Rob Lee: Waiting on the World to Change

In some ways, we all have music that dates us. For my mom, it was the music of Barry Manilow; for me it’s a song released in June 2006 that best defined my middle school years. It was John Mayer’s paramount hit, “Waiting on the World to Change.” The song confronts Mayer’s and all of our collective frustration with the status quo, the inaction of our leaders, and our inability to do anything about it but wait for our time. In some ways, that song could best define the disciples and their reality today.

It must have been frustrating for Jesus to hear his disciples asking rather repetitively, aren’t you gonna do it, Lord? As if three years of earthly ministry, the crucifixion, resurrection, and 50 Days of Easter weren’t proof enough that the world had been turned upside down, they now want to know if God is going to bring down an empire on their terms. God had already taken control - yet they were still wanting to be in the geo-political driving seat because that’s where they thought the world would begin anew. They wanted God to dabble in the politics of the world while forgetting God has set the world on its foundations. It’s like that famous line from Star Trek, “What does God have need of a starship?” Well, what does God have need of political discourse after all that had happened? In some ways, the question as to whether God would restore Israel might have come off as insulting. After all this, don’t you see? Don’t you see?

Yet Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, has more patience than I could ever have. I imagine he looked on them with the same love of a parent doing homework with their children when they just don’t get it. Jesus, like the parent, says, “I love you, but you’ve got so much more to learn, so much more to grow.” What is clear to me is that the disciples had hoped to wait for the world to change, and they’re quickly realizing they have way more homework than they could have ever imagined. They wanted front row seats, and now they find themselves in the arena of discipleship. They have been passive, now the active nature of their ministries was coming into clarity, and frankly, it must have been terrifying.

And yet here we are. The Gospels never share with us that life wouldn’t be anything short of terrifying. Life is hard, life is full, life is scary; it is never dull. Life is the fullness of a promise that we may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We may feel washed up, but we are held. We may feel powerless, but we know the powerful. The Acts account we hear today reminds us, as the whole of scripture has told us, that we cannot escape destiny, but we can face it with courage because we know the author of the story.

I’ve written four books now, and every time I finish a book I think of an English teacher I had around the time “Waiting on the World to Change” was on my radio, who said I wouldn’t amount to anything. I think of her because she stands as a reminder that I know the author. I know the author of my story who equipped me and called me to write like there’s no tomorrow.

It is that hope and that promise that Ascension Sunday offers. We know the story, yes. It is a marvelous story. But even more marvelous is that we know the author.

Proximity means something in this narrative, and for us, proximity with God can feel fleeting and difficult. Yet the assurance of Ascension Sunday is that, as John’s Gospel says, “In this world there will be trouble, but take heart, I have conquered the world.” If we as Christians really believe that Christ put everything in subjection under his feet, we are adhering to a revolutionary notion that nothing is beyond God’s love and compassion, no one is beyond God’s reach and grace. This Ascension narrative means that we lift Christ high for the world to see and to believe, to acknowledge and behold. We may not have the same physical proximity that those fishermen had all those years ago on a mountain in Israel, but we are now living testaments to their witness. We are the story; we are the very nature and work of the Church militant.

The problem for the Church militant is that we are dangerously close to passively allowing the world to change while we wait for the next chapter. Every day of my ministry I hear Howard Thurman’s admonition in my ears, “Don't be so heavenly minded that you do no earthly good.” In essence, quit waiting on the world to change. Change the world, do good now, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, and for God’s sake, visit those in prison and in the hospital. Ascension Day reminds us that our eyes can be so heavenward we miss the point - as evidenced by the disciples being called out by the men wondering why they are staring at the sky.

Friends, we will have our reward, and I look forward to that. I long for the sweet reunion with the God made evident in Jesus Christ and in those whom I love but see no more. Yet I know that reunion won’t be as sweet if I don’t do everything in my power to tell others of the great, great love of Jesus. Why would we want heaven to be a gated community when Christ, through his ascension, threw open the gates and let loose the chains?

We can easily get lost in the story of the Ascension and debate theologically the mechanics of what happened that day. But if you’re like me, you grow tired of that quickly. What is far more compelling to me is that we can take Jesus for his word. We can take Jesus for his word when he said he was going to prepare a place for us. The only question left for me is if Jesus can take us for our word - when Jesus left, he commanded us to go into the world to remind the world of its loveliness, of its possibility and potential, of its promise and redemption. Jesus knew well and good we wouldn’t always get it right, but in the fullness of who Jesus is, he still called us to try, to go, to seek, and to knock. The message of the Gospel is good news has come.

The COVID–19 pandemic closed the movie theater in Statesville, where I live. Yet I still love going to the movies. I love seeing movies, I love talking movies, I love connecting over movies. My fatal flaw with my movie hobby is I refuse to listen or read movie critics’ reviews of movies. I couldn’t care less what they have to say. That said, the sure-fire way to guarantee I will watch a movie is that you tell me about it.

That’s the essence of the point I’m making today. You can hear the story of the Ascension from lofty and highfalutin’ preachers, and it may cause you to pause. But if your friend comes to you and says, “I’ve seen the Lord and he’s got news for you!” the whole world shatters and begins again at the same time. Jesus knew we wouldn’t need as many preachers as we’d need disciples. We need people willing to tell the story instead of waiting on the world to change. Jesus is now gone from our sight, are you going to tell people about the Jesus you have seen?

Let us pray.

God who knows our story, may we feel your nearness even when we are not in proximity to you physically. Keep us close, keep us safe, and keep us mindful that you will raise us up on the last day as you raised Jesus. Yet in the interim, remind us we have work to do. May our work be whole and complete on the day of your coming. In your risen Son’s name, we pray. Amen.