If there's one thing we need to understand to grasp the amazement of the Easter story, it's this. No-one was expecting the resurrection. As far as we can tell on that first Easter Sunday morning none of Jesus' followers, much less anyone else, launched into the day thinking 'this is it folks – this is the day we've been waiting for. This is the greatest day in history!' No! The women, the first witnesses - they came to the tomb to anoint the body. They are completely bewildered to find the tomb empty. Most of the disciples dismiss what they say as nonsense - they actually thought they were telling an idle tale! Peter and John are so surprised by this idle tale that they sprint to the tomb to verify it, but even then they don't get it – Peter returns wondering what had happened. No-one is expecting the resurrection. And that includes these two chaps on the Emmaus Road that we're going to spend a little bit of time thinking about tonight. So, let's turn back to Luke 24.
I've got to say, I love this passage of Scripture. I'm sure many of you do too. It's a wonderfully honest and earthed story; it's ever so slightly humorous; there's irony; but more than all that I think Luke writes in such a way to effectively draw us in to the story and there's something about these two relatively unknown disciples that's immensely relatable. Although they're on a physical journey, we see by the end its way more significant than that and I think Luke wants his readers to journey with them. So, let's do that - let's try and join them on their journey. Luke 24.13:
"That very day [Sunday the day the women went to the tomb] two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem."
One of them we are told is called Cleopas. His companion though is unnamed. And really all we know about them is that they are part of the wider group of disciples that Luke mentions in verse 9. The assumption is that Emmaus, this small village to the west of Jerusalem, is their home. What I'd like for us to do is imagine that we're with Cleopas on that road. That's actually possible for all of us. I've kept calling them chaps, but we're not actually told the sex of Cleopas' companion (some commentators have speculated that it may have been his wife!) – so just imagine that you are with Cleopas on this dry and dusty road out of Jerusalem…
The events of the last week or so have left you confused, deeply disappointed and you've begun the walk home depressed and utterly dejected. Only seven days previously you had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The mood was high. Optimism was in the air. You'd welcomed Jesus into the city with cut palm trees, cheering and praising God. You'd seen him clear out the devious and immoral from the temple courts. Surely this was the one. The one all the prophecies were about. The one who would rescue Israel and restore the nation to her true and rightful place. At last here was the leader and King you'd been looking for - the one who would throw off Roman tyranny, the one who would re-establish God's law in Israel, so that once again she could be the light of the world. And then all that hope, all that promise, all that excitement, had seemingly evaporated overnight. His kingdom hadn't even got going and it had been cruelly snuffed out. You shudder as you recall Jesus's brutal crucifixion: his composure and dignity as the nails pierced his body, the screams of the others, the unfair mocking, the tears, the darkness, the earthquake – it just didn't make sense!
These are the things you are discussing with your companion as you despondently make your way home. How had that happened? How could we have been so misled? What did we get wrong? Why had we pinned all our hopes on him? Who was this Jesus really? And then only yesterday. Jerusalem seemed to get on with life as normal, as though nothing had happened - it was business as usual in the temple and yet for you and your friends – the dream was dead! What else could you do, but return home, utterly dejected? Friends I can't help but wonder… Is this not a reality for all those who don't know the risen Jesus? Hopelessness? Disappointment with life? Meaningless grief and pain?
Back to that Emmaus Road. As you are wrestling with these issues, a man draws alongside you both. There's something familiar about him but you don't recognise him at all. He walks with you for a bit, enough to hear some of your conversation, and he asks 'What are you discussing?' You stop walking. Is this guy for real? Where has he been? His apparent ignorance only adding to your sense of disappointment. Try as you might you can't hide the pain and sadness – it's etched across your face. Cleopas verbalises what is going through your head (v.18):
"Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?"
"What things?" the man asks? And so, trying not to sound exasperated, you tell him. Verses 19-23:
"Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word… [but they] crucified him. … we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company … were at the tomb early in the morning, and… they did not find his body"
In response the man looks at you calmly. And gently he says (vv.25-26)
"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?"
Wait, what? What did he just say? Immediately you sense this man can help. You feel your heart begin to stir and you invite him to say more, to explain what he meant. And as you continue on your journey he does just that. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets you get a Bible overview like no other as this man makes the case that all Scripture does indeed point towards a crucified, suffering, servant King. You're transfixed - the minutes pass into hours - and before you know it evening is upon you and you you've nearly reached your destination. But you don't want this man to stop and so you encourage him (v.29):
"Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent."
And he agrees. It's at the mealtime that it happens. It's a revelation that you will never forget as long as you live. Exactly what happened is difficult to describe. But as your guest takes his place at the table, as he takes the bread, gives thanks and passes some to you, suddenly you see him – I mean you really see him. 'Jesus? Jesus – it's you!' And then in an instant he is gone! You turn to Cleopas and say (v.32)…
"Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?"
