Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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“Gazing Into the Clouds”

Text: Acts 1:1-11

Psalm 13:1-6

             The Book of Acts, from which we’ll be reading in just a moment, is actually a continuation of the narrative of Luke’s Gospel; Luke part 2 if you will. It’s been said that the Gospel of Luke is the story of the words and works of Christ, while the Book of Acts is the story of the words and works of the first generation church. Just to help us establish a connection between Luke and Acts, I’d like to read the opening four verses of Luke’s Gospel. From there, we’ll move into this morning’s primary lesson beginning with the first verse of Acts.

            (Read Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-11)   

             There are at least three things we don’t talk about often enough in the Presbyterian Church: gifts of the Holy Spirit, witnessing, and the second coming of Christ. For the most part, it’s those churches which are strongly fundamentalist or evangelical in orientation which seem to focus most sharply on these three matters of theology. In fact, there are some denominations and congregations which focus on little else. Nevertheless, as we here at Central seek to explore and understand the full breadth of the Biblical witness, we can ill afford to overlook or ignore these three important theological issues. It is significant that the first chapter of Luke’s history of the first generation church focuses on all three. And well he, and we, should as Holy Spirit, witnessing, and second coming of Christ are all foundational matters in the life and testimony of the church in every generation.

             Over twenty years ago when the Rev. Curtiss Brown preached at my installation service in Carrollton, he commented that without the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, there can be no church. I agree. If we do not consider witnessing [or if we dare use the word evangelism] the primary role of the church in the world – through both proclamation and outreach – we miss point one in our job description. And if we don’t acknowledge the hope and promise of the second coming of Christ, we don’t acknowledge the ultimate hope of the church, and the only hope for humankind’s sinful condition. Over the past few months, we’ve talked about evangelism and the Holy Spirit. This morning, we concern ourselves with Jesus’ second coming.

            I know many of us are intimidated when the subject of Jesus’ return to earth is brought up. Some of us are a little fearful of what it might be like to meet the resurrected Christ face-to-face. Others of us may feel that we’re not ready, still caught up as we are in our sin and transgression. Many are not convinced that Jesus is even coming back, at least not in the way the Bible seems to describe. Yet I believe that for the majority of us, we simply don’t understand. And nothing is more intimidating than not understanding. For a long time, that’s where I was.

            When I was in college in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, I remember attending a small church one Sunday with a Christian girl I was trying to impress. I recall that the sermon was about the second coming of Jesus. I later learned that every sermon preached in that church was about Jesus’ second coming. At any rate, after worship that morning, I was greeted by a woman who proceeded to ask me, “Are you a pre-trib, a post-trib, or an amillenialist?” Having grown up in the Presbyterian church, I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. I said the only thing which came to mind: “Ummm, I don’t know anything about that. But I’m Italian on my father’s side and Scotch-German on my mother’s.” She gave me the hairy eyeball, shook her head, and walked away. I was not invited back. I later came to learn that she was asking me whether I believed the rapture [which is the belief that true Christians will someday be whisked off the earth to heaven, leaving all the heathen to suffer a time of terrible tribulation] would take place before, after, or at the same time as the return of Jesus to earth, and the establishment of a thousand year reign of peace. Frankly, I don’t think the second coming of Christ needs to be so confusing or complicated. We need not throw around a lot of thirteen letter words in an attempt to describe precisely how and when it’s going to happen. Jesus Himself when asked stated, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” As regards Jesus’ return, we need concern ourselves only with two things: first, that Jesus is coming back, and second, what we’re to be doing in the meantime.

            The second coming of Christ is well-attested throughout Scripture. In the passage we read this morning, “two men in white robes” – messengers of God – said to the disciples after Jesus’ ascension: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,” then the strongest future form of the Greek verb eleusetai, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Quite simply, Jesus was bodily taken up into the clouds in the sight of many disciples, and will bodily return by coming down from the clouds. How this will precisely happen, none of us knows. We can only use our best imaginations, knowing that it will be an awesome sight as every disciple of Jesus, and I’m sure everyone upon the face of the earth, will see His return in glory. For we who believe, it will be the most wonderful and welcome sight of which we can even begin to dream. For those who don’t believe, I can’t say. But the words weeping and gnashing of teeth come to mind.

            Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul writes to the Thessalonian Church where some believed that maybe Jesus had already returned, and they’d missed it: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangels’ call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven….” It is something no one will possibly be able to miss, even if they wanted to.John writes in the Book of The Revelation his description of a vision he was granted: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! It’s rider is called Faithful and True….. and his name is called The Word of God….. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” There is little question as to who John was seeing in this vision.   And as Jesus Himself said to His disciples at their last supper: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” So there is solid Biblical attestation or support for Jesus’ second coming. There are different understandings of how that will be; different visions of what it will look like; a dozen theories as to when. But what is of primary importance is that we know our Lord is coming back. And that’s mighty good news in this world where things are figuratively “going to hell in a hand- basket.” Some believe that our own social engineering will ultimately allow us to put ourselves back on track. If you’re one of them, come talk to me. I believe there is a day which God has set in God’s providence when Jesus will return to set things right. I am convinced that then, and only then, will war cease, violence abate, poverty end, suffering terminate. Then, and only then, will perfect justice become more than a theory, but rather a reality. Yes, Jesus is coming back!

            So what are we to do in the meantime, while we await that day? Jesus told His disciples, and us, before He ascended: “….you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Even to the ends Massillon, Ohio.

            I wonder, though, if there are too many Christians so overly obsessed with the second coming that they fail to do much of anything while awaiting Christ’s return. They effectively sit around, gazing into the clouds, arguing about who’s right: pre-trib crowd, or post-trib gang, or amillenia- list crew, while the needs of the world knock at their gates, and go unanswered. Jesus’ clear instruction for this meanwhile is to be actively engaged in His work until He comes. We can’t, on our own, bring an end to war, or to violence, or to poverty, or to suffering. We simply can’t social engineer a remedy for every cultural and social malaise, because sin affects even our best efforts. But we can, and we must, try to do all within our human capability to relieve human ills until the One returns who can fully accomplish these things. In the words of American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, we are to try to work toward what he calls “rough justice” until Christ will ultimately bring perfect justice.

            So our words about Jesus, and our work for Jesus, are part and parcel of the witness to which He calls us until His second coming. As we live in this in-between time – between Jesus’ ascension and Jesus’ return – we’re not to sit idly by, gazing into the clouds. We’re to actively be about His ministry, witnessing that He will be back, and working toward the goals of justice and alleviation of human suffering. In time, be it tomorrow or millennia from now, Jesus will descend as He ascended to bring these goals to perfect fulfillment. So you see, the second coming of Christ need not intimidate or consume us. On the contrary, this aspect of our faith should shore us up to work in an ailing world, and give us hope that when the final act of the human drama plays out, God’s will be done. So we continue to pray in the midst of our labors, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102