A Heritage of Looking Toward Heaven

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2023

Scripture reading:  Acts 1:6-14

In the old Disney movie, a slick-looking gambler heads into the little western town one peaceful evening.  He is dressed in fine clothes and riding a fine horse and saddle that practically shout he is successful.  He heads straight to the town’s saloon to join the local poker game.

While he is playing, an old acquaintance shows up trying to find someone to meet the morning stage and claim some “valuables” for him (he is heading out town and can’t get them himself).  The gambler agrees to meet the stage in exchange for a dollar (which he needs in order to stay in the poker game).  The deal is done in front of several important townspeople – including the sheriff.

Next morning, the gambler meets the stage and discovers to his horror that the “valuables” consist of three orphan kids.  He is now responsible for their care until his…acquaintance…returns to town.  He is completely overwhelmed, to say the least.

That night, the gambler and the three kids are in the acquaintance’s shack on the edge of town.  The rain is pouring down, and the roof is leaking in multiple places. 

The gambler is desperately trying to fry up a nasty-looking piece of salt pork for their supper.  At one point, the gambler pats one of the boys on the head to reassure him that everything would be all right…only to receive a swift kick in the shins because this kid “don’t like to be touched.”  The little girl in this trio starts crying because she is getting wet, and the storm scares her.  Finally, the salt pork catches fire and burns up.

At this point, the gambler lifts his eyes to heaven and says, “Why are you doing this to me?”

The little boy who kicked him asks, “Who are you talking to?”

The gambler replies, “It doesn’t matter…I don’t think He’s listening anyway…” [from The Apple Dumpling Gang, Disney, 1975]

This scene from the movie, The Apple Dumpling Gang, illustrates how many of us look to Heaven when we are in real trouble and hope for the Lord’s assistance; however, I would also suggest that we often wonder what we did to deserve our own situations – and if the Lord is even listening!

This is the struggle for believers, isn’t it?  We pray, we expect answers in the next five minutes or so, and then we wonder about the power of prayer, the use of obedience, and the existence of faith.  It is how the people of God have been since the early days of the Bible stories.

But speaking of stories in the Bible, let’s take a little closer look at the work that Luke does for us.

We skipped the ending of Luke’s Gospel and went straight to the beginning of the Book of Acts.  Let’s slow down and rewind a bit and see about looking to the sky.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is gathered with his Apostles after his resurrection.  They know he lives, they know he conquered death, and they know that he still loves them.  Jesus gathers them on the top of a mountain, and then he ascends into Heaven, disappearing from their sight.

Notice that not a single word is said about the Holy Spirit…

Scholars speculate that Luke was ending his Gospel story with the end of Jesus’ earthly work.

But look at the beginning of Luke’s Book of Acts, and we find the same event with slightly different details:

  • This time, Jesus is not leaving them in agony, death, and hopelessness as he did on Good Friday; this time will be a time of wonder, blessing, and a promise of the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus is on top of a mountain in this account too, but there is much more conversation.  They ask about the restoration of the kingdom; Jesus defers to the Father’s will in knowing that time and date, and then he blesses them.
  • When all is said and done, Jesus ascends into Heaven in the clouds.
  • Now the Eleven are left staring up into the clouds, perhaps hoping for one final glimpse of their Lord.

The scene changes when the Eleven are probably startled to find two angels standing next to them asking, “Why are you looking at the sky?”

Luke uses chapter one in his Book of Acts to begin the earthly ministry of Jesus’ followers; also, their work and mission will soon be empowered by the appearance of the Holy Spirit.  

Now the Apostles are ready to begin Part 2 of the work of Jesus Christ on earth.

But still…as Jesus often went off by himself to pray, I wonder if the Apostles individually followed his example and went off by themselves to pray; I also wonder if they did with their eyes closed and their heads bowed…or with their eyes wide open and their heads raised, looking to the sky for inspiration, comfort, reassurance, and a reminder of the love they had for the One who loved them still.

It is amazing to remember that each of those first Apostles – except for John – died a martyr’s death, a painful, horrible death caused by their work, their speech, and their love for the Lord.  In their final moments, I imagine each of them raising his head and his eyes and looking to the sky for comfort.  It certainly makes sense to me.

Is it also what we do when we are faced with problems?  Do we bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray?

Do we lift our faces to the sky with our eyes wide open?

Whichever we do, I think both are fully acceptable to the Lord because both were modeled by those Apostles.

In fact, I hold to the idea that looking to the sky, where the Lord will come from one day, is a wonderful way to pray – no matter the reason for that prayer.

Is that our heritage as Christian sisters and brothers?

Is that our heritage as members of Heritage Presbyterian Church?

Is that our heritage as Presbyterians in our denomination, looking to the Lord in times of trouble, joy, doubt, grief, loneliness, pain, celebration – and perhaps even out of a daily habit?

If not, I believe it should be.  Physically looking to the Heavens reminds us somehow of the presence of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, as well as the fact that Jesus will return in the clouds someday.  This should give all of us hope, no matter our situation.

Two final points:

First, Luke reports in the Book of Acts that the first thing the Apostles did when they returned to Jerusalem was to devote themselves to prayer.  Yes, they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, but note that before they did ANYTHING, they prayed and waited!

Do we do enough of this?  Or are we too likely to get busy and hope for the Lord’s blessing after the fact?

(I know this tends to describe me perfectly…)

Second, during the years I was attending seminary, I began each morning by lifting my eyes to Heaven and reciting the beginning of Psalm 121 [KJV]:

“I lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence shall cometh my help?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  

These words comforted me daily.

However, before one particularly trying day, I read the rest of that psalm and received even more comfort.  

This is what it said:

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; 

the Lord is your shade at your right hand.  

The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night. 

 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

If we do not have a strong, consistent heritage of looking toward Heaven in all times,

whether in our hearts, 

whether with our heads bowed or faces lifted up, whether with our eyes squeezed shut or wide open, 

we should begin that heritage right now.

Lift your eyes to the hills, to the Heavens…

Where does your help come from?

You know the answer…