St Barnabas, 12th April 2015
Reading – Luke 24:13-35
How many people here have ever used a Satnav? I am told they are one of the most wonderful tools out there to get you from A to B. You put in the postcode of the place where you’re heading, it works out the route, and as you drive along, it tells you exactly when to turn off and which road to take.
At least that’s the theory. But sometimes, just sometimes, as you’re going along, you begin to wonder why you haven’t arrived at your destination yet. Your Satnav is telling you you are going the right way, and yet… Then suddenly you see a landmark or a road sign which indicates you are very much not in the place you want to be. So you have to stop, reprogram the SatNav and trust that hopefully this time it will get you to where you want to go.
Now this morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel comes from a time long before modern transport, let alone all that electronic gadgetry that we love and know so well. But in essence it’s about two people who were going the wrong way, who suddenly realised they were heading in the wrong direction, and then immediately turned round. One of them was called Cleopas. The other, well we don’t really know his or her name. Some say it was Cleopas’ wife, some say a friend. Their actual identities in any case are really not that important. But enough of me… let’s hear about that eventful journey in Cleopas’ own words.
Well, thank you for that introduction. Yes, my name is Cleopas, and yes, I was heading home to Emmaus with my boy. But it’s a bit harsh to say that when we set out we were going in the wrong direction. In fact going home was the only thing that seemed to make sense to us at the time.
You see, for the past couple of years we had been following a powerful prophet called Jesus of Nazareth. Oh sure, there had been plenty of prophets going round the country before Jesus and each one had all made promises about setting God’s people free. But this Jesus really did seem to be different from all the rest. For a start, there was His teaching. It’s hard to sum up what it was all about, but it was about a new way of relating to God as a Heavenly Father and how Jesus offered to all who believed in Him a place in God’s kingdom. That was quite extraordinary teaching, the like of which we had never heard before. And then there were the miracles. I could go on forever about the things we saw, but it’s enough to say Jesus showed all the signs of being the Chosen One of God we had all been waiting for.
So just over a week before our journey, when Jesus rode into our capital city, Jerusalem on a donkey, we all thought, yes, here is the Messiah, who has come as that mighty deliverer promised from old in our Scriptures. But within a few days He had been betrayed by one of our own, arrested, put on trial and nailed to a cross. We kept hoping that God might come down and rescue Him. But no, we watched Him die naked, alone and in the most unimaginable pain. It was all so confusing. How could the Messiah allow Himself to suffer that way and end up stone cold in a tomb? But if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, then what had all the past couple of years been all about?
We hung around in Jerusalem the next day because it was the Sabbath. But I think you can see why we were so keen to leave the following day. We needed some space to try and work it all out, to put our lives back together and maybe even eventually to move on. Only before we left, some women who had been down to Jesus’ tomb burst in on us and told us that the stone in front of the tomb had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body was missing. Well, I tell you, that got me and my boy even more confused. If something weird was going on, then we wanted to be well out of it. So we packed the few things we had, slipped out of the city gate and headed west back to the safety of our own home.
Now it wasn’t that unusual that a stranger met us on the road. We were living in troubled times, and it made sense for people not to be found travelling on their own. But this stranger seemed, well, different. For a start both my boy and I seemed to know Him from somewhere. Yet we couldn’t put our finger on where, exactly. It was like one of those situations where you meet someone familiar in a new situation and you just can’t place them.
And then the stranger asked us about all the things that had been going on in Jerusalem over the past few days. Now that was odd, even if I say it myself. After all, it’s not every day that someone thought to be the Messiah ends up being crucified and it was the news event of the year. Literally everyone was talking about what was going on. So did the stranger not know what was happening, or what was He just seeing what exactly what we knew? It was hard to tell, really.
But we told Him everything about what we had witnessed, and He just let us talk. I wondered what He was going to say about our story, but instead He starting talking about our sacred Scriptures, what you call the Old Testament, I believe. Now of course we knew the Scriptures pretty well ourselves. We’d learnt them by heart from an early age and we were very familiar with the way the rabbis explained them. But whoever this man was, He was able to make sense of our teachings like no-one else we’d ever heard before.
Now I imagine you’re wondering what exactly Jesus said as we were going along. You’re probably thinking how much easier it would be for you to understand the Old Testament if we had the precise words Jesus used on that journey. Well, for a start I wasn’t exactly expecting to take notes and I was too busy listening in any case to think about writing everything down for posterity.
But the outline of His teaching was fairly simple. He started with the great promises of Scripture that we knew so well: God appearing to Abraham and telling him that through his seed all nations would be blessed; Moses receiving the law which contained a promise that God would raise up a king from among his own brothers; David hearing word that he would have a seed who would sit on his throne forever.
