“Don’t Just Stand There!”

Scripture:  Acts 1:1-11


Have you ever been so intensely focused on something while you were walking that you walked right into something?  A wall, a post, or maybe another person?  I won’t ask you raise your hands, but you know who you are.

Whether you’ve actually done it or not, you have probably seen it, at least in the movies.  It happens all the time in movies…  Hollywood seems to love the scene where a character is looking at a handsome or beautiful person, staring at them, and then does something embarrassing – like walking into a wall or a pole or tripping and falling on their face.

It’s funny when it happens in the movies, and sometimes when you see it happen to somebody else.  But if it’s ever happened to you, then you know that it’s really not so funny when it happens to you.  Trust me.  I have an amazing ability to do this when I’m a tourist in a new place.  When I visited Poland, one of the first and most important Polish words that I learned was “przepraszam,” which means “excuse me.”

Then when I was in college, I worked for the Admissions Office giving campus tours to prospective students.  I often walked backward while I gave tours, so that I could talk to the tour group as I walked along.  I remember one particularly embarrassing time when I was giving a tour of a building that had one of those metal folding gates that can be pulled across to block off a portion of the building – sometimes you see these types of things at malls.  As I walked along, talking with the group and taking all of their questions, somebody in the back kept saying, “Gate.  Gate.  GATE.”  I didn’t think a thing of it until I felt my back smack into a hard surface.  Ah.  Gate.  I get it now.

Cell phones and texting have brought distracted walkers into the news.  We all know that talking on the phone and texting is dangerous to do while driving, but being distracted while walking is becoming a major issue, as well.  In fact, I heard on the radio a while back that there are cities around the country that are trying to make it illegal to walk while texting.  Currently, careless walkers in Fort Lee, New Jersey can be cited and fined up to $85 for “Walking While Distracted.”  Delaware has taken a gentler approach, posting notices at crosswalks in some of their major cities.  The warnings read: “Look Up!  Drivers aren’t always looking for you.”

Don’t Look Up

Our passage from the book of Acts this morning has different advice for distracted disciples.  After seeing Jesus disappear in a cloud, the disciples were left in awe and wonder as they stood and gazed up toward heaven.  While they were still looking up – probably with their jaws still dropped – two men in white robes, who we can assume are probably angels, stood with the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you just stand there looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This advice from the angels strikes me as strange and a bit convoluted.  They say, “Don’t look up,” but then proceed to tell the disciples that Jesus “will come [back] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  So, shouldn’t we have our eyes firmly fixed on the last place we saw Jesus??  After all, isn’t it true that what goes up must come down?  Jesus went up, so surely he’s up there, and when he comes again it will be from heaven, right?  Resisting the urge to look up for Jesus in the same place that we saw him go up – and where he will apparently come back down – seems like poor advice.  Of course they want to watch and wait!  Besides, Jesus had disappeared and come back once before, and they missed it that first time, so you can bet that they’re not going to let that happen again!

Yet…  The angels said to the disciples, “Don’t just stand there!  Don’t just look up!”  Essentially, the words of the angels and of Jesus himself tell the disciples to not linger on Jesus’ ascending to heaven.  Don’t worry – he’ll be back, when the time is right…  But don’t let the expectation of his return completely rule your thoughts and paralyze your actions.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Heaven is wonderful.  We need heaven, there’s a need for holiness and beauty and purity and radiance, all the things we hope for in the promise of heaven.  Jesus promises the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and we celebrate and look forward to that reality.  But the big problem with constantly looking longingly up to heaven is that you miss seeing the world around you – the places, the experiences, and the people – where and in whom we find the continued presence of Christ.  If we are completely fixed upon the Kingdom of God which is to come, we miss out on the part of the Kingdom of God which is here now.

If Not Up, Then Where?

So, if we aren’t supposed to look up, then where are we supposed to look?  Unfortunately, the angels don’t directly address that question.  But the most apparent answer based on Jesus’ ministry and teachings is that we are supposed to look around us.  We are supposed to look at the world in which we live.  To look at our neighbors.  We look at the Church, and the places where we are called to be in active service to Christ through the ways that we interact with our world and its people.  When we look for the presence of Christ, who has ascended to heaven, we look not only to heaven, but we also look all around us.

At the end of seminary, I created a project for my Senior Seminar class called “Holy Places and Sacred Spaces.”  I wanted to know the physical locations where people looked for and experienced the presence of God…  So I interviewed a bunch of people.  The first question that I asked was, “Where have you experienced God in a specific location or place?”  My second question was, “How did you experience God in that place?”  I ended up getting responses from about 20 people, which gave me the chance to visit and photograph 18 different locations that were identified as Holy Places and Sacred Spaces.

Some of the responses weren’t too surprising.  The sanctuary at church.  Church Camp.  A local monastery.  But others were more surprising, places where you would only notice the presence of God if you were really looking for it.  Where you have to be keeping an eye out if you’re going to catch a glimpse of God.  Cherokee Park.  A cemetery.  Lying in bed, not being able to sleep because of pain or worry.  A veterinary clinic, where a beloved pet was put to sleep.  Downtown Louisville at a particular, major intersection, right in the heart of the hustle and bustle of a big city.  To find God in these places, you have to be willing to look around.

Locations have always been important to the ways in which humans experience God.  In the Old Testament, there were many places where God and humans interacted with one another.  One of the traditions was to build a pillar out of rocks, called an “ebenezer,” which means “stone of help” in Hebrew, to mark the particular place where one has an extraordinary encounter with God.

One such instance is in the 28th chapter of Genesis, immediately after Jacob dreams of a ladder or staircase that connects earth to heaven.  After Jacob wakes up, Genesis reads, Jacob “thought to himself, ‘The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.’  He was terrified and thought, ‘This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the very entrance to heaven.’ After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that holy place Beth’el, which means “House of God.”

Locations are important to our experience of the presence of God…  But our experiences of God aren’t just about the places where they happen; they’re also about what happens at those places.  When people shared their holy places with me, they also shared their reflections about why they were sacred spaces.  There are some wonderful, personal, intense experiences of God’s presence that people shared in those interviews. By doing that project, I really learned that locations can only become holy places and sacred spaces when they allow us to look around in order to look up, when they provide a unique opportunity to experience and interact with the presence of God.

Experiencing the Presence of Christ

We know that the presence of Christ is an awesome mystery, simultaneously elusive and constant, hidden but in plain sight.  The presence of Christ comes about in different physical locations, but also – and especially - through our engagement of the people, the moments, and the opportunities in our lives.  Through Christ, the ordinary things in our world become extraordinary.  The mundane becomes holy.

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus tells his disciples that, “Wherever two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.”  We experience the reality of this promise as we gather each week for worship and fellowship, trusting that Christ is here and present with us.  When we include others in the life of the Church, we also include them in the Body of Christ.  As the Body of Christ, we put the message of the Gospel into our own words and actions, serving as the hands and feet of Christ.

Matthew’s gospel also tells us that we encounter Christ every time we encounter individuals who are hungry, thirsty, sick, in need of clothes, and strangers in unfamiliar places.  Jesus tells us that any time we serve one of “the least of these” we also serve Jesus himself.  Sometimes that seems like an overwhelming responsibility, but it is also an amazing opportunity to interact with the presence of Christ by being present with people who are hurting, suffering, and in need of love, compassion, and hospitality.

When we restrict ourselves to only seeking Christ by looking up, we are prone to stumbling.  It is only when we stop looking up and we stop being distracted by our longing for the future, that we can look around us, live in the present moment, and allow Christ to be made known to us.