I love sunrise services at Easter. Last year, I had the opportunity of preaching one. On that morning, I encouraged the congregation to go back in time some 2500 years to the ancient empire of Babylon.
There, a strange, idiosyncratic prophet named Ezekiel is having a vision. An angelic being transports him in this vision from the flat, dry, alluvial plains of Babylon to the beautiful walls of the temple in Jerusalem. The angel literally picks Ezekiel up by the lock of his hair.
Once there, God has His prophet dig through the wall to see all kinds of abominations in the temple. Idol worship of the worst kind. Innocent blood being shed.
In response, God tells Ezekiel a shocking thing:
Some 400 years earlier, when Solomon had built Jerusalem’s magnificent temple, God’s glory had descended in a visible cloud, and there it had remained as a tangible reminder of God’s gracious presence among His people. But now, God’s glory was moving, turning His back on His adulterous people.
“Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.”Ezekiel 11
That mountain is the Mount of Olives. From there, God watched the destruction of the city long prophesied. The Babylonians broke in and leveled Solomon’s magnificent temple to YHWH.
Some 70 years later, when the Persians allowed the Jews to return from exile, the temple is rebuilt, but a strange thing happens. The glory of God never returns. For centuries, the Jewish people waited, but it never happened. Centuries passed until…
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Israel with some students. If you ever have the chance to go, you might find Jerusalem itself somewhat disappointing—lots of buying and selling, commercialism, and tourism.
The Holy sites, like the Church of Annunciation, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Church of the Nativity, all sit on places supposedly connected to Jesus’ life and death. But none of these identifications are certain. Each church is ornately decorated, filled with candles, incense, and priests of various denominations. But none of these sites were tremendously meaningful to me.
But one place did cause me to break down in tears. Outside the Temple Mount, archaeologists have exposed some first-century steps leading into the city.
We stood on those steps and gazed at the scene. As I turned around, I looked to the east and saw the beautiful Mount of Olives, now crowned with thousands of tombstones—filled with dead Jews and Christians who believed this to be the location of the first or second coming, depending on your faith. The Mount of Olives is where Jesus had prayed at Gethsemane. Where he had pronounced judgment over Jerusalem. Where he had assented to God’s will for Him to die for His people.
Then, it struck me. I was standing in the very place where Jesus Himself had walked, as He entered the Holy City to go to His death.
And as I looked at the Mount of Olives, I suddenly remembered that that location was also the place where God’s glory had descended and remained never to return… until years later, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Suffering Servant, the King of the Jews, the Messiah to the Nations, the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the Word became Flesh, entered to His death, humble and mounted on a colt, even the foal of a donkey.
God’s glory had returned. As John states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And no cross, no beating, no crown of thorns, could snuff that glory out.
Three days later, that glory was raised again. And that is what we celebrated that Easter Sunday morning at sunrise, some 2000 years later. And that is the glorious resurrection we celebrate this Sunday.
Eventually, the Bible tells us that Jesus was taken back into heaven from, guess where—the Mount of Olives. And one day, as Zechariah states, “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zechariah 14:4).
The very location where Jesus was betrayed and rejected will be the place where Jesus returns in triumph. And so today, even as we look back to the victory of the glory of Christ over the grave, we await the return of that glory to us.
This is how Easter has always been for Christians—looking back with faith, looking forward with hope.