It’s tough to say goodbye.
It’s hard to believe this is our last Sunday together. After six years of being on this journey, today we worship with one another one last time. I’m going to miss all of you and what this place has meant to me and my faith. I hope that in some small way, I have helped you in yours, too. I am so honored to have been part of what we are doing here and I will keep praying for this place and for all of you. I hope you will do the same for me and my family. It’s easy to think of “goodbye” as something sad, but maybe there’s another way to look at it. We tend to see it in light of “what could have been,” missed opportunities, things we didn’t get to do. But it’s important to look forward to what life has in store for us instead of holding on to the past. It’s not that we can’t look back or even remember fondly what has gone before, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from also looking toward the future. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, if you would go to Acts 1:1. Here we read about an ending, and a new beginning. This takes place right as Jesus is about to ascend into Heaven for the final time. Now for those of you who don’t know, most scholars believe that Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, also wrote the Book of Acts and in fact, Acts is almost like a sequel to the Gospels. It tells about what happened AFTER the resurrection and recounts the history of the early church. The words we’re about to hear mark Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven and the moments that happen right after.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11
I want to challenge you today to think of goodbyes in a different way.
Over the centuries our culture has turned goodbyes into endings, but that’s not the origin of the word. In fact, the word “goodbye” comes from the phrase “God be with you.” It was meant as a prayer and a blessing for God’s continued grace, that God would bless your journey! It was a salutation to the future! Not a tie to the past. And the danger of holding on to the past is that we never allow ourselves the opportunity to live into the present, to fully embrace the opportunities that God has before us. So instead I want to challenge you to look at goodbye not as an end but as a new beginning.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for the disciples when Jesus left.
It’s probably the complete opposite of what they were expecting. Jesus, risen from the dead, resurrected into new life has spent the last forty days performing miracles, proving he was alive, and speaking about the coming Kingdom,. His followers must have said to each other, “Wow! This is AWESOME! Not even DEATH can stop him!” But they assumed Jesus’ return meant the people of Israel would take over the world. And they would, but not in the way short-sighted human beings imagined and still imagine today. Somebody asks, “Is this the time, Lord? Is this when it’s going to happen? Because, we noticed you haven’t done it yet and it’s been like over a month and we just figured that if you could come back from the dead, that you could pretty much restore Israel whenever you wanted.” And he tells them not to worry about “when” it’s going to happen. Instead he says, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He lays it out for them. The Holy Spirit is going to come and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth! And then he just vanishes.
The Apostles must have been dumbstruck.
Like they just got hit by a Mack truck. I imagine that the disciples were staring up into the clouds much like a child watches after a balloon that floats away. You watch it float higher and higher until it floats so high you can no longer see it, but in your mind, you can picture it continuing to go higher still. That’s probably what the disciples were doing – looking up, even when they could no longer see Him. They’re just fixated in that moment, the way a lot of us get when we say goodbye to someone or something we love, especially if it happens suddenly the way it did for the Apostles. But there’s new opportunities waiting for them and so God sends two men, two ANGELS down to bring them out of it. “’Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” These two men, these two angels, sort of tap them on the shoulders and say, “Don’t worry about it. God has a plan for you.”
Jesus LEAVING brought about a new BEGINNING.
He left so that the Holy Spirit could come down and bless them and empower them to spread his word. He left because the Apostles needed to start a new chapter in their lives. And Jesus did what any wise parent, wise teacher, or sage guide would do – he trained them, he helped them, he gave them the tools to succeed, but then he left them on their own. And it’s in those moments that we are tested. Do we cling to the past and become afraid to step out on our own? Or do we embrace the future?
Embracing the future doesn’t mean forgetting the past.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the past. But it does mean we can’t let the past hold us back from the future. Remember what we shared before, “The last seven words heard from a church are ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” Don’t be afraid of change. Not in your life and not in this church. Every ending marks a new beginning and even though I won’t be with you any longer, that doesn’t mean the work we’ve been doing together is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. It might look differently than it does today, but as long as you keep looking forward instead of looking back, this church will continue to progress into the future and reach new people for Christ. As I learned from our friends in the United Church of Christ, they have a saying, “God is still speaking. Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Let him speak through you. Be the witnesses he commands us to be. Find your own voice to do it. It’s up to you. It’s up to you to find new ways and new ideas to help people understand the love of Jesus Christ. It’s up to you to invite and encourage people into a deeper relationship with God. And it’s up to you to pursue that for yourselves.
I challenge you in the days to come to embrace this mission and find ways to be witnesses for Christ in your daily lives. I challenge you to go and invite friends and family and neighbors to come with you to church and experience for themselves the kindness that comes from being in a community dedicated to loving one another. I challenge you to lead such transformed lives that those around you will long to find out what secret it is you’ve discovered that brings you such happiness, joy, and contentment. And then I hope you lean over, and whisper in their ear. “Jesus loves even me.”
It’s not easy to say “goodbye.”
Not just to each other, but to old habits, to comfortable ways of living, to things we need to leave in the past. It’s hard. But sometimes necessary as Jesus showed us this morning. But like I said earlier, the word “goodbye” actually means “God be with you.” It is a hope and a promise for the future. So when we say “goodbye” to each other this morning, let it be in that vein. That the mighty God who sacrificed himself on the cross for us remains within each of us and supports us as we embrace life in a different way. I leave you today with these words from a song by the Muppets. “Somehow I know, we’ll meet again. Not sure quite where and I don’t know just when. You’re in my heart. So until then. It’s time for saying goodbye.” God be with you.