Today I want you to imagine little Matthew Sturtevant in Sunday school in 4th grade. There I was, with my Mark Hamill haircut, looking up at this big poster of all of the books in the Bible. Many of you will remember the poster I am talking about. It was a poster of a bookshelf with all the books of the Bible in order, divided into various sections. The first five books in the Old Testament were the Law…the first four in the New Testament the Gospels. But then afterwards – in both testaments – came a section called history. And for a kid who was a bit of a history geek, I was fascinated to look up and read what the Bible included by way of history. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles. In the New Testament, there was only one History book: Acts. And in both Testaments, they were filled with amazing stories – Samson, David, Elijah, Peter, Paul. Stories of battles and alliances, of terrifying and fascinating history.
This morning, if you were to walk into the 4th grade Sunday school class, do you know what you would see? A poster on the wall with all of the books of the Bible in order. Set up like they are on a bookshelf, divided into sections.
It might be that the only thing that hasn’t changed in the church is that poster!
Oh, how the church has changed in the last thirty years! Back in the 50’s and 60’s, the Church was a significant player in culture throughout the country – North, South, Urban, Rural. The Church was literally in the center of town, clergy were the most respected voices in the community, and religious practice was the expectation of every member of society. Even through the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s, the influence of the Church was pretty significant. It was rare to find someone who didn’t go to church, or was at least connected to a church.
How things have changed. Now, how many of you have ever had soccer games scheduled on Sunday mornings? How many of you in your businesses offer a “preacher discount” for the most revered members of our community? Especially younger people – under 25 or so – how many of you simply assume that every one of your friends will be in church on a Sunday?
We in the church are simply not the center of the universe in the ways that we once were.
And we may not be again, at least not anytime soon. Jeff Woods, who is an ABC-USA staff member at the denominational level, spoke at Central a few days ago, and shared a startling statement. He serves as a consultant to churches and regions, and sees all kinds of healthy, as well as unhealthy churches, around the country. And he reported that he will often hear people say, “we need to keep the church going.” When he hears that, his immediate conclusion is that that church will not survive for long. And he is usually right.
Because those who want to go back in history will usually find that that church simply doesn’t exist anymore. And there is no point in trying to go back. Of course, we can stick our heads in the sand a little while longer, but we will simply not be able to really return to the Golden Years, no matter how much we wish we could.
But, of course, we are not the first people ever to struggle with the desire to return to the Golden Years. We, of course, are not an oppressed people; we have only lost some of our overwhelming majority status. But the people of God during the time of Acts were truly an oppressed people. They were struggling with questions of influence, of greatness, of power, of prestige. Of course, the first Christians were all converted Jews. And they lived under the influence of a cultural power that did not respect or grant much authority to their faith – the Roman Empire. The Jewish people resented and hated the Jewish control over their lives. They wanted to return to the power that they once knew. They yearned for the years of King David and King Solomon. Of the majesty of the Temple and the Royal Palace and the power and prestige of the Golden Years. Even more so than that fourth grade kid, they deeply yearned for their history to return.
Even in today’s passage, we hear the people yearning to go back to that time. Jesus has been resurrected, and for many Jews, their expectation is that he will storm back into power and wrest control from the Romans: “is this the time that Israel will be redeemed?” they ask. They were dreaming of Jesus as a new David, a new King to take over and defeat the enemy and assure that they will be in charge of their own faith and culture and society. They yearned to be the center of the universe once again.
But I have to think that when Jesus heard this, his shoulders dipped a bit. Because he had been trying to explain throughout his ministry that the center of the universe dream really was a fallacy. In fact, it had been, even during the so-called Golden Years. We see it in Joshua and Judges and Samuel and Kings. The yearning for political power and cultural relevance leads God’s people to forgo their allegiance and life of submission to God. They ask this same question in a hundred different ways: “is it time, God, for Israel to get what we deserve?”
But then every time they align themselves with a foreign power, or worship a foreign god, or borrow the foreign philosophies of power and war and authority, they end up defeated and wishing they hadn’t. Samuel tells the people not to get a king, because kings are more trouble than they are worth. Elijah tells them not to worship the Baals and obey Ahab and Jezabel, even though the most powerful leaders in the region. Jeremiah tells them not to align themselves with the Babylonians, because God will redeem them if they are just patient.
But every time, the people of God say, “is it time? Is it time for us to be in charge now?” Just like they were still asking in Acts. Just like many of us are still asking today, wishing to go back to the Golden Years when people asked the Church for our opinion, and checked with us about our schedule, and listened to us about the way the world worked.
But go back and look at how Jesus responded to their yearning. He doesn’t rail against them, or yell at them for missing the point. Because part of the reality is that they are right…Israel will indeed be redeemed. Just not in the way that they expect. Not Israel alone. But Jerusalem…Judea and Samaria…the ends of the earth. It’s not just about recreating the good old days for a few. It is about redemption for all. So Jesus tells them simply, “you are asking the wrong question.” And goes on to clarify his mission for them, one last time.
