Sunday, April 20, 2014

Depressed Disciples and the Living Lord (Luke 24:13-15, Easter 2014)

Easter Sunday is a special day for Christians. But in some sense, it is also just another Sunday for us. You see, we do not come together just once a year to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every Sunday, we gather to commemorate, to celebrate, and to communicate that we serve the death-proof King who has saved us by His grace. Still, there is something uniquely special about this particular Sunday for most Christians. Even for some non-Christians, Easter is a special day for dressing up, gathering with family or friends, and maybe even that annual sojourn to church. But not everyone understands or appreciates Easter Sunday. Some think it is about rabbits that lay chocolate eggs. I am not a biologist or a zoologist, but I know enough to know that if you ever see a rabbit lay a chocolate egg, you do NOT want to eat it! Easter is ultimately about the historical fact that some 2,000 years ago, the tomb of Jesus was empty because He had conquered death through His resurrection. He proclaims victoriously, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev 1:8). 

There are, of course, many who do not believe that the resurrection of Jesus explains the empty tomb. Since the first century, one of the most often repeated “alternative suggestions” is that the disciples of Jesus stole the body. If we read the New Testament’s honest depiction of the disciples following the crucifixion of Jesus, we find that this was not a clever band of con-artists scheming to find a way to pull off history’s greatest hoax. The resurrection of Jesus, even though He Himself had foretold it numerous times, was the farthest thing from their minds. On Thursday night, most of them completely defected and abandoned the Lord when the mob came to arrest Him. Peter denied even knowing Him to save his own skin. John kept a safe and silent distance. After Jesus died, most of the disciples all seem to have just gone their separate ways. When Jesus did appear to them, most of them didn’t recognize Him, because He was the last person they expected to see. Every single one of them was surprised by their encounter with Him following His resurrection. They were hardly the kind of people that could pull off a very convincing hoax.

Following Friday’s crucifixion, they were dismayed, discouraged, and disillusioned. In a word, they were depressed. That’s how we find the two on the road to Emmaus in our text. Who were they? Well, we know one of them was named Cleopas. The other one was almost certainly his wife, whose name was Mary. The whole family were devout followers of Jesus; one of their sons was the apostle known as James the Less. Mary was with those who watched Jesus die on Friday. And now, on Sunday morning, she and her husband are walking the long road back to their home in Emmaus. And they are depressed.

Can you relate? Have you ever had your hopes dashed on the rocky shore of disillusionment? Have you ever held to something by faith and found in the end that it was all empty and in vain? Has Jesus ever not done something that you fully expected and trusted Him to do? Have you stood with your head in your hands and thought, “I never thought it would turn out like this!” Waves of discouragement are crashing over you, burying you, and you can feel the flame of faith dying slowly in your heart. If you haven’t ever felt that way, you most likely will one day, because it happens to us all. If you find yourself walking along the Emmaus Road depressed and discouraged, there is Someone who wants to come along side of you and change your perspective. That someone is the Risen Lord Jesus. In our text, we find the characteristics of depressed disciples. We will probably find some encouragement as we see those characteristics because we will see that we are not alone, and our situation is not new or unique. But, thanks be to God, we don’t just see the characteristics, we see the cure for depressed disciples as well. We can be changed through a fresh encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus.

I. The Characteristics of Depressed Disciples.

Can you envision Cleopas and Mary as they walk this seven mile journey from Jerusalem to Judea? Maybe they are walking slowly, shuffling their sandaled feet, kicking a pebble every few steps, shoulders shrugged, head down. And the Bible says that they were talking with each other about “all these things” which had taken place. You know how it is, when you have seen an unspeakable tragedy, those images stain your mind for a long time. Maybe Mary is telling Cleopas, “You should have seen it. They tortured our Jesus! I have never seen anything so horrific! They drove nails into His hands and feet. There was so much blood! There was so much agony and anguish. He was crying out as He died. It broke my heart to hear Him say, ‘My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?’ You should have seen His mother. What will she do now? Who will care for her?” Maybe Cleopas is saying, “The fellows are all confused. I didn’t know what to tell them. Peter said he’s going to take up fishing again. I don’t know what we will do now.” And on and on it would go, seven miles, seven hours (so the scholars tell us), all the way back to Emmaus.

