This week we are finishing up our worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters. You might be saying to yourself, “Finally!” But, I hope that you have enjoyed this series as much as I have. I have had so much fun digging into the experiences that these people have had as they encountered God. It has opened my eyes to the possibilities of encounter that are out there. How we can be looking for things. How we can be challenged to get out of our comfort zones. How we can realize where God has been working in our lives, and how we can be oblivious to God’s presence as we are wrapped up in the things that are going on around us. That is very much where we are with today’s Divine Encounter.
It is the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. The disciples are despondent. They don’t know what to do. Several of the women go to Jesus’ tomb to care for his dead body, but guess what? He’s not there! His body has not been stolen. Two angels tell them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5) The ladies tell the eleven disciples, but the men do not believe them. They regard the women’s words as what our NIV Bibles describe as “nonsense.” A more accurate translation of Luke’s medical language is “delirious babblings” of people who are ill (Robert Hoch, Working Preacher, “Luke 24: 13-35”).
Now, it’s later in the day, and a couple of other disciples have decided it’s time to leave Jerusalem for a little while. We don’t know why. They could be going home. They could just need a break, a respite, a diversion from all of the stress of the last three days.
Our Scripture passage comes from Luke 24:13-32. I’m going to paraphrase one part of one verse with the way my friends would have said it in Texas to give it the right kind of feeling. See if you can identify it.
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does 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. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25 [Jesus] said to them, “[Bless your hearts. How could you miss all that the prophets have spoken!] How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.”So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them . 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So, did you figure out the part that I paraphrased? “Bless their hearts.” Nevertheless, this is a wonderful passage, a wonderful encounter, and we will explore some of the things that make it so. We do not have enough time to address everything we could in this unique passage. But, there was one thing that bothered me about it, and I wonder whether it bothers you too? Did you notice in verse 16 where it said, “They were kept from recognizing him [Jesus].” Did that bother anyone else, or is it just me? It made me ask the question, “Why?”
The truth is that we don’t know. The passage doesn’t say, but on the surface, it seems so cruel. These people are obviously grieving and in a state of shock. What good could come from keeping them from recognizing Jesus? Well, let’s think about what would have happened if they had recognized him. One thing is that they would have been totally overwhelmed by his presence and resurrection rather than having the opportunity to learn what they needed to about why everything needed to happen as it did over the last several days.
Another possibility is that they kept themselves from recognizing Jesus. Not consciously, of course, but for one they thought that Jesus was dead. They didn’t believe the women at the tomb. You just don’t expect to encounter dead people walking next to you on the road. Moreover, he might have looked at least a little different than before.
When Mark talks about this incident in 16:12, he says that Jesus appeared to them “in another form” (NKJV). Remember that in John’s Gospel neither Mary Magdalene nor Peter recognized him at first. (cf. John 20:14-16; 21:4-7) So perhaps, it is not so surprising that the two going to Emmaus would not recognize Jesus, at least at first, but they walked with him as he taught them for a long time.
Perhaps, the best explanation as to why they could not recognize Jesus is the same reason that they could not realize that the events of the last few days were necessary for God’s rescue plan. (NT Wright, Luke for Everyone, pg 295) Until they accepted that it was physically possible for Jesus to be there, they couldn’t recognize him. This didn’t until Jesus opened the Scriptures for them and he performed the ritual of blessing and breaking the bread that would have been so familiar to them. He didn’t just do this at the Last Supper. It is also recorded that he followed this same process at the Feeding of the 5000 (cf. Luke 9:16). Later in Acts 27:35, Paul does the same thing. It would have been something that was very familiar that they had probably seen Jesus do a multitude of times. Once they saw him perform the familiar ritual their eyes were opened.
Their eyes were opened … Remember that phrase. We are coming back to that.
Before that moment their eyes were definitely closed. They were blinded. Perhaps, the reason that they couldn’t recognize Jesus is that their eyes were covered over by grief. They try to get out of town, to leave it behind, but they can’t. They have to keep talking about what has happened. Keep going over it again and again. “We had hoped,” they tell Jesus, but right now their hope is gone.
Those of you who have known me the longest know that I love CS Lewis’ book series The Chronicles of Narnia. While they are intended as children’s stories, there are rich teachings for adults if we are open to it. One of my favorite books is one of the lesser known ones, A Horse and His Boy. The boy’s name is Shasta. He grew up in a very dysfunctional household that included physical and mental abuse. Just before he ran away with a visiting horse, the person he thought was his father was selling him into slavery. On his adventure with the horse Bree, he had been chased by lions, slept in graveyards, made an arduous journey across a desert, and ran on foot to warn a king that a surprise military attack was coming. As he was headed alone toward what he hoped was safety, he found that he was not alone. There was something massive walking alongside him that he couldn’t identify. First, he was afraid that it was a ghost or something dead, then it might be a predator that would eat him. Then, he cries out, “I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!”
