Do please find Luke 24. If you can have that open in front of you, that'll be a great help.
Sometimes when people meet, the encounter is life-changing. Those involved might not realise it at the time, though. Twenty three years ago I went to a church service. I spotted my sister and squeezed into the pew beside her. Next to me on the other side was a girl I recognised. We got talking. Then we got married. Then we had three children. That does cut quite a long story short.
Neither Vivienne nor I realised at the time quite how life-changing that first chat would prove to be. I was quite taken with her. But if you'd asked me after that service, 'Have you just had a life-changing encounter?' I'd have thought you had a screw loose.
In fact it was even more significant for our children than for us. As I sat there thinking what I could say to this girl to get a conversation going, their very existence was hanging in the balance. Scary thought!
My prayer is that for at least some of you, this evening will be the start of a life-changing encounter. I am not referring to the person sitting next to you. I thought I'd better clear that up straight away. I'm talking about an encounter with the risen Jesus.
In this chapter, Luke 24, there are three life-changing encounters. The first comes in that first section of the chapter headed 'The Resurrection'. That's verses 1-12. And I'm calling that 'a life-changing encounter with believers.' The second comes in the middle section which is verses 13-35. That's headed 'On the road to Emmaus'. And that's 'a life-changing encounter with the Bible.' Then the third happens in the remainder of the chapter, headed 'Jesus appears to the Disciples', where there is 'a life-changing encounter with Jesus'. We'll look at each section of the chapter in turn, and hopefully you'll see what I'm on about. So:
First, A LIFE-CHANGING ENCOUNTER WITH BELIEVERS
This is the section headed 'The Resurrection'. It relates what happened on the Sunday morning after the Friday on which Jesus died. Some of the women who followed Jesus had seen him die an unspeakably horrific death by crucifixion. And they had gone to his tomb to treat the corpse with spices and perfumes. In their grief they wanted him to have a proper burial.
The main event here is the meeting at the tomb between these women and the two lightning bright men – supernatural figures – angels – who tell the women that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. He has risen from the dead.
But the encounter I want you to notice is the one that happens next. It's between those women, and the eleven remaining apostles – the team of men that Jesus had gathered around himself. The women went to the eleven with their news that Jesus had risen. And how did the men react? It's there in verse 11:
But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
That's their first reaction. 'He's alive is he? Don't talk rubbish.' But one of them hears something in the women's voices – sees something in their faces – that makes him move beyond that first instinctive rejection of their account. Verse 12:
Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
Do you see the change that's taken place in Peter's thinking?. To start with, no doubt, his response to the women is the same as that of the others. He thinks they're talking nonsense. That's hardly surprising. The disciples knew that Jesus was dead. They'd seen it all happen.
Some might think that they'd be inclined to believe stories of people being raised from the dead because they were primitive, naïve and credulous - unlike us who are sophisticated and know about these things (after all, we have mobile phones). But that's just 21st Century arrogance. They knew that dead men stay dead. When they heard the women, they thought, 'This is nonsense'.
But Peter shifts his ground. These women believe. They're clearly convinced that everything they're saying is true. These are people he trusts. He decides he must look for himself. Examine the evidence. He's not prepared simply to take their word for it.
And what does he find at the tomb? Grave clothes. An empty space where the body should be. And his mind is opened to new possibilities. And he knows he has some serious thinking to do. Maybe this is not nonsense after all. He needs to know. If it's true, his life is about to be changed for ever.
Probably some of you are where Peter was at the start of his encounter with the women. Maybe you've enjoyed the music this evening. But all this talk of Jesus rising from the dead seems like nonsense to you. Common sense tells you it must be.
Simon Schama is part way through a TV history of Britain. At the front of his book of the series he's put this quote: "The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness… Nature expects a full grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft…"
Is that how you think? But maybe people you trust are telling you that Jesus is alive and has to be reckoned with, and that death is not the end. That's much the same encounter that Peter had.
My prayer is that your life will be changed in the same way that his was. My hope is that you'll move from thinking it's all nonsense, to deciding that you need to look into this, because there could be something in it after all.
That's the first meeting: a life-changing encounter with believers. Now for the next meeting:
Secondly, A LIFE-CHANGING ENCOUNTER WITH THE BIBLE
That day, another meeting takes place a few miles away. It's between two followers of Jesus – Cleopas and his friend – and a stranger they meet on the road, who they realise only later is Jesus. He gets them talking. And their state of mind comes across clearly (verse 17)…
… They stood still, their faces downcast.
They describe what's been happening in Jerusalem and how both the religious and secular leaders of the day had Jesus brutally executed, innocent though he was. Then what they say next is very revealing (verse 21):
… but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
In other words, 'All our hopes for the future were pinned on this man; he's now dead; and so is our hope.' These men are at rock bottom. They had such high expectations of the life ahead of them. And all their dreams have been shattered.
They tell the stranger what's been going on. And he says to them (verse 25):
'How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.'
