In our reading from the book of Numbers this morning, we’re given the account of the first leg of what was to be the journey of the Israelites from the foot of Mt. Sinai to the promised land.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride. God’s people will walk along unfamiliar paths. Across an unknown wilderness. Through hostile territory. But here we have an incredible picture of how God comforts his people on their journey by going ahead of them.
In verse 33, we read:
So they set out from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey. And the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them.
Now this is interesting. Remember what the ark of the covenant is? The ark is the footstool of God—the place where heaven meets earth—where God’s presence dwells with and among his people. Inside the ark are the two stone tablets of God’s law—the righteous demands that reflect God’s perfection and holiness. But on top of the ark are drops of blood—the sacrifice of atonement that the high priest sprinkles there once a year on the Day of Atonement as a covering for sin.
And so this ark—this place where the presence of God dwells—this place where the holiness of God and the mercy of God meet—goes a three-days journey before the people. For what purpose? To seek out a resting place for them.
Pay attention to the gospel reading as we celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord this coming Sunday. Just before Jesus ascends, what does he say to his disciples? He says, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled…thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” (Luke 24:44, 46) Now this has given some people fits. Not only does Christ say that the Old Testament prophesies about his suffering and death—but that all the Old Testament—including the five books of Moses—proclaim that his resurrection would happen after three days. But where?
Just as the ark goes a three-days journey ahead of the people to seek a resting place, so Jesus Christ goes a three-days journey into the grave. Going ahead of his people into death. Descending into hell to proclaim his victory to the spirits in prison. And then, on the third day, Christ answers this prayer of Moses who cries out, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered and let those who hate you flee before you!” On the third day, Christ does arise. On the third day, he scatters his enemies and proclaims his victory to his people. On the third day, he goes ahead of his people and wins for them an eternal resting place.
Jesus Christ is the ark that leads us through the wilderness to our place of rest. He is Emmanuel—God with us—God who dwells with us in our very midst. The ladder where heaven meets earth. Where the holiness of God meets the mercy of God. He has gone before us into the grave to give us rest. And he has gone before us into heaven to prepare for us a place. This Sunday, as we celebrate our Lord’s ascension and as we eagerly anticipate his glorious return, let us unite our prayers with Moses, who, when he sees the cloud of the Lord finally come to rest, exclaims, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!
Alleluia, Christ is risen!