You might have walked that road before. Your head hung low, kicking stones along the path, rehashing over and over again the depressing circumstances that engulf you. Let’s observe what the text says about these depressed disciples. Notice that they have surrendered. They have just given up. What direction are they walking? Verse 13 tells us that they are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the center of Christian fellowship. Depression will do that to you. When the thing you need most is to surround yourself with godly encouragers, something within you says, “They don’t know what you are going through. They can’t help you. Just give up and walk away.” And so you do, just like Mary and Cleopas did on that day. You might be sitting here in church today, but your heart is already seven miles down the road. Maybe you’ve been so disappointed by God’s failure to do for you what you expect Him to do that you are already planning to take your first steps along that road. It is a well worn path. We can still see the footprints of many of our friends and family members who have walked that road before us. They were walking with the Lord, then the bottom fell out in their lives, and they gave up and walked away from Christ and the Church. That is essentially what Cleopas and Mary are doing here in the text.

Verse 17 tells that they were looking sad. They were so sad, they could not even perceive the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus as He joined them on the journey. Verses 15-16 says that Jesus Himself approached and began travelling with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. Jesus says to them (v17), “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. Everything in them probably wants to say, “Look Mister! This is an A and B conversation, so ‘C’ your way out of it and mind your own business!” In verse 18, Cleopas speaks up from his sadness and says, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” Do you see the irony of that question? In point of fact, Jesus is the only One who is fully aware of the things which have taken place! He knows better than they do what has happened in Jerusalem this weekend. But their countenance is so downcast in sadness that they fail to perceive that it is Him. Friends, as you walk this depressing road to Emmaus in your sadness, you need to know that you are not walking alone. Jesus is coming along side of you, and He wants in on the conversation. You might want to tell Him to just butt out and mind His own business, but you see, you are His business. Your hurts, your sorrows, your sadness is very much His business. Would you say to Him, “You wouldn’t even understand. You don’t even know what is going on?” But friends, what we must understand is that Jesus is the only one who truly understands the hurts of our heart. He knows what you’ve been through. He knows where you have been. He knows where you are going. The Bible tells us that He is “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). Hebrews 4 promises us that “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” Why don’t you talk to Him about the things that have made you sad? He already knows all about it. In fact, He knows more about it than you do.

Not only are they surrendered and sad, but also notice that these depressed disciples are shattered. They began to rehearse to the Stranger on the road all that they had observed over the weekend: how this One called Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet might in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, had been sentenced to death and crucified by the chief priests and rulers (vv19-20). And then notice these heartbreaking words in verse 21: “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” Have you ever spoken of your hope using past-tense verbs? We were hoping. That means that they aren’t anymore. Their hopes have been shattered. So shattered are they that they have abandoned their hopes in spite of numerous evidences that Jesus is alive. They have been told by two different groups of people that the tomb was empty (v22, 24). They have been told that there was an angel who had proclaimed that Jesus was alive (v23). They didn’t listen. They just kept packing their bags for Emmaus. What’s more than this even, they don’t even recognize that the Living Lord Jesus is walking right beside of them and talking to them. How much more proof do you need that Jesus is alive?

Maybe that is where you are today. You are absorbed in the sadness, the sorrow, the shattered hopes that life has stolen away from you. But Jesus is alive. “Yeah, yeah,” you might say, “I am not so sure about that now.” But, what about the time that He first drew near to you and saved you? What about the time that you were in a desperate circumstance and Jesus came to you and brought you through it? What about the time that you opened the Bible and it came to life on the page as you encountered Him in His Word? What about the countless times you have seen Him radically transform the lives of others? He has proven it to you over and over again: He is alive! But you just ignore that, block it out of your mind, and keep packing. Keep walking. That is what so many are doing.  

