanted to help the disciples share the Gospel.
Acts 9:20, 26-27 “At once he began to preach in the synagogues [in Damascus] that Jesus is the Son of God…When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.”
Because it’s not about them and what they feel. It’s about Jesus. We support others who want to share God’s Word
They put the GOSPEL above their own personal issues.
(5) Above Their Own Safety
Back to where we started.
The disciples began shouting the message of Jesus…
…in the middle of the very streets where Jesus had been put to death.
…surrounded by the very people who had supported his death.
But they didn’t care.
And this continues.
In Acts 3, they are put on trial.
In Acts 5, they are imprisoned.
In Acts 7, Stephen has stones thrown at him until he is killed.
In Acts 8, they undergo the aforementioned persecution of Saul.
In Acts 12, Peter is put on death row.
And at no point do they stop preaching.
At no point do they stop telling about Jesus.
At no point do they put their own lives above the Gospel.
Because the Gospel is about how Jesus put US above his own life.
III. WHAT NOW?
Consider these two truths:
The Gospel places you above all else. The Early Church placed the Gospel above all else.
Because of God’s work with the Early Church, you have the Gospel in your heart.
A simple What Now?
Put the Gospel Above All Else
I mentioned those Facebook ads at the beginning.
I think the devil works pretty similarly in our lives.
He’s smart. He watches us.
He knows the things that will distract us.
The things that will tempt us to think:
“God didn’t love you that much.” And “The Gospel’s not that important.”
Rather than the GOSPEL above all else…
He wants you to place the ALL ELSE above the Gospel.
Don’t let him.
PLACE THE GOSPEL ABOVE ALL ELSE!
Throughout this summer I am praying that God works in your heart to:
(1) understand more fully how God placed you above all else,
(2) throw light on areas in which you have placed other things above the Gospel,
(3) guide us, as a church, to refocus on placing THE GOSPEL above all else. Amen.
I’m pretty excited today because we are beginning a brand-new series in which we study the book of Acts. Acts is a book that picks up right at the end of Jesus’ life and work on this earth. It chronicles the Early Christian Church and their struggles to maintain faith in Jesus and share Jesus in a society that was very much against Jesus. I’m particularly excited because I think we can learn a lot from this group and its early escapades.
Still – you might say:
Why are we studying the Early Church? That was over 2000 years ago. A lot has changed. We have iPhones. We have self-driving cars. We have Starbucks Coffee. We have the ability to order something at Walmart online and pick up curbside.
How, in the world, are we similar to the Early Church?
A lot of ways:
The Early Church was a relatively small group of people
We are a relatively small group of people.
The early church was trying to share Jesus with their community.
We are trying to share Jesus with our community.
The Early Church faced a society that was hostile to Christianity.
We face an American society increasingly hostile to Christianity.
The Early church was led by God.
We too are led by God.
We are very similar to the early Church. In a lot of ways, they underwent the same challenges that we are going through. Study their values, their goals, and their errors – will teach us some very important lessons.
Today we are beginning that journey in Acts 1. It’s the last interaction with Jesus and his disciples before he leaves them. Our goal is to listen to Jesus words, analyze them and take to heart a few valuable words about mission work here in North Raleigh. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The End of One Mission
Acts 1 is where we are going to be to start. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”
A couple of notes:
The book of Acts was written by a guy named Luke. When he talked about his “former book”, it’s a reference to a book in the Bible called – “Luke.” That book is all about Jesus’ life, ministry and death.
Interesting to note that Luke, as a character in his own historical account, doesn’t appear in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, he doesn’t appear in the book of Acts until about 2/3 of the way through the story. That’s important because it means Luke was not an eyewitness of most of his accounts. However, Luke was a journalist. A scholarly journalist. He investigated thoroughly the accounts of Jesus and the Early Church in order to write down first-and accounts of what happened.
His first book focused on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
His second – on what takes place next.
Acts is the sequel. It’s the part two. It’s the Empire Strikes Back to Star Wars. It’s Weekend at Bernie’s II to Weekend at Bernie’s.
That’s why these first couple of verses require some knowledge of the first book. Because in the climax of the book of Luke, Jesus dies. He is killed on the cross. But then, three days later (spoiler alert) he comes back to life. After he comes back to life he presented himself to his disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
That’s because Jesus had died. The disciples had seen him die. Most dead people stayed dead.