So what does the Bible say about the death and the resurrection of Jesus? Why did Jesus die? It was God's plan to rescue people from sin and death and hell. Here's what God said through the prophet Isaiah. Speaking in anticipation of the death of Jesus , he said:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
We all rebel against God, either by ignoring him or openly rejecting him. We maintain a socially acceptable public face. But Jesus described our hearts as evil. We deserve to be condemned at the Day of Judgement. God doesn't want us to get what we deserve. But justice must be done. So he has come to us himself in the person of his Son, Jesus. And the debt that we owe, he paid on the cross. It is as if all of our sin was loaded onto his shoulders and the full weight of God's justice fell on him. We deserve death. He died in our place.
And why was Jesus raised? Because death couldn't hold him. He's stronger than death and his resurrection is death's decisive defeat.. Jesus rose from the dead to take control. Behind the scenes he is now the ruler of everything.
What did Cleopas and friend make of the Bible study that Jesus lead them through? It was only later, remember, that they realised it was Jesus teaching them. But they said (verse 32):
'Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'.
And Jesus stayed and ate with them. Verse 31:
Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him…
So do you see the nature of this second encounter? They begin in despair. They study the Bible and their hearts burn within them. Then they realise that all along it's Jesus himself who's been teaching them. And they realise that what they've been learning is true, and that Jesus is alive.
Maybe some of you have got beyond the first encounter. You no longer think it's all nonsense. Perhaps already you've begun to study the Bible.
My prayer for you this evening is that the more you get to grips with what the Bible is saying, the more your heart will burn within you. And my prayer is that the risen Jesus will open your eyes. You won't see him physically like these two did. What you will see is that Jesus is alongside you by his Holy Spirit; that he is the one who is opening your eyes to see the truth of the Bible; that he died for your sins; and that he's alive. That is a life-changing encounter.
And it brings us to the third meeting here, in the final section of this chapter. So:
Thirdly, A LIFE-CHANGING ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS
Cleopas and friend rush back to Jerusalem to rejoin the others. By this time the truth has dawned on all of them that what the women told them, far from being nonsense, is true. Jesus is alive. Then (verse 36):
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!
Do you see that there's another personal transformation taking place here? They begin knowing it's true that Jesus is the risen Saviour and Lord. But it's as if they havn't really been able to come to terms with these great facts. They haven't yet worked through what the impact is going to be on their lives. And part of them still can't quite believe it's true.
So when Jesus comes to them, flesh and bone, their first reaction is to be flooded with fears and doubts. But Jesus reassures them that it's really him. He says (verse 39):
Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.' When he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, 'Do you have anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
And again he teaches them from the Bible. Luke continues (verse 46):
[Jesus] told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…'
Their doubts and fears give way to joy and amazement and worship.
We don't meet Jesus physically. But some of you may be feeling rather like they felt. You know it's true that Jesus is risen. But doubts and fears flood your mind. My prayer is that you will know the same reassurance that those disciples experienced as Jesus by his Spirit meets with you and teaches you, just as he did them.
The difference is that we don't meet Jesus in the flesh. Not yet. One day we will. For now we meet him by faith, and through his Spirit. But the meeting is just as real and just as life-transforming.
So what happens when we meet Jesus in this way? Our lives change.
First, we go through a complete turn-around. That is what repentance is. Instead of living for ourselves, we live for Jesus.
Secondly, we are given a clean slate. Jesus cleared our debt to God when he died on the cross. All our sin, past, present and future, is wiped off our account with God, once and for all.
Thirdly, we have a new purpose. 'You are witnesses of these things,' Jesus said to those disciples. They were eyewitnesses. We are witnesses of what we've learned from them. Our task is to lead people to the same life-changing encounter with Jesus that we have had.
Fourthly, we receive power for living. The Holy Spirit not only opens our eyes to see the risen Jesus, he also enables us to change as we need to if we're going to live for Jesus.
A complete turn-around; a clean slate; a new purpose; and power to change. Our lives are transformed when we encounter Jesus for ourselves. And the upshot of it is a life of worship, joy and praise, just as it was for those disciples who watched the risen Jesus eating that broiled fish.
Stephen Spielberg produced a film about meeting aliens. It was called 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. The first kind of encounter was the sighting of a UFO. The second kind was physical evidence. The third kind was direct contact. It's a fun film. But we all know it's fantasy. It's nonsense.
Here in Luke 24 there are three encounters which are not so much a matter of life and death as a matter of death and life.
You may begin by thinking that it's all nonsense, this talk of Jesus the Son of God dying for our sins and rising to life again. But this is for real. And my prayer is that you will experience these life-changing encounters for yourself.
And dismissive scepticism when believers tell you Jesus is alive will turn to wondering whether after all it might be true.
Then you'll determine to look at what the Bible says for yourself. That's something you can do by reading the Bible on your own; and by reading it with others in a small group so you can learn together; and by coming here as we try to explain the Bible Sunday by Sunday. And as you read the Bible your heart too will begin to burn within you as the Spirit of Jesus opens the Scriptures to you.
And then you'll find that as you read the Bible it's not dry history that you're faced with, but the risen Jesus himself. And by faith you'll encounter him directly. And you'll discover for yourself the peace that he brings; and you'll hear his call on your life; and you'll know him as your Lord and Saviour.
That's my prayer – that you will have three life-changing encounters: first with believers; secondly with the Bible; and thirdly with Jesus himself.