His mission was not about worldly power. It was not about cultural influence. It was not about going back to the time of David. It was not about going back to the good old days.
The right question is not “when will the Kingdom start?” The right question is “where is the Kingdom now?” Because the Kingdom of God, taught Jesus, is not about who is King or who has the bigger army or who is more culturally relevant. The Kingdom of God is above and beyond politics and earthly power. It is about God’s Eternal Reign – that began before time and will continue beyond time itself. It is a story of grace that is above and beyond our finite understanding of history, even above and beyond time itself. When we talk about history in the Bible, what we are actually talking about is the God who undergirds all of history and is in fact beyond all of history. God’s people receive power when and only when they abandon the effort to wrest it from others and instead look to the ways that God’s power is already active beneath and within their lives!
In Kentucky, where I lived for several years, there are a lot of underground rivers. These rivers run for miles and miles, but you don’t always see them. Occasionally they will emerge to be visible for a few miles, and then return back underground. The water that we see in these visible stretches has come hidden from upstream and heads hidden again downstream. And every once and a while, the river will continue to erode the earth above until a sinkhole opens up and the river has a new place to be revealed. But whether or not we can see it, the river is there, feeding the ground the bringing about lush vegetation above.
The Bible tells us that this is the way that God exists in history. God is always there. There are times when the power and majesty of God is more evident, and the stories of Scripture tell of these moments. But regardless of whether we see it, the power of God is always there. Like a never-ending stream. So we speak of an event in Scripture that took place in history, but the Biblical story is that that event is merely a part of a story grander than we can imagine. That’s what the real and unending story of the grace of God is all about. Present in the stories of Gideon and the Judges. Of David and the Kings. Of Peter and Paul and the disciples.
So the whole of Scripture is a grand narrative story of the way that God underlies and sustains the entirety of the universe. But Scripture is just a part of the story. It demonstrates that God has been at work throughout the whole of our history, and is at work even in this moment. The good news of Scripture is the good news for us today, as well! The promise of Acts is that the Holy Spirit is still in-breaking into our world, demonstrating power and grace. But it is not just with one extended family, Jesus assures them, but to all peoples, to the end of the earth.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that our lives are caught up in a story even grander than we can imagine. We are a part of the same grand narrative that Scripture tells of. And God is breaking into our stories, just like God breaks into the history of the Bible. Whenever the Kingdom of God happens, Jesus tells us, it happens because God is breaking into our world, not because we have tried to make ourselves the center of the universe. Moltmann explains that Jesus has come from this beyond, and in the verses after this passage, in the Ascension, he is returning to that beyond. The entire revelation of Christ is, of course, the primary example of God’s inbreaking into history. But with the coming of the Spirit, that inbreaking echoes and continues today!
So, what does Jesus tell us is our role in that breaking in? “You will be my witnesses.” It is not our task to overpower or control our history, but to witness to the breaking in of God to our history. It is our task to explain to the world that this reality is not the ultimate reality. Every time we see the Kingdom – whenever we see someone making peace, being meek, reconciling to God and one another, forgiving an enemy, loving a neighbor, trusting in God and not the power and principalities. When we see these in-breakings happening, we witness to them…we point to them…and say this is evidence of the Kingdom!
How many of you have seen the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? It is an old Stephen Spielberg movie, back in the late 70’s and it tells the story of a man named Roy Neary who believes that he was visited by aliens. One night, he thought saw a UFO, and it forever changed his life. He changed his whole life because of it. No one believed him, but he was absolutely convinced, obsessed even. Eventually, this obsession cost him his job, his family, and everything stable in his life. There is a moment in the film when he is trying to figure out what to do and where to go to meet the aliens again. He is molding his mashed potatoes in an odd shape while his family looks on in horror. He tells them, “This means something. This is important.” He was convinced that there was this other world out there and the everyday world around him paled in comparison. How could he go on pretending that all of this mattered, when what mattered was above and beyond what he could see? Of course, in the magic of Stephen Spielberg, at the end of the movie, it turns out that he was right all along! He had indeed seen aliens and the world that he imagined was out there was the ultimate reality. At the end of the movie, the aliens come to earth and he meets them at the end of the movie.
That’s what it’s like to live in our world, but be witnesses to the Kingdom. We are not the center of the universe. We never really were. But we know the one who is! We are saved and loved by the One who is at the center of the universe. We are transformed and changed by the One who is at the center of the universe. And we are called to witness to our experience with the One who is at the center of the universe! We are called to not by into the reality that we see around us, but to witness to the One who is beyond that reality. To open our eyes to God in the world around us, to point and say, “This means something! This is important!”