Let me begin with a question: what are you hoping for right now? It might be that you’re hoping for the right exam results, or for a job, or for your present job to continue, or for recovery of health, or for an operation, or for a romance to start, or for a marriage to improve (or even survive), or for children to come along, or, having come along, for children to turn out OK, or for a house to come onto the market. Whatever.
Every one of us here is a bundle of hopes, and if we’re Christians, we pin those hopes on the Lord Jesus – we look to him for them and pray about them. But every one of us is also a bundle of disappointments. Eg, you may be disappointed over the university offers you got, or the redundancy that came your way or the romance that isn’t happening. And we pin those disappointments on the Lord, too, asking him, ‘Why don’t you…?’ ‘Why can’t you just…?’ So Philip Yancey writes this in his book Disappointment With God:
I have found that for many people there is a large gap between what they expect from their Christian faith and what they actually experience. From a steady diet of books, sermons and personal testimonies, all promising triumph and success, they learn to expect dramatic evidence of God working in their lives. And if they do not see such evidence, they feel disappointment, betrayal and often guilt.
Well, we’re in a mini-series on the events of the first Easter. And the first big Easter event – Jesus’ death – basically destroyed his disciples’ hopes in him. If ever people felt bewildering disappointment with Jesus, it was them. But the second big Easter event – Jesus’ resurrection – totally restored their hopes. Because it made them see that their expectations of what Jesus was going to do for them had been totally inadequate – not in the sense of being too big, but being far too small.
So if we’re Christians, tonight’s Bible passage should help us re-set our expectations of the Lord. And if you’re still just thinking about the Christian faith, it should help you avoid wrong expectations of what being a Christian would be like – because it doesn’t mean Jesus will protect your job, keep you healthy and give you a problem-free ride. It means something far, far bigger.
So would you turn in the Bibles to Luke 24. Luke 23 records the events of Good Friday – how Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. Luke 24 then records the events of Easter Sunday – how they found Jesus’ body gone from the tomb, and then witnessed him bodily risen from the dead. And the middle section of Luke 24 describes the risen Jesus appearing to two disciples. So look down to v13:
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he 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. (vv13-21)
‘We had hoped,’ they said – had hoped that Jesus was going to become king of Israel, clear out the religious corruption, boot out the Roman occupiers and get them back to ‘the good old days’ of David and Solomon. But he didn’t. And they needed to learn that those hopes had been totally inadequate. Because they were basically hoping for change in the world without realising that requires total transformation of people – of us – which 1) only God can do, and which 2) God will only completely do beyond this life.
So to re-set the expectations we have of the Lord, let’s look at tonight’s passage under two headings:
Firstly, THE HOPE
Look on to v36. The two disciples we just read about on the Emmaus road legged it back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples they’d seen the risen Jesus, and v36:
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. (vv36-37)
Ie, a ghost, a disembodied presence of some sort. And they presumably thought that because of the way Jesus had just appeared: there was no knock at the door and ‘Hello, come in.’ So they were as freaked as we would have been. Read on, v36:
And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (vv38-40)
So they weren’t even thinking, ‘It’s the ghost of Jesus.’ They were just thinking, ‘It’s a ghost.’ To which Jesus says, ‘No, it’s me. It’s the same person you followed for three years, the same person whose body you saw nailed to a cross and then laid dead in a tomb. Look at the nail marks. Touch them if you want.’ Verse 41:
And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (vv41-42)
All of which was Jesus’ way of saying, ‘I’m not a ghost. I’m Jesus, risen bodily from the dead.’
But this is clearly totally different from the people like Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter whom Jesus brought back from the dead during his ministry. Because those people were brought back into this life, into the same bodies, which were subject to the same mortality – so they still had to face getting sick and ageing and then dying all over again. In medical terms, those were just resuscitations. But what happened to Jesus was resurrection. Which means that instead of coming back into this life, he was raised beyond death in a body that was no longer subject to mortality and that belonged to the whole dimension outside space and time where God is – what the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, calls ‘a spiritual body.’ And if that seems contradictory and you find it hard to get your mind around that, join the club. But what better way is there to describe what they witnessed here? Because on the one hand, it was recognisably the body of Jesus – even down to the scars – and could be seen, touched and even eat. But on the other hand, it could just appear and disappear. And Jesus hints that it’s a totally different body by saying, ‘a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ Whereas we would have said, ‘flesh and blood’ – that’s our way of describing our humanity (and it was theirs, too – eg, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15.50 that, ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God [ = life with God beyond death]’). But Jesus doesn’t say he’s ‘flesh and blood’ any longer because he’s not come back as he was – he’s taken human nature through death and transformed it.
So what we’re seeing in these first verses is our ultimate hope – because our ultimate hope is not to do with exam results or romance or jobs or reforming the church or political change. Our ultimate hope is to be raised from the dead beyond this life, like Jesus was – into a body that’s no longer subject to ageing and sickness and dying and which has no sinful desires inside it or sources of temptation outside it. And it’s Jesus’ resurrection – this real event which happened in history – that gives solid ground for that hope.
