Four words, just four words, but they are one of the most overwhelming expressions of human emotion in the entire New Testament. Those words were said by a man called Cleopas just outside Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. We met him in this morning's Bible passage. He is not alone, he’s walking with a friend, but that friend is not named nor are we told if they are a man or a woman. It's that Sunday, the one after Jesus was crucified. Most of the believers were back in Jerusalem, gathered together following the most important event in all of history. But not all of them were there. Two of them had given up and set out on the seven mile journey to the village of Emmaus. What else do we know about them? Look at the end of Luke 24.17:
...they stood still, looking sad.
Cleopas was a man whose life had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. His dreams have been shattered and he was left to move forward into a reality that he had not previously imagined. As I have read and re-read this scene I keep being drawn back to the four words that Cleopas said to Jesus in verse Luke 24.21:
“But we had hoped...”
Do you know the pain of a long-held hope or dream being suddenly and completely destroyed? “But we had hoped...” We’ve all said something like that at the most difficult and painful times in our lives. We all have experienced sudden moments of unpredicted disappointment and we all have felt the torrential downpour of despair. “But we had hoped...” Have you been there? What have you hoped for? That a relationship would last, a treatment would work, a job would be yours, that you might be blessed with children, that you might finally overcome an addiction or that God would remove your attraction to those of the same sex. Have you been afraid even to hope because of not being able to cope with another disappointment?
"But we had hoped…." Just four little words, but they express a wealth of disappointment that can rarely be measured in words alone. What they were saying is "We don’t expect it now, but once we did. We had it, this thing called hope, but now it’s gone”. What was it that had caused Cleopas such despair? Listen to his words again, from Luke 24.19-24:
And [Jesus] said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
No wonder they were so devastated. The man they had placed their hope in, who many had given up their homes and jobs to follow, who they had believed had come from God to save them, Jesus, had been horribly put to death - a cruel and shameful end. And when He died, their hopes had died with Him. Only a week before, on Palm Sunday, the disciples’ hopes had risen higher than ever before when the excited crowds had welcomed their Master into Jerusalem as the longed-for deliverer from the tyranny of Roman occupation. But now he lay dead in a sealed tomb! Then they had heard that some of their fellow believers had gone to the tomb and found it empty. That didn't help, it just caused more confusion. Jesus still wasn’t there. They hadn’t seen Him. Their hopes were dashed, the dream was over! There was no proof, no real reason to begin hoping again.
When dreams appear to shatter and our plans for the future do not match up with what has happened it is normal to ask what is God doing? Is God not with us? Where was God when our secure and predictable future suddenly became insecure and unpredictable? Where was God when the path forward seemed to crumble and we were left to wonder how the pieces could be placed back together? Where is God? Good question! The answer of course is in Luke 24.15:
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
The next part is full of irony. And maybe even a touch of humour. Luke 24.16 says "their eyes were kept from recognizing him". Jesus begins a conversation with them by asking them what they were talking about as they walked. They responded by asking “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” Little do they know that they were talking to the only One who did know exactly what was going on! Funny isn't it? Funny that is, until we realise that we ask just that same question during our broken dreams of the only one who does know what is going on. One of the things I love about the gospels is that they deal with things that we sometimes don’t dare to speak about. They don't try to hide or tidy up the messy reality of deep disappointment in the life of those of us who follow Jesus. It may be of some comfort to know that those closest to Jesus faced doubts, just as we do at times.