'This is incredible; it all makes sense now! It's all true – Jesus has beaten death. There is hope! We've got to let the others know! Now!' And despite the fact that it is now evening, despite the fact that it is a 2-3 hour walk away, you race back to Jerusalem and you find the disciples and tell them all that happened. And you discover that you are not the only ones. Jesus has appeared to Simon too.
And so friends I also can't help but wonder, is this not a reality for all those who do know the risen Jesus? Burning, joy-filled hearts, purpose, meaning, and a hope for the future? Friends, this is what the good news of Easter is all about. Let me offer three main observations in response to Luke's account. The first is this:
1. Life's True Meaning can only be Found Alongside a Risen Jesus
There are essentially two main perspectives at play here. There is the perspective of looking at life without a risen Lord Jesus (that's essentially the disciples at the start of the passage) and then there is the perspective of looking at life alongside the risen Lord Jesus (that's basically what's going on at the end). And slap bang in the middle of those two perspectives Luke presents the facts. This is what Luke is all about. He wants to reassure his readers with facts and certainty about the faith. We know that from his expressed intentions at the start of his book. And what Luke is basically saying is this. 'These are the facts. There are two ways to look at them. But only one of them makes sense!' Let's explore this some more. We're given the key facts:
- Jesus of Nazareth was "… a prophet, powerful in deed and word" (v.19)
- He was "condemned to death, and [they] crucified him." (v.20)
- He claimed to be "the one to redeem Israel". (v.21)
- He'd been dead three days: "it is now the third day since these things happened" (v.21)
- They "did not find his body". The tomb was empty (v.23)
These are the facts. They don't change. They can't change. Because they are facts. But how you look at those facts changes everything. And the difference between what we see - with and without a risen Jesus - is remarkable.
Could you see how confused, depressed and hopeless they are without Jesus at the start? I'm sure they had way more questions than answers to begin with, and one of the most pressing must have been 'Who was this Jesus anyway?' And that's a really important question all of us must consider. It's a really important question we must help others to consider. What do we make of the man who, without question, lived, breathed and died on this planet 2,000 years ago? What do we make of the claims he made – to forgive sin, to be God himself, to be the only way to everlasting life? Was he just a good man… or a bad man… or simply a mad man? Is he dead or he is alive? Everyone needs an answer to these questions. The stakes are so high.
Without a risen Jesus, the facts and the claims are confusing. They don't make sense. They don't add up. If Jesus didn't come back to life and prove that that is possible… if this life is really all there is – then it means that everything that happens here is meaningless. What's the point to it all if there is no lasting value? Is life not depressing - promising so much and delivering so little - if all we have are three score years and ten? Is life itself nothing more than a cruel joke? Or as Shakespeare put it "…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? Life without a risen Jesus has no meaning.
But on the other hand, life's true meaning can only be found alongside a risen Jesus. Jesus comes and draws alongside them and helps them to join the dots. He corrects their thinking, he shifts their perspective and then he reveals himself to them. The result? Joy, meaning, hope and purpose.
- Joy – as their hearts burned excitedly within them.
- Meaning – Jesus is the suffering servant, the one who died for our sins and then defeat death itself.
- Hope – for the future, not just for this life, but forever. Jesus can be trusted – everything that he promised came true and his resurrection proves that this life is not all there is (this is what Paul was at pains to point out in our other reading tonight from 1 Corinthians 15).
- Purpose – there's a need to hurry and pass on the good news that this life is not all there is, and Jesus holds the key to the next stage.
And so by the end of their physical journey, Cleopas and his companion have also been on a spiritual journey. It's one that has seen their perspective shift radically. From a confused, depressed, hopelessness… to a joyous, purpose-driven, hopefulness. So here's the question: what perspective do you want? The one without Jesus or the one with him? In a sense each one of us is on a similar journey. Not the physical one to Emmaus, but the spiritual one that leads to eternity. Some of us are more like the travellers were at the start of this journey – we don't know the risen Jesus. Some of us are more like the travellers were at the end of this journey – we do know him and believe that he is with us. But even those of us in that category sometimes lose perspective as the troubles of life and the cares of this world drag us down. What are we to do? How can we change perspective to the one that we all really want? How do we keep it? This is my second observation:
2. How Perspective is Changed
And I think there are four things we need to notice here. Firstly,
a. Notice that Jesus Draws Near
Look again at verse 15:
"While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them."
