For many people, life can be a bit of a struggle. Reality at times can be too difficult to face. Yes, there are some who seem to breeze through life, apparently facing no difficulties at all. But there are others who seem to cop one thing after another—whether it’s ill health, a souring relationship, or just bill after bill—and there can seem to be no way out of the situation at all.
Because, whilst some find the difficulties of life easier to cope with, others can take them too much to heart. And, as a way of coping, some like to dream of a better life, and find themselves speculating of the possibilities of the future. Others tend to daydream, and plod along in their own time and at their own pace, somehow immersed in a whole new world of their own. And, others still don’t cope very well at all. They fill in their time speculating about why everything that could happen happens to them, what they have done to deserve it all, and what hope (or lack of it) they have for the future.
Now, sometimes we all need a bit of escapism, there are times when we all need to dream. And self-examination is important too. But to dwell on the extremes of escapism or self-analysis is not a healthy thing. It can be very helpful in those situations, then, to be faced with a good healthy dose of reality.
B. THE DISCIPLES
Now, one such group of people who’d been through a hard time, and got themselves so caught up with dreaming and speculating about the future we can read about today. They are the disciples of Jesus.
1. The Rough Patch
Now the rough patch they’d been through was the result of a number of factors. Firstly, they’d left their homes, jobs and families, to be with Jesus. They had spent two to three years following him from town to town, only to be hit with the bombshell that he was leaving. Secondly, they hadn’t done much to be proud of. Because even after Jesus had told them he was going, and why—and had made promises about sending “another counsellor” to be with them—within less than twenty-four hours they had betrayed him, denied him, or run away. And thirdly, we mustn’t forget their political and spiritual background. Politically they were Jews—a conquered people living in a land occupied by another nation. And even though spiritually they were waiting for the Messiah—someone who would establish Israel as a nation to which all other nations and peoples would be subservient—that expectation had been going for hundreds of years. And their expectation, as far as they were concerned, had still not been met.
2. The Speculation (1:6)
So, you can imagine the combination of feelings they would have felt when Jesus told them he was leaving. Because, whilst there may have been relief following the resurrection of Jesus, they would probably have been filled with confusion too. After all, he may have appeared before them several times in the previous forty days, but there was nothing very permanent about his appearances. They may have had continuing sorrow about their betrayal, denial and desertion of Jesus at his moment of greatest need—and they would have had some time to consider their mistakes—but certainly not enough time to have made them forget them. And regarding the hopes of Israel? Well, Jesus had visited them many times in the last forty days, but there were still many questions that they wanted to be answered, like: “Did his appearances mean that he had come to stay?” And, “Was he the political Messiah they were looking for?”
So, not backward in coming forward, the disciples when faced with Jesus just one more time asked the most natural question in the context of their situation: “How soon was it before the end was going to come? How soon would it be, until his kingdom would be established on earth?”
3. The Slap of Reality
And like us when we’re struggling, and when we dream, and we speculate that two and two make five—and we need that bucket of cold water thrown over us to bring us back to reality—that is exactly what happened to the disciples. Only they didn’t just get one bucket of cold water, they got three.
a) Jesus (1:7-8)
Because the first dose of reality was provided by Jesus himself. He told the disciples, in no uncertain terms, that when the kingdom would be established was God’s secret, and God’s secret only. In other words, there was no room for human speculation in that regard. On the contrary, he suggested, that instead of spending time indulging in wishful thinking or apocalyptic speculation, what they needed to do was to prepare themselves for the task ahead.
They were to be witnesses to him, telling the world what he had said and done. That is what they should have their minds on, not on dreaming of the future and speculating about what might be. Rather they needed to prepare to share their faith with the world, as they awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit who would help them in the task.
b) The Ascension (1:9)
The second dose of reality was the Ascension itself. Because the next thing that happened was that Jesus was lifted up and taken away in a cloud. Now this may have indicated the pattern for his ultimate return to earth, but for the disciples, this was a message that his continual visits had come to an end. Indeed, it indicated that there was going to be a gap between his Ascension and his Second Coming. A gap which needed to be filled with something. And that something was what Jesus had told them, a period of witness and mission by his disciples.
c) The Angels (1:10-11)
And the third dose of reality? Well as the disciples continued to stare into the sky after Jesus, longing for his reappearance or some other such spectacular event, two angels appeared and gave immediate commentary on what they had seen. And they reproached the disciples for dawdling there and for their longing for Jesus. And they told them that the time of dreaming and speculation was over, and it was now time to get on with the task that they had been given.
4. The Response of the Disciples (1:12-14)
It was quite a slap in the face that the disciples received. A wake-up call for reality. And bearing in mind what they’d been privileged to witness with Jesus—the teaching, the training, the example that Jesus had been to them, the miracles that they had witnessed, the compassion of Jesus that they had seen—in a sense, the necessity for such a slap is quite surprising.
