June 5, 2011
Rev. Suzanne Gorhau
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? The disciples weren't
the only ones asking questions like that. When is something important going to happen? The
disciples wanted to know when Israel was going to be restored. We have other questions.
Harold Camping wanted to know when the world was going to end. Did you hear any of the
press leading up to May 21? Did you see any of the billboards?
(picture of billboard)
Harold Camping is an 89-year old multimillionaire who runs one of the largest Christian radio
networks in the world called Family Radio. Camping predicted that the rapture would occur at
6pm on May 21. Hundreds of his followers quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and spent the
weeks ahead of May 21 passing out tracks and putting up billboards. When May 21 passed and
nothing happened, Camping was astonished, although he believes the world will still end on
October 21. This isn't the first time Camping predicted the end of the world. He also thought it
would end in 1994. Lots of other people have made predictions about the end of the world. Hal
Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth made a splash in the 70s, and the Left Behind books
continue to be popular in our day.
It's not just religious people who predict the end of the world. December 21, 2012 has
gotten press lately because it's the end of a 5,125 year cycle in the Mayan calendar. One
interpretation is that the earth is going to experience a positive physical or spiritual
transformation and 2012 will be the beginning of a new era. There are other not-so-positive
predictions, too, that we'll collide with a black hole or a passing planet. One of the most popular
movies last year was 2012, about the end of the world. But I don't think we have to worry too
much. Most scholars from various disciplines have dismissed these ideas. And neither Mayan
scholars nor modern Mayan people consider December 21, 2012 significant.
Why do people continue to predict the exact time of the end of the world even though
every single one of them have been proven wrong? As you can imagine, there's been lots of
speculation online about it. Some say it's a need for control. Others say it's a desire for publicity.
I don't think that was the case with Harold Camping. I think he was genuinely flabbergasted
when it didn't happen. And I think he and followers really did want people to be prepared. Some
think it's a desire for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished. I think that one of the
reasons we get caught up in end-time predictions is because at the heart is the question,
“When?” We want to know when. I think that's the second most-asked question we ask, the first
The book of Acts is the continuation of the story in the Gospel of Luke. In the end of Luke
and beginning of Acts, we hear about Jesus' appearances to his disciples. The last time that
Jesus appeared to his disciples, they asked him a question, a “when” question, the question
they'd been asking all along. This was their last chance for an answer. Lord, is this the time
when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? What does that mean? The Jews were oppressed
people. They wanted the Romans to leave and Israel to become a great nation again, like it was
under King David. All along they thought the Messiah was going to restore Israel politically. So
they had one last chance to ask Jesus, is now the time?
How does Jesus answer? It's not for you to know the times or periods that the Father
has set by his own authority. He said something similar in the gospel of Matthew, when he was
talking about when heaven and earth will pass away, About that day and hour no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. This is my favorite billboard in
response to the end of the world prediction.
(picture of billboard 2)
If the angels don't know, if Jesus himself doesn't know, I think it's a little arrogant for us to
think that we know when the world is going to end. I understand why the disciples asked. I
understand why Harold Camping and others are so fascinated with the end of the world. It's the
desire to know when things will get better. We're filled with those questions, too. When will I
finally get a job? When will the economy improve? When will I find the right person to marry or
be able to have a baby? When will I recover from my illness? When will the depression go
away? When will my children start making better choices? I know those questions burn in our
hearts, and sometimes all we can do is to pray, over and over, “When, God, when?” But it's kind
of like children asking, “Are we there yet?” on a long car trip. How do you respond when your
kids keep asking that question? How do you think God responds to us?
When the disciples asked if this was the time Jesus would restore the kingdom, he said,
“You're asking the wrong question. Right now I want you to go back to Jerusalem and wait. Wait
for the Holy Spirit.” They did. After Jesus had ascended to heaven, they went back to
Jerusalem, gathered together in the upper room, prayed, and waited for the Holy Spirit.
I think that's significant, because I think that's what our church is being called to do right
now. Wait and pray for the Holy Spirit. Recently I read someone say he thinks conservative
churches have more prayer meetings, and liberal churches have more committee meetings. You
know, I think that's true. We want to help people, so we organize committee meetings to figure
out what to do. But maybe instead of trying to figure out what we should do, we need to pray
and wait for the Holy Spirit. We can't accomplish much without the Spirit, but with the power of
the Spirit, we can do miraculous things.
A couple weeks ago I emailed my pastor friend Sarah. She's the pastor of my home
church in Omaha. I told her about some of the struggles about how to help people that I shared
with you in last week's sermon. She told me what's been going on in her life and in the church.
She's an activist at heart, passionate about mission. But in the last couple years at her church
the focus hasn't been on doing mission. The focus has been on what feels like “doing nothing.”
She says, “In my lazy world, I just try to remember to pray. Seek God. Wait. Discern.” You see,
we've been trained so thoroughly that doing ministry means doing something, anything, that
when we're being led to stop and pray, like Sarah and her church, then it feels like we're doing
nothing. But in reality, we're doing the most important thing we can be doing.
Sarah says that slowly their mission has been changing, or she's seeing it in a new light.
She sees their mission as worship, and inner healing, and hospitality, and rebuilding their inner
community for a time. And then perhaps God will send them out again. She says, “Lately I've
been thinking about how mission finds us. If we're prayerful, but not forcing mission to happen,
we'll recognize mission when it finds us.”
And it has. They got a new member, Jonathan, who works at the Open Door Mission in
Omaha. The Open Door Mission is a shelter for homeless families. It's been around for years,
but it's never been a project of that church. But because of Jonathan, the Open Door Mission
started to become part of their ministry. And then Jonathan brought a couple of the men from
the Open Door Mission who also became members. One of them was just asked to be a
deacon. When we pray and wait for the Holy Spirit, what we're supposed to do finds us.
Now let me share with you one of my favorite stories from Unbinding the Gospel, the
book about evangelism that we're going to be reading together as a church in the fall. Author
Martha Grace Reese tells about Benton Street Christian Church, a solid, healthy congregation
that's been growing steadily for a number of years. The staff is beloved and has been together
for 15 years. People like each other. The associate minister, Connie, has great relational gifts
and a rich spiritual life. The church formed a new evangelism team a year and a half ago.
Martha Grace met with them for lunch when they started. The four women on the team had
energy and excitement. They kept asking Martha Grace what they should do. She felt they were
up to a challenge, so she said, “Would you spend three months praying together and not do
anything else, not make any decisions for three whole months?”
Martha said, “You three pray. Meet every week for at least an hour. Pray for the church,
for the members, for discernment and for the people you don't even know that God would love
to be able to bring to Benton Street. Pray that you'll be open. Pray for each other and what's
going on in your lives. Pray that God will show you what you're to do and that God will nudge
the right people to help you. But promise me that you won't make any decisions or do any 'work'
for three months. You can read a few books, but mainly pray, okay? What do you think?'
“Can Connie lead our meetings?”
“Why don't you pray about whether she should lead the meetings?”
So they began their three month prayer experiment. The four women prayed together
frequently (with Connie present, without Connie leading). Every morning at 7:30, wherever
they were, they prayed. They read books and searched the Internet. They went to board
meetings every month and reported what they were doing. Everyone asked, 'Ok, so what is your
committee doing now?' They said, 'We're still praying. We're not allowed to make any decisions
yet, but we're praying for you all and the church and the new people.' The board wasn't used to
reports like this, but they loved it.
Four months later, Connie reported that at the end of the three months, the team had
leapt out of the starting gate like Preakness winners. Now almost 50 people were helping with
evangelism. They welcome people in worship. They bake bread and take it to first-time
worshipers. They've discerned they might have a ministry to the apartment complex close to the
church. One Sunday a schizophrenic person visited, and a social worker pitched in to do follow-
up. Visitors were increasing, baptisms were increasing.
Martha Grace met with the team ten months into the experiment. They were thrilled, but
they were starting to get a little tired. She asked if they were praying as much. “Oh, oops. I
guess we've sort of let that slip. It has been feeling dry and sort of like work. I guess we pick up
the prayers again, right?
Later Connie wrote, “It was incredibly difficult for these four 'can-do' women to wait in
prayer. All four of us have highly motivated, extremely organized, get-it-done personalities. A
year and a half later, all four of us would say our prayer lives have been permanently impacted
by this experiment. The entire church is still being impacted by this willingness to risk praying
Last week we heard that the harvest was plentiful, but the laborers are few. Jesus said,
“Ask God to send out workers into the harvest.” This week Jesus is saying, “Wait for the Holy
Spirit.” Wait and pray. Wait and pray. We want to know what we're supposed to do. We want to
know when things are going to get better. But Jesus is saying, “Wait and pray. Wait and pray.”
What if we spent the next three months, like the evangelism team of Benton Street Christian
1 Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding the Gospel, p. 43-45.
Church, and simply prayed. Together, separately. At every meeting of the church. At every
worship service. What if we prayed for our church and for Centerville? What if we prayed for the
people we don't know yet that God wants to bring here, and pray that we'll be open and
accepting? What if we pray that God would raise up workers from our congregation to send out
into Centerville? What if we prayed that we would recognize our mission when it finds us? What
if we prepared ourselves to receive the power of the Holy Spirit? And what if we stop asking,
“Are we there yet?” and settle in for the ride?