But the gospels also show us what is really going on when we are in danger of losing perspective. We are not alone, Jesus draws near and walks with us. We may not always see that. Life has many distractions; hard work, routine, tiredness, ill health - which can so grind us down that we carry on mechanically, never lifting our eyes or minds from the dust of the earthly road we travel. Be that as it may, it changes nothing. (Psalm 23:4):
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Let's now move onto the second section, Luke 24.25-27. Let me read those verses again:
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Cleopas and his companion accepted the gentle rebuke that Jesus made, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." Perhaps the keyword is all. It wasn’t that they hadn’t read the prophets of old, but that they’d read them selectively, concentrating on those parts that spoke of a victorious saviour. The passages that spoke of a suffering servant didn’t fit in with their expectation of the Christ and they’d skipped over them. The Old Testament speaks about both the life and the death of the Christ and tells us that it was necessary for him to suffer and to die to save us. When Jesus died on the cross he was taking the punishment for our sin. The punishment we deserve for refusing to listen to God or honour him as our God. We were not righteousness (or perfect) but he was. We deserve punishment and he didn’t. But an amazing thing happened. He was punished so we could be set free or saved. Our punishment went to him and his righteousness came to us. He became our saviour! If we trust in Jesus we can be treated as if we had done nothing wrong because he took the punishment we deserved. Only after he had suffered in that way to become our saviour, would he rise from the dead and receive his glory.
If you are new to church or not sure about why Christian’s believe Jesus had to suffer die and die to save us, can I encourage you to keep joining us online each week and then maybe in-person when you can. You might also like to visit our website whyjesus.org.uk. You can ask for a copy of a book called If you could ask God one question. And you can sign up for a group called Christianity Explored.
Those of us who are Christians, and who know our Bibles well - there is a challenge here! Are we slow to believe all that is in the Bible? Sometimes, behind our hopelessness in the situations we face is a slowness to believe all that God tells us through the scriptures. We need to hear Jesus's gently rebuke and listen carefully to all he has said to us. We need to beware of the tendency to read the Bible selectively, which is one of the reasons it is helpful to deliberately work our way through the whole of the Bible in our private Bible reading as well as in our church life. Finally, let's read on to the final section, beginning with verse 28 (Luke 24.28-31):
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
It would soon be dark and so when the two disciples arrived at their destination they urged Jesus strongly to stay with them, they were hungry for more Bible teaching. Jesus agreed to stay and the three sat down for a meal together. After a prayer of thanks for the meal, Jesus broke the bread and he gave it to them. That was when God chose to let them see that the stranger was Jesus. He was alive again! As soon as they recognised him, however, he vanishes from their sight. What they say next is one of the key verses in this section. Luke 24.32:
They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
How did Jesus make their hearts burn within them? He read the Bible with them! Remember, this is Jesus we're talking about! He could have said to them “Let me tell you what has been going on”. Wouldn't that be what you expect? But He doesn’t say that, does he? Instead, he says, “Let me show you what the Bible says”. It's almost as if he was preparing them for the life of faith after he had returned to his Father in heaven. The Bible is the normal and clearest way God speaks to us today. When the Bible is read, God is talking to us. How closely do we listen? When we wake up are we more interested in what the BBC or Facebook has to say or in listening to God.
For just as Cleopas and his friend's despair turned to their hearts burning within them, so can the power and hope of God's word turn our long-held broken hopes, struggles and despairs to our hearts burning for Him. Jesus turned their perspective back to the truth and hope as they believed the promises of his word. He still does the same thing today by his Spirit through his word. Luke 24.33-35:
And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Jesus had explained the scriptures to them and they now understood that Jesus was the Christ. All that had happened made sense to them now. Christ is risen from the dead! Christ is the Saviour! Christ is the hope of the world! Their first reaction was that they must tell the other disciples. They got up from the table at once and hurried back the seven miles to Jerusalem. It would have been dark for most of the way. But that did not seem to bother them. In Jerusalem, they found the 11 apostles, who had some other disciples with them. When they arrived, the apostles had news to tell them: “Jesus is alive.” Jesus had met with Simon Peter!
The fact of Jesus's resurrection and the hope of God's word provided deep and lasting comfort to the disciples, whose lives had been turned upside down. May we also find hope and comfort in the truth of Jesus' resurrection in whatever situation we may find ourselves in, rather than trying to renew our own hope in something or someone else. And may it be our desire and purpose to discover Jesus in the Scriptures, just as Jesus directed Cleopus to do on the Emmaus Road, so that we can live our lives with our hearts burning too.