But the disciples did get the message. And of course, the disciples went and did as they had been told. They returned to an upstairs room in a house in Jerusalem where they had established themselves, and they used the time between the Ascension and Pentecost to prepare and pray for their work of witness in the world.
5. The Result
And the disciples, broken of their unhealthy speculation of the future and being encouraged to put the past behind them, with their minds focussed very much on the job that God had given them, some ten days later, beginning at Pentecost, went out, and did what Jesus told them to do. And they were used by God to do some amazing things.
Now, it’s a fascinating story. A story of a group of people who’d been through a very rough time. But as part of their way of coping, remained stuck in their dreaming and in their speculation of the future. But they got through that, thanks to a healthy slap of reality from Jesus himself. And as a consequence, there are a number of lessons for us in this story of New Testament life.
And the first is, that when we’re feeling down and low, and when we’re going through rough times, we need to remember that we are not alone. Indeed, lots of people could equally say “Been there, done that”—the disciples included.
So, when we’re dreaming or speculating about the future, when we’ve made mistakes, or we’re punishing ourselves for the things that have happened, we can be assured that the disciples went through the same things in the period following the arrest of Jesus. Their behaviour at the time was not something to which they would have been particularly proud. They didn’t handle the situation well. And that is something we can probably all relate to.
Secondly, we need to accept that in life there will always be an element of mystery, an element of the unknown. And that’s not going to change no matter how much we want it to.
In Jesus’s words to his disciples, there was a reminder that not everything that happens—or will happen—will be explained or revealed by God during this present life. And not everything that the disciples wanted to happen was either going to happen or happen in the way they wanted either.
As a consequence, like the disciples, we might be keen to know the future. We might want to map out where we are heading and what’s in store for us in detail. We might have hopes and dreams of the way we want things to go. But the reality is, that in this life, we may never know, or experience things, the way that we want to experience them. And we can waste valuable time and energy speculating about what might be.
Yes, it may be good to have an enquiring mind. But to be consumed in trying to work out all the mysteries of life can be a pointless exercise.
So instead, thirdly, rather than live in our own world, we need to ground ourselves in reality. And in particular in the task that Jesus has given us to do.
Now Jesus, during his earthly ministry, had told the disciples many times what he expected them to do. He pulled them aside on many occasions and focussed on the preparation they needed for the time he would no longer be around. He even sent them out into the towns to help him in his ministry, but as a kind of a practice run for the future too.
So, when it comes to the matter of faith, we need to ground ourselves in the task that Jesus has given us to do too. Now Jesus’s command to his disciples was to go out and make disciples, to let people know the good news, and to teach them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It was a task the early disciples began but is still not finished. It’s a job that still has a long way to go and needs our part too—not only overseas, but in our own backyard as well.
And, fourthly, we need to accept that from time to time that we will need wake-up calls too.
Now the disciples needed more than one wake-up call to get them back on track. And my guess is that each time they received a wake-up call they modified their position—and probably then considered that they were back on track. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed, in this one story alone, they needed three such wake-up calls before they were ready to go and prepare for what Jesus had planned. And these weren’t the first wake-up calls they would have received, and they probably weren’t the last. As a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised if we need wake-up calls from time to time too.
But then isn’t that the way that many of us have experienced how God works? A wake-up call as he deals with us, one issue at a time. And as each time an issue is dealt with—or is at least well in hand—we get another wake-up call raising another issue which we may not even have known needed dealing with.
As a result of their triple reprimand, the disciples locked themselves away and prepared for the future. When given their focus, they went up to the privacy of their upper room and spent time in preparation and prayer. However, ten days later, filled with the Holy Spirit they were out and about, and telling all and sundry about Jesus.
And in this is another warning. Because so easily can an unhealthy focus on speculation or dreaming or over analysing be replaced by an unhealthily period of preparation—where the preparation never ends, and the evangelism never begins. But the disciples had ten days and ten days only, and then they were out and about sharing their faith. And that’s the kind of timetable that we need to work to too.
When life becomes a bit of a struggle, then, and we seem to have lost the plot, we have story, a true story, that should give us great hope.
It’s a story of how God took the eleven remaining disciples—disciples who were down, who had gone through a very rough patch and were beginning to get so tangled in their hopes for the future that they’d lost track of reality—and got them to face reality and get on with the job that he had given them to do.
Jesus restored the disciples to be the kind of people they were meant to be—living in this world and telling others about him. And that is exactly our task to do today. The mistakes that the disciples made, we’re probably not something of which they were proud. But to combat the dreaming and speculation of better times, they needed that slap of reality.
Now, we all make mistakes, and bad things happen to all of us from time to time—and we all have our own way of coping in such situations. But sometimes we need a slap of reality too. And for a Christian part of that slap may well be a reminder to stop dreaming, to stop speculating, and to get on with sharing the faith.
That’s certainly the lesson that the disciples learnt. But is it a lesson that we have learnt too?
Posted: 28th July 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis