Last Sunday was Easter Day. It’s a joyful day. A day of celebration. And the greeting used in the early church was clear and confident - the Lord is risen – he is risen indeed! And as we said those words what is your favourite account of the resurrection? Is it to Mary in the garden? Is it to Thomas in the upper room? Is it to Peter by the Sea of Galilee? Mine is about the two walkers on the road to Emmaus. It’s a powerful narrative, a fast-moving story, a gradual and decisive coming to terms with what had happened. Spiritual blindness gives way to spiritual sight. It has its highs and lows. It begins with sadness and confusion and ends with the triumphant words ‘It is true the Lord – the Lord has risen!’ (v.34).
Tonight as we look together at the narrative in Luke 24, I want you to imagine that you are walking with the three people – the two friends and the stranger. It’s been a long day, the culmination of an emotionally charged week. Jesus had died on a cross, and now there were reports that he was alive. How would you feel? What would be going through your mind? Would you be elated or troubled? The story is simple and straightforward. It’s easy to remember. Two friends were walking along the road. They were joined by a stranger. At first they didn’t recognise him, but eventually they discovered that the was indeed the risen Jesus. What others had reported was true. He who had truly died was truly risen! For them certainty replaced their doubts and questions.
And what about you? Is Jesus the unknown stranger, the one whom you have yet to recognise? Or is he your familiar friend, whom you know and trust as your Saviour and Lord?
In the narrative we move: From confusion to certainty. From despair to hope. From the unknown to the known. From Jesus unrecognised to Jesus recognised. And at the same time there is a contrast between human blindness and divine disclosure. From spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. Coming to faith is always a miracle, and beyond the confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a journey of gradual transformation. From meeting Jesus to becoming more like Jesus. To use the jargon moving on from justification to sanctification. For each one of us the journey of faith is far from easy – there are mountains to climb, deserts to cross, temptations to face, questions to answer. So we all need the companionship of the stranger (who has become our friend) and to allow him to walk alongside us. Supporting us and encouraging us along the way.
In the 18th century revival the Rev John Berridge (1716-93) experienced an Evangelical conversion. On his gravestone it says he ‘lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754 … [and] fled to Jesus alone for refuge, 1756’. He said elsewhere, formerly ‘I used (Jesus) as a healthy man will use a walking (stick) … but now he is my whole support, no foot can stir a step without him. He is my all (as he ought to be) if he will become my Saviour.’
1 The unknown stranger – (that is Jesus unrecognised)
i) The two travellers were confused
On the first Easter Day two people left Jerusalem. They were not included among the eleven disciples, but were part of the wider circle of Jesus’ followers. One of the travellers is identified as Cleopas and the other is unnamed – perhaps it was a friend? Perhaps it was his wife? Perhaps (as some have suggested) it was Luke the gospel writer. But we don’t know for certain. We can only speculate.
But whatever their relationship … notice their confused feelings and emotions. They were anxious. They were distressed. They were worried. They were sorrowful (v.17b). They were disappointed (v.21). They were bewildered (vv.22-24). Their hopes and dreams were shattered. They were traumatised by what had happened over the past week and more. Their friend Jesus (in whom they had invested so much) had been tried and executed. The one whom they loved was dead – but now some were saying that he was alive. They didn't know what to believe! They wanted time out to take stock and so they left the city of Jerusalem and walked to the village of Emmaus. And as they walked along they talked about what had happened. They shared their doubts, their confusion and their uncertainties. And as they walked along a stranger joined them. For travellers this not unusual: to travel alone was dangerous. To travel in a group was safer.
I wonder, are you a bit like these two walkers? Full of doubt, confusion and uncertainty? You hear people talking confidently about their faith and expressing their faith in Christ; but you are uncertain and confused and don't really know what to believe. Sometimes people say, ‘I wish I had your faith’. ‘I wish I could believe’. Always – and for each one of us - our meeting with Jesus must be a personal encounter. The stranger has to become a friend. If you are not yet a Christian are you willing to hear the voice of the stranger?
On the other hand you may have been a Christian for many years. But your faith has become stale. Faith has been replaced by religion. Your love of Jesus has grown cold. Joy has lost its smile. Worship has become a dull routine. Church-going a matter of habit rather than a joyful response to the Saviour’s love. In many ways Jesus has become to you a stranger.
He is certainly no longer your friend. If you are like this then are you willing to hear the voice of the stranger? To encounter him afresh? To be warmed by his embrace?
ii) The two travellers were blind
Notice how the two friends saw Jesus. For them he was a prophet (v.19), the longed-for redeemer (v.21), one of whom others had said that he had risen from the dead (v.23). This was their outward confession, but inwardly (in their hearts) they did not understand. One commentator said that 'their ignorance was truly astounding.' Astounding because they failed to recognise the stranger. Astounding because they couldn't grasp what had happened. Astounding because they had not understood the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus.