These are the characteristics of depressed disciples. They are so surrendered that they walk away from the center of Christian fellowship. They are so saddened that they cannot perceive the presence of Jesus with them in the midst of their suffering. They are so shattered that they are oblivious to the many convincing proofs (Acts 1:3) by which He has proven that He is alive forevermore? We’ve all been there. Or else we all will be one day. Some might be there today. You might ask, “Can a Christian really ever feel that way?” Certainly. No one is immune to these things. Cleopas and Mary were as much disciples of Jesus as any other has ever been. And they were not alone. This sense of despair had affected every follower of Jesus on that weekend. And still today, it can infect entire churches. For any number of reasons, a church can find itself just going through the motions of religiosity without any real hope, any real faith, or any real living passion for the Living Lord Jesus. At times it is pandemic. I think of the words of G. Campbell Morgan who, in his preaching on this very text of Scripture, characterized the condition of churches across England in the early twentieth century as “everywhere an appalling flatness.” He says that there was “a marked cooling of enthusiasm, a lack of passion, an absence of fire.”[1] What of us today? What is there but an appalling flatness when we count the seconds until we can break out of the church doors to fill our bellies on Sunday afternoon? What is there but an appalling flatness when we are not driven by a sense of burning desire to gather with the saints to pray or to come along side them in their suffering? What is there but an appalling flatness when evangelism, mission and ministry are engaged by but a tiny remnant of the congregation? What is there but an appalling flatness when the work of the Lord is put on hold because we have no concern to be involved in discussions related to the church’s business affairs? Have we become like those depressed disciples who are so immersed in our own shattered hopes and frozen faith that we forget that Jesus is alive and walking with us on this road to Emmaus? If we are not already depressed, the very appalling flatness of it all (to use Morgan’s words) is enough to depress us. What do we need? How can it be remedied? Thank God there is an answer here in this Easter text of Scripture!

II. The Cure for Depressed Disciples.

What would it take to rekindle the fire that has gone out in the hearts of depressed disciples? What would it take to return vitality to that appalling flatness that affects so many of Christ’s followers?  Let’s look at two people who found that flame rekindled and see how it took place. It wasn’t a vision, a voice, a ritual or an experience that rekindled the fire of faith and hope within these depressed disciples. It happened as the Lord Jesus, before they ever recognized Him, opened to them the Word of God and began to point them to His truth that it contains. At the root of their woeful condition was a failure to grasp by faith the full truth of the entirety of God’s Word. How do we know that? Look at how the conversation turns in verse 25.

Cleopas and Mary had rehearsed all that had taken place over the weekend. But in verse 25, Jesus says to them, “O foolish men and slow of hear to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” They had read about the coming Messiah, and how He would bring people out of bondage and into a time of peace and prosperity. Like most people in their day, their assumption was that He was going to raise an army and storm Jerusalem to throw off the shackles of Roman oppression and restore Israel to its former glory. But Jesus didn’t do that. He went in and got Himself killed. And their hopes were shattered. They knew the Scriptures, but they had selectively chosen which parts of it to believe. Jesus says that they were foolish for being slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken. The prophets had clearly spoken of a Savior who was coming to redeem humanity from the curse of sin through His own suffering. Therefore it was necessary for Jesus to suffer these things and to enter into His glory. Verse 27 says, “Then, beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