It was hard to believe he had come back to life. And when the disciples first saw him – they were frightened and figured that they had seen a ghost or a vision or some kind of illusion.
If you read Luke’s book, you can read about those convincing proofs.
He appears to some women at the tomb.
He appears to two disciples on the road.
He appears to his disciples in a locked room.
He appears again and again to remove the disciples fears and convince them – HE IS ALIVE!
Fast Forward to the book of Acts. It’s the end of the 40 days. Jesus has appeared to them throughout those 40 days. The disciples are no longer frightened, and their doubts have dissipated.
So…they ask Jesus a question:
Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel? (v.6)
Are you finally going to put the Roman government in its place?
Are you finally going to take your place as ruler on earth?
Are you going to set up a Christian Utopia here in Jerusalem?
Are you going to give us spots as princes and judges and cabinet members?
Are you going to get a palace where we can each lay down in a hammock, while someone waves a palm branch to cool us and someone else feeds us grapes?
Are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
We could get into the inaccurate soteriology of the disciples.
We could discuss their incomplete understanding of God’s Will.
We could talk about their complete failure to correctly apply Messianic prophecy.
But for our purposes, it might be best to simply paraphrase Jesus’ response to their question.
The disciples ask: Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
Jesus replies, “No.”
II. The Beginning of Another
But Jesus doesn’t dwell there. Look at his comments in verse 8. Because in verse 8, Jesus completely reverses the disciples’ concept of what comes next. Look at Jesus’ words:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)
(1) Spiritual, not Structural
The disciples had this concept of Jerusalem being actually, physically rebranded. They pictured the population sign being changed from “Jerusalem” to “Christ-a-topia.” They thought the Roman flagged being dropped and replaced by a flag with a giant cross. They figured that the “Knights of Columbus – Jerusalem Chapter;” would soon become the “Knights of Columbus – Jesus City Chapter.”
But they were wrong.
Jesus was never interested in setting up a physical kingdom of earth.
It didn’t ask for a throne.
He didn’t ask for political power.
He didn’t want the title of President.
He was interested in people’s hearts. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word.
The Holy Spirit brings people to faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people in faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people into God’s kingdom.
The Holy Spirit builds people as God’s kingdom.
Do you see the twist? The disciples thought that God’s kingdom would be a physical, geographical location.
Jesus taught that God’s kingdom would be spiritual.
That’s important for us to remember.
Precious Lambs’ expansion is getting closer and closer to completion. Trees are planted; the building is painted; inspections are done to start getting drywall hung in the building. Soon it’ll be complete. Soon it’ll be filled with children. Soon it’ll be a fixture of North Raleigh.
But that’s not the end game.
Our goal is not to simply cut the red ribbon.
Our goal is to use that building to build connections to the community.
Our goal is to use that building to build souls into Christ.
Our goal is to use that building to build God’s kingdom.
Remember – God’s kingdom is spiritual, not structural.
That (school) building is not the end.
This (church) building is not the end.
Jesus in people’s hearts is the end.
(2) Not on the Sidelines Anymore
The disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore...” They had this picture of Jesus heading out and giving speeches. Of Jesus physically leading the charge against the Romans and knocking out entire armies simply by calling down fire from heaven.
But that’s not how Jesus says it will work. Check out verse 8b. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”
For years, the disciples had been on the sideline.
They had cheered Jesus on.
They had watched safely on the sidelines.
It was time to get in the game.
And that’s even more shocking when you consider who the disciples were:
“You” as in the disciples.
“You” as in Doubting Thomas.
“You” as in too nervous to say anything at my trial John.
“You” as in unknown, unimportant seeming Simon the Zealot.
“You” as in racist Nathanael.
“You” as in greedy Philip.
“You” as in loud mouthed, thinking without talking, denial of Jesus, Peter.
Since it is recorded for us to read…
“You” as in “you.”
Sinful, imperfect you.
That’s so important to remember. Because it is so easy to feel like “God could never work through me.”
I’m too old.
I’m too young.
I’m too quiet.
I’m too loud.
I’m too sinful.
But if you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit.
If you have the Holy Spirit, God has chosen you to be a part of his kingdom.
If you are a part of his kingdom, you aren’t just a brick. You’re a builder: God has tasked you with building his kingdom.
And God will build his kingdom through you.
He just might not build it where you expect.
