Life and the world can often feel up and down. Prices are up, spirits are down. Interest rates are up to try to keep inflation down. We can be happy one minute and weeping the next. In our Gospels since Easter there have been many ups and downs. Jesus was lifted up onto the donkey and hailed as a hero. Next he was beaten down and lifted up onto the cross. To be brought down and put into the tomb. We are told he descended to the dead and rose again on the third day. According to the end of some of the Gospels and the opening verses of Acts, Jesus has been travelling around in human form meeting and eating with people. Seemingly appearing and disappearing at will.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension was the final act of Jesus’ ministry on earth, his return to heaven. Jesus ascending into heaven has been depicted in many pieces of art – often with his dangling feet at the centre while a crowd of baffled onlookers look up. Many poets have tried to capture the meaning and feeling of this rather odd event.
Jesus made it as clear as he could that he was going up to be with God in heaven and would send down the Holy Spirit; the Counsellor to be with us always.
One cannot help but to think about his disciples. Poor men! They had been through so much in the last few weeks! The Bible is not clear exactly how long it was between the resurrection and ascension. The Church year says a few weeks. However long it was, the disciples are imagining that life might go back to the way it was, only better. They ask Jesus, in verse 6 of Acts: ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
They seem to have gone back to old assumptions that Jesus was going to kick out the Romans and set up a new Jewish kingdom and they would be part of the ruling party. Yes! However, in the next moment, they realise that is not what is happening. Jesus is not staying with them as he was ‘lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.’
Maybe to the disciples the dream really was over. Jesus refused to tell them what was going on. Instead he left them with a job to do; to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It is worth giving some thought to what the walk to Jerusalem would have been like for them. Acts does not give away any emotion or descriptions. They watched Jesus go up and now they are left feeling down.
The disciples were left, however, with two valuable lessons after all they have been through. The need to stick together and the need to pray.
When they returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they were staying, they prayed together. No one wandered off to do his own thing. They still needed to be unified. We need to remember and remain rooted in Jesus and to each other. We can desire to go our own way when uncertainty comes, when the ups and down of life get too much. As churches it can be tempting to flop back into our tribes and carry on as we scrabble for something that looks like the normal we once knew. I know there is a desire to ‘go back to the way things were’ – but friends we are not. Nothing in the world is. This is not all bad!
The second lesson was about prayer. Jesus prayed. Jesus prays.
In John 17, after washing the disciples feet and before his arrest, Jesus prayed. He spent the last few precious hours of his life praying. For the disciples and for us. He continues to pray for us. In the Acts and Gospel readings this morning we see examples of how the Apostles prayed in the early church and how Jesus prayed just before his death.
I am making some assumptions here that I assume are right: first is that you do in fact pray. Secondly that you do think about prayer and praying. I think that this is an important question to ask ourselves this morning.
What do you think you are doing when you pray?
Are we telling God what to do?
Giving him information about a situation, a person or ourselves – information that he already knows and then offering suggestions on what the Almighty might like to do about it?
Are we presenting a laundry list of ills and complaints?
Are we praising and thanking?
Are we pleading and begging?
What do you think you are doing?
I suspect it is a combination of all the above things! God knows everyone’s heart. Every thought, the deepest secrets and hurts, the highest highs and joys, He knows every crack and break. God knows before we even utter a word from our mouths what the condition of our hearts are. There is no fooling him!
Do you expect an answer? I do not think I could pray with no expectation that God is going to do something. I have to be willing to wait and trust. Wait to see what the answer is and not rush off in fear that I won’t get what I want or worse, no answer at all. I also have to trust that even if I don’t see a clear answer (ie: voice from heaven, message written in the clouds) that God has heard my prayer and will do as He sees fit. Even if – even if – I don’t get the answer that I want.
Jesus is also praying for some very specific things for the disciples with the underlying message of unity in God and Jesus. We are all bound together in love.
Helpfully, if we find ourselves stuck on what to pray for, Jesus also gives us some ideas. In John, verse 12 he talks about protection. Jesus asks God to protect the disciples with the same power that God has already given to Jesus. This is what ‘in your name’ means. He guarded them while he was with them. Jesus has been utterly faithful to the task assigned to him: to keep and protect those God has given to him.
This is an important thing to do for those given to our care; pray for God’s protection on them. Not only from physical dangers, illness and all the other bad things that can happen. But they will stay under the spiritual protection of God that comes from staying close to Jesus.
The next thing that Jesus prays for is joy; this means rejoicing, celebrating, enjoyment, bliss. So often our joy in a worldly sense is never quite complete. It is only in Jesus that our joy will ever be complete. It is only the love of God that brings us joy, brings us salvation.
Thirdly, Jesus prayed that the disciples would know the truth and be sanctified by it. Sanctify here means to be set apart for God and God’s purposes alone. It does not mean that someone is better than anyone else, but they are different. Jesus is praying that the disciples will be set apart to do only what God wants them to do. Jesus was sanctified, set apart by God to fulfil his purposes.
For us, we can pray that our people will know the truth of God and go into the world to live and share it.
Of course there are many more ways and things to pray about for those we are called to pray for. I think that protection, joy and truth are very good places to start. Remember that He knows the condition of our hearts. We also need time and preparation for the answer even if it seems hard. God is faithful!
Jesus sets an example of how and what to pray as He prayed for his disciples right before his death. He prayed for protection, joy and truth.
Leave some space for you to think about the people who know and love who could use protection, joy and truth today.