One of my first conscious memories is a song, Stand By Me, by Ben E. King. I’m not sure why that particular song, I’m not sure where I picked it up exactly, but when I hear it, there’s a deep resonance within my soul.
It pricks at something deep inside of me, something that’s uncomfortable. This isn’t one of those fuzzy, nostalgic memories, but one that usually makes me change the song when it comes on. Weezer, a favorite band of mine, recently put out an album of covers, one of which includes Stand By Me. I still haven’t listened to the song all the way through; it’s too uncomfortable.
This song pricks at a powerful motivation deep inside of me that has driven decisions and actions to provide for my family, to ensure that the future is secure for my children, and to reconcile and restore relationships. All those are good things, all those are things that I feel are part of the mission God has given me on this earth, which helps partially explain why the song makes me uncomfortable. I feel the burden, the weight, of responsibility.
But beyond that, there’s also a deep-seated fear, and perhaps you can relate: the fear of being alone.
Let’s hear our scripture on this Ascension Sunday: Acts 1:6-14
Almost in passing, we remember this moment in the Apostle’s Creed. The creed includes a litany of Jesus’s life, with this line: “he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…” An easily missed reference to a significant event.
Even still, in the Christian calendar, this is not a day as high and holy as, say, Easter, or Christmas, or Good Friday. It’s perhaps less marked than next Sunday, Pentecost, when we will celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
And yet here we are on Ascension Sunday, a very important day in the life of the church; the day we remember that Christ returned to heaven, triumphant, in front of his disciples. He gave them a mission, the Great Commission of verse 8 that says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This, after telling them the Holy Spirit was coming, providing them the power to live out this mission. Then he leaves in a way reminiscent of Elijah.
But the main point is, he left them. Like Elijah before him, he left his disciples. Elisha, after witnessing Elijah’s triumphant rise to heaven on chariots of fire then leaves, carrying Elijah’s mantle, to take on Elijah’s prophetic vocation. That’s where the phrase passing of the mantle comes from: the mentor giving charge to the mentee, as happened with Elijah and Elisha, just as Jesus is now doing.
And when that happens, it’s up to the next generation, the next person, the mentee, Elisha, the disciples, to carry on the work.
I relate strongly to that. I feel that pressure that comes from things passed on to me, things I inherited. Some of them are things I would rather not have inherited but things that remain my problem anyway. I feel that pressure to go at it alone, because no one will do it for me, to live out the deep motivations I feel in this life, the deep things that I take as my mission.
Perhaps you can relate. Or maybe you know people in your life who are similarly driven. This is different from being driven by ambition for jobs or money or status. This is driven by things that are far more meaningful and deep. For me, questions like, “will my children be better off than me?” Or “what wealth will I leave to them,” or “how’s the emotional health of my family” drive what I do. From lived experience, I am aware that no one will secure my family except me, no one will provide for them except me, no one will take care of them except me, no one will do for me except me. I am alone as I live out that mission.
No one will do for your families except you. Perhaps in the latter years of your life, you can look back and see how you did just that. Or maybe you look back with some layer of regret. If you’re in a middle-aged generation, you see that older generation and either see an example of how you want to turn out or how you don’t want to turn out. Perhaps at the start of your adult life, or in middle or high school, you look forward to a life that you’ll build with great expectation and a sky’s the limit attitude.
Wherever we are in the stages of life, we know at a base level that no one will do for us except us as we live out our lives. We are alone as we traverse the journey of life.
And no one will do for Elisha except Elisha as Elijah returns to heaven, passing the mantle. He is alone as he enters his prophetic ministry. Just as it seems the disciples are alone now, with Jesus having gone up to heaven.
They are seemingly alone, just as we are prone to feel alone as we carry out the weight of the burdens we feel in this life. The mantle has been passed, the tasks inherited, and we move boldly forward into the future alone, for no one will do things for us.