You may have heard of the book Heaven Is For Real – the film of which is due to open in this country in May. It’s the story of a little boy who testifies to a kind of out of body experience of heaven while doctors were fighting to resuscitate him on the operating table. And it makes some uncanny claims. Eg, he talks to his parents about meeting his second sister in heaven – having never known of the miscarriage in which she was lost. And he correctly identifies his grandfather as a younger man in a photo he’d never previously seen, saying he’d seen him in heaven, too. And I’m not taking issue with his experience or truthfulness. I’d just say, ‘Interesting as that may be, let’s set it aside, because we’ve got far, far more solid ground for believing in life beyond this life – in the resurrection of Jesus.’ Heaven Is For Real may leave people saying, ‘It makes you think, doesn’t it?’ But only what we’ve been looking at – the resurrection of Jesus – will enable people to believe. It really happened. There really is life beyond this life. And what happened to Jesus here will happen to you, if you’re connected to him by faith: he will pull you through death, the same route he travelled.
That’s the hope. The next thing Jesus does is to spell out God’s plan for making that hope happen, for getting any of us to where Jesus is now. So,
Second, THE PLAN
Look on to v44:
Then [the risen Jesus] said to them, “These [ie, these events you’ve just witnessed] are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms [ie, the Old Testament (OT) section of the Bible] must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures [ie, the OT], and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (vv44-47)
So the OT was basically God’s plan of how he would put right what’s gone wrong in his world. And the plan centred on this figure ‘the Christ’, which basically means ‘God’s King’. And the OT is full of prophesies of what he would do. Eg, just turn back in the Bible to Zechariah 9.9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[And by staging his entry to Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, Jesus was openly claiming to be this figure, the Christ.]
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Which leaves you thinking, ‘Fantastic! World peace and perfect government – yes, please. Just get rid of the bad guys, Lord and bring it on!’ The trouble is, getting rid of the bad guys (and girls) would mean getting rid of you, wouldn’t it? And getting rid of me. In fact it would mean getting rid of all of us. It would mean hell populated by every human being who’s ever lived – except Jesus. Because we’re the problem. To be precise, the Bible says the problem is sin – which is simply you and me saying to God, ‘I don’t want you to be king over me – I want to live as I please.’ And so long as we’re doing that, we’ll go on damaging ourselves, each other and God’s world.
So what’s the plan that will get human beings back from there, to living rightly again in relationship with God and one another? Well, back to Luke 24.46:
and [Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written [ie, this is the plan, as set out on the OT], that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (vv46-47)
So the OT said that the Christ would bring people back under God’s rule. But it also said how – it said he’d do it by dying to pay for the forgiveness of sin we need if we’re to be back in relationship with God. And that’s what no-one had realised. Because even though the OT said it in places like Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12 and 13, people had simply missed it. Which is why Jesus’ disciples weren’t expecting the cross, and why their hopes in him were basically destroyed when it happened. But Jesus is saying here, ‘The cross wasn’t the plan going horribly wrong. The cross was the plan. Because only through the cross can I take the condemnation your sins deserve, so that you can be forgiven, and yet justice still be done.’ And when you realise Jesus was doing that for you on the cross, it leads to those two things in v47:
repentance and the forgiveness of sins (v47)
Repentance is about who’s running my life: it’s about saying to Jesus, ‘From now on, I do want to live for you as king, in response to what you’ve done for me.’ And forgiveness is about how God can accept me. And the amazing thing – which is the hardest thing in the Christian message to believe – is that he accepts me in the first place, and goes on accepting me as the rubbish Christian I am solely because of the forgiveness that Jesus paid for on the cross. So being accepted by God depends 100% on what Jesus did on the cross and 0% on how I’m living today.
I said that in a sermon one time and someone came steaming up afterwards very angry. She said, ‘You shouldn’t say that sort of thing.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And she said, ‘Because it’ll just make people go out and sin.’ And I said, ‘Why would they do that?’ And she said, ‘Because you’ve just told them it doesn’t matter how they live.’ And I said, ‘No I didn’t. I told them their acceptance with God doesn’t depend on how they live.’ And she said, ‘But what will motivate them to live a good life if not fear of punishment if they don’t?’ (Which tells you a lot about where she was coming from in her beliefs.) And I said, ‘Well, fear is a motivator in all the human religions – but it doesn’t work, it doesn’t change people.’ And I said, ‘The only motivator that really changes people is being loved – being accepted as you are – and then responding to that. And that’s what Jesus offers, and I guarantee that anyone here who really knows Jesus is not just going to go out and sin for the rest of the week – because they don’t want to sin any more, because being loved like that changes what you want.’
You see, if the plan was, ‘Get rid of all the bad guys (and girls) like us,’ there’d be no hope for any of us. But the plan was for Jesus to die for all the bad guys (and girls) like us, so that through being forgiven and loved like that, we might be changed – imperfectly changed in this life (where you now want to live for him, but constantly fail to); but perfectly changed beyond this life, when you’re in that resurrected body which has no sinful desires inside it or sources of temptation outside it.