It must have been the greatest Old Testament Bible Study lesson ever taught. Jesus taught them how He fulfilled every single promise God had made from the beginning, from the Seed of Woman in Genesis 3:15 to the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and everything between and beyond. It all pointed to Him. Now, this is the interesting part. It was this careful, detailed exposition of Scripture that rekindled the fire of faith in their hearts. Notice in verse 32, after they had realized that it was Jesus who had been with them, and after He had vanished from their midst, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” It was the word of God that lit the fire afresh within them. If it is to happen to us, it will happen the same way. You might think, “What we really need today is a new church program or a weeklong revival service. Let’s sing some new songs! That will excite us again.” You might think, “What we really need is for Jesus to come and make Himself visible to us, or to speak audibly to us. Then we would be on fire for Him.” But is that what it took for Cleopas and Mary? No, before they ever knew it was Him, their hearts were set ablaze by the page-by-page and verse-by-verse exposition of the Word of God. He showed them how the whole biblical metanarrative centered on Him as promised Redeemer who would rescue us from sin and death by His own sacrificial death and His glorious resurrection. And here is the wonderful truth of that – it can happen to us today. Every time we open this marvelous book, the flint is struck, and sparks fly toward our cold hearts to set them ablaze with a white-hot passion for His glory.

The Psalmist said, “The unfolding of Your words gives light” (Psalm 119:130). Look how it happens. Cold hearts are fanned into flame by His truth. Once that fire really burns in you, you will mourn the thought of it ever growing cold. As they arrive at their home in Emmaus, still unaware of the true identity of this stranger, Jesus “acted as though He were going farther.” But, they could not bear the thought of cutting their time with Him short. They invited Him in to stay. And He did! And He will for us too. He will not barge through doors that we have barred and double-bolted against Him. He will walk on to another place, looking for doors that are opened by hot hearts of faith. But if you invite Him in, He will come, and He will pour gas on that fire and stoke into a towering inferno.  

Notice what happens next. Once those hearts are set on fire by His truth, notice how that flame illuminates their darkened eyes to His presence. Cold hearts never open blind eyes. But once the heart is burning, Jesus is seen clearly with the eyes of faith. This Stranger who had walked with them suddenly becomes recognizable to them as they watch Him break and bless the bread around their table. But before the opened eyes, there had to be the hot heart. You say, “Yes, that is what I want. I want to see Him and know that He is here with Me. Why doesn’t He show Himself?” Well, notice what happens. As soon as they recognize that it is Him, He vanishes from their sight (v31). In nearly every appearance that the Risen Lord made to His disciples, He vanishes from sight at some point. Morgan writes, “The chief value in each case was not in the appearing, but in the vanishing.”[2] He was teaching them in His vanishing that we need not see Him with our eyes to know that we have been in His presence, that He is alive, and that He abides with us still. As hearts burn with His truth, eyes of faith are opened to His presence to know that He has not left us nor forsaken us, and we refuse to let our circumstances dictate otherwise.

But there is more. When the Word of God is unfolded and light breaks forth from it, tired feet are set in motion for His mission. Notice in verse 33 that “they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem.” That very hour is important. Go back to verse 29 when they pleaded with the Lord to tarry with them. They said, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” By this point it was late evening. They had walked for seven hours and seven miles that day. Have you ever walked for seven hours or seven miles? I did that on multiple consecutive days while I was hiking on vacation. After one very long hike, Donia said, “Why don’t we walk over to this place,” which was quite a ways away. I said, “Why don’t you go and come back and tell me about it.” Oh, but that is not what these disciples said. Their tired feet are quickly set in motion and they set out to travel seven more miles to return to tell the others what they had seen and experienced with the Risen Lord. Are you tired? Are you weary? Shoulders ache from burdens carried, hands throb from hours serving, bodies are exhausted from much labor. But when our hearts are set ablaze by God’s truth, our feet are set in motion for His mission. If your feet are set in motion for the mission of Christ, you are waiting for the benediction today, not so you can go eat your Easter ham, but so that you can go and report to others that Jesus is alive and tell them what He has done for you!

