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“O, Peter, If Only You Had Waited…”

a sermon based upon Acts 1:8-26

Last week, we talked about how Jesus had appeared (as the Risen Christ) to his followers for 40 days after Easter, speaking with them about the Kingdom of God. (!) And he instructed them to wait in Jerusalem – to wait for the promise of God… wait for the power that would come upon them… Well, we are now caught in the “in between” time – those ten long days after Jesus’ final departure and before his return in spiritual form. They were still stuck inside the Upper Room for ten more days without either Jesus Christ himself to guide them, nor the Holy Spirit which would guide them in the future.

I guess you could say they were stuck between what was and what could be… where they were and where they might go… what they knew from their past, and what God may have in store for them for their future once Jesus’ Holy Spirit came upon them with power.

I think it was the long-enforced “sheltering-in-place” situation that we have all been through this year that sensitized me to this odd Sunday between Ascension (last week) and Pentecost (next week). What we’ve endured for ten weeks (since March 16) Peter and the other disciples have been doing for ten days. … Wondering about what the future would be like; wondering what the “new normal” would be after all the drama they had experienced with Jesus Christ.

The author of Acts says: “While he was with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God.” (Acts 1:4)

Waiting. It’s not easy for most of us. We get impatient. If we know something’s coming, we want to get on with it. If it’s bad, well, let’s get it over with and get on beyond it. (!) If it’s a good thing, we can’t hardly “hold our horses” ‘til it’s here! Jesus had said “not many days from now… you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 1:5)

Not many days… but it’s been a whole week since then!

Peter and the other disciples don’t know that “Pentecost” is on the horizon. (!) So far as they would know, the festival that comes 50-days after the Passover – Pentecost (the word means 50 days) and we Christians count it from Easter – was the Jewish celebration of receiving Torah. It recalls the stone tablets of commandments that were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This festival drew Jews from every country to celebrate the Laws that became the Constitution of Israel.

The disciples didn’t know that God was going to choose that very day to be “the birthday of the Church”! They didn’t know that would be the day when the Holy Spirit kick-started the “Body of Christ” and got things into gear. That high, holy holiday was just on the horizon when Peter made his plans to replace Judas with another.

It looks to me like Peter jumped the gun! I’ll get into the details in a moment, but first, let’s set the scene… After their 40 “bonus days” with Jesus, which culminated with the Ascension, the disciples returned to the Upper Room, as instructed, but they didn’t do a good job of “waiting” for God’s next action. They felt the need to “do something”. (It reminds me of something psychiatric counselors are told: “Sometimes it’s best not to do something, but just sit there.”)

In our opening hymn, we sang: “Only the Spirit’s power can fit us for this hour: Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Unite, instruct, inspire, and fill us with your fire: Come, Holy Spirit, come!” (words by Fred Pratt Green, 1970)

It had been a week or more, and the Holy Spirit had not come! In those days, writes the author of Acts, Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about 120), and said: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was guide to those who arrested Jesus.” (Acts 1:15-16)

That made me wonder exactly what Peter was talking about.(?) What scripture had to be fulfilled? I mean, David lived a thousand years before Jesus was even born. How would he have known any-thing about their ministry as followers of Jesus Christ, the Man of Nazareth? More specifically, how could he have written about Judas?

Peter says to the 120 people gathered there: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it.’ And ‘Let his office another take.’!” That’s what David said about Judas, the betrayer, according to Saint Peter. As a good Protestant, I looked up the Psalms that Peter was quoting to see how they related to Judas… in fact, I wondered how David’s words could have possibly related to the Church in the first place!

Here’s what I discovered:

There are 36 verses in Psalm 69, and Peter chose one of them to quote to the disciples who were gathered in that Upper Room: “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it.” (Acts 1:20a) Now, what verse 25 actually says is in the plural: “May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents.” (69:25)

It is part of a curse being called down upon the enemy’s war camp. Peter has taken it out of context and has made it personal (singular). He says those words were from the Holy Spirit speaking through the mouth of David concerning Judas. So, since I’m working from home… I read the whole Psalm to see how it fit their situation.

We are told that this Psalm 69 is a Psalm of David, while he was afflicted and in pain (69:29); “I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God,” he writes near the beginning of the Psalm (69:3).

I can see why Peter may have resonated with the sadness of this particular Psalm, in as much as he & the other disciples were in grief over the loss of Jesus. I can imagine that Peter felt anger toward the crowds who had turned on them, people who had mocked them, and especially angry at the Pharisees & priests (& other civic authorities) who had secretly orchestrated the collapse of their social reform movement… a movement which had begun with such promise up in Galilee.

I can see why Peter thought of Psalm 69, which goes on to say: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause! Mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies.” (69:4) Psalm 69 pleads: “Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies” (69:14) and “Hide not thy face from thy servant; for I am in distress. Make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free from my enemies!” (69:17-18) This Psalm 69 expresses a lament, deep frustration, and a sense of injustice & pain.

It was a good choice, if they wanted to do a relevant Bible Study!

I’m sure all of those 120 followers of Jesus were going through those very same kinds of emotions in the ten days after Jesus’ “Ascension” -- when they saw him “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) -- and before the coming of “Pentecost” the next Sunday. They did not know what to expect as they waited in Jerusalem… waiting to “receive power… when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:8)

They were waiting for Jesus… who was taken up into heaven! The two messengers had said that he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) But those 120 believers did not really know what that meant… it was all so brand new!

Somewhere during those ten days, Peter remembers Psalm 69: a Psalm of lament and suffering -- that expresses pain and anger, frustration and helplessness -- and which pleads for rescue, for God to draw near, and to set them free from their enemies! … Oh, yes, that captured the raw feelings of the early Church perfectly! However, out of the 36 verses of Psalm 69, Peter chose only one single verse to quote. (!) And he used it totally out of context!

He then did the same thing with the 109th Psalm… another Psalm of David, even more angry than the first one! David wants his assailants to be put to shame (109:28) and his accusers to be clothed with dishonor (109:29). David bemoans the fact that people are “speaking against me with lying tongues. They beset me with hate, and attack me without cause. In return for my love, they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. They reward me “evil” for good and “hatred” for my love!” (109:2-5) Again, I am sure that Psalm 109 captured their emotions perfectly -- and it expressed their sense of unfair judgment and hateful animosity that Jesus himself had endured, and they, too, as his disciples, do.

But Peter lifted only one sentence out of the 31 verses of that Psalm 109 – “His office, let another take.” (Acts 1:20b) Again, as in the earlier citation, this verse is part of a curse being called down upon one’s enemy. “When he is tried,” says David, “let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin! May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, & his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg… May the creditor seize all that he has. May strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!” (109:7-11) “And may his memory be cut off from the earth!” (109:15)

Oh! That’s a long litany of wishing bad things to happen to one’s adversary, isn’t it!? Peter might have wanted all those nasty things to happen to Judas, I suppose. But he chose only one sentence from the long list of curses to make his case that the disciples needed to choose a replacement for Judas. We call that “proof texting”.