April 2nd, 2018

When you can’t feel faith or keep hope, if you open your eyes, you can see love. 

Luke 24:13-35


I can only imagine

This past Friday night my wife Linda and I went to see “I Can Only Imagine” at the movie theater. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s the story behind the song by the same name that soared to the top of Christian and secular charts in the late 1990s.

What I love about the film is that it’s a real story. I’m not fond of Christian fiction in film, because a made up story about how God might change someone’s life is usually too neat – disastrous life, sudden conversion, everything changes. In my observation over six decades of life, two-thirds of that in ministry, that’s the exception not the rule. In “I Can Only Imagine” the change Jesus makes needs a long time. Bart Millard, raised by an abusive father, suffers deep emotional wounds that require a long process before the Gospel transforms him, his father, and his music.

I can only imagine that the gospel writer Luke would have loved that movie. Luke loves a journey. He is a traveling physician, not the kind who makes house calls, but a doctor who loves a trip. His accounts of Jesus’ life (the Gospel of Luke) and of the early church (the book of Acts) are virtual travelogues. Among his most famous journey stories are the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, Jesus getting separated from his family at age 12 during a trip to Jerusalem, his journey to the desert for his temptation, and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke needs ten chapters to tell about Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for his trial and death.

Luke also writes Acts, and more than half of that book recounts the Apostle Paul’s travels to Asia and Europe. Luke is often Paul’s companion on those journeys. He records Paul’s conversion on a journey, and the Ethiopian eunuch’s encounter with Philip on a trip. In Acts, Luke refers to Christians as “followers of the Way.”

Today’s reading in Luke 24 is “uniquely Luke,” meaning that the other Gospels don’t relate this story. Not surprisingly, this is the story of a journey. Every journey includes travelers moving from a starting point toward a destination, inevitably encountering the unexpected along the way. Let’s look at those parts of this journey.

The travelers

Luke begins the story with “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem” (13). “That same day” is the first Easter, but we immediately want to know, “two of whom”? Luke’s Easter story begins with the women who had seen Jesus crucified going to the tomb to place spices on the body of Jesus, in keeping with their custom. Each of the Gospels finds these women important enough to the story to name one or more of them. Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James (10). The empty tomb terrified them, but two angels said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here! He has risen!” (6)

The women returned to Jesus’ eleven remaining apostles (minus Judas, of course), “and to all the others” (9). The women excitedly recounted the story of the empty tomb and the angels’ message, but most of the group thought they were just being April fools. Peter, however, leaped up and ran to the tomb.

What stands out is the phrase, “all the others.” We’re not surprised that the remaining eleven disciples are there, and we’ve run into these women multiple times in Luke’s gospel. They are loyal, and some of them are wealthy women who finance the travels of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3). But who are “all the others”?

We now know two of “the others” decided to leave Jerusalem that day. We soon learn that one of them is named Cleopas (8). That Luke mentions his name probably means that he is well known among the readers of Luke’s gospel. If I told you a story of two people walking through Hickory, their names might only be important for two reasons – (1) They’re important people, and (2) If you don’t believe me, go ask them yourself. Luke had apparently met Cleopas on his travels with Paul.

Cleopas is part of the second ring of Jesus’ inner circle – not one of the original Twelve, but someone who was close. We don’t know for sure who the other traveler is, but I think it’s his wife, a woman named Mary. John 19:25 identifies this Mary as the wife of “Clopas” (slightly different spelling), and she stood nearby when Jesus was crucified, making her (and possibly them) part of this second tier of Jesus’ closest followers. Probably the two had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, stayed through the crucifixion on Friday, waited through the Sabbath, then went home Sunday.

Today I want you to think of yourself as a traveler. Where are you on the faith road? Maybe you haven’t started yet. You could be close to the end. You may have taken a detour or you may be stuck in traffic. You could be cruising the highway. You might be asleep at the wheel. Where are you on the way?

Starting point

The starting point for Cleopas and Mary is, geographically speaking, Jerusalem, but emotionally, it is devastation and disappointment. They are sad and mad. Verse 17 says their faces are “downcast” – that’s the “sad” part. The “mad” is where Luke says they “discussed” things (15), but this word can also mean “argued.” When a stranger joins them, he asks, “What are the words you are tossing back and forth while walking?”  (17). I’m picturing husband and wife in a heated argument, maybe because Mary thought the women were credible and Cleopas insisted they leave:  “No, I’m done. Enough of this. We’re going home. Come on!”

