May 17. 2015 Isaiah 64: 1-4 Acts 1: 1-5
Rev. Catherine Purves
So, there you are, sitting in your doctor’s office, in the waiting room. They know that you’re there, of course, because you signed in. But you have to wait. This waiting is no fun. You trust your doctor, you really do. You know that he has your own best interests at heart, and heaven knows he understands what’s going on inside you better than anyone else in the world. But still that waiting room is not a comfortable place to be. You never know how long you’ll have to wait. And, of course, you never know what to expect once you are finally ushered into the doctor’s presence. That could easily be a life-changing experience, so you look forward to it with a little bit of fear, some hope, and a strange combination of impatience and dread. Nobody likes being in a waiting room.
Sometimes, our experience of being in church is kind of like being in a waiting room. You’ve come here knowing that this is where you’re supposed to be. You have an appointment; it’s Sunday, after all. But often as we are sitting here waiting for God we are a bundle of mixed emotions. We may feel guilt or encouragement, hope or fear, anticipation or impatience, pain or comfort, inspiration or numbness. And in the church, as in the doctor’s office, we never know how long we will have to wait or what exactly will happen once that waiting is over. Sometimes we have to wait a long time for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we are suddenly surprised by the presence of God’s grace and power and by the abrupt acceleration of events that sweep us up into the mysterious purposes of God so that our lives are forever changed.
After the ascension of Jesus happened, 40 days after his resurrection on Easter, the disciples found themselves in a waiting room. For 40 days he taught and prepared them, convincing them of the reality of his resurrection and his ongoing life. Then suddenly he was gone. They were left on their own with just one final instruction. Luke tells us in Acts that Jesus, “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” They were told to wait, to wait for the Holy Spirit. So, they all returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they had been staying, the waiting room.
What was going on in that waiting room? Well, they certainly weren’t leafing through old magazines, fidgeting in their chairs, repeatedly checking their watches, or playing with their cell phones…or the first century equivalent of those waiting room activities. Have you ever noticed how quiet waiting rooms can be? People don’t speak with one another. They are each caught up in their own world of misery or worry, waiting for their own individual audience with the all-powerful doctor. In their heart of hearts they are alone, even if someone is there with them. Waiting rooms can do that to people. Sometimes churches can be like that too.
But that was not the kind of waiting room that the disciples were in. I imagine that there was a lot of talking, because they had a lot to talk about. What did Jesus mean when he said that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit? How could they not talk about the ascension they had just witnessed? And what would happen next? Jesus had told them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” How could that be? What was being asked of them? And when would these things happen?
They didn’t sit in that waiting room pondering those questions in toe-tapping, nail-biting silence, surely. So they were talking. Luke also tells us that in that waiting room, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” While they were waiting, they were praying with each other. And it seems reasonable to assume that instead of mindlessly turning the pages of magazines they would have been reading the Scriptures and discussing them. We are also told by Luke that in the waiting room they chose another disciple to replace Judas. So this was active waiting, purposeful waiting, corporate waiting.
On this seventh Sunday of the Easter season we are in a strange place of waiting. The resurrected Lord has gone, but the Holy Spirit has not yet come. On this Sunday, we join the disciples in their waiting room, and we can sympathize with them, because we have done a lot of waiting ourselves. Jesus often feels far away to us, and the Holy Spirit seldom shows up on demand. This church, this sanctuary sometimes feels like a waiting room. The question we must ask ourselves is how are we waiting? Is your waiting, is our waiting, active, purposeful, and corporate?
Notice that in describing our waiting I didn’t use the word patient. I don’t think that the disciples were especially patient. It fact, it seems as if yearning for the Holy Spirit is almost a prerequisite for receiving the Holy Spirit. Obviously, the disciples weren’t sitting around playing cards and saying, “Whenever…” They were praying for the Spirit; they were preparing for the Spirit; they were using this strange waiting time to grow closer to each other and to become more open to what God had in store for them. Jesus told them to wait, but he didn’t say wait patiently.
There are many biblical examples of impatient, eager, and even agitated waiting. In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet shouts out his prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” This is an urgent, impatient, even a demanding way of waiting for God to act. It is a confident waiting, because it remembers when God acted in the past in ways that were powerful, overwhelming, and awe-inspiring. This is waiting for a God who is known, but who may act in unexpected ways that will make us tremble. This is waiting for a God that we trust. So the prophet affirms, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” I wonder if the disciples might have been reading the prophet Isaiah in their waiting room as they longed and prayed for that mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
So, here we are in our waiting room. Jesus has ascended. He is now our risen and reigning Lord. But to make that more than just words, to make our faith a living reality full of purpose and power and joy, we must be blessed, we must be baptized by the Holy Spirit. This is what we are waiting for. Like the disciples we are waiting for Pentecost. Now the purpose of Pentecost was to equip the disciples for ministry. They had a story to tell, a message that had to be shared. What they didn’t have, and perhaps what we don’t have, is the Spirit’s power that would enable them to do what they had to do. This is what they were waiting for.
And this is what we are waiting for. But, again, how are we waiting? What are we doing in this waiting room? The gifts of the Spirit are not given automatically. The quality of our waiting makes a difference. God makes us wait, just as God made the disciples wait, for a reason. But we could wait indefinitely if we don’t use our time in this waiting room well.
Let’s recall again what the disciples were doing in their waiting room. They were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” This is not solo prayer, though that is also important. It is corporate, shared prayer with multiple voices, mutual listening, honest sharing, and genuine longing, even impatience. Sadly, I think, this is a rare kind of prayer. Why aren’t we doing more of it in our waiting room?
The disciples were almost certainly also reading the Scriptures together, studying the Bible, asking questions and discussing with one another what God was up to and what God was calling them to do. This search for understanding, rooted in Scripture, was deep and demanding work. It was not a private search, but a corporate commitment to try to grow together in their knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. Again, this willingness to ask the hard questions, trusting each other, and digging deep into the mysteries of the Bible is a rare thing. Why aren’t we doing more of that in our waiting room?
Finally, Luke tells us that the disciples decided that they must replace Judas with another disciple so that their number would again be twelve. While they were waiting, they tried to organize themselves for the mission that they knew they must undertake once the Spirit’s gifts were received. With an eye on the task that was before them, that is, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, they welcomed an outsider into the inner circle. Bringing others into fellowship and leadership is often not done well in the church, but it is an important waiting room activity if we are to be ready for the work that lies ahead. Why aren’t we doing more of that in our waiting room?
Praying together, studying the Scriptures, preparing for leadership – these are worthwhile, even necessary (!), waiting room activities. Our waiting for the Holy Spirit must be active, purposeful, and corporate. And it need not be patient. The Spirit is not given to those who do not yearn for the Spirit. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Let us wait for our Pentecost in the same way that the disciples waited in their waiting room. Then we can be confident that the promise of the Father will be fulfilled.