Jesus leaves the disciples with the great commission of verse eight, one that Luke uses to structure his book. The book of Acts moves forward with receipt of the Holy Spirit, the gospel spreading to Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth; in other words, the Gentile world. It’s a beautiful literary device and leaves us with the impression of the spread of influence, something that has resonance for our lives today.
At another moment at the end of Jesus’s ministry, in Matthew, Jesus gives a mission to his disciples. It’s the more famous of the Great Commissions: go and preach the gospel to all the world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But unlike in Acts, Matthew records Jesus saying, right after giving the mission, “and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
It’s language very reminiscent of Psalm 23: even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Throughout scripture, we hear this pledge from God: I am with you, always. In the garden, God is with Adam and Eve. Even after sinning and being banished from the garden, God is still with them. God is guiding the generations that followed, through Abraham, through Joseph, through to Moses and Joshua and David and the kings and the prophets, even including Elisha.
And God was with the disciples, God was with Jesus, and God remained with them even after the ascension. God has always been with humanity for, just as we saw last week, God is always near at hand for just to search and find. God wants to be found, God wants to be in relationship with us, because God loves us unconditionally.
We are never truly alone. And we know that.
So why do we feel so alone?
It’s easy, on mountaintops, to experience God. At the top of Wigington Road, just north of Walhalla, South Carolina, is the most beautiful vista I think I have ever seen from a mountaintop. I’ve seen similar from the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, but this one seems to take the cake for me. From up there, you can see seemingly forever, for there’s no obstruction as you look SSE. You can see two deep blue mountain reservoirs, the town of Walhalla, and many other sights to discover.
From any vista like that, it’s easy to feel close to God. These are the literal mountaintop experiences of life, and they’re much like our metaphorical mountaintop experiences: we feel close to God, all is right in the world, we do not feel alone.
But eventually we come down the mountain. We cannot stay there forever, whether looking at a vista or coming down into the hardships of life from our metaphorical mountaintop experiences. Here, the disciples gather on Mount Olivet, where they witness Jesus rising back to heaven. After he is gone and the angels dismiss them, they walk down the mountain.
What they couldn’t have known as they entered the upper room, down in the valley, is all the hardship that was to come. A chapter later, there will be a metaphorical mountaintop experience as they receive the Holy Spirit, but then they will discover trials, persecution, death, shipwreck, ostracism, and a whole host of hardship, that are to be found in the valleys of life. The book of Acts spends the vast majority of its time in the valley after opening on the mountaintop.
It would be tempting for these early disciples and the early church they founded to feel alone. But they don’t. Even before they have received the Holy Spirit, during this moment here, as they enter the upper room with other disciples gathered there, both men and women, they do not feel alone.
The Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus Christ with us always, God’s gift and fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to be with us always. But here, even in the days between the ascension and Pentecost when Jesus is gone and the Holy Spirit has not yet arrived, the disciples do not feel alone.
Because they devoted themselves to prayer.
So why do we feel so alone?
Because we do not pray enough.
And by prayer, I do not just mean sitting, head bowed, eyes closed, talking to Jesus. Prayer is more about posture and less about talking. Prayer is attuning ourselves to God, to the Holy Spirit that is the presence of God with us always. Prayer happens when we garden, when we walk, when we work, when we feast, when we cry, when we hurt, when we drive, when we rejoice, when we do anything in life that is not sin, if we are attuned to God in that moment.
For prayer means being centered in God, no matter what activities we engage in.
Luke tells us that the disciples were devoted to prayer, constantly praying. It’s unrealistic to think that the disciples were constantly praying the way we do during the pastoral prayer. Paul calls on disciples at the church in Thessalonika to pray without ceasing. To do so the way we conceive prayer would be to do nothing else in our lives. That, of course, is unrealistic.
But that’s not what’s meant by prayer. To pray is to simply take a moment to make sure that we are aware of God’s presence in our lives, no matter our activity. Because God is always there, always with us, no matter how alone we feel. The question is whether or not we are aware of God’s presence with us. And the way we become aware, for it’s human nature to lose that awareness, is through prayer.
Prayer means being centered in God, no matter what activities we engage in.