Their irritability flashes in the response from Cleopas:  “Are you the only person in Jerusalem clueless about the things that have happened?” (18).

I love this next part. The stranger says, I’m sure with a wry smile, “What things?” (19) We know it’s Jesus, but they don’t. There’s a consistent theme in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances – his closest followers don’t recognize him right away. We might guess why this is, but Luke says these two were “kept from recognizing him” (16). All he says, remember, is, “What things?”

Already provoked at his wife, we can hear that irritated tone as Cleopas barks at the stranger:  “About Jesus of Nazareth! Did you never hear the prophet speak? So powerful and convincing. And the miracles! We thought he was the Messiah. We were there a week ago and joined the crowd shouting ‘Hosanna’ to the King of Israel. We knew he was the one. But three days ago the Jerusalem insiders got their hands on him and had him crucified. Unbelievable! Messiahs do not get crucified. Then, get this:  some of our women went to anoint his body this morning and returned claiming that some ‘angels’ said he was alive. Ridiculous. A few in our group went to the tomb this morning and checked it out. It was empty, all right, but nobody actually saw Jesus. We’re done, going home. I tell you, this Jesus was a hoax. Such a disappointment.”

The facts Cleopas lists may be true, but his conclusion is false because he doesn’t know everything. He’s sad and mad. I have a lot of empathy for him. It’s hard to start or continue a faith journey when you’re so sad and so mad.

What is your starting point today? There are two common barriers to believing in Jesus’ resurrection – logical and personal. The logical barrier is that coming back from the dead is impossible. As Pastor Paul noted this week, believing Jesus rose from the dead is like being in New York City on the third day after 9-11 when someone says, “The twin towers are back! I went to Ground Zero and saw them myself.” You don’t have to check it out for yourself. You know it’s impossible. People don’t come back to life after they’ve been dead. That’s what “dead” means.

What I hear more often is the personal barrier. People think or say things like, “If God can raise Jesus from the dead, why hasn’t he done anything about my life?” “I’ve tried to pray, but nothing happened.” “A good God wouldn’t stand by passively when my child dies or my marriage falls apart.” “Christians are too hung up on forcing their view of sex and morals down everyone’s throat.” “Christians are hypocrites – my boss at work lies to get his way and cheats on his wife but goes to church every week.”

What’s your starting point today? Is there a barrier to faith on your journey?

The unexpected

Every great travel story includes an element of surprise. You think you know who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you’re headed, but there’s an interruption in the plans. The last time Linda and I went to Israel in 2014, with about 25 others from Hickory, we were in the air between Charlotte and Newark, NJ, where our connecting flight would take us to Tel Aviv. We heard a very loud noise outside the plane followed by the clanging of metal parts. It’s not a good thing when you’re in a jet with two engines and one’s not only not working, it’s on fire.

The unexpected for these travelers came in the words of the stranger. “How foolish you are and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken!” (25) He’s naming their logical and personal barriers. “Foolish” can be translated “mindless” (not thinking) and “slow of heart” refers to their emotional state. Literally Jesus says, “Your mind is empty and your heart is slow.” Their minds can’t see the Truth standing in front of them, and their hearts can’t get beyond sadness and madness.

Had they read their Bible, they would have seen that all of God’s messengers were rejected at some point. They would have seen a theme running through their own Bible that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. He gave them a Bible lesson on their 7-mile walk, a Bible class we all wish Luke had preserved for us. What we do know is that he showed them how everything in their own Bible pointed to him. To say that this extended mobile classroom was unexpected would be a significant understatement.

There’s not a travel story anywhere, especially a journey of faith, that does not take twists and turns we never could have planned. In the movie, “I Can Only Imagine,” Bart (the lead character) breaks into the world of Christian music, even getting to meet some of his musical heroes whose songs had brought him to faith. He thought he was going to soar from there – he had all the right contacts. Then the unexpected hit.

I know your attempt to find God or walk with God has included both surprising joys and deep disappointments. That’s the nature of spiritual journey, of every marriage and job and trip. It’s actually part of the design. It’s the unexpected that unravels our comfort zone and prepares us to meet God in a deeper, richer way than we ever imagined. Bart Millard wasn’t ready for his journey to the top until his world unraveled and he dealt with some unfinished business.

The destination

You may think the destination is Emmaus, but Luke wouldn’t tell this story if it were as simple as moving geographically from Point A to Point B. The destination is “recognizing” Jesus. Recognition is a key word in this story, occurring three times.