Again, where do you stand? Is Jesus still the unknown stranger, or is he your familiar friend? Is Jesus like the recipient of an annual text message? Someone you only contact once a year – infrequent but never day by day? And for some here tonight there is the need to visit a spiritual Specsavers. Your vision of Jesus is less clear than it once was. Even the voice of Jesus is not recognised. You are no longer surprised by the undeserved grace of God and of his overwhelming love for you. You have become cold and indifferent to the things of God. Your faith has been replaced by religion.
Is Jesus already the unknown stranger; or has he gradually become an unknown stranger to you?
2 The familiar friend (that is Jesus revealed)
i) Jesus made himself known through scripture
Given what the two friends had said, given too what they had experienced, then we are surprised by Jesus’ response to them! He questioned them. He rebuked them! He told them off! '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?’ (vv.25-26). The two friends were no doubt familiar with the text of scripture but they failed to understand its message. They knew the words on the page but not their inner reality. They could believe in a Messiah in glory but not in a suffering Messiah. Again, is this a bit like you? You know many of the Bible stories, you have heard endless sermons, but still fail to grasp what the message of the Bible is all about. The jigsaw remains incomplete in the box: and no clear picture has yet emerged. The result is that you have failed to make a simple response to the One who wants to make himself known to you!
You need the life-giving Spirit to illuminate for you the word of life.
As the two friends walked along Jesus opened-up the Bible to them. And what a fantastic Bible study it must have been! As they walked - he talked. The subject of the Bible became the object of their attention. Their hearts burned within them. Jesus gave them a systematic study of the Bible. Over the course of two to three hours he covered the whole Bible, and it took him seven miles to do so! From Moses to Malachi; from the patriarchs to the prophets; from the prophets to the Psalms. Notice that Jesus referred to the traditional threefold division of the OT. The Jews regarded it as having three parts - the Law, the prophets and the writings (vv.27, 44). And from the whole of the OT he spoke about himself. We need to know that Jesus is the key to the Bible. He is at the heart of the message of the Bible. Martin Luther once said that as you go to the cradle to find the baby, so you go to the Bible to find Jesus.
All of us need to ask God to open up the Bible to us. To see the death of Jesus not as some unfortunate accident; but the outcome of God's plan and purpose. To see the resurrection not as a nice Bible story, but as God's 'yes' to the finished work of Christ upon the cross! Each of us needs to see and believe for ourselves. We need to experience that heart-warming, heart-transforming experience.
The Bible (in both the OT and the NT) points us to Jesus. He is disclosed to us; he makes himself known to us; he is revealed to us as the one who died for me and as the one who rose for me. Yes, we preach Christ crucified; and yes, we preach Christ risen from the dead! The One who took away my sin on the cross as my Saviour has been raised to life as my Lord in glory. As you read the Bible – OT and NT – ask God to make its message clear to you. And look both to the prophetic word in the OT and the apostolic word in the NT.
ii) Jesus made himself known through the breaking of bread
The three of them had walked together. They engaged in conversation with the stranger. They were so impressed with what he had said that they invited him to stay and have a meal with them. They were tired. It was late. It was dark. It would have been dangerous to continue alone. 'Stay with us, and eat with us' (v.29). No doubt they wanted to hear more from the stranger. Notice the progression from the world, to the home and to the heart.
Not only did they invite the stranger to share with them the meal, but unusually so they also invited their guest to be the host. At the table Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Now at last their eyes were opened. They saw the nail pierced wrists and recognised his voice. Notice that this was not a communion service (the two friends had not been present) – and in any case there was only bread and no wine. This was a simple, shared meal. There was something familiar about the way in which he took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them. Echoes no doubt of the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000. In an instant the penny dropped. He was no longer an unknown stranger – but he was their familiar friend. The one who had died / had indeed risen from the dead! ‘Their eyes were opened, and they recognised him. And he vanished from their sight’ (v.31).
Look back at what had happened.
v. 32: As Jesus had taught them their hearts burned ‘within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures.’ One commentator put it quite simply, Jesus ‘breathed a divine warmth into them.’
v.31: As Jesus took the bread and broke it their eyes were opened. The symbol pointed towards the reality. The bread of life alone could truly satisfy their deepest hunger.
They saw with their eyes and they believed in their hearts. They saw and believed. They trusted him as their Lord and Saviour. And their experience can become your experience too. 'Stay with me' – invite him to remain with you, in your heart, in your life, in your home and at your work. Confess Jesus as your Saviour and Lord. The two friends immediate left Emmaus and returned to Jerusalem. Back in the dark. Unafraid to return. No longer tired but elated. Their hearts were full of praise and thanksgiving. On reaching the eleven they shared their experience and their joy. Their hearts had been warmed by the love of God. They believed and they shared the good news with the eleven. Before we can tell others of the Saviour our hearts need to be strangely warmed by the love of God.
The unknown stranger can become your familiar friend. That was the experience for these two friends – and it can be our experience too. ‘Stay with us …and their eyes were opened and they recognised him’ (vv.29, 31).
Let’s end as we began:
The Lord is risen – he is risen indeed!