[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church at worship celebrations on April 29 and 30, 2006.]
I love surprises! To me, as a kid, at least half the joy of getting to the tree on Christmas mornings was associated with not knowing exactly what I was going to get...and then being surprised!
For Jesus’ earliest followers, the first Easter was a bit like Christmas morning was for me while growing up. Every time they turned around, they were getting surprised. Our Bible lesson for today, which takes places in the afternoon and the evening of that first Easter some two-thousand years ago, documents several of the surprises God gave them...and us...on that day.
First, of course, was the surprising news they’d all received from some of the female disciples who had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body early that day. They'd reported that Jesus’ body wasn’t there. That was curious enough to the rest of the group.
But what really surprised them was the women’s claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. At an earlier spot in Luke’s Gospel, the Bible book from which our lesson is drawn today, we’re told that the disciples wrote this claim off as “an idle tale.”
But there were more surprises in store. In our lesson, two of Jesus’ disciples left Jerusalem, heading for the village of Emmaus, about seven-and-a-half miles away. Naturally, they talked about their recent surprises, not just the report of Jesus’ missing body and of His resurrection, but the shocking surprise that the Teacher they thought would go to Jerusalem, overthrow the Roman government, and establish Himself as an earthly king had instead refused to fight and gone uncomplainingly to a terrible death on the cross. Not only did they grieve Jesus' loss, they also were mystified that all their hopes had been so violently and abruptly dashed on the previous Friday when Jesus died a humiliating death as a condemned criminal.
It's in the midst of their discussion that these two disciples, got their next surprise: A man suddenly started walking beside them and asked what exactly they were talking about. You and I know that this is Jesus. But the disciples, prevented from knowing by their unbelief, can’t recognize Him.
There are times in our lives too, when the risen Jesus is working in our lives and we don’t even know it. True story: Some years ago, a man woke up in the middle of the night, a feeling of terror overwhelming him and a strange word throbbing in his brain. Pray for this word, he sensed God telling him. The man did so, with no idea why. After awhile, he sensed that his mysterious prayer assignment was completed and he went back to sleep.
Months later at worship, he met a missionary who was at home on furlough. When he heard the name of the village in Africa where the missionary served, the man was dumbfounded. The village’s name was the word he was awakened to pray for that night!
He later learned that at the very hour he had been praying, that village was under attack by a neighboring tribe. All the people had gathered in the village church and the missionary had urged them to pray that God would send help.
Shortly thereafter, the hostile tribesmen simply walked away. Some time later, all the members of that hostile tribe came to faith in Christ and the missionary asked them why it was that on the night of the attack, they had simply left. “It was those men,” one of the tribesmen said. “What men?” “Those warriors who surrounded the church. We were afraid of them.”
The missionary and the praying man from the States concluded that on the night of that attack, God had roused many to pray so that He would have the invitation He wanted to intervene, save that village, and even make it possible for those with murder on their minds to receive forgiveness and new life through Jesus Christ. You never can tell when the God we know through Christ will, as was true on that road to Emmaus, walk beside us!
But the two disciples got another surprise. When this stranger seems ignorant of the events the disciples have been discussing, they can hardly believe it. After all, Jesus’ crucifixion hadn’t happened in some corner. Anybody in Jerusalem that Passover week would have known about it. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they tell Jesus, their grief and disappointment in evidence.
Jesus must have surprised them with what He said next. I like the way The Message papraphrase of the Bible renders His words to them:
“So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can't you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don't you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?"And then this stranger explains how Jesus’ death and resurrection were all part of God’s big plan to make it possible for everyone to turn from sin and believe in Jesus and so, live with God forever---all of it revealed in the Old Testament.
Jesus surprised them with the Word of God! Later, the disciples remarked to each other how their hearts were on fire when they listened to Jesus discuss God’s Word.
That always happens. It happened for me to see this past week. I was meeting with someone in the community. As we talked, I sensed that while he liked his job okay, it really wasn't the best expression of his passions and abilities. I prayed inside my mind for insight and then asked him, "Do you like your job?"
He hesitated for a few moments and then told me, "Some days." I began to share a few things from the Bible, not in a preachy way, but just conversationally. I told him about how each of us is "fearfully and wonderfully made," that God gives special talents and abilities and passions to all of us and that part of the adventure of life can be in finding the best way to express the "image of God" that resides in all of us.
I babbled on for quite a bit, alluding to, but not reciting, passages of Scripture. Then I caught myself. I apologized for going on. “No,” he told me, “don’t apologize. That made me feel good.” That wasn’t because of me, folks; that was because of the power of God’s Word! In the Bible, God's Spirit touches our spirits.
Jesus can pierce our thick-headedness and our slow-heartedness and surprise us with His love and power when we spend time reading and soaking up His Word each day.
We've spoken of several surprises those two disciples got on the way to Emmaus: the surprise of this man--who we know was Jesus--walking beside them and the surprise of having the mysterious stranger sharing the Scriptures with them in a way that caused their hearts to passionately burn within them. But they got another surprise.
To some extent, to understand this next part of the story, you have to understand some first-century customs surrounding dinners and hospitality. When I describe it to you, you might think it's a little weird. But I think that we probably all have certain rituals we practice surrounding meals.
My mother-in-law and I do. Whenever my wife and I go out to eat with her, Charlene and I fight over who gets the check. We both go through extraordinary steps to let our servers know--without signaling the other person--to, "Bring the check to me."
This ritual happened again a few weeks ago when she came down on Easter weekend. We ate at Cracker Barrel and I won the contest: I got the check. Then came the next part of the ritual, my mother-in-law barking at me to give her the check while proceed to the check-out. After she'd barked at me a few times on this most recent occasion, I turned to her and with great maturity said, "You're not the boss of me!"
When the two travelers and their unknown companion arrive in Emmaus, they insisted that Jesus join them for dinner. According to the rituals and customs of their people, Jesus initially refused to do so. No visitor would accept such an invitation in those days until the ones doing the inviting repeated their request, this time insistently. That's what happened this time.
And it's wonderful that things happened in this way, because it was only because of the two disciples' hospitality that finally, over dinner, their previous unwillingness to believe was overcome! We're told that (again in The Message paraphrase):
“[Jesus] sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him.”The two disciples now could see that it was true: Jesus had risen from the dead! Jesus will never force His way into our lives. But He will always go where's He's invited.
People sometimes ask me, “How can I believe in a risen Jesus Christ?” It’s simple really: Show Him the hospitality the two disciples showed Him in Emmaus. Invite Jesus Christ into every part of your life. Ask Him to be the Lord of your career, your marriage, your hobbies, your body, your mind, your sexuality. You will see Him working in your life, if you want Him to be there.
The surprises those disciples experienced on Easter Sunday afternoon and evening can be our surprises too.
- We can be surprised by the presence of Christ in our everyday moments;
- surprised by the power in His Word to transform our hearts and wills; and
- surprised by the reality of His resurrection.