This whole change of perspective is initiated by the presence of Jesus. He comes, and he meets them where they're at. This is what Jesus does time and time again. He takes the most unexpected and difficult circumstances to impress on us our complete need of him. A death. The loss of a friend. A failed marriage. A relational breakdown. Shattered dreams. The effects of abuse. Betrayal. Illness. Financial difficulty. Through all these tough times, and more, the risen Lord Jesus still draws near today by the power of his Spirit, and he wants you to know and experience his presence with you. That's a massive comfort, isn't it? God himself draws near. How? Through Jesus' word. So, next…
b. Notice how they Listen to His Word
"And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself."
I share one commentator's frustration with the Gospel writer at this point. This is Jesus himself giving the ultimate Bible overview. Forget the Goldsworthy Trilogy, forget Vaughan Robert's excellent Bible overview 'God's Big Picture' (available now at Clayton.TV!), forget all that – this is Jesus himself and Luke doesn't give us a single word!
Of course, we don't know, but presumably Jesus began at the beginning and Moses' record in Genesis of the promise that Adam's descendant would crush Satan. No doubt he would have appropriated David's prophetic Psalm of suffering – Psalm 22. No doubt he would have included the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the pierced one of Zechariah 12, before ending up with Malachi's messenger of the promise. But what else – what else would he have covered and how? Intriguing as that question is, it's not the important thing! The important thing is that Jesus explained how all Scripture pointed to him and the two travellers listened. They listened to the word and the word began to transform them.
Friends, today, if we desire that our perspectives are transformed and renewed we need to keep listening to the Word. We need to be convinced that the message of the Bible is inextricably the message of Jesus – the Saviour of the world. Jesus draws near, they listen to his word, next…
c. Notice how they Invite Jesus to 'Stay'
You know for a while I was troubled by verse 28. It says:
"So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He [Jesus] acted as if he were going farther"
Why would he pretend? Why would he act? And then it dawned on me. Jesus draws alongside, he speaks words of life – but he never forces himself on us. The decision to accept Jesus, the decision to respond to him (from a certain point of view) is down to you and I, inviting Jesus to stay in our hearts. Look at verse 29:
"But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us…" So he went in to stay with them."
And friends – if that's a genuine invitation, he will never turn it down. So, we've taken note that Jesus drew near, we've noticed them listening to his Word and inviting him to stay, and finally we need to...
d. Notice that Spiritual Eyes are Opened
After Jesus had broken bread and prayed,
"their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight." (v.31)
We're not told what it was that finally caused the penny to drop. Maybe it was the way Jesus prayed. Maybe they saw his nail-pierced hands. What is certain is that it was God's timing for the veil to be lifted. At last the dots were all connected. At last they saw Jesus in all his life-giving significance – not just the powerful prophet and promised Messiah – but God himself as the sin-bearing sacrificial rescuer!
You know it's interesting how this change of perspective is the result of both divine intervention and human activity. Yes - we listen to the word! Yes - we invite Jesus to stay. But the work is begun and completed by the Lord – he draws near and he opens eyes!
So, what should our response be to this miracle? I think we get our answer in the final few verses of this passage. Verses 32-35:
"They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, … they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread."
In other words, Cleopas and his companion didn't waste any time in telling others how their hearts had burned within them! This is something all followers of Jesus should be quick to copy…
3. We need to Encourage Others with our Perspective-Shifting, Heart-Burning Experiences!
When did you first feel your heart burn within you? How exactly did that happen? In 1738, John Wesley found his Emmaus Road. In his diary on May 24th he wrote this:
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate street, where [some]one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Wesley was hearing the gospel third hand - that man was reading Luther's commentary on Paul's letter – but even at three steps removed Wesley heard the call of risen Lord Jesus and through it found salvation. It happened to me some 250 years later. Not quite as grand I'm afraid – I was only 9 or 10 and I was in our bathroom at home praying with my Mum and Dad! I'd been to a concert by the blind Christian artist, Marilyn Baker. She had given her testimony and sung songs full of gospel truth and meaning. That night as I asked for the Lord's forgiveness and committed my life to him, my heart too (to use Wesley's terminology) was strangely warmed. What about you? When did your heart burn within you? Has it?
This Easter as we remember the momentous events of Jesus' death and resurrection let's also be committed to sharing with as many people as possible how Jesus drew near to us, how his word has spoken into our lives, how we've invited him in and how our spiritual eyes have been opened.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the great news of Easter - that Jesus is alive, that the grave couldn't hold him. We ask Lord that you would help us to maintain perspective and live lives of joyous, purpose-driven hopefulness that communicate your good news to all we meet. Amen
Further helpful reading
If you would like to read more about the facts of the resurrection…
- Who moved the Stone? by Frank Morrison
- The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
- Where did Jesus go? By David Holloway