“Finding a Point of Focus”
Texts: Exodus 3: 1-12
Acts 1: 6-11
By: David D. McDonald
May 24, 2020
NRSV: Exodus 3: 1-12
3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
NRSV: ACTS 1:6-14 THE ASCENSION OF JESUS
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But 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.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand 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.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
While the Presbyterian Calendar notes May 24, 2020, as the Seventh Sunday of Easter; this week in many churches is also the celebration of the Ascension. “On Ascension Day, we acknowledge that the Jesus who walks in history is the Christ who reigns in faith. He is both beyond us and above us: beyond us, in that we cannot domesticate him or limit him; above us, as the One who will be our judge in God’s time, discerning whether we have truly been faithful disciples.” (Nancy Topoleweski, modified)
The disciples were not expecting this to happen. Their focus was on the restoration of Israel to its former glory. Christ had his focus on the Kingdom. The disciples’ vision was directed in the wrong direction and was out of focus.
Recently, I was working with my table saw and was wearing hearing protectors, a dust mask and a face shield just in case shavings and wood participles were kicked up. I had to work between breaths though because every time I breathed out the face shield fogged up. Everything seemed out of focus so I had to frequently step back look up and wait until the face shield cleared.
Likewise, photography is a fascinating subject and teaches us a great deal about the world. Getting just the right picture involves so much. It is necessary to have the right angle, the correct amount of light, the proper background, and a whole host of other things, not the least of which is the necessity of having the camera in focus. It is much easier these days than it used to be. Many cameras focus themselves as long as the photographer trains the lens of the camera on the subject for a moment before taking the picture. Taking a picture while the camera and subject are moving is quite another matter.
Keeping matters in focus is important for the Christian, too! It is easy to find ourselves focusing upon the role of prayer and miss the role of Bible Study, for example. I am also reminded of a scene from summer camp when I was picking up a group of day campers and returning to the church several years ago. Usually, a couple of the parents would come along. One little boy spotted us driving up and he run to the van, gave his mother a big hug and said:
"I'm so glad to see you. I can't wait to get back into my own bed. The mosquitoes and chiggers have been gnawing on me like a dog with a bone. I have cuts and scrapes from falling down on our hike and falling out of the canoe in the lake. I caught this big catfish and he stuck me with his spine and it still hurts. This camp would be great if God would just let me make a few changes."
A second boy is talking with his friends; and hardly notices when we drive up, but he waits till they we have walked over before greeting everyone excitedly:
"Come over and meet my new friends. I never knew how much fun it was to paddle a canoe and go fishing. There is a mud slide on the upper end of the lake. We would soak it down with buckets of water, get a running start, and then just fly down it into the lake with a big splash! The lake is full of fish and we caught a bucket full every evening. Our camp counselor was the neatest guy, he took us to the camp tree house where we slept out under the stars. We even saw a raccoon take his meal down to the lake in the moonlight and wash it before eating. I never knew God made so many creatures." Scratching a few mosquito bites he added, "One day I want to ask him why he made mosquitoes."
Same camp, different boys and they respond differently. One saw mainly the unpleasant things about camp life; the other saw mainly the joy. The differences between the two points of view are largely a matter of focus and interest.
As we look at this passage from the Book of Acts we can see that even in the earliest days, sometimes the perspective of disciples was out of focus. That should be reassuring to us that when our lives seem out of focus we have the company of others. It should also serve as a humble reminder that we should constantly compare our priorities with those of our Lord, lest we allow the things of this world to distort our vision and bring life out of its proper focus.
Note how the disciples, gathered in the presence of Christ, begin to make assumptions about the Lord's agenda, before He tells them. They say to Christ:
"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
The disciples have the following facts at their disposal (a) Jesus was born in Bethlehem (b) he is of the line and lineage of David and (c) he has been raised from the dead and (d) he has come to them. They assume that the purpose of his return is to usher in the great and glorious day of the Lord when Israel shall once again hold a prominent place among the nations as a "superpower" who will mete out justice and bring evil to heel.
They are out of focus; however. Jesus is not among them to restore the Kingdom of David; he is preparing them for His departure to join the Father. This is His ascension day. The future will not be shaped by where Israel leads; rather, the future will be shaped by the coming of a kingdom in preparation. Their hope is clearly rooted in the past, but God is shaping a new and distinctive future. Jesus is there to commission them to be His witnesses. He is there to prepare them as ambassadors.
In many ways this is an old problem of God’s people, failing to listen and focus on what God was doing in their midst. It is the problem that Israel had in the days of the wilderness when she had left Egypt. There she remembered the meat and vegetables eaten in slavery and could not grasp the joy of freedom found only in walking through adversity to the promised land. It is the problem of trying to put new wine into old wine skins. It is the same problem of Lot's wife as she leaves Sodom and Gomorrah who looks backward rather then forward.
Gene Fendt published a poem on this theme in Theology Today. It is entitled "Lot's Wife" and I think eloquently makes the point:
"Sodom must not have been perfect in evil.