Yet what this stranger did which was so different was to link these promises with those more obscure parts of Scripture we didn’t really understand. We had never realised that the Messiah could also be the suffering servant Isaiah had described in chapter 53 or the one who had been pierced according to Zechariah chapter 12. And if you’re saying the penny should have dropped by now as to the stranger’s true identity, then you have to realise just how novel all this seemed to us. There was so much to take in, so much we couldn’t as yet fully understand.
We scarcely noticed how long it had taken to walk home, because we were captivated by His words. Yet before we knew it, we were back in Emmaus and the night was falling fast. The stranger seemed anxious to take leave of us, but there was so much we wanted to ask Him. Besides, could we really let someone travel on alone on these dangerous roads when who knows what might be lying in wait somewhere in the darkness?
So we urged Him to strongly to come and share our home with us. We got a meal ready and as is our custom we asked our stranger to bless the food. Now people have come up with all kinds of explanations as to what happened next. Some say that we recognised Jesus the moment He held up His hands to bless the bread. After all, we had seen Him taking bread and blessing it countless times before. Others say that as Jesus lifted His hands, the sleeves on His cloak fell back to reveal the scars on His wrists.
It’s hard to explain really, but actually we didn’t work out Jesus’ identity by ourselves. It’s as if Jesus chose that moment to reveal Himself to us, and I think if He hadn’t we might still be none the wiser. I know some people can say you can work out for yourself who Jesus is, but I believe that’s nonsense. Faith is about looking for the moment when Jesus suddenly shows Himself to you. It’s as if He opens your eyes and you realise He is right there with you as your risen Lord.
Well, there was so much my boy and I wanted to ask Jesus. But the moment we recognised Him He disappeared. But that didn’t matter, really. Because we knew now without all doubt that this Jesus was alive, and whether or not He was physically standing before us, He was with us and would remain with us always.
So we decided there and then to get up and go back to Jerusalem. Yes, it was dark and yes, it might not have been a good idea to travel then. But we reckoned that if Jesus was with us, that no real harm could come to us. And we had so much to tell. Not only about Jesus making Himself known to us, but also all that wonderful teaching He had shared us from the Scriptures. This Jesus really was the Messiah who had set us free. Not as we thought from a cruel government and an occupying army, but from something even more important than that, from the forces of sin and death and evil which He had conquered once and for all.
Fortunately the guards let us into the city and we made our way to where the disciples were staying. We thought we were going to let them for a real surprise. But actually it was us who were surprised because as we came near we could hear excited conversations and even some snatches of praise. What was going on?
Well, we didn’t have to wait for anyone to tell us. Everyone was falling over themselves to explain: It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon. And there was Simon Peter himself right in the middle visibly transformed from when we last saw him. We didn’t need to ask what had happened, because we recognised the same change in him as had happened to us. Jesus was alive and living in his heart in a way that was clear and unmistakable.
But the news did make us stop and think. After all, Simon in some ways was the last person you’d expect Jesus to appear to. We all knew how Simon had vowed that he was ready to go with Jesus to prison and to death (Luke 22:34) and we all knew how, just as Jesus predicted, Simon had betrayed Jesus’ three times. Yet of all the disciples Simon was the first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself. It made me realise that if Jesus could appear to Simon, then He could appear to anyone. The offer of new life could be made even to people who had betrayed and denied their Lord. And that made it a very special offer indeed.
And what of our own news? It seemed somehow less important than we first thought. But we shared our experience out on the road and everyone listened intently as we explained how Jesus had opened up the Scriptures. It was if suddenly everything Jesus had ever said about Himself made sense, and I guess some of us began to wonder why we had so misunderstood His teaching for all these years. But I suppose it all comes down to what I said earlier about faith. Until Jesus gives you the faith, so much of what you hear remains a mystery. Now our eyes were opened, we all began to see the wonder and beauty of God’s plan to save and restore a broken world, and to understand just what a thrilling message we would have to share.
And it wouldn’t just be a message for Jerusalem and the people living there. Because if Jesus could also appear in a place like sleepy old Emmaus – a place no-one has ever heard of before or after this story – then really He could appear anywhere. And Jesus confirmed all this when, even as we were still talking, He suddenly stood among us in the room and gave us what we would later call the Great Commission. But that is the passage you’re studying next week, I believe.
So that’s my story. I guess some of you know it so well already. After all, my good friend Luke is quite a writer, isn’t he? But just because you know it so well, please don’t lose sight of what it’s all about, which is simply this – that Jesus is alive. Not just that Jesus was alive way back then, or alive in a particular place far from where you are today. Jesus is alive. Right with you, right now. Have you asked Him to stay with you? And if so, how are you going to share the good news you have discovered?