And that brings us to the final result of the rekindled fire of faith: silent tongues are set loose to proclaim His glory. As soon as they got back to Jerusalem, they gathered together with the other disciples and said, “The Lord has really risen!” and they “began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of bread.” They told them two true stories – they told the objective story of the Risen Lord Jesus. They told how He had really conquered sin and death, how He had really done all that the prophets had foretold, and how He had really secured salvation for His people through His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection! Then they told their story – they subjective account of their own personal encounter with Him. Al Mohler has recently said, “At the end of the day, the greatest obstacle to evangelism is Christians who don’t share the Gospel.”[3] But you might say, “I don’t know what to say to another person?” You have a great example right here in the text: tell the objective facts of Jesus’ story – His life, death and resurrection; and tell your story of how you came to know Him and walk with Him by faith. When our hearts are set on fire with God’s truth, our tongues will be set loose to proclaim His glory. We won’t be able to not tell it. We will be like the prophet Jeremiah who said, “If I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer 20:9).

My primary aim on this Easter Sunday is to address the Church of Jesus Christ – particularly those disciples of Jesus who have given up, who have become sad, whose hopes have been shattered, and who are kicking rocks along the road to Emmaus in a state of appalling spiritual flatness. I want you to know that the living Lord Jesus is walking alongside of you, trying to join the conversation and unfold the truth of His word to you to rekindle the fire of faith set you ablaze for His glory so that you might burn in your hearts, see with your eyes, run with tireless energy and proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Jesus is alive. That ought to make a difference in how you live, how you worship, how you fellowship with other believers, how you pray, and how you serve Him. It seems incongruous for Jesus to be the living Lord over a dying church. Meet Him afresh in the pages of the Word of God and allow Him to bring your smoldering embers back to a burning flame.

Maybe you are here today, and you aren’t a follower of Jesus, you have never personally trusted in Him as Lord and Savior. You surely know that we have not come to church today to celebrate fuzzy bunnies who lay chocolate eggs. We have come because we believe that some 2,000 years ago, God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and He lived a sinless life of perfect righteousness, yet was condemned to die on the cross. But His death was no accident in the purpose and plan of God. It was the very reason He came, for in His death, God was dealing fully and finally with the sins of the human race. He became your substitute under the just judgment and wrath of the Father. He bore your sin and its penalty, and He conquered it forever through His resurrection. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore, and we come not on this day only, but on every Lord’s day, to celebrate this truth. Because in Him, our sins have been cleansed and forgiven, and we have received by faith His very righteousness so that we might be saved and reconciled to God. I want to ask you today to consider that He might be coming alongside of you along life’s road. You weren’t looking for Him, but He came looking for you.

That was what Malcolm Muggeridge found. He was one of the most well-known cynical agnostics in all of England in the middle of the twentieth century. Muggeridge wrote, “I never wanted a God, or feared a God, or felt under any necessity to invent one. Unfortunately, I am driven to the conclusion that God wants me.”[4] What happened in his life? Muggeridge was dispatched by the BBC to the Holy Land to produce three documentaries on the New Testament. He says that as he toured the various sites from Christian history, he was convinced that it was all a fraud. That is, until he saw “a party of Christian pilgrims at one of these shrines, their faces bright with faith, their voices as they sang so evidently and joyously aware of their Saviour’s near-ness.” Muggeridge says, “I, too, became aware that there really had been a man, Jesus, who was also God. I was conscious of His presence.”[5] Where did it happen? It happened along the road to Emmaus. Muggeridge says,

As my friend and I walked along like Cleopas and his friend, we recalled as they did the events of the Crucifixion and its aftermath in the light of our utterly different and yet similar world. Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way.[6]

Muggeridge says, “On every walk, … whether to Emmaus, or Wimbledon, or Timbuktu, there is the same stranger wanting to accompany us along our way, if we want Him.”[7]

I close today by asking you this question: “Do you want Him?” He ever lives to save you and set you free from sin and set you ablaze for His glory in the world. He will not beat down your door. He will walk on farther, because somewhere there is a door that is open to Him. But if you want Him, He will tarry with you as you receive Him by faith as your Living Lord and Savior today.

1 comment:

RETA said...

Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for posting this message!