April 12, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE DISCOURAGED AND DISBELIEVING
The eighth in a series of eight.
We now have lights in this sanctuary that come on when we turn them on. Many of you remember the old lights. They would take their own sweet time in gradually working their way up to full brightness. It might take five minutes. At first all you would get was a humming sound and some very dim light. The light was coming, but it was awhile before it got here.
The resurrection was like that. It wasn’t like turning on a switch and suddenly everyone believed and was filled with joy. The darkness and gloom of Good Friday was not immediately overcome by the glorious light of Easter Sunday. It took awhile. At first things still looked pretty dark.
Luke reports the reaction of the women who were first to discover the empty tomb. They were “perplexed.” They weren’t exactly singing the Hallelujah Chorus. When they told the disciples, the disciples didn’t believe them. It was an “idle tale” told by women who couldn’t be trusted anyway.
And as the rumor that Jesus was alive started spreading beyond his inner circle, it was not met with a groundswell of faith. One reason was that so many were there when he died. Remember, it was Passover. Jerusalem was filled with visitors. Jerusalem back then had a population of maybe 50,000. There may have been ten times that many in town for Passover. That’s half a million. Many of them watched Jesus die. Many more heard the news from those who did. So when people said, “You’re not going to believe this . . . ” they were right. They were not going to believe this.
Think of the people we’ve met in this series. There were the night shift shepherds. They were favored with an angelic visit so they could be the first to hold the baby Jesus. Do you think they didn’t follow him after that? There was that leper he healed. One of many. There was that naked man living in the cemetery who was possessed by a legion of demons. Until Jesus set him free. There was that prostitute who made such a scene in Simon the Pharisee’s house. She’s the one we talked about when we had the Sherman Elementary children visiting. There was that blind beggar lying on the side of the road who Jesus almost walked past.
All these and so many more had this in common: Jesus. Jesus who treated them not as nobodies but as somebodies. As human beings. As precious daughters and sons of God. And now Jesus had been nailed to a cross? They may have been there to watch. That awful image was all they could see when they closed their eyes. And now his body is missing?? They weren’t celebrating. They weren’t dancing in the streets. They were grieving as much as anyone was grieving and these resurrection rumors just made things real confusing. If not an idle tale, it was a cruel joke. Wasn’t it bad enough that they had killed him?
The good news wasn’t good news. Not yet. The lights had been turned on but they wouldn’t have known it. The room where they lived was still very dark. The disciples of Jesus, male and female disciples, and all the many more whose lives he had touched were in the depths of despair. This hadn’t turned out at all the way it was supposed to.
Have you ever been there? Things didn’t go the want you thought they would? You have your financial future all figured out. It’s looking good. And then 2008 happens.
You marry the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, but it doesn’t work out that way.
The doctor walks into the room and you can tell by the look on her face that what you are about to hear will change your life forever.
The phone rings. You almost drop it when you hear the news. Someone you love has died.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Your plans, your hopes, your dreams have been shattered into a million pieces. You’re devastated. We’ve all been there. So we all know something of how those closest to Jesus were feeling that first Easter Sunday. The sun may have been up in the sky but the place where they were living was still very dark.
Luke tells us about two of these people. We are given one name. Cleopas. It’s not a name we find anywhere else in the Bible. The other one isn’t given a name. So we really don’t know who either one of them is. They aren’t disciples of Jesus in the strict sense. These are two who had followed him from a distance. We can guess they were among the pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover. Passover is now over so it’s time to go home. Home is Emmaus.
It’s seven miles away. A couple of hours if they walked fast. Twice that long if they took their time. I’m guessing they took their time. They weren’t in the mood for a brisk walk. It was more like a sleep walk. As they walked they were “talking with each other about all these things that had happened” (24:14). That means they were talking about the big news out of Jerusalem. That Jesus was dead. And also these bizarre reports they were hearing that Jesus wasn’t really dead.
And while they were talking they were joined by a third person. It was none other than Jesus. But they didn’t recognize him. Why would they? They didn’t really know him. They were distant admirers. They were low profile believers. He spoke to them and “they stood still, looking sad” (24:17). They didn’t smile. They didn’t say, “He is risen indeed!” It was way too early for that. They fit the profile of many on that first Easter. They were discouraged and disbelieving.
By the time they get to Emmaus, Easter is almost over. The sun is setting. It’s getting dark. But that was when the light came on for them! Because they invited this stranger who had been walking with them to their home. They shared a meal. And as they were sharing this meal it dawned on them who they were with. Their eyes were opened. Their eyes that were filled with tears and clouded with grief. Now they could see. The Risen Jesus “was known to them in the breaking of bread” (24:35).
We postponed communion one Sunday. Normally the first Sunday of the month is Communion Sunday here. The first Sunday of the month was Easter, but that wasn’t why we postponed it. We postponed it because this story of the Emmaus Road travelers is a communion story. In the breaking of bread they knew that Jesus was alive. They knew that Jesus was with them. They knew the joy of Easter. And so will we. So will we as we gather at the communion table in just a few minutes.
But first we need to notice what Jesus has just done. He has done what he is always doing in Luke’s Gospel. He is giving his time and attention to a couple of nobodies.
He’s just come back from the dead. There are a lot of people he might have gone to see. He could have gone to Pilate and Herod and said, Arnold Schwarzenegger style, “I’m back!” They probably would have died of fright right on the spot. He should have gone to his own mother. Wouldn’t you think? Or at least to his own disciples. He does go to them next, as we will see.