(3) Not Local, but Global
Because again - final twist - the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to rebuild the kingdom “in Jerusalem.” With Jewish people, who spoke the Jewish language and celebrated Jewish holidays and got together to talk about how great the Jewish people were.
But look at Jesus’ response: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (v.8b)
Jesus didn’t want the message to stay with the Jews.
Jesus wanted all places.
You know – places like Raleigh.
Places like Durham.
Places like Chapel Hill.
Places like Morrisville, Zebulon and Fuquay-Varina.
Do you understand?
And that’s our goal. Our goal is to #GatherToTheGarden. It is to Plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh.
Notice it doesn’t say, “To plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who look like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who talk like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t even say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of people who think like us…in North Raleigh.”
Plant the message of Jesus –everywhere.
Which is a bit intimidating.
Intimidating for us…and we’ve got over 100 gathered today.
The disciples. There were less than 12.
And they were supposed to bring the message to the ends of the earth?
And then, Jesus does something that makes the situation even more intimidating.
Because as he is talking…
As he is finishing his speech…
As he is smiling in their direction…
His feet lift off.
There’s about 6 inches of space between him and the ground – and the space keeps increasing.
Suddenly, Jesus is going up and up and up…
…like he’s a balloon without a balloon.
…Like he’s a kite only there’s not a kite.
…Like he’s being lifted by a drone, only drones are about 2000 years away from being invented.
He ascends past the trees.
He ascends past the birds.
He ascends past the clouds.
And the disciples – are stupefied.
In part, because that was incredible.
In part, because “HE LEFT THEM!?!” How can they ever continue his mission?
As the disciples are staring up into the sky…
They don’t notice two men join them.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come bac kin the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.11)
In other words, stop looking up.
Start looking around.
That’s what Jesus has called us to do.
Stop looking up.
He’s up there watching over you.
Stop waiting for Jesus to come back.
Stop waiting for Jesus to do the work.
He works through you.
Stop looking up.
Start looking around.
Start building his kingdom. Amen.
What do you think the disciples felt after watching Jesus ascend to heaven?
Jaw dropping awe? Certainly.
But I also wonder if they didn't feel a sigh of relief?
Matthew, the tax collector says, "Phew. Now that he's gone, I can finally get back to work. I've fallen behind on my work and I gotta catch up on my collecting."
Peter might have chimed in, "You guys have no idea how long my wife's 'honey-do-list' is. I need to get to work on that."
James says, "Hmmm. That speech ran a little long. Now I gotta book it in order to get little Avram to swim practice at the Sea of Galilee on time."
Simon the political Zealot says, "I can go back to devoting my time to politics. There's a protest at Pontius' Pilate's palace tomorrow and I need to get a few witty signs painted before then!"
I think it's a fair assessment that they had thoughts like this. After all, the disciples were human. Humans struggle to stay focused. In our age of hyper-busyness and attention span shortening SmartPhones, this couldn’t be more true. Even (or perhaps “especially” is better) with spiritual things!
Now we can’t go the Ascension mountain to test this theory out, but...consider for a moment how well you focus on spiritual things for an hour in church on a Sunday morning.
Listen to what it says in Colossians 3:1-3 "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
Hidden. That word jumps out at me. This section explains that when our hearts are set on Christ above, then we are hidden with him.
But we don’t usually hide in Christ. In fact, this is one of the big reasons that we are so focused on earthly pursuits. We want to hide. We have failures, guilt, terrible past decisions that we cannot get past. So we find ourselves trying to 'cover up' our past sins with earthly solutions:
"If I just finish this bottle of whiskey, then the 'booze fog' will cover up all the things I've done wrong in my life and I won't have to think about it."
"If I just have another sexual experience, it'll be the only thing that makes me stop feeling guilt and shame from the last sexual experience I had."
"If I just get a respectable enough career, then I will no longer be remember in my family as the black sheep that I was in my younger days."
“If I just make enough money, then it doesn't matter that my marriage is a mess.”
“If I just keep myself busy with extracurricular activity after extracurricular activity for the kids, then I can hide myself from the feelings of inadequacy and failure from the early years in raising this child.”
When I went to Wisconsin where I grew up last week, I have to admit that I was doing a lot of this. I caught myself thinking, "I'm a pastor. I'm respectable. I can't wait for my former principal and Kindergarten teacher to see me and comment things like, "How respectable that man is."
