The West Bank is a Palestinian area ruled by Israel. It includes East Jerusalem and other famous sites from Jesus’ time such as Bethlehem. Much of the area is cut off from Israel by a wall similar to the Berlin Wall. Sometimes this barrier goes straight through a village, separating farmers from their fields. These are the fields that Jesus walked through with his disciples.
Al-Eizariya, population 17,606, is just such a small town in the West Bank. It is in a lovely location on the side of a beautiful mountain with fertile fields and orchards. Al-Eizariya means ‘of Lazarus’. This is the site of the small village where Lazarus lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha.
It was a village that Jesus visited often. It was a place where he felt at home and safe, relaxed and happy. It has been called his favourite place on earth. Jesus was always welcomed here, while he was rejected in Bethlehem and Nazareth and was rejected in Jerusalem.
The name of the village in Jesus day was Bethany, and the mountain on whose slopes it rests is called the Mount of Olives. This is the place where Jesus took his disciples to say farewell on his last day on earth.
For 40 days after Easter, as we have recalled these last weeks, Jesus spent time with his disciples in his glorious resurrection body. His time on earth ends in four days, on Thursday, 14 May.
Our reading this morning from Acts is where Luke tells the story of Jesus leaving. Luke first tells this story in his Gospel, where the final four verses outline what happened.
Luke 24:50–53 – “Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. So they worshipped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.”
When Jesus left them the first time, dying on the cross, they were devastated and went into mourning. This time his departure leaves them filled with joy. The first time they were depressed and without hope, but this time they are worshipping and praising God non-stop in the temple.
Something interesting is going on here. People are being changed. Why is that?
Luke ends his Gospel with the disciples worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem. This is the same place that he began his Gospel. In chapter one, Zechariah was in the sanctuary of the temple. There he met with an angel who told of the birth of John the Baptist, a man with the spirit and power of Elijah.
The disciples have returned to the temple where the story began. They are praising God. Jesus has left them, but the disciples filled with joy. Why? They were really happy when they met the resurrected Jesus in his glorious new body. That is understandable. Jesus has conquered death and been resurrected. That is great news.
In Acts, Luke tells us that during these last 40 days he spent on earth Jesus met with ‘the apostles from time to time’. He proved to them that he was really alive and he ‘talked to them about the Kingdom of God’.
A lot of us then jump to the conclusion that they are filled with joy because they now have a golden ticket to go to heaven when they die. In verses 10 and 11 we read about Jesus rising up from the ground into the sky. The NLT and King James translations say ‘heaven’ while the NIV and The Message use both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ to translate ouranós. They all say he will return the way he left.
We can easily think that is what this passage is about. We can see it as our guarantee that after a brief and unsatisfactory time on earth we will join Jesus in the sky. He has gone to prepare our new home, that is true. We might think therefore that the best thing to do while waiting for death is to spend all our time in the temple worshipping him and praising God. Is that what these verses are teaching us about being a Christian?
Verse 12 says that the question the apostles kept asking was this: “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” That isn’t a question about a future heaven in another realm, but the restoration of God’s rule on earth.
Jesus doesn’t correct them and say that the main point is to get to heaven after you die.
He says they are right to talk about the kingdom coming on earth, but only God can decide the time and date. Don’t worry about the life after death, is what he seems to be saying. Don’t worry about the second coming, because that isn’t the point.
Here is what you should be thinking about, Jesus says. “You will be my witnesses, telling people about me.” That is a here and now activity. It is something to be done today. In order for the apostles to do this, he says, they will have the Holy Spirit come upon them and he will give them power. And after he had said this, then Jesus disappeared into a cloud.
The last thing he talks about is God’s rule being established on earth, and then they go rejoicing down the mountain back to Jerusalem. They are going with excitement, ready to ‘be baptised with the Holy Spirit’ as it says in verse 5.
They are not excited because after a long wait and much suffering they will go to heaven.
They are excited because after a short wait they will be anointed with power to tell all people about Jesus. Starting right there, the word will spread out from “Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The apostles are not excited about a future living on a cloud playing a harp.
The apostles are excited about a present filled with God’s power and his rule.
So they go back to Jerusalem.
And when they get there, Luke says they go to the temple to worship. He also says in verse 13 that they went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying and prayed. He says they were constantly united in prayer.
There is a huge contrast with their behaviour after the crucifixion. That time they were depressed and all went their own ways. They dispersed and lacked power or confidence. They were defeated. One group went fishing under Peter’s leadership, as we heard last week.
This time they are all together. They are united. They are single minded in their purpose. They are confident and hopeful. The time they have spent with Jesus since he died has already changed them. We too are changed when we spend time with Jesus. Walking and talking with Jesus will change us the same way, and we will have confidence for his work here on earth. We won’t struggle through life only waiting for the day when we can die and escape to heaven.
Luke tells us that they were united in prayer. Every day they had a prayer meeting in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. Not just the 12 apostles. There were others in the meetings.
Verse 14 says they met “with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus.” It must have been a relatively large house in the wealthy eastern part of the city because at one stage there were 120 people in the upper room for the prayer meeting.
This is the point at which one story ends and another begins. Jesus is no longer visible, but the good news now starts to spread. How it spreads is the story of Acts. It is our story.
The story now is about how we meet with Jesus. How we allow him to change us. How we are filled with power. How we tell the story of Jesus. How we do all this in unity with each other, praising and worshipping. How it is all built on prayer and the Holy Spirit.
We are privileged to be witnesses today to the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth.