From grave to glory - Luke 24:13-35
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Ten-year-old Phineas was up before the sun was. He'd scarcely slept the night before. And long before a sound was heard in the house, he was downstairs with his bag packed, ready to climb into the wagon. The year was 1820. And Phineas was about to see an island; his island. The island promised to him at birth. The day he was born, his grandfather presented newborn Phineas with a deed, a sizable portion of Connecticut land called Ivy Island. And today, for the first time, Phineas was to see it.
Not every boy is born a land owner. Phineas's parents were always quick to remind their son of that fact. They urged him not to forget them when he came of age. Neighbours feared that the young landowner wouldn't want to play with their children. Their concerns were legitimate. Phineas was different from his playmates. While they dreamed of dragons and knights, his fantasies were of Ivy Island. Someday he would be lord of his own territory. He'd build a house. Start a farm. Raise cattle. Rule his domain. The fact is when you own an island you feel important; when you own an island, you want to see it. And Phineas had yet to see his. He pleaded with his father to take him to the island and, finally, in the summer of 1820, his father agreed.
Three sleepless nights preceded the expedition. Then, early that morning, Phineas, his father, and a hired hand climbed into the buggy and began the long-anticipated journey. Finally, Phineas would see his land. He could scarcely sit still. At the top of each hill he would ask, "Are we nearly there yet? And his father would encourage him to be patient and assure him that they were drawing near. Finally, his Dad pointed north beyond a meadow to a row of tall trees stretching into the sky. "There," he said. "There is Ivy Island."
Phineas was simply overcome. He jumped from the wagon and dashed through the meadow, leaving his father far behind. He raced to the row of trees into an opening from which Ivy Island was visible. When he saw the land he stopped and his little heart sank. You see, Ivy Island was in fact five acres of snake-infested marshland. His grandfather had called it the most valuable land in Connecticut. But it was totally worthless. His father had told him it was a generous gift. It wasn't. It was a joke . . . a cruel joke. As stunned Phineas stared, the father and the hired hand roared with laughter. Phineas was not the fortunate beneficiary of the family. He was the laughingstock of the family. Grandfather Taylor had played a vicious practical joke on his heir. Phineas didn't laugh. Nor did he forget. That disappointment shaped his life. He, the deceived, made a lifestyle out of deception. The little boy fooled, made a career out of fooling people. He is not now known as Phineas but he is known as P.T- the man who coined the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute." And he spent his life proving it. Such was the life of -P. T. Barnum.
And when you think about it, that is the life of many people to day- lives of diminished expectations; people who have been offered the Promised Land but ended up with a swamp. I can think of the businessman who had to start again from scratch because his slick partner had run off with all of the money and left him with all of the debts- he lost his house which had been given as security, he nearly lost his health, but he did manage to keep his family- just. I think of the Christian couple faced with infertility only to be told at a healing meeting that within a year she would be pregnant. They remained unable to conceive. High hopes destined to take a nose dive. And no doubt you know people in exactly that position, maybe it is you. Is anything wrong with these folk? Not really. Their desires are all natural and proper; one wanted a business the other wanted a family. And there is nothing wrong with that. But after the disappointment each is faced with a decision to make, namely, what to do with it? Just how do you deal with dashed dreams? How do you cope with the disillusionment? And at some point in our lives we all have to face those sorts of questions, because it is simply not possible to go through this world without having the experience of a P.T. Barnum, being led to expect so much and being given so little.
Well, that certainly was the experience of the two disciples of Jesus that we are looking at together this morning in Luke 24, that of Cleopas and his unnamed friend. Just look at v 13 ‘Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.’ Here we have two close colleagues of Jesus and we are given a glimpse into their hearts just a few days after his death, its late Easter afternoon. As far as they were concerned their world had simply imploded. It’s obvious from the way they walk. Their feet shuffle, their heads hang, their shoulders droop. Disappointment is written all over their faces as we see in verse 17. The distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus feels more like seventy miles than seven. And that is what happens when the bottom falls out of you world isn’t it? - time drags, you walk through a fog of unreality.
So as they walk they talk- ‘about everything that had happened.’ You can imagine the conversation can’t you? ‘Why did the people turn on him? What went wrong? One minute the world was at his feet, the next minute he is hanging on a cross. The one who spoke the most amazing words from a mountain just stood there in silence before the magistrate. What got into him? It was as if he wanted to die.’ And so comes the inevitable question: ‘What are we going to do now?’ And so they continue to walk, with more questions than answers buzzing around their head. And that is when the stranger comes up from behind them. It is Jesus, v 15. But they don’t recognise him. Verse 16 says ‘They were kept from recognising him.’ What prevented them from seeing the risen Jesus for who he was? The fact that, as we shall see later, they did come have their eyes opened to this revelation, suggests that God is the one who grants such an insight, it is not simply up to us. However, that does not rule out other factors which could be at work contributing to a spiritual blindness which may be of our own making. Sometimes discouragement causes us to turn our eyes inwards instead of outwards. Despair can cloud our vision to the presence of God; he is there but we can’t see him for we are so preoccupied by what has happened to us-we are spiritually numb.
But despair can also do something else; it can make our hearts hard. When you think about it, cynicism is one of the most natural and poisonous reactions to being let down. That may be hinted at in what the disciples say in v22 ‘It is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." What was the tone of that? Hopeful or skeptical? I would suggest skeptical given what we read earlier in v 11. When the women had come back from the tomb, claiming to have found it empty and angels saying Jesus had been raised from the dead, the apostles reaction was, ‘They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ Why should these two think any differently? If they had been hopeful then why were they so downcast in verse 17? So you can pick up the implication of what they are saying easily: ‘As if it’s not bad enough that Jesus was killed, now we have grave robbers at work and hysterical woman on the loose.’ To be fooled once may be acceptable to be fooled twice is inexcusable. They were not going to be duped by some cock- and- bull story of angels and people rising from the dead. No, our mates checked this out and the grave was empty- no angels, no fairies, no anything.
And it is all so perfectly understandable isn’t it? This is one reason why I trust what the New Testament writers have written; it is just so true to real life. If Luke had made this story up as a piece of Christian propaganda, wouldn’t he have had the disciples ‘hoping against hope’? Showing a real ‘leap of faith’- saying ‘Yes Jesus is alive; I simply believe who needs evidence?’ But no. These are men who have been hurt. These are those whose hearts have been broken and they are not going to run the risk of that ever happening again and so the barriers go up. That is such a common reaction. Ever been hurt by love? Simple solution: Don’t love. Ever had a promise broken? Answer: Don’t trust. Like P.T. Barnum, settle the score by blaming the world and hardening your heart. The fact is hurt can so easily turn to hate. Bitterness mutates into blame and that is a very lonely road to walk.
But the wonderful thing here is that we don’t have to go down that road, for it is by meeting Jesus that we can have our lives turned around, as here, quite literally.
Notice first of all what Jesus did. He came to them. They didn’t go looking for him-why should they? But that did not stop him coming looking for them. He did what he so often does with his people- he meets them at the point of their pain. Though death has been destroyed and sins forgiven, that doesn’t mean Jesus has retired. The resurrected Lord, now wrapped in glorified flesh, wearing human clothes seeks out hurting hearts. And how they hurt-v 17(Jesus) asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" They stood still, their faces downcast. 18One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19"What things?" he asked. "About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.’ There it is, ‘they were hoping.’ Jesus was going to free the Jews. Jesus was going to get rid of the Romans. Jesus was going to establish Israel’s rightful place as supreme nation. But Jesus is dead and along with him all of their hopes have died too. You see, Jesus did not do what they expected him to. And aren’t we glad that he didn’t? What would that have meant? A temporary political solution to what was fundamentally a spiritual problem. Let me tell you: Jesus would rather his people be momentarily oppressed than eternally lost. The grip of Rome was nothing compared to the grip of Satan. Jesus said ‘no’ to what they wanted and ‘yes’ to what they needed- namely, eternal salvation. If only they had seen that then their wrong expectations would have been corrected and their despondency lifted.
