"Where Did Jesus Go?"
April 19, 2006 Easter Sunday Ps 110; Ac 10:34-43
It's got to be one of the human race's oldest and earliest games. Mom has just finished feeding baby, changed the diaper, and everyone is happy and contented. The little infant is at the marvelous stage of having just learned to differentiate between faces of various caregivers. As Mom and baby gaze back and forth at each other with big smiles and sharing delightful parent/child half-talk, an inspiration comes over Mom and she slowly draws a blanket upright, covering her face. The dimples on baby's cheek suddenly disappear; Mom can no longer be seen! Where did she go? Storm-clouds gather on baby's brow and the tiny lungs inflate ready for a woeful wail. But just in time the blanket is lowered and Mom's eyes, then her nose, and her whole face mysteriously re-appear. "Peek!" Baby is happy to have Mom back; the storm-clouds are replaced by sunny relief. The second time, Mom's face disappears only an instant, and baby starts to catch on that it's a game. The third time, there's a giggle. And so the playtime of "Peek" gets transferred to another generation.
As the years go by, the game changes into more structured forms such as "Hide'n'Go Seek" or "Submarine." Those are the good times. Then there are more stressful occasions when someone has disappeared and we really DON'T know where they've gone - like the time we were camping at 7000' in New Mexico and a certain member of our family wandered off up the mountain. Praise God, a few anxious moments of hyperventilation and calling later, and the lost one was found, much to his parents' relief! Even middle-aged empty nesters and seniors can play the game - except now it's called the Wal-Mart Wander, spending minutes upon minutes looking for your other half amidst the endless store aisles. "Where did she go?" (Now we cheat and use walkie-talkies - when we remember them!)
Later, at the other end of life, the sheet is drawn up for the last time over the body; the coffin lid closes; and a permanent stage of 'peek' sets in, engulfing us in wonder that our loved one who seemed so real, so alive just hours ago, has now made an irreversible transition out of the physical realm into the spiritual. That must have seemed especially true for Joseph, Nicodemus, and the watching women as the big stone was rolled across the entrance of the tomb after Good Friday. Where had this miracle-working prophet who had himself raised the dead, gone? When was God again going to show Himself? When would they again see His face as they had glimpsed it so clearly in the radiant features of Jesus?
In our lives and world today, there are times when it feels like God's playing "peek", and staying hidden for a very long time. Times when evil and corruption are getting the upper hand. The murder of 8 people in a biker gang near a quiet village south of London last week startled many in Southwestern Ontario. Then we found out that 2 of the accused were practically our neighbours, hailing from nearby Monkton. Scarier still! Authorities try to reassure us, calling the largest mass murder since the infamous Donnellys an "isolated incident" - but we can't deny that rebellion, disobedience to parents, and young people's attraction to gangs are on the rise. Affluence, parental neglect, and the drug culture are taking their toll. Clunk goes the round tombstone.
For some farmers, the hurt is coming more against their livelihood, with commodity prices low and input prices high. Some must be wondering if a smiling Providence has hidden its face permanently, and they'll be forced to let the farm go. For other folks, disease has taken a toll; that far-away doctor's appointment suddenly becomes urgent, the trips for treatment become wearing, having to be off work because of a bad case of the flu takes its toll psychologically as well as financially. Just where is God when it hurts? We think, just barely audible, we hear another clunk from a round tombstone, threatening finality, the end of the road.
But the Lord has not disappeared totally. Baby may suddenly start to wail because Mommy's face is nowhere to be seen, but Mommy is in fact just behind the blanket and will quickly pick up her little one to give reassurance. Peter and John didn't honestly know where the body had gone as they stared at the empty graveclothes in dawn's first light, but something was definitely up. The tombstone could no longer stay shut and conceal the miracle of what had just happened. If our troubles in the world cause us to ask, "Where did Jesus go?" the message of Easter is that we can have fresh and exciting hope because of where He's gone and what He's up to.
Throughout Lent we've been looking at some highlights from the book of Psalms, the ancient Jewish hymnbook heavily influenced by King David. Psalm 22 related eerily closely to Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday; Psalm 110 may be the most clearly Messianic of all the psalms. Already before Jesus' time, the Jews viewed it as speaking of the Christ, God's anointed Deliverer. David may have written it partially for the coronation of Solomon his son, but there are limits to how much it can be applied to Solomon. The first 3 verses speak of God assuring the one David calls 'my Lord' of protection and victory over enemies; "The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies.Your troops will be willing on your day of battle." That much could certainly be said of Solomon's reign; it was Israel's 'golden age', blessed by peace on all sides. There was fame, glory, and prosperity that would never again be matched in the nation's existence.
