Think back, if you can, into the past. Not the far past, just two weeks ago today. It was Sunday evening, around 8:00 or 9:00, just after dark, and the sky began to flicker. There was a strange kind of lightning, at least in my neighborhood, that didn’t have a lot of thunder to go with it, but that kept flickering on and off behind the clouds. Occasionally there was a bolt that shot down to the ground or more often from one cloud to another. Mostly the sky just lit up and went dark, over and over and over again, like somebody was flipping a light switch on and off. All of this continued for well over an hour.
I sat there watching it. I was waiting for it to get closer or move further away, but the storm system seemed to have stalled. I was waiting for thunder, but it never really went above a low rumble. I was waiting for the first raindrops to pound down onto the roof, but they never came. Yet for those couple of hours, I was sure that something was going to happen.
Think back, if you can, to a summer right after you graduated from high school. Maybe you would be going to college in the fall. Maybe you had a brief period before you started your first full-time job. Maybe you had a week or two or even a month before entering the military. Remember, if you can, the strange period where something was getting ready to happen but it was not quite underway.
Remember, if you will, some crucial point in your life when you were balanced precariously between what was and what could be. Think of a time when you were eager to move forward with something but you had to wait, not like waiting for Christmas morning or a birthday, wonderful days that come and then go, but waiting for something you aren’t even quite sure about that will be less of a single event than a life-change.
Robert Graves, the British poet, put a poem called “Leaving the Rest Unsaid” at the end of his selection of his best work. It says,
“Finis, apparent on an earlier page,
With fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?
Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.
Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?
But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.
So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing,
At a careless comma,”
That’s where Jesus left the disciples when he ascended into heaven, telling them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit showed up. He left them like runners at the starting block in the moment between, “Ready! Set!” and…
They didn’t know what to expect. They only knew to expect something. That kind of leaves you on edge, doesn’t it?
The thing is, that you know something is to follow. You might feel it as a kind of dread, you might feel it as a kind of hope, but you feel it. You’re right there at the top of the first hill on the roller coaster and you see nothing ahead of you but sky and maybe you hear the sudden screams of the people in the third car ahead of you.
The Holy Spirit would come to those disciples. We’ll hear about that again next week, as we always do on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit would come and everyone would be off and running and lives would change in a whirlwind of miracles and wonders, and there would be discussions and arguments about what was happening and why and how to handle it. Generations would pass until people began to make any sense out of what it meant for the Spirit of God to be poured out on Jesus’ followers.
“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” [Acts 1:4-5]
In the narrow time between Jesus’ ascension and that day, they did stay put. They did what they knew how to do. They chose a man named Matthias to take the place of Judas [Acts 1:15-26]. They didn’t rush things, but waited to see what God would do.
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” [Acts 1:14]
We all need those times, as much as we like to get on with things. Maybe it’s because we prefer to get on with things that periods of waiting and reflection are so important. We build Advent and Lent into the church year so that we get the full impact of Christmas and Easter, and I’ve noticed that folks who take those periods seriously are generally those who experience their joy most deeply. We have long engagements not just so that couples can spend more time sampling cake and rewriting guest lists but more importantly so that the realities and fears that can and should be part of something as serious as taking wedding vows can sink in. It’s not always possible, but it’s a wonderful thing when somebody making a major decision about the direction of their life can take either a regular block of time out of each day for awhile or maybe a few days entirely to think and pray about what they should do. Stay in Jerusalem, as it were, stay in your life as you know it, and pray until you get the word, whatever that word turns out to be. If you are serious about your prayer life, you will hear. If you let other concerns, including your own plans or your own thoughts even, interfere, then when God speaks, you might not be listening.
God does speak, after all. What God says, quite often, is “On your mark! Get set!”