I am blessed with many vivid memories of my childhood. I remember the first time I looked through a pair of binoculars. It was a cheap, pop-up pair that my dad bought me at what used to be called the Ice Capades, which was an older version of the traveling ice-skating programs we see today. I was fascinated that just by looking through the lens it appeared that I could reach out and touch the skaters. I literally spent hours gazing through those binoculars until my dad would make me put them away for a while.
Another memory is not so pleasant. I remember I hated being sent to my room for misbehaving. My parents called it “being grounded”. It meant I couldn’t leave my room until they were convinced I had learned my lesson. In the late 60’s we didn’t have T.V., computers, cell phones, video games, or any of the other “in room” entertainment devices of today. So, being grounded meant staying put with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
When I read Acts 1:6-11, I see the beginnings of the early church being tempted toward being grounded or gazing. Verse 6 says, “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, (the risen Christ) Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” That is a grounded question asked by disciples with a grounded mindset. It has been forty days since Jesus rose from the grave. He spent His time appearing to His followers, speaking to them about the glories of a kingdom that would reside in each one of them once the Holy Spirit came.
But here they are thinking in physical rather than spiritual terms. They were seeking what amounted to a political solution to their plight. They wanted Jesus to remove the iron boot of Roman rule and establish an earthly kingdom where He would rule on the throne of David and restore the glory of Solomon. They longed for the good old days when Israel had conquered its neighbors and the whole world came to Jerusalem to pay homage and to seek wisdom from Solomon.
Many in the church today have the same grounded mentality. They spend much time talking about and longing for the good old days when the church was the center of the community and ministers were considered to be wise community leaders. The church had a tremendous amount of influence from Hollywood to Hoboken. People lined up on Sunday to go to church as the whole town shut down in honor of the Lord’s Day. During the week, people lined up to see Charlton Heston bring Moses and Ben Hur to life on the silver screen. Movies with titles like, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, and Quo Vadis won hearts in the theaters and Oscars at the Academy Awards. It was a time when the Gospel was, as Paul told Timothy, “in season.”
But now the Church is no longer the most powerful influence in the community. Ministers are often suspect and Hollywood has turned organized religion into the d “the devil with the blue dress on.” What are we to do? If we sit in our pews and long for the good old days we will be a grounded church. We will lose what little influence we have left in the world. We must follow the advice of a t-shirt I saw last week. Its message was as simple as it was profound. It said, “The Church has left the building.”
If the 21st century church is going to transform the culture we have to leave the building. We must go where the people are, build a bridge of fellowship, and demonstrate the love of Christ even as we gently warn that to reject His love is to eventually feel His wrath.
Later in Acts 1, the disciples are caught gazing up into the sky where they saw Jesus ascend. Verse 10 says, “And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” The disciples had been given their instructions. They were to go to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was not a time for gazing, being spellbound by the glorious sight of Jesus. It was time for action. It was time to go to the place where the power from Heaven would be poured out in abundant supply. Verse 8 carries the promise, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, ad in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” As I heard one old country preacher say, “They needed to go to the spout where the glory comes out!”
Gazing into heaven can be a good thing if we make sure it doesn’t become the only thing. There was nothing wrong with me being fascinated with the binoculars to the point of wanting to spend some of my time gazing. The problem arose when gazing was all I wanted to do. There is nothing wrong with a church that gazes longingly into heaven, falling before a holy God, asking as Moses asked to see just “a glimpse of His glory.” But it is easy to give in to the temptation to do nothing but gaze. We lose our touch with the people God has called us to reach if we become so enraptured by His glory we forget to reflect His glory to the world.
While believers should always be informed about the issues facing our society in the political arena and we should be good citizens by voting according to the standards of God’s Word, we must never trust in a political solution for our spiritual condition. While we should revere the past we should see it as a signpost and not a hitching post. The 21st Century Church must be found neither grounded nor gazing but rather greatly empowered by the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the call to be His witnesses “event to the remotest part of the earth.”
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.