But as respectable as I thought I was, it didn’t stop me from feeling guilty as we passed a classroom that I used to cause a ruckus in. It didn’t stop me from struggling to look the teacher in the eye whom I had been disrespectful to in high school. It didn’t stop me from looking down in shame after seeing a former classmate whom I had not been all that nice to.
Here's the problem: Covering up our pasts with earthly pursuits is like taking a blanket and tossing it over your head during a game of hide or seek. It doesn't work. Sometimes, in front of people, yes, it does. But before God? Not at all.
God can see past a blanket. And God can see past your earthly pursuits to the very core of your soul. He sees and knows who you are. Raw. Pained. Sinful. Rebellious.
Do you feel confident standing before the all holy, divine, all powerful God in the cesspool of your sins? Because he can't stand sin and threatens eternal hell for it!
There is a better way. Rather than turning to earthly things in order to set ourselves right before God, Scripture urges us to turn to God himself!. "Therefore, set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
Note what it says: "your life is hidden with Christ in God." Not "part of your life." Not "the first three years of your life." Not "the smaller moment of your life." Not even "most of your life, but you need to do some good things to help fill in the gaps of this eternal blanket of love."
Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Every part of it. The sins of your youth. The repeated sins of your teenage years. The dark sins that you can't even hide from yourself no matter the amount of pursuit you put in to earthly things.
All of your sinful life is hidden in Christ!
How does that work?
Well, how does it work that a human being could be talking out on a hill. Then, without any wires or tricks of the camera. Without any smokes and mirrors, he is lifted up above the clouds?
For that matter, how does it work that the same man healed people with incurable diseases simply by speaking? How does it work that he stopped storms with his words? How does it work that people died and he raised them with his touch? How does it work that he died and rose again!?!
It worked because Jesus is God! And through faith in Christ, your life is covered with Christ, because you are being covered with God!!!
Sometimes, when I'm getting dressed for the day, I put on a sweater vest. Not because it looks good, but because it covers up wrinkles, a missing button, or a mustard stain. No one can see these things!
Covered with God. Covered with Christ, your heavenly Father cannot see your sins. Jesus completely covers up every sinful stain and every guilty wrinkle. In Jesus God sees you only as “without guilt” and he promises to give you the reward of heaven in the future.
That's one of the biggest problems with setting your hearts on earthly things. You never know if they will come true.
Will I ever get my dream job?
Will I ever get the raise?
Will I ever have the 5 kids, 2 dogs, and a cat that I desire?
WIll I ever retire in the Outer Banks like I hope to?
Maybe. Then, again maybe not. Or maybe you accomplish your goal, but then it isn't what it was cracked up to be or it only lasts for awhile. It's temporal.
With faith in Jesus, God gives you a promise for the future that is CERTAIN and EVERLASTING. "Set your minds on things above...When Christ who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory!" (v.2 ,4)
Listen to the certainty of God's promise! When Christ appears, whether it's at your death or at the last day of this earth, you will appear with him.
It doesn't say, "You might appear with him." Not, "You could possibly appear with him." Not even, "Let's Hope you appear with him." Through faith in Jesus, you will appear with Jesus. In glory!
Brothers and sisters, that's heaven. The eternal escape from the guilt of our sins, the pain of our past, and the struggles of the present life.
And heaven lasts forever! It's not your dream home that one day needs repairs. It's not your dream relationship that grows farther apart from the dream. It's not your dream job which becomes obsolete. Heaven lasts forever! It is yours through faith in your ascended Savior!
So, friends, set your heart on things above!
I have a friend named Georg that I visit on Fridays. He has been coming religiously to a Bible Study that I hold at a retirement close to this church. Afterwards, he tells a joke. We talk about politics and he appreciates the banter.
But not the other day. The other day he had a tear in his eyes. He told me it was an anniversary. The anniversary of his wife’s death.
They had been married over 60 years. He told me how much he missed her. He told me how much he loved her. He told me about what she was like.
Then….then he told me something that I will never forget.
He said, “This is why I come here. This is why I learn about Jesus. Because the only way I’ll see her again, is through Jesus.”
Talk about setting your heart on things above.
Brothers and sisters, set your heart on Jesus. Set your kids hearts on Jesus. Do it this summer when you will be pulled in hundreds of different earthly directions. Come to church. Read your Bible. Listen to devotions. Pray with your kids. Teach them about Jesus. Surround your life with the Lord. Set your heart on the One above. The One who set his heart on you.