On this third Sunday of Easter, our Gospel lesson from Luke confronts us with a mystery about two of Jesus’ disciples. And that mystery, ultimately, leads us to an important question about ourselves.
There is no mystery about what the two disciples we meet in the lesson are doing as our passage starts. We can understand their sense of sorrow and why, because, just like you and me, they had never seen a dead and buried person rise to life again, they left Jerusalem, certain that the report of Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t be true. But there is something about the entire incident recount in our lesson that baffles us.
As Luke tells it, the two disciples walked with a stranger they’d met on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus for some distance as He explained to them that the events of the previous Thursday and Friday, when Jesus had been arrested, tried, condemned, and killed, didn’t add up to the tragedy or dead end they surmised them to be. Everything had happened precisely as that part of the Bible we call the Old Testament had said it would. “Was it not necessary,” the stranger asked them as their hearts pounded within them, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into His glory?”
Encouraged by the stranger’s words of clarity and hope, they begged him to eat and converse with them once they reached the village. But through all this, they had no idea who this stranger was.
It was only when the stranger “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” that they finally recognized Him to be Jesus. Then, Jesus disappeared.
In spite of their earlier fears of traveling at night in open country where thugs and wild animals might lurk, the two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they too had seen the risen Jesus.
Still, we wonder: Why hadn’t they immediately recognized Jesus?
Our lesson says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing” Jesus. Had Jesus, God-incarnate, been playing hide and seek with these grieving disciples only to finally play “gotcha” by revealing Himself in a way they readily recognized?
No, God doesn’t play games.
But He does allow people to live with the hardened hearts and thickened skulls with which they choose to live their lives.
Those of you who have read the book of Exodus know exactly why the disciples’ eyes couldn’t recognize the risen Jesus. Exodus tells us that about 1500 years before Jesus was born, God’s chosen people, the Israelites (or Hebrews), were enslaved in Egypt.
God told Moses that He was going to send Moses, along with Moses’ brother Aaron, to demand that Pharaoh, king and deity of Egypt, let God’s people go.
But Pharaoh wasn’t about to let Hebrew slaves tell him what to do.
Nor was he going to let Yahweh, the God of these slaves who they claimed as the one and only God of the universe, call the shots.
As you remember, God performed a total of ten plagues through Moses, all of them designed to convince Pharaoh to relent, repent, and let God’s people go. But Pharaoh dug in.
After the first five plagues, Exodus tells us things like: “…Pharaoh…hardened his heart”; and “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened.” Then, after the sixth plague, the plague of boils, a shift comes in the Bible’s narrative of these events.
Take a look at Exodus, chapter 9, verse 12, on page 36 of our pew Bibles. No longer is Pharaoh hardening his own heart to God’s call to repentance. God is doing it for him. There we’re told:
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharoah; and he [that is, Pharaoh] did not heed them [that is, Moses and Aaron], just as the Lord had spoken to Moses. (NKJV)God had given Pharaoh repeated opportunities to conform to the will of God. Pharaoh had dug in his heels. Finally, God said, “Have it your way, Pharaoh. I will now escalate the level of the plagues and prevent you from changing your mind. I will let you live with the consequence of the path you have already chosen. We have hit a point of no return.”
The disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus had chosen the path of disbelief when they set out on that first Easter Sunday.
In spite of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, they were convinced that Jesus was as dead that day as He had been on Friday and Saturday.
But thank God—for them and for we who gain strength of faith from their story, they hadn’t yet reached “the point of no return.” They remained open enough to God to be able to see the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
The question remains, though: What took them so long to recognize Jesus?
The answer is simple: Their God wasn’t big enough.
In spite of all the signs and promises made about the Messiah in the Old Testament and the promises and signs which Jesus Himself gave during His earthly ministry, it was still beyond the scope of their imaginations to conceive...