Not, at least to Lot's wife, who could remember
days washed in sunshine, setting the clothes
to dry on prickly pear and eucalyptus,
talking to her neighbor with the sweet
clean smell rising around them.
Quotidian work, oblivious to evil,
too ordinary to be of note
to God, or Abraham, or Lot.
Knowing that she lacked one virtue
needed for decisiveness in life:
Don't look back. The thought of what you lose
would turn anyone to stone."
That’s an ever present danger for the people of God. We easily become rigid, hard, immovable – turning to stone because we look backward more then we look forward. The scriptures declare that our hearts of stone must be broken before we can be revived into creatures living for God.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see meet a God who was not bent on restoring Israel alone; He was bent on saving creation. To look back to what had once been the glory of Israel was to miss the grandeur of what creation will become in the dawning Kingdom. God was coming to save creation. What lay before them was even more breathtaking then what had been part of their past. Their focus must change from past to future.
As the disciples stood, gazing into heaven as Jesus ascended to the Father a new day was dawning. Perhaps, for the first time, they began to see creation as it really was. Jesus was more than their friend. He was more than just another prophet or teacher or judge in the Old Testament sense; he was the Son of God. God had been with them and they had so often failed to notice. In the routine burden of every day living: the fact that this was their Father's World, slipped from focus. Their world became narrowly defined in terms of the catch of the day; the number of tents produced the health of themselves and their children, the collection of taxes, and a whole host of things - none of which are new under the sun.
What happened on Ascension Day; however, was the sudden realization that God had been with creation all along, just as Jesus had been with them since he first called them in Galilee. They stood in awe of this God who loved the world so much that he took on a human body, felt the pangs of hunger, the weariness of sleeplessness, the pain of disease, the sorrow of hatred, and the sting of death. Despite the fact that the world existed by His command; Christ loved them so much that he came to show them a better way. They would soon become better acquainted with yet another way in which God revealed himself - the Spirit. They were headed to Pentecost. These disciples would learn as we must learn to trust the Spirit of the living God.
Their focus temporarily fixed upon heaven and the reception of its Christ would return at the beckoning of two messengers from God to the world around them. The Gospel makes little to do about these men dressed in white robes. The Gospel's focus is not upon them and neither should it be on us. The angels say simply:
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand 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." Acts 1: 11.
The disciples returned to Jerusalem, confident that Jesus had not abandoned them. They returned to be the Lord's witnesses to the ends of the earth. The Spirit would be with them. What would they do in the mean time?
As the disciples returned to Jerusalem, their vision became clearer. They would gather in fellowship and they would pray. Moreover, it would seem that this devotion to matters of faith were not just "fillers" until the Lord returned. Rather, it was a preparation for the tasks ahead, a time to develop the attitude and perspective necessary to deal with this long journey that would involve much ardor, trials and tribulations. On their own they would not be ready. This time of prayer and fellowship would clarify their own thinking and provide a solid foundation for their faith.
“Dean Sager, formerly of the Washington National Cathedral, tells of a woman who brought her brownie camera to the Cathedral's Easter Morning Worship. National Geographic was featuring the Cathedral in an upcoming issue and arranged for the most modern equipment to synchronize one great electronic flash to capture the splendor of the Easter processional. The woman in the front row focused her brownie camera and clicked the shutter at precisely the instant that the synchronized flash went off with dozens of lights stationed throughout the sanctuary. She shook her camera and looked at it in disbelief, as if to say, "I didn't know I had that much power in this little camera."” Atwood, p. 70 Lent and Easter
In Vacation Bible School we often sang in days gone by …‘This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine…” The many little lights the people of God carry merge into the great light of the world. In the coming days when the disciples would face new challenges, new questions, new geography; it would not be sufficient to look only at the past - as important as it might be to know the traditions of the Fathers, and the scriptures and their interpretation. How would they include these believers from "the ends of the earth?" How would they make disciples in a new and different community that knew not Abraham or Moses, or the prophets? Often they would be foreigners - aliens. They would not know the traditions and religious practices of those they met. They would face a new and interesting challenge to introduce Jesus to those who had not met him. They would introduce Him as a good host and subject of their prayers. They would tell those who would hear why praying mattered.
They could testify that:
Jesus prayed when things became so busy that he had no time to pause.
Jesus prayed whenever illness and disease seemed to have the upper hand.
Jesus prayed when the storms rolled across the sea and lives were in peril.
Jesus prayed for his enemies.
Jesus prayed for sinners.
Jesus prayed for the dead.
Jesus prayed for himself when the cross loomed large in the darkness of Gethsemane.
Jesus prayed for the disciples who would face trials and tribulations.
Jesus prayed the Father's will be done even if that would cost him his life.
The disciples could testify that when life gets out of focus they found strength, encouragement, wisdom, and fellowship with other disciples when they prayed and studied; prayed and gathered at the table for meals. Let us do likewise!