So that is precisely what Jesus does next, he not only comes to them, he explains the Bible to them: 25 ‘He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ The fact is, it wasn’t the women that they were failing to believe, it was God; what he had written over the centuries and recorded in what is our Old Testament. Everything they needed to understand what had been going on was already available to them if only they had taken the time to look and learn. The story of Moses 1500 years before and the escape from bondage in Egypt involving the sacrifice of a lamb was a pointer to what the great escape God was going to offer to all people, the escape from his judgement by the sacrifice of the lamb-his Son Jesus. 1,000 years before God had said he would place a King on David’s throne who will reign for ever- if so then it follows that he must live for ever- so a resurrection then? As a prophet David saw in a vision a man surrounded by a crowd yelling for his blood, with pierced hands, crying out ‘My God, my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’- and wrote it down as a song-Psalm 22. 700 years before the prophet Isaiah had a similar vision, of a man hanging from the gallows, declaring, ‘He was pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, making his life a guilt offering’ and hinting of a resurrection that he would ‘see his offspring.’ And so passing along the corridors of time God’s master plan of saving sinners by His perfect King was gradually unfolded until one day-he came and it happened, exactly as he said it would. And when that happens you have an experience of God you can’t deny, as we see in v32, ‘Our hearts burned within us while he talked with us and opened the Scriptures to us.’
Why did Jesus do that? Why the Bible study? Because he knew they needed to hear what we all need to hear when we feel crushed by disappointment. We need to hear that God is in control. We need to be reminded that it is not all over until he says it is. We need to believe that life’s tragedies and disappointments are not sufficient reasons to bail out but to sit tight. It was Corrie ten Boom who as a Christian spent much of her youth in Ravensbruk concentration camp who said, ‘When the train goes through a tunnel and the world gets dark, do you jump out? Of course not. You sit still and trust the engineer to get you through.’ And perhaps, like these two loving disciples of Jesus that is where you find yourself at the moment, in the middle of a dark tunnel. If so then remember that Jesus tells the story of God’s plan to let his followers know that the engineer still controls the train. This story is God’s story and our story. It is a story of divine love, searching for and seeking out the lost. It is the story of sheep wandering and the shepherd gathering. It is the story of betrayal and rebellion and God’s faithfulness and offer of amnesty. It is the story of death and the gift of life. Read the story and you will discover that you are not the first person to weep and will not be the first person to be helped.
Do you feel lonely and abandoned? Then read of Ruth and God’s provision.
Do you feel frightened? Then read of Daniel and his deliverance.
Do you feel betrayed? Then read of Joseph and his offer of forgiveness.
These were ordinary people like you and I caught up in the great story of God’s salvation.
And when you realise that, the most natural thing you want to do is to tell others about it too, which is exactly what happens-v 33, ‘They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." 35Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.’
This week we begin a special week of reaching out into our community with this wonderful news that God in the person of Jesus offers a fresh start. And he uses people like these two followers, far from perfect, far from fully understanding to do so. Let me encourage you to get on with the business whenever and wherever of letting others know what you know to be true by telling you of something which happened to me. As many of you know I have no Christian background. Up until my late teens I was militantly anti-Christian. But then God started to bring people into my life that got me to think again. What happened was this. My friend and I were waiting at a bus stop early one Saturday morning in order to go to the next town where we worked in a supermarket. There we were chatting away when this kindly old man appeared. He started to talk to us about what we were doing at school, what we hoped to do when we left and then he asked if we went to church. Of course we didn’t and were bemused by the question, saying we studied science and didn’t go in for that sort of thing. He then said, ‘Well, I hope you don’t mind telling you what I believe, because I would be worse than a thief if I didn’t, holding back from you what is rightfully yours.’ Now I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something about his relationship with God through Jesus. We shrugged our shoulders and then decided to walk to work. Now I never saw that man again. I don’t know his name or where he came from. He might have been an angel for all I know-but a very human angel. But I tell you this, what he said, and more the way he said it, that he really believed this got to me. And this was a vital link in the chain that God used to eventually make me a Christian. That man would never have dreamt that the awkward young teenager he spoke to would eventually become a minister and do all the things he is doing now- what he in his own way was doing- telling people about the Lord Jesus. And I hope that he will be one of the first people I meet when I get to heaven because I want to thank him for what he did. My prayer is that this week there will be lots of people thanking you and me for what we have done- as we say in the words of verse 34, ‘It is true- the Lord has risen.'
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