We do not pray enough, which is to say we do not take the time to make ourselves aware of God’s presence with us. Prayer is about reorienting our spirits back to their true home, in the heart of Christ. All our cares and concerns take us away from that central home, that center, that space where we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that we are not alone.
The disciples in that upper room knew that even before the Holy Spirit had arrived. It was no matter that Jesus had gone back to heaven. They were not alone.
Neither are we.
And when we become aware of God’s presence through prayer, we discover that the heavy loads we carry, the things that drive us on a very deep level, the challenges we face, the hardships we endure, the things that make us angry at the way things turned out, all of those things are much easier because prayer causes us to know that Jesus’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.
These earliest disciples knew that. They had the weight of the mission, the Great Commission, that Jesus had just given them. They knew they had quite a task in front of them as they moved to found the church. They must have known that the mountaintop would yield a valley experience, perhaps for a long time. That certainly could have come with great weight, with crushing burden, to not let Jesus down. But Luke tells us they simply devoted themselves to prayer; they knew that the yoke of their mission was easy and its burden light because they were devoted to prayer.
Prayer means being centered in God, discovering that Jesus carries our burdens with us, moving in power to accomplish the missions he has given us.
What burdens are you carrying today? What deep-seated motivations drive you, making you think that no one will do for you, that you must do it yourself? Too often I am pushing myself, hard, whether for my family or for this church, because I say that no one else will do it for me and it must be done. But that’s not the attitude of prayer. That’s the attitude of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. That’s the attitude that I can do it all by myself and I don’t need anyone’s help. I need this sermon, too.
The irony is that the missions God has given us in this life are things that we decide we’ll live out on our own. Here’s what I mean: I believe God has called me to do some significant work for my family. And then I decide that I will go about accomplishing that work on my own, even though it’s a God-given mission that God wants to accomplish through me by God’s power! All I need to do is pray and act out of the wisdom that comes through that prayer, but instead I decide that I’ll go my own way and make it work. When I do so, the work is hard, it wears me down. Such leads to loneliness. Such leads to feeling run down, defeated, exhausted, frequently, because we’ve decided we can do it without the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit that is available to us always.
For if I take time to pray, the yoke of that mission becomes easy and the burden of these deep motivations becomes light.
I wonder, can you relate?
We don’t need to go at it alone. Whatever deep things we feel, whatever regrets might be attached to them, the missions we feel, the callings, the things we want to accomplish for ourselves, our families, and loved ones, the legacies we want to leave behind, these are most likely things God wants for us. We find out if they are, and the burden of accomplishing them is lifted, when we take them to God constantly in prayer.
So go to God constantly in prayer by centering yourself in God, taking the time to make sure that, in every task we do and in every moment of the day, we are attuned to God’s presence with us. For all the things we carry in life, pray without ceasing.
So, when you’re at work and feeling exhausted, pray.
When you’re at home and feeling overcome, pray.
When you’re walking and thinking through your cares and concerns, pray.
When you’re grieving, pray.
When you’re gardening, pray.
When you’re digging a hole, pray.
When you’re sewing a mask, pray.
When you’re donating money, pray.
When you’re paying your bills, pray.
When you’re fighting again with your relative, pray.
When you’re feasting, pray.
When you’re hungry, pray.
When you’re full of joy, pray.
When you’re angry at the way things turned out, pray.
When you’re cooking, pray.
When you’re trying to heal a broken relationship, pray.
When you’re chatting with a dear friend, pray.
When you’re fixing that stupid thing again, pray.
When you’re delighted by something you own, pray.
When you’re driving, pray.
When you’re living, pray.
Stop. Pray. Without ceasing. Give thanks in everything.
For God is with us, always, even to the ends of the earth, even to the ends of the age, even to the ends of ourselves. God labors with us. God comes along side us. God lifts our yokes and burdens.
John Wesley, on his deathbed, is quoted as saying, “The best of all is, God is with us.”
Do you know that? When do you pray? How often?
You are not alone.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.