But that's as far as the similarity goes. V4 says the Lord declares the person "a priest forever": but Israelite kings were strictly forbidden from performing priestly functions. This is emphasized in 2Chronicles 26(16-19) when King Uzziah proudly attempts to burn incense, is rebuked by courageous priests, and punished by God with leprosy for trespassing. V5 says this leader "will crush kings on the day of His wrath". Solomon wasn't a conqueror; he tended to make alliances by marriage, not military means. That was his problem: his many wives drew his heart away to worship other gods. In 1Kings 11(9ff,33), Solomon is rebuked directly by God for his idolatry, and denounced by the prophet Ahijah who predicts most of the kingdom will be taken away from Solomon's son because he has not done what is right in God's eyes. So it seems that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has someone else in view - a greater and holier ruler than Solomon.
The New Testament affirms that Psalm 110 applies to Jesus Christ more than to an earlier Hebrew king. Speaking to the religious authorities in Matthew 22(43ff), Jesus insists that David in v1refers to the Messiah: "The LORD says to my Lord..." The apostle Peter refers to the same passage in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2(34ff), concluding, "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
What is it about this royal Psalm that describes Jesus so well, much better than it would describe Solomon? Why was it so helpful to the early Christians in explaining what God was doing at the cross and tomb that first Easter? How does it 'lower the blanket' so God's face is no longer hidden?
First of all, this Psalm is a coronation Psalm, a hymn of a royal leader being officially empowered. God's giving this leader maximum, ultimate authority and rule. V1, "The LORD [in caps, standing for God's personal name represented by the consonants YHWH] says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" For a king to have someone sit at his right hand meant that person was second in authority; it was the place of maximum honour. That's where Jesus went when He ascended, back to the Father's side; He told Mary in the garden, "I am returning to my Father and your Father..." (Jn 20:17) When Stephen was being killed by stoning, just before he died he exclaimed, "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Ac 7:56)
In vv1-2 God says this is "until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." That's how captured kings were publicly humiliated in ancient times, as when Joshua told his army commanders during the invasion of Palestine, "Come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings." (Josh 10:24) Vv5-6 say this ruler "will crush kings on the day of his wrath.He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth." That would make Him 'Lord of lords', ruler of all, the place of maximum power. The book of Revelation (19:19) predicts "the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and His army", but they don't succeed. Instead, Jesus gives authority to those who are His to reign with Him (20:4,6); He is the One with greatest power. Paul notes, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet." (1Co 15:25)
When Peter is giving his account of the events in Judea to Cornelius and others, he says "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power...[He healed] all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him...He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the One whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead." (Ac 10:38,42) Hear the emphasis on power, conflict, command, and authority? Cornelius and other military people would relate to that - "chain of command". Jesus is the one in charge; Peter adds as an aside at the end of 36 that Jesus Christ "is Lord of all." Where did Jesus go? To the place of supreme power in all the universe, at God's right hand.
Yet Jesus is a different type of Lord or King than earthly rulers. His power is different than political or tyrannical might. There is fearsome power in a suicide bomber, but you want to get as far away from it as possible. A gang boss who conducts what's euphemistically called "internal cleansing" can throw his weight or power around, but it's destructive. Jesus' power is different; He warned His disciples against "exercising authority" the way most rulers do (Mk 10:42ff). The power of a Christian leader is to serve, not intimidate and be served.
The great conqueror and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying, "I marvel that whereas the ambitious dreams of myself, Caesar, Alexander, should have vanished into thin air, a Judean peasant, Jesus, should be able to stretch His hands across the destinies of men and nations. I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have found empires; but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded his empire upon love; and to this very day millions would die for Him."
As we saw earlier, David's 'coronation psalm' is striking in that it addresses the "lord" in question as "priest" - yet kings were strictly forbidden by God's law from carrying out any priestly functions. This is the difference in how Jesus wields power: as a priest, not just a prince. Look closely at v4: "The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."" Who's that? Melchizedek was the king of Salem ('peace', referring to Jerusalem) who came out to welcome, bless, and celebrate with Abraham after a victory in which he rescued nephew Lot from raiders (Gen 14:18). The name Melchizedek means "king of righteousness" - that's appropriate for sinless Jesus, too. By his earthly lineage, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, so God is declaring Him a priest by special appointment. The author of the letter to the Hebrews (5:6; 7:16f) says this verse in the Psalm refers to Jesus as "one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life." The only way it could be seen to be indestructible was to be crucified and buried, dead until the third day.