They approach Emmaus, and the stranger acts as if he’s headed to the next town. They insist he stays with them, and they all sit down for the evening meal. As Jesus gives thanks for the meal and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. I’ve heard and read many theories about why they didn’t recognize him earlier, and why they did at this moment, but Luke doesn’t think any physical description is important enough to mention. He says the same force that blinded their eyes now opened them (31).

So they recognized him, and then he was gone. That seems a bit anticlimactic, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you think the better conversation might have been when they could debrief all they had experienced knowing they were talking to Jesus? Pay attention to what they say when Jesus disappears:  “Were not hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (emphasis added). Even with a sermon title like this one and my awareness that Luke loves travelogues, I didn’t notice this detail until earlier this morning. It’s all about the way!

We want our journey to be about the destination – about solving our problems, answering our questions, responding to our prayers in specific ways, fixing our relationships. Luke tells this story because it’s all about the way.

Certainly Luke tells this part of the story to remind us some of the ways you can recognize Jesus. Some of it is outside your control, because it’s God’s prerogative how and when he shows himself. But these two may have never realized the significance of the journey if they hadn’t invited Jesus in. Luke is telling us the journey involves reading Scripture, talking out our sadness and madness, staying on the journey even when it’s confusing. He may even be reminding us of the importance of staying in community with other believers, because if Cleopas and Mary had stayed in Jerusalem they would have heard how the Lord had appeared to Simon Peter (34). But in his grace Jesus pursued them down the road. Still, they had to invite him in.

The greatest of these is love

Let’s come back to your journey. The Easter story is the pivotal event of the Bible. If Jesus did not come back from the dead, if he’s not alive today, we’re all wasting our time here. The Apostle Paul says if Christ was not raised from the dead, we should all be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). We are the most foolish of April fools.

Is there a barrier between you and faith in Jesus? If it’s the logical barrier, that the Easter story is impossible, let me recommend a different true story adapted for film last year – “The Case for Christ.” The resurrection of Jesus is one of the best attested events in the ancient world. We have the record of four independent witnesses – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yes, the Gospels were written 30-60 years after the events. I used to wonder if that made their accounts questionable. Now I’m 61 years old, and I actually remember the pivotal events from my teens and twenties better than I remember what I had for supper last week. You could not possibly convince me that something major happened 40 years ago if it didn’t. And you certainly wouldn’t find me willing to die for a hoax that my friends and I made up.

Let me give you one example of why this account is so credible. Cleopas dismisses the report of the women at the tomb for good reason. Women in that day were not given opportunities for education and influence. We have since learned that when women are educated and empowered, they often outsmart and outdo the men. But when we read in these accounts that the women were the first eyewitnesses, think “little girls.” It’s not that they were young, but men saw all women this way. The point is that if you were making up this story, you would not say, “And the first people to see the empty tomb and meet the angels were an excited group of little girls!” The only reason to give women that kind of prominence is if it really happened that way.

If your problem with the resurrection is the personal barrier, then go see “I Can Only Imagine.” Bart Millard had every personal reason to disbelieve a God of love and power – abuse, rejection, disappointment, failure. The film is not so much about his starting point or his destination – the hit song; it’s about his journey.

I preached a funeral three days ago in this sanctuary for a man named Farrell Bolick. Farrell’s father died when he was 14. His life plans were interrupted when the military draft forced him to enlist. He and his wife faced infertility, then the premature birth of their first child. He had a heart attack at age 49 (the same age his father died), and a debilitating stroke eight years ago when he had big plans for his retirement years.

Farrell’s favorite Bible verse was 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now remain faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” The unexpected for Farrell in a journey full of faith-strangling setbacks was the people God put in his life: a high school football coach who invested time in a fatherless teenager, a young wife who stayed with him and loved him for half a century, two sons who struggled against him early in life but came to idolize him, six grandchildren who adored him, pastors who spent time with him, colleagues who modelled their own careers after him. Farrell and his family came to believe those last eight years of his life, the ones where his speech was impaired and his mobility was limited, were the best. Why? That’s when love took over.

Why is the greatest love? Because when you can’t feel faith and you can’t keep hope, you can always see love if you open your eyes. God will put people in your life who will show you love if you let them. And even with that human love all around, you will never see a love deeper or greater than the heavenly Father who gave his only Son, for you. Jesus Christ, God’s One and Only Son, gave his life for you so that you would always have a way to see love. And then… he rose again. He really did. Amen.

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