05 Apr Easter Sunday: The Exalted Jesus
The Exalted Jesus
Mark 16:1-8 and Revelation 5:1-14
April 1, 2018 Easter Sunday
Calvary Presbyterian Church
“Who do you say that I am?” That is the question Jesus asked his disciples, and it is the question we have been looking to answer during the season of Lent.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, he wasn’t giving his followers a test to see how orthodox their theology was. He was asking in order to see whether their answer had any impact on their lives. What difference does our view of Jesus make in the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives, in how we go about our work, raise our children, relate to our extended family and our neighbors? What difference does it make in our values and priorities, in how we spend our time or our money? This is a particularly apt question on Easter. We gather in church today all spiffed up and looking our best. The music is majestic, we’ll hear the word, “resurrection” a lot, and when we leave—then what? What impact will it have? Does any of it matter?
Bob Woodruff is a well known and respected journalist and reporter for ABC News. Twelve years ago, Mr. Woodruff was reporting from Iraq, embedded with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry division, when the vehicle in which he was riding struck a roadside bomb. He sustained critical injuries that required surgery to remove part of his skull to reduce damage from brain swelling, and he was put in a medically-induced coma for 36 days. Years later, Woodruff said that during those 36 days, he felt that he left his body for a period of time, floating above, watching people work on him. He entered what he called another realm, and it turns out that his near death experience bore striking similarities to what other people see, feel, and hear when they cross from this world to the next and then return: the light, the sense of peace, the complete lack of fear, the recognition of loved ones, and perhaps most compelling, the fact that no one wants to come back.
In the years since Woodruff shared his story in a primetime special, there have been several high-profile NDE’s. Ordained minister Don Piper wrote the book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, to chronicle his NDE after his car was crushed by an eighteen-wheeler. Heaven is for Real is a book, later turned into a movie, about 4-year old Colton Burpo’s close brush with death after a burst appendix. Here in Virginia, Proof of Heaven was written by Charlottesville neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander who made medical history as the first person ever to recover from a particular type of rare infection that attacked his brain—landing him in a coma and a NDE that he had previously believed to be medically impossible.
The Near Death Experience Research Foundation has studied more than 1400 cases of NDE, and according to Dr. Bill Lansing, there are not only common characteristics of these experiences, there are also similarities in the after-effects. People are changed by their experiences. Dr. Lansing documents that survivors are more accepting and more loving towards others, to the point that their family members sometimes feel threatened by their new attitude. Survivors tend to have a different sense of time—they are less concerned about schedules and events in the past or the future and are instead much more engaged in the events of now. They also have a changed view of physical reality, with a noticeable reduction in worry and fear. And, they have a different feeling of the physical body itself, believing in a new way that they live in and “wear” their bodies, but that their essence isn’t defined by the physical.
The disciples did not have a near death experience themselves, but they were as radically changed as if they had after encountering a Jesus who they knew had been not nearly-dead, but very dead and now was very much alive. These women and men went from being filled with fear, hiding behind locked doors and avoiding public officials to standing in the public square, boldly preaching the gospel of new life in Christ. They went from a bunch of squabbling, “me first” power-hogs to people who served the poor, who opened their homes to strangers, who started living in community with those they weren’t related to and didn’t know—which was a completely strange, ridiculous and dangerous notion in their world.
The resurrection wasn’t some creedal statement to use as a litmus test for who was in or out at the local synagogue. It wasn’t a great vision statement useful for launching a new religion and putting on the new church’s letterhead. The resurrection was an experience that grabbed them by the lapels, shook them awake and changed their lives. They were never going to be the same, and they knew it. There was no going back, any more than Don Piper or Eben Alexander or Bob Woodruff can un-know what they saw and heard and learned and how their lives were upended as a result. Who is the real Jesus? He’s the one who rose from the dead, whose resurrection changes everything we ever thought we knew about truth and reality and what our lives are really about.
The disciples didn’t grasp it all at once, of course, any more than we do. The resurrection is a game-changer of such magnitude that it takes a lifetime to plumb the depths of what it means to us and for us. John the Evangelist wants to help us along, so he shares a vision he has. His vision, like the resurrection itself, is intended to impact how we live right now.
John’s vision gives him a clear view into heaven through an open door. It is significant that the first thing John sees is a throne, a symbol of God’s sovereignty, majesty, and kingly rule. The imagery in the throne room is fantastic. There’s an emerald rainbow, 24 thrones encircling the main throne, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, blazing lamps, and imagination-defying creatures. In front of the throne stretches an infinite expanse like a sea of glass. As fantastic a scene as this creates, however, the point is not what is going on around the throne. The point is, in the words of theologian Eugene Boring, “there is a throne room for the universe, and the throne is not vacant. The universe is not a chaos nor is it ruled by blind fate. Someone is in charge.”