That’s the plan. So look again at v46, which sums it up:
and [Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead [and that bit of the plan is done; but the plan is also, v47:], [and] that repentance [ie, living for Jesus as king] and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (vv46-47)
So if that’s God’s @>plan for this universe, there are two important implications.
One implication is that we need to bring our plans into line with God’s plan.
So if you’ve not yet accepted Jesus as your king and been forgiven, that’s the first step you need to take in getting your plans in line with God’s plan. And it would help you to take away and read a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? which is about how to take that step – they’re on the Welcome Desk, and at the doors, and through in student supper.
But if you have accepted Jesus, the thing now is to see living for him as king as the priority in all your plans – and that includes, v47, proclaiming him to others. So, eg, one Christian I know was originally a drugs rep, which involved lots of travel and staying away overnight in hotels. And that didn’t help his living for Jesus as king because of temptations for him and being absent from family responsibilities. And nor did it help his sharing the Christian message because the job gave no real continuity of relationships for doing that – and it left him little time and opportunity outside work, or to be involved much in church. So for those reasons, he re-trained and became a school-teacher just round the corner from home. Which is a great example of bringing our plans into line with God’s plan.
But the other implication is that we also need to bring our expectations into line with God’s plan.
So there are lots of things that God’s plan – ie, what is revealed in the Bible – doesn’t say. Eg, it doesn’t say I’ll get two A’s and a B at A-level, or a first, or this or that particular job, or suffer no spells of unemployment, or get married, or have an easy marriage, or have children, or have healthy children, or be healthy myself. None of those things are promised to us now in the plan. And if we think they are, if we confuse our hopes with what God has specifically promised, then we’ll definitely suffer Disappointment With God, to quote Philip Yancey’s book title.
What is promised is: the Lord’s unshakable love and forgiveness; and his sovereignty over our lives (so that we’re always in his hands – nothing happens that’s out of his control); and that ultimate hope of resurrection. But that leaves room for all sorts of perplexities and disappointments. Eg, God does promise in the Bible to provide for us materially as part of his love. But that doesn’t mean, as we apply for any given job, that we know that’s the one through which he’ll provide for us – so we’re not immune to the perplexity and disappointment of job-hunting. But we can try to guard against the perplexity and disappointment that come from false expectations of the Lord in the first place.
But it’s looking forward to that hope of resurrection beyond this life that will ultimately help us get our expectations sorted, because that’s ultimately where God’s promises to us will be completely fulfilled. So he does promise us perfect health – but beyond this life, in our resurrected bodies. He does promise us perfect companionship and community – but beyond this life. He does promise us total freedom from the sinful habits and the hurts that have shaped and damaged us – but beyond this life.
I’m going to skip vv48 and 49 – not because they’re unimportant, but because I’m out of time and because what they cover was unpacked this time last week. So look down to v50 to end with:
Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (vv50-51)
That event is often called the ascension. And we know from Acts 1 that it happened after a period of 40 days during which the risen Jesus made appearances like the ones we’ve looked at tonight. And the way this one happened was clearly designed to say to the disciples, ‘This is the last one in the sequence.’ It was designed to say, ‘Jesus doesn’t really belong here visibly with you any more; he belongs back with his Father in heaven.’ And, just for the record, the Bible doesn’t believe that heaven is somehow ‘up’ through the clouds – as if a big enough rocket would get you there. What happened here was just a ‘visual aid’ to show that since his resurrection, Jesus had belonged back with his Father on the throne of heaven, and that that was where he would now invisibly be, until he comes again.
And so the note that Luke’s Gospel ends on is really the note the Christian life should be lived on – and it’s not a bad question to ask, ‘Does this basically describe me?’ It says ‘they worshipped him’ – ie, recognised him as God and king over everything, trusting that whatever happened they were ultimately in his hands. And it also says they had ‘great joy’ and were ‘continually… blessing God’ – ie, praising God for the blessings they now had in Jesus. And the reason that joy can be continuous – whatever we’re going through – is, as we’ve seen, that the vast bulk of the blessings Jesus has won for us lie beyond this life and therefore can’t be threatened by anything in this life, however hard or disappointing.
So I spoke to an elderly Christian friend a few weeks ago after hearing he’d been diagnosed with cancer. I said to him, ‘I’m sorry to hear about that.’ And with a big smile on his face he said, ‘Ian, don’t be sorry. My life’s ambition has been to go and finally be with Jesus. And as far as I’m concerned, anything that gets me there more quickly is nothing to be sorry about.’ I wish he could have preached for you this evening – because he really knows the hope; he knows the plan; he knows Jesus. And since he said that to me a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking, ‘That’s what I want to be able to say – not just when I’m eighty-something, like he is; but now.’ Because that would make all the difference to how I live, as well as to how I die.