The work of a priest is to represent people to God, and vice versa, speaking God's blessing as Melchizedek did to Abraham. Earthly priests (in the Old Testament and other religions) offer sacrifices brought by worshippers; Jesus is different in that He offers the sacrifice of Himself, the only truly effective sacrifice. Human priests cannot by their own means change the innate sinfulness of other people; a sinfulness that is soaked into us. The story is told of a man with a nagging secret who couldn't stand to keep it any longer. In the confessional he admitted that for years he had been stealing building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked. "What did you take?" his parish priest asked. "Enough to build my own home and enough for my son's house. And houses for our two daughters. And our cottage at the lake." "This is very serious," the priest said. "I shall have to think of a far-reaching penance. Have you ever done a retreat?" "No, Father, I haven't," the man replied. "But if you can get the plans, I can get the lumber." (!)
How easy it is to slip back into comfortable bad habits! We need a priest who can deal effectively with our shortcomings.
Jesus is that priest. He accepted that His unique role was to bring salvation for sinful people, not by force as king, but by sacrificial submission as a priest. He concluded His discussion with the disciples about wielding power by noting, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mk 10:45) In view of God's eternal justice, you and I as sinners deserve to end our existence like one of those dead bikers entombed in a hatchback; but Jesus substituted His life for ours, He died as our ransom so we could be forgiven and share in His resurrection. How did Peter say Jesus used His power while He was alive on earth? "He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil..." (Ac 10:38) Jesus deploys His power to help, not exploit; to cure not just physical illness, but our spiritual sickness, our sin-stricken alienation from a holy God. As Peter said, "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Ac 10:43) Can you believe that, here, today? The fact that we have Easter as a holiday at all springs from the historical legacy of eyewitness testimony centuries ago. This is what Easter's about: not bunnies or eggs or candy, but the offer of eternal life; what Jesus DID means our sins can be forgiven. If we believe in Him, we will receive eternal life. Don't leave here today without coming to grips with that!
Where did Jesus go? No, he didn't finish out his earthly life quietly shacked up with Mary Magdalene, or whatever other fiction modern-day gnostics might cobble up for a gullible public. Fishermen like Peter, doctors like Luke, zealous religious professionals like Paul don't die for what they know to be a lie. The truth is what Paul wrote to Timothy: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men-- the testimony given in its proper time." (1Ti 2:5-6)
Where did Jesus go? To the right hand of the Father; not to simply bask in the glory that is due Him; but to engage perpetually in sweating it out for those who are His, praying for us. Paul wrote to the church at Rome, "Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." (Ro 8:34) Isn't that amazing? At the key place of power in the universe, Jesus is interceding for you and for me. Just as He prayed for Peter to recover from his dastardly denial and to strengthen others in turn, Jesus is praying for us to receive God's strengthening for our tasks. (Lk 22:32) The Bible, God's Word, says: "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." And, "if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense-- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." (Heb 7:25; 1Jo 2:1) He has infinite Power as Lord of all; yet He loves us so much, He channels all His resources, His attention, His life into those who by faith become one with Him.
Have you been playing 'peek' with God? Is there anything you've been trying to hide from Him? It won't work - He knows your very thoughts (Ps 139:1-4). Come clean now, or else you'll have to be embarrassed at the Lord's return before "the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead" (Ac 10:42).
What a shock it must have been for that farmer in the Shedden area to discover those bodies in those vehicles! Yet, truthfully, we sometimes suppose there are areas of our lives we can hide from God. Jesus died and rose to save us from all that guilt; He's mediating for us before the Father, seeking for us to be totally open to Him; to quit hiding.
The Daily Telegraph notes that a high percentage of new cars sold in Japan have their first "service" at a temple or shrine rather than at a garage. In a form of religious insurance taken out by an increasing number of Japanese motorists, drivers take their new vehicles to the temple gate for a blessing ceremony. A Buddhist or Shinto priest is summoned, and the doors, hood, and trunk are opened. Hundreds of thousands of new cars are given this special benediction annually.
If so many people take pains to have their car blessed by a pagan priest - how much more do we need to seek true blessing from the powerful priest Peter and the apostles witnessed rose from the dead. Don't you want God's blessing on all your life? Open to Him your doors, your hood, your trunk. You've been hiding from Him too long. Or if it seems He's been hiding from you, trust that although you don't see Jesus now, the testimony of Scripture is sure: He's speaking on your behalf at Heaven's throne. Let's pray.