John is making an audacious claim that his 1st century audience would have understood immediately. John is saying that Rome, with all its military might that regularly crushed its opposition, and Caesar, who demanded to be addressed as lord and god, were not in charge. They could not and did not hold the fate of the world or God’s people in their hands, no matter how many Christians they tortured or sent to a martyr’s death. For a small, vulnerable, struggling group of Christians, this was a message of hope. But, John’s point goes further than that. John is making a claim about ultimate reality, that the one who sits on the throne is the one who really rules, who is the King of all kings. It is the sovereign God, not our modern-day Caesars, whose will and purposes will not be denied. Triumph is certain. The end of the story is already written. Anybody and anything else is only a pale imitation, not to be compared with the one who occupies the throne.
John’s attention is finally diverted from the throne to something the throne’s occupant is holding in his right hand. It is the scroll, the book of history which to this point has remained closed and sealed. The booming voice of an angel pierces the air with the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one can be found—no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth—is found who can open the book. John receives this news and weeps bitterly. It appears the book will remain forever closed.
But then, one of the elders announces that the Lion of Judah has conquered and can open the book. This is the announcement of the victory of the Messiah, and what could be more right, more fitting? The Lion of Judah was expected to fight God’s battles and wreak vengeance on God’s enemies. Finally, evil will be vanquished, justice will be established, the oppressed will be vindicated, and the righteous King will take his throne. John looks at the appointed place where the Lion is supposed to appear and…wait. How can this be? Instead of a triumphant lion, John sees a lamb, one that has been slaughtered. More astonishing still, this bloody lamb is standing in the very center of the throne, sharing it with God. This lamb is the one, the only one, who is worthy to reveal the will and purposes of God contained in the scroll.
That the Lion could be a slaughtered lamb was a stunning reversal of all that was expected. It changed everything for John and his churches, and it still changes everything for us. It changes, first, how we see victory and defeat. The reason the Lamb is able to open the scroll is because he has triumphed. The cross, which looks like defeat in terms of ultimate reality is actually a victory. Do you see the connection to our lives? Things that look, from the world’s perspective, like setbacks, failures and bad news are, from God’s perspective, the raw material from which victory is possible. Everything, in the hands of Christ, can be redeemed—everything. And, as it is redeemed, we are formed into the image of Christ.
Second, the resurrected Christ changes how we understand and experience suffering. The Apostle Paul says, “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:17) Neither John nor Paul are saying that the suffering that occurs in this world and in our lives is unimportant. They are saying that we can choose to see suffering through the eyes of the risen, exalted Christ who in his own suffering remained faithful and obedient. Suffering will give way to glory, and in the light of Christ’s glory, our suffering now looks different.
Finally, because Christ is raised and exalted, we understand weakness differently. Specifically, we are called to understand power through weakness. John’s paradox is clear: the exalted, eternal Christ, the one who has been made king and sits on the throne, the only one who is worthy to share in the glory of God is the same one who in weakness laid down his life on the cross. It is before this Jesus, this King that everyone falls to the ground and the elders and the heavenly creatures and tens of thousands of angels shout, “Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise for ever and ever!”
“Who do you say that I am” Jesus asks? Peter said simply, “You are the Messiah, the Holy One of God.” A “modern-day Peter”, Rev. S.M. Lockridge put it this way:
The Bible says my King is the King of the Jews. He’s the King of Israel. He’s the King of Righteousness. He’s the King of the Ages. He’s the King of Heaven. He’s the King of Glory. He’s the King of kings, and He’s the Lord of lords. That’s my King. I wonder, do you know Him?
My King is a sovereign King. No means of measure can define His limitless love. He’s enduringly strong. He’s eternally steadfast. He’s immortally graceful. He’s imperially powerful. He’s impartially merciful. Do you know Him?
He’s the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizon of this world. He’s God’s Son. He’s the sinner’s Savior. He’s the centerpiece of civilization. He’s unparalleled. He’s unprecedented. He is the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology. He’s the only one qualified to be an all sufficient Savior. I wonder if you know Him today?
He supplies strength for the weak. He’s available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He strengthens and sustains. He guards and He guides. He heals the sick. He cleanses the lepers. He forgives sinners and discharges debtors. He delivers the captive. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent. And He beautifies the meek. I wonder if you know Him?
He’s the key to knowledge. He’s the wellspring of wisdom. He’s the doorway of deliverance. He’s the pathway of peace. He’s the roadway of righteousness. He’s the highway of holiness. He’s the gateway of glory. Do you know Him? Well…
His life is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His Word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous. His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
I wish I could describe Him to you. Yes…
He’s indescribable! He’s incomprehensible. He’s invincible. He’s irresistible. You can’t get Him out of your mind. You can’t outlive Him, and you can’t live without Him. Well, the Pharisees couldn’t stand Him, but they found out they couldn’t stop Him. Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him. Herod couldn’t kill Him. Death couldn’t handle Him, and the grave couldn’t hold Him.
Yeah! That’s my King, that’s my King. If that’s your King, your life will be changed forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.