Not doing nothing – Waiting
“Men of Galilee why stand there looking up into the sky? This Jesus who was taken from you up to heaven will come again in the same way as you have seen him go.”
There’s an odd pause in the Church year. We reach the climax (which we don’t actually celebrate because it happens on a Thursday) of the Easter season, Ascension. The 40 days of the risen Christ with his disciples is completed with the final underlining of who Jesus is as he is lifted up and hidden in a cloud. This is the final sign that death has no more power over Jesus. And it is the conclusive declaration of his status alongside God. Then at Pentecost the disciples are filled the Holy Spirit and launched into the world as the Church. In between there are ten days including this Sunday, an odd pause
Our approach to life is very much one of wanting to get on with things. We approve of people who get stuck right in. In many professions, not least in ministry, there is no end of advice about time management. There are endless instructions and plans and schemes to enable us to make best use of every moment, how not to leave any “odd pauses”. But I’m reminded of a story I was told about a group of Jamaican builders. They had just laid the concrete of the floor to the new church building at Steer Town on the north coast of the island. And they were stood and sat around the site as the concrete set and cured. It was was at this moment that the American pastor of the Church who had paid for the concrete arrived. He saw them apparently idle and asked why it was that they were doing nothing. The builders replied “We’re not doing nothing, Parson – we’re waiting.”
The disciples themselves in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection at first seemed to have expected instant results:
“Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“The Messiah has come God has intervened in a decisive way. God has acted in the way we always knew he would. So why isn’t the world the way we expect it to be?” This is no less an acute question for us as it was for the disciples. If what we know to be true about Jesus and God is true, then why hasn’t the world “got it”? And why are war, and famine, and poverty, and catastrophe, and pandemic, and suffering, and empty churches allowed to continue? When we look out on the world and see that it isn’t the way God intended, or rather the way we’d like it, the real temptation is to rush out an try and deal with it. “Something must be done.” The history of the world is a sorry catalogue of people rightly recognising that the world isn’t and then setting about “fixing” In the Church we look at our empty pews and set off in repeated desperate attempts, schemes and projects to fill them again. “We’re not doing nothing – we’re doing something anything!”
Of course we’re not so powerful or so confident now to think we can change the world. Or even fix the Church. “Is this the time?” the disciples ask. Or some other time? When can we expect it? This year or next year, in this generation or the next? After so much time, we are actually more likely to give up trying and worry instead. We count our members obsessively. We add up how many have turned up to worship, how many bums are on our seats. We examine our decline in minutest detail. And can predict the final demise of our churches and of our church when our numbers reach zero. We foresee a moment in ten, or fifteen or however many years when there will be nobody left to count. Or we can cling to the faint glimmers of hope. We reassure ourselves that here and there there are some growing churches. Or take a little comfort that the slope of the declining graph is shallowing. Some might even look at the world and read the signs of the times. Some see those wars and hear the rumours of war, the famines and the tribulation, even a pandemic, and declare as some in every generation of Christians have – “In this generation. . . . . . ” “We’re not doing nothing – we’re speculating – idly.”
But the disciples have seen Jesus taken into heaven. The cloud, the drama, the nearness of God. And not for the first time they cannot leave the scene of their religious experience. They wanted to remain captivated by and captive to it for ever. My principle in theological college told what amounted to a tragic story. Very early in his ministry, in one of his first pastoral visits, he called on one of the most longstanding members of his congregation. While he was there the elderly gentleman was instructed by his wife, “Why don’t you get your ‘experience’ out to show the minister?” The family Bible was retrieved and from it was taken a yellowing folded piece of paper It was an account of a religious experience the man had had more than forty years earlier. A description of that experience had been committed to paper and ever since remained folded away, safely out of sight, between the pages of the family Bible. If ever we do get to the mountain top or to the the scene of some as dramatic as the ascension, the dreadful temptation is to try and stay there. “We’re not doing nothing – we’re day-dreaming.”
There is a layer in the geological record of the earth’s crust. It is a very narrow band of rocks called the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. It is the record of the moment when the age of dinosaurs came to an end, and the age which eventually includes us began. This reading from Acts is similarly the deposit of a very brief moment between ages. When the age of Revelation came to an end and the age of Witness began.
Concrete of course needs time to set. The chemicals present in the concrete need time to react to make concrete concrete. It needs, a relatively narrow band of time, to cure. The disciples returned to their upper room. In a moment of uncertainty between the ages, they needed one another more than ever:
All of these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. . .
God will not be held to anybody’s timetable – God is God and not accountable Christ will return – as indeed he left – but that will be at a time of God’s choosing The world will be restored, not according to our preferences, but according to the fullness of God’s justice and love. And the whole of creation will be filled with the praise of God, more than could fill any and every Church. That is the Good News and that and noting else is what we will be given the means to witness to. Accepting our human limitations, that we cannot fix the world, we cannot hold onto the reality of God is at the same time accepting our human calling, to patiently make God known in the world. “We’re not doing nothing – we’re waiting – on God.”
Thanks once again to Sylvia Fairbrass, this time for the photograph of her arrangement for the Ascension which is at the start of this post. She says it includes Solomon seal, lily of the valley and hawthorn and, “This is also my tribute to all the Covid 19 victims and their families who could not hold a church service. May they also enter into Gods eternal rest.”
Not Doing Nothing – Waiting by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.