The thing (which turns out to be Aslan, the Jesus character) blows warm breath on Shasta’s hand to reassure him that he is not a ghost and says, “Tell me your sorrows.” Shasta proceeds to do this, and through the conversation, he learns that Aslan has been around directing his path and protecting him from dangers through his whole life. He is in fact doing it during this conversation on what is effectively Shasta’s road to Emmaus.
As Jesus encounters the men on the road, he doesn’t just walk along with them quietly. He asks them what they are talking about? They can’t believe that he doesn’t know the things that have been happening, and Jesus asks, “What things?” (Luke 24:19) In other words, Tell me your sorrows. This is more than just showing up. We talk about that a lot, Jesus being with us. That is good, and that is important, but this is more than that. As he walks along with them down the road, he gets them to talk about what they’ve experienced. When you have to explain something to someone not familiar with what happened, you have to think about it in different ways. It’s different than rehashing something with friends. In this case they have to name the hurt. “We had hoped…” To name the fear. To name the doubt.
Then, Jesus comforts them by showing them in the Scriptures why it was necessary to fully redeem Israel. He helps them to make sense of what happened. Helps them to move on, so their hearts could burn within them, so their eyes can be opened.
“Their eyes were opened” (Luke24:31). Their eyes were opened. That sounds so familiar. Does anybody know where we may have heard that phrase before or something very similar? If we look back to Genesis 3:
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened…
We’ve been talking about stories, knowing our stories. This is the story that began all the trouble and has been told over and over as the place where all the trouble all the brokenness afflicting humanity started. It is the place where death became a certainty. The whole creation was affected to brokenness, decay, and sorrow.
In today’s Scripture, we have the first meal in the new creation. “30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
In that moment they realize that it wasn’t the women at the tomb who were deluded. It was them. They realize that they have been in the presence of the risen Christ all this time. In that moment, they realize that Death itself has been defeated. They knew that Jesus talked about rising on the third day on numerous occasions, but it just didn’t seem possible, so they ignored it. They closed their eyes to it, but now their eyes have been opened.
They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. In an instant moment of clarity they realize that he did redeem Israel and much more than that. Their idea of redemption from the Romans was small potatoes. Of course, it starts the defeat of the Romans as well because they used death’s power to control the people, the same as criminals, terrorist groups, and even governments do today.
Last week, we talked about when God gave his mission to Moses to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the Exodus. This week the Emmaus disciples are finally learning about the new Exodus that the prophets had promised, but now the enemy is far beyond a particular country or nation-state. It is death.
The threat of death is what drives the power of so many whether it is the person in front of you with a gun or a knife or governments towards their own people or their adversaries. Whether it’s terrorists or the threat of nuclear war. The Cold War doctrine of MADD, Mutually Assured Destruction Doctrine. Attack us, and your country will cease to exist.
How many of you have seen the classic movie The Maltese Falcon? In it Humphry Bogart plays private detective Sam Spade. Everyone is double crossing everyone else to get this highly valuable prize of the Maltese Falcon. This double crossing includes murder. Towards the end Sam Spade has the Falcon, and the head bad guy, Gutman is trying to persuade, bribe, and threaten Sam in any way that he thinks he can to get his prize.
Sam says, “If you kill, me how you going to get the bird? And if I know you can’t afford to kill me, how you going to scare me into giving it to you?
Gutman replies, “Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.”
Sam says, “Yes, that’s . . . That’s true. But, there’re none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them.”
If we think about it, with Jesus death can no longer be used as a threat anymore. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was sailing from England on a missionary trip to the colony of Georgia. (That tells you the timeframe.) A transatlantic voyage was very dangerous. There was a terrible storm at sea. Many people didn’t think that the ship was going to make it. John Wesley was as afraid as anyone else, but he saw a group of Moravians, a Christian group from central Europe, Germany, Hungary, Czech area. They were not afraid. They were singing hymns of praise and ready for anything, just like Paul and Silas in prison in Acts 16:25. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” When John Wesley saw the Moravians singing in the face of death, he knew that his faith was not nearly as strong as theirs.
The victory over death removes the most forceful tool of the powers of this world. This means that the new Exodus has begun. Jesus has led the people out of slavery, and he invites us all to accompany him to the Promised Land. Hopefully, we have made our lists of what God has done for us, but can we trust God with our very lives in our daily Divine Encounters on our way not just to Emmaus but to the Kingdom of God, not just this day but every day?
May your hearts burn within you. May your eyes be opened, so that you can say:
YES! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Glory to God.