[This sermon was shared during worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
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, sometimes shocked. Our Gospel lesson for today, which takes places in the afternoon and the evening of the first Easter, 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 at dawn. 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. Luke says that Jesus’ other followers 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 miles away. Naturally, they talked about recent events, not just the report of Jesus’ missing body and of His resurrection, but the shocking surprise they’d gotten a few days before when 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 grieved that all their hopes, things they’d hoped and worked for over a period of years, had been so violently and abruptly dashed on the previous Friday when Jesus died a humiliating death as a condemned criminal. Many of you here this morning know exactly what they felt as they mourned. You too, have had the hopes and dreams toward which you've worked suddenly destroyed by circumstances beyond your control. That's how these two disciples felt.
It's in the midst of their discussion that the two of them 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, I think, 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 which I first read in Billy Graham’s book, Angels: 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 prayed, 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 who’d had 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 obscure corner. The Jewish historian Josephus, a Roman historian who lived from about 37 to 100AD mentioned it in his exhaustive history of the Jews. Anybody in Jerusalem that Passover week would have known about Jesus’ trial, suffering, and executtion. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the two disciples tell Jesus, their grief and disappointment in evidence.
Jesus must have surprised them with what He said next: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And then this mysterious stranger explains how Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been the centerpiece of God’s big plan to make it possible for everyone in the whole world 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.
God’s Word still has that power! I used to get lunch at a deli in Cincinnati and got to know its owner, a man from Syria, a Muslim. We became friends. One day, I was in the deli and he told me that his brother-in-law had died, a victim of suicide. Would I come to the funeral visitation?, he asked me. I was honored and happy to do so.
I showed up several minutes before the visitation actually began and sat down to talk with my friend. "Mark," he said to me, "I'm a Muslim. What do you as a Christian believe happens to us when we die?" I began to talk about what the Bible teaches happens for all who believe in Christ, how we are saved from sin and death by the grace of God, given in Jesus Christ.
I went on for some time like that, stopped myself, and apologized for going on so long. He touched my arm and said, "No! Don't apologize. That made me feel good to hear."
That man felt good not because of me, folks; that was because of the power of God’s Word! In the Bible, God's Spirit touches our spirits, the life of the risen Jesus touches our lives. No other book on the face of the planet has the power of the Bible, because the Bible is the place where we come face-to-face with God!
The risen 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.
But, if you’re as thick-headed and slow-hearted as me, compelling as God’s Word can be, sometimes it isn’t enough to pierce our sloughs of despair, our inability to believe, or our willful rebellion.
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.
After the three of them had reached the two disciples’ destination in Emmaus, the still-unknown Jesus was going to forge on. But the two disciples insisted that it was too late to keep on, that He should at least stay for dinner. We're told that, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”
In the breaking of the bread, the two disciples now could see that it was true: The Lord Who had gone through the same ritual when He fed the 5000 and later in the Upper Room when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, enacted it again. There was no mistaking that Jesus had risen and was with them. The breaking of the bread made it unmistakably true.
As you know, I try to visit with our shut-ins each month. I enjoy those visits and we often have good conversations. But I tell you what I like most about my time with each of them: It’s when they receive Holy Communion. Whatever else may be going on in their lives, they know that Christ’s promise to be “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine, to be there body and blood, is true. “This is My body,” Christ says again. “This is My blood.”
Author Richard Farrar Capon talks about Holy Communion as “the hat on the invisible man.” We can’t see Jesus right now. But when the Word of God—God’s Word of promise to those willing to receive Jesus—meets the bread and the wine, Jesus will be among us and we will receive forgiveness in His Name.
When the Emmaus disciples finally recognized the risen Jesus, He vanished from their sight. But they knew for sure that they weren’t alone. So, these once forlorn figures who’d been so afraid of the dark that they’d convinced Jesus to stay with them for dinner, immediately traveled the 7-miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that it was true: Jesus was alive!
I love surprises! So here’s another one for you to consider. Do you know the holiest part of our worship together? It doesn’t happen at the altar, holy though what happens there is. It isn't in the reading of the Word or the singing of praises, though those are certainly holy moments.
The holiest moment happens at our church doors. It’s when, after we’ve received God’s Word and the Body and Blood of Jesus and go into the world to share the same message with our neighbors and friends that the two disciples from Emmaus shared that first Easter evening: Jesus is alive!
It’s still good news!
It’s still surprising!
And it’s still something everyone in your life needs to know!
So, my message to you this morning about that good news is quite simple: Spread it around.