But Luke wants us to know that first he went to a couple of nobodies. They are such nobodies that the sum total of all we know about them is one of their names. But Jesus chose them. He made himself known to them. He entered the darkness of their lives and he flipped on that light switch. They weren’t nobodies. They were somebodies. They needed some good news and Jesus made sure they got it. Their lives were not futile, their failures were not final, their futures were full of promise.
Luke is getting to the end of the story of Jesus. But Luke
doesn’t stop writing. He finishes one volume and he starts another. Volume 2. It’s the story of the church. It’s called “The Acts of the Apostles”. But really it is just a continuation of the story of Jesus. Because the story of Jesus is a never-ending story.
In Acts the church begins with just a handful of disciples and it grows and grows and grows. There are some big names in Acts. There are the “apostles” who the book is named for. Peter. John. Philip. Paul. Silas. Barnabas. These are the rock stars. But the church never would have grown as it did if it was all up to them. It was everyday, ordinary people who heard the story, who saw the story lived out in each other, who shared the story with those who hadn’t yet heard. We don’t know their names. Their names are not famous names. But without them the good news of Easter never would have chased away the dark and the gloom of Good Friday.
Jesus went to Emmaus first. To the home of these nobodies first. But then he went to his disciples. And he didn’t exactly get a standing ovation when he showed up. “They were startled and frightened and supposed that they saw a ghost” (24:37). The lights were out there, too. And they only gradually came on. We find this curious verse as they were starting to figure things out. “They disbelieved for joy” (24:41). That’s an interesting combination of words. Disbelief and joy. They were somewhere in between the two.
So Jesus helped them along. He showed them his hands and his feet. Then he gave them a Bible lesson. “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 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 preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (24:45-48).
They’re starting to come around now. They’re starting to believe. Jesus said, “You are my witnesses.” What is a witness? A witnesses is someone who has seen something and who then tells others about it. They’ve seen Jesus alive. They’ve seen for themselves that these strange and bewildering reports really are true. He’s come back from the dead. Just as he said he would. Belief is replacing their disbelief. Courage is replacing their discouragement. And Jesus says, “Don’t keep it to yourselves. Now is the time to tell others. You are my witnesses.”
He was talking to his inner circle. He was talking to those who would soon become the recognized leaders in the new church. They were known people. They were important people. But remember, he didn’t go to them first. First he went to a couple of unknowns. A couple of nobodies. We know nothing about them. We have no idea what became of them. Why them? Because Luke wants us to see that they are us. Luke wants us to see ourselves in this story. Ordinary, everyday disciples like you and me are also witnesses of the resurrection. We’ve seen it. Our eyes have been opened. And now it’s time to tell others.
When life doesn’t go the way we thought it should, it’s easy to get down. And when we get down, we drag others down with us. It’s easy to give up on God. And when we give up on God, it can be contagious. It can weaken the faith of those around us. We can be negative witnesses as well as positive witnesses.
So how inspiring it is to be around someone like Randy Nicholson! Some of you don’t know him. He hasn’t been able to be in church for a long time now. He’s missed it. We’ve missed him. When he’s here, this man who has faced so many hard things in life never fails to lift the spirits of those around him. So I thought it might be good to stop by Randy’s house and have a little conversation with him so that you could see and hear a living example of what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You are my witnesses.”
(Video clip: Interview with Randy Nicholson)
How do you explain Randy Nicholson? He has every reason to be a bitter, angry, negative person. He’s the opposite. His faith is contagious. Jesus is alive in him. There’s only one way to explain Randy Nicholson: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ which means that God loves us relentlessly, forgives us comprehensively, and gives us salvation in life and in death.
On the first Tuesday of each month I’m privileged to share lunch and a communion service with some of the residents at Sunny Ridge Retirement Home. Jack Henry does a great job organizing it. This week we started our worship by singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” All these dear saints of God who have lived long lives, who have seen hard times most younger people know nothing about. And they were singing this beloved old hymn and meaning every word.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not. As though hast been, thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
They were witnesses to the faithfulness of God. They were witnesses to the power of our Risen Lord. They were witnesses to a love that has never let them down.
And we are witnesses, too. We’ve all had plenty of reason for discouragement and disbelief. But we’ve also all been witnesses to the light that overcomes all darkness. It took awhile for that light to come on for the first believers. It may not be on all the way yet for you. But it’s here. And it’s real.
We’re now leaving Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s good news. Now it’s our turn to be good news. To be the Gospel of the Nobodies. To be Jesus. We may be the only Jesus some people will ever meet. It’s a great privilege. It’s a great responsibility. We’ll never do it alone. We’ll never do it without the risen Jesus alive and at work in us.
Open our eyes, dear God, as the eyes of those two nobodies in Emmaus were opened to the living, risen Jesus. We’ve all had struggles. We’ve all had times of doubt and darkness. We’ve all had times of discouragement and hurt. And we’re free to stay there if we choose. But because of Easter we don’t have to stay there. We’re now free to rise above all that. And we’re free to lift others so they can experience your light and your love for themselves. We’re free to choose Jesus. And as we pause in silence for a moment right now, many of us will be praying a simple prayer: “Lord Jesus, Risen Savior, I am yours.” (silence) In Jesus’ name, Amen.