Sermon: The Road Is Long. Like, I-80 through Iowa Long.

Sunday, May 21, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ascension Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 15:40; sermon starts around 21:46)

I spent a few days back in Chicago this past week, visiting friends. That drive out east always takes me back to the car trips my family used to take when I was a kid. My mom’s family is all from the Quad Cities area, as I’ve mentioned before, and when I was growing up, we used to go out and visit them several times a year. So I got to know that long stretch of I-80 that runs through Iowa all too well long before I lived in Chicago.

Driving that route as an adult is, of course, a lot different from experiencing it as a kid. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a long drive now – but as a kid, it seemed interminable. Those hours on the road just draaaaaagged on. And in true kid fashion, it didn’t take long for us to start asking every parent’s favorite road trip question, over and over again: Are we there yet?

It’s hard for young kids to be patient with long car trips like that. I know it was for me. It wasn’t just having to sit still for that long. It’s that I had very little concept of the trip as a whole – like, I didn’t know enough to be able to visualize a map of it in my head; I just knew that it was long. And so it was impossible to have an idea of where we were within that window of “long” other than to keep asking again and again, “Are we there yet?”

And not to infantilize the disciples – or ourselves as believers – but this is kind of the vibe of what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus sometimes. God’s behind the wheel, driving the car, while we’re sitting in the backseat, just doing our best not to murder our siblings. And like kids, we have some sense of where it is we’re going, and we’re excited to get there, but our concept of what this trip entails is limited – we can’t visualize a map of it in our heads, of where God’s going with us. All we know is that this journey is long. And so we keep asking God in prayer: “Are we there yet?”

I hear this question in the words the disciples say in our reading from Acts for today. Jesus’ disciples – and, for that matter, the whole people of Israel – have been on this divine car trip for a very long time. They have been waiting generations and generations for God’s kingdom to finally come, ushered in by the promised Messiah. So when Jesus rises from the dead, victorious even over the grave, you can almost hear them start stretching, so ready to get out of that car! The disciples come to Jesus and ask him: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words: Are we there yet?

But, to their disappointment, Jesus answers them and says: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, “No. We’re not there yet.” Instead of the good news they hoped for, Jesus’ answer sounds a bit like the divine version of, “We’ll get there when we get there” – which is what my folks always used to say when my siblings and I got antsy on long car trips. 

Jesus reassures them that things will become clearer to them. They will receive everything they need when the Holy Spirit comes. And he basically lays out for them the next stage of the journey – he shows them the map – because Jesus is about to send them out on their biggest mission yet: to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s a massive undertaking that he lays before them. And just at that moment, as the disciples are still trying to wrap their heads around the enormity of this commission he’s given them, Jesus leaves! Without warning, Jesus is taken up into heaven – mid-blessing – leaving his disciples standing on a hilltop in confusion. 

Almost nothing about this journey with Jesus has gone how the disciples expected. They had clear expectations that this was all about restoring the kingdom of Israel to its former glory – but Jesus clearly isn’t looking backward like they are. And after weathering all the emotional twists and turns of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the disciples are so in shock that the ascension of Jesus leaves them just standing dumbfounded, staring up into the sky.

But their journey doesn’t stop there. These two men in white robes suddenly appear, and they give the disciples kind of the kick in the pants they need to get going. They remind the disciples that they’ve got work to do – a whole new leg of the journey that they’re just starting.

They still have only the vaguest idea of where this journey is going. All they really know is that they aren’t there yet. And given that Jesus has charged them with spreading the good news in Judea, Samaria, and all the ends of the earth, they know it’s a pretty safe bet that this journey will be loooooong. I can only imagine how overwhelmed they must feel by the fact that Jesus has left his whole ministry in their hands. There’s now so much work to be done and so few of them to do it. 

But they begin it anyway. They don’t know yet all the steps that will need to be taken – there’s no five year plan, no comprehensive ministry growth strategy – they just start by doing the next right thing, whatever step needs to be done next. For instance, after this passage in Acts, they decide that they should bring their leadership team back up to twelve – so they talk with different folks in the community of believers and choose Mathias to replace Judas so that their number is back up to twelve. Seems like a good place to start! And after that, they go back to teaching and healing and preaching just as Jesus taught them. Gradually their numbers increase and the movement grows; they organize themselves as they go, adapting to each new stage. Over time, it becomes clear to them that, even though they may not be able to see the whole journey at a glance, when they have the courage to walk out in faith and take a step, the next step suddenly appears beyond it, and then the next step after that, and the step after that.

It’s the same with the way we follow – because it’s the same way, the way of Jesus. And in these days especially, it feels pretty impossible for us to have any overarching sense of where this journey is going. Whatever map we might have of it in our heads is full of question marks. There’s so much change happening and so quickly that it can feel sort of like God’s pulling the rug out from under us sometimes. It’s hard to trust the process and to be patient with not knowing all the steps we need to take – especially when there’s so much work to be done and always the same few, tired people to do it. We can quickly find ourselves wondering: “Seriously. Are we there yet?”

But the truth is that every journey – no matter how long it is (even I-80 through Iowa long) – has to be walked one step at a time. And as we step out in faith, with courage, I know we will find the next step waiting for us just beyond that first step – and then the next step after that and the next one after that. I know that God will faithfully meet us on the journey and guide our feet into whatever ways they need to walk.

The bad news is that literally God only knows when we’ll “get there” — when the time will be that God will restore the kingdom. But the good news is that God knows! And it’s in God’s hands. All we know is that the road ahead of us is looooong. But if we keep walking it step by step, with God’s guiding, we can trust and hope that all those steps will one day lead us rejoicing home.

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