- that Jesus could rise from the dead,
- that God could wring life from death,
- that the perennial enemies of humankind—our own sin, death, and pointless living—could possibly have been defeated by a Savior Who had, just days before, been crucified at the garbage dump just beyond Jerusalem’s walls.
So, having solved the mystery of the disciples’ failure to recognize Jesus for so long, here’s the uncomfortable question all of us must answer: How big is the God we meet in Jesus Christ for each of us?
Is the God Who bore all your sins and all the death and futility we confront on this side of the grave big enough to be entrusted with your biggest problems, your sternest challenges, your most vexing worries?
Or do you want to keep dealing with these issues on your own?
Is the God Who defeated your sin on the cross to be trusted when He promises you victory over the temptations and sins you can’t beat on your own?
Or will you insist on trying to go it alone in facing sin?
Or will you try to fake yourself out, telling yourself...
- that it’s not too bad to put your family or your work above God;
- that using God’s Name for purposes other than prayer, praise, or thanksgiving is a minor matter;
- that ignoring God’s Word in Scripture or the fellowship of the Church is OK because you’re so busy; that dehumanizing and demonizing others through mistreatment or unkindness isn’t really, as Jesus teaches, really murder;
- that stealing the gift of sexual intimacy God meant to be opened only by husbands and wives in marriage is acceptable today;
- that little thieveries from others are justified because “everybody does it’;
- that gossiping about others who strike you as too weird for words is entirely understandable;
- that being obsessed with having what others have is no big deal?
Is the God we meet in Jesus Christ a first-century version of Pee Wee Herman, weak and compliant to our wills and whims?
Or is He the God and King of the universe...
- Who faced down money-changing extortionists in the temple of the Lord,
- Who upbraided hypocrites for concealing their sins behind the whitewashed façade of moral perfection,
- Who stood up to a raging crowd about to stone a woman to death caught in the act of adultery,
- Who accepted a cross that we deserve to give us the forgiveness and new life we don’t deserve?
He gave His life for you. Is He big enough for you to give your life to Him in return?
Dare to surrender this moment to God.
Tell God, “My faith in You is puny. But right now, at this moment, I ask You to...
- handle my problems at work or at home;
- conquer my sins and strengthen me to beat temptation;
- overcome my worries and my grief.
If you will give your life, moment by moment, to the big God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ, it will, by His grace and power, add up to an eternity with God!
A man in northwest Ohio told me that shortly after his wife died, “I fell on the floor and wept and asked the Lord just to get me through that night.” God did that. That man said he kept praying that prayer each night. He learned over time that the God we meet in Jesus is big enough to comfort us, to give us hope, until our hope encompasses the certainty that, like the Savior in Whom we believe, we will one day rise again.
Let the God of Easter reach out and transform your life, moment by moment.
Leo was a member of the congregation in Michigan where I did my internship. Leo never knew anything about the Lord before he met his wife, Betty. She was a Lutheran. He started attending worship with Betty and, as happened to me years later when I went to worship with Ann, he got hooked. Jesus Christ grabbed hold of Leo and Leo didn't want Christ to ever let go!
Leo came to believe in Jesus and his life was transformed.
He had purpose and hope.
He became a better man.
Though he never went to college, he became the head of a company’s engineering department.
Because of Christ, it seemed to me that Leo’s life was always firing on all cylinders.
He was a terrific husband and father; a talented carpenter and quilter; a great photographer and cook.
And Leo understood the power of surrendering to the big God we know in Christ through incremental, baby steps.
He used to tell skeptics: “Promise me that you’ll go to worship six Sundays in a row. And then try to miss the seventh Sunday. You won’t miss, because by then, you’ll want to be in worship. You’ll want to get closer to God.”
I promise that if you will dare to give the moments of your life to the control of the big God of the universe, you will, just like the disciples who recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, see the risen Jesus working in your life.
You will see just how big and wonderful God is!
But watch out: If you give God an inch of your life, He will soon take the whole thing. Let Him take it!