Years ago the producers of Sesame Street faced a dilemma. Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, passed away, and the producers were faced with how to communicate the concept of death to the 10 million children (most of whom are under 6 years of age) who watched the show.
Child psychologists suggested they NOT say, “Mr. Hooper got sick and died,” because children get sick and they are not going to die.
And the psychologists suggested they NOT say, “Mr. Hooper got old and died,” because little children think of their parents as being old.
And the staff of Sesame Street decided to avoid religious issues and NOT say, “Mr. Hooper died and went to Heaven.”
So the show’s producers decided to say just a few basics: He’s gone, he won’t be back, and he’ll be missed. And they decided to use Big Bird to gently set the matter before the children. The show was aired on Thanksgiving Day so parents could watch it with their children.
Big Bird came out and said he had a picture for Mr. Hooper and he couldn’t wait to see him. One of the cast said, “Big Bird, remember, we told you that Mr. Hooper died.” And Big Bird said, “Oh yeah, I forgot.” Then he said, “Well, I’ll give it to him when he comes back.” And one of the staff members put an arm around Big Bird and said, “Big Bird, Mr. Hooper isn’t coming back.” “Why not,” Big Bird asked innocently. “Big Bird, when people die, they don’t come back.”
(Brian Jones – Standard Publishing Illustrations)
When people die... they don’t come back. Normally, that’s how it works, and it really sad for most of us.
Sigmund Freud famously said: “And finally there is the painful riddle of death, for which no remedy at all has yet been found, nor probably will ever be!” Aristotle called death the thing to be feared most because "it appears to be the end of everything."
That brings us to our reading this morning. People have always struggled with the concept of death. Everybody dies. And they generally STAY that way. That’s kinda how it works.
Now here we have two guys walking from Jerusalem to their home town of Emmaus.
They’ve seen the tragedy that took place in Jerusalem as it unfolded before their eyes. Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, spat on, insulted, and ultimately they saw Him die a cruel death on a cross.
But they’d also heard the women tell of finding the tomb empty and hearing angels say He’d risen from the dead.
You’d think they’d have been encouraged. You’d think they’d believe Jesus had risen from the dead. But that’s not what’s happened. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around this idea. And, when you think about it, their reluctance kind of makes sense. After all, the dead don’t come back.
Peter heard the same story they did and we’re told he “got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:12 NIV). And when Mary Magdalene stood by the empty tomb (not knowing she was talking to angels) the Bible says that the angels asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" And she replies “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him” (John 20:13 NIV). It was a logical conclusion. The dead don’t come back. Jesus had to have been moved by somebody! And right now… that’s the only thing these men on the road to Emmaus can imagine. Somebody has taken the body. And right now it’s not just the tomb that empty… so are their hearts. That’s why their faces were downcast as described in verse 17.
As these two guys were discussing what had happened back in Jerusalem, we are told by Luke in verse 15 that the now resurrected Jesus had come up to them but they didn’t recognise Him. In fact verse 17 says, “but they were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16 NIV). I’m not sure if the NIV translators have really helped us to understand what was happening here. I like the way The Message puts verse 16, “But they were not able to recognize who he was” and it is from Mark’s version of this story that gives us an understanding of why these two were not able to recognise Jesus. Mark tells us in verse 12 of chapter 16 that “Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country” (Mark 16:12 NIV). Jesus was in His resurrected body which is why various disciples didn’t recognise Him at first, and is it why these two guys also didn’t recognise Him.
So here they were, the three of them walking on this road to Emmaus – a distance of around 10 kilometres from Jerusalem.
Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about… and they tell Him the whole story. They tell Him all about Jesus – a powerful prophet who did many miracles. How He’d been arrested and crucified. About the women saying that the tomb was empty, and all about the story about the angels. But then they say a very sad statement in verse 21: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel…” (Luke 24:21 NIV).
That’s a very sad saying, “but we had hoped”. It is a saying that suggests that we had these good and even exciting expectations but now we don’t. We had hoped but that’s now changed.
And I think many have or are experiencing such feelings. We had these expectations but now we don’t. We had hoped but that’s now changed.
You know that feeling?
You had hope in your career but now you don’t.
You had hope in your marriage but now you don’t.
You had hope in your child but now you don’t.
You had hope in our church but now you don’t.
Things happen that change our circumstances. Injuries, adultery, change of person, change of direction, sin, bad stuff. Things happen and our expectations changes and suddenly our hope becomes past tense. I had hoped. And it is hard to be in that place…
For these two guys, Jesus had been their hope to redeem Israel (v21). But He’s dead now. He’s been executed. He’s dead and the dead don’t come back! As Aristotle noted death is feared most because "it appears to be the end of everything." And for many, death is the end. No hope. No life. And that’s what the children on Sesame Street heard all those years ago – “the dead don’t come back”.
And for these two guys, in their minds, they to believed that the dead don’t come back. They had hoped, but now their hope was gone.
God, however, had a different plan.
Jeff Strite tells the story of back when he was a child and how he loved his grandfather and how they almost built their lives around each other. However, when he was 5 years old, grand dad died. It was hard for Jeff to understand being so young. Back then they didn’t do funerals like they do now. There was no “funeral home.” They took the casket and they placed it in the living room right where the TV would be now. And family and friends came to the house and ate in the kitchen and dining room and shared memories of their loved one. And that casket stayed in the house for the next 24 to 48 hours.
Then they had the funeral service and took the casket out to the cemetery. And they didn’t do burials then, like they do now.
Nowadays, we have AstroTurf that they place on ground all the way around the casket and it even covers the grave itself. They didn’t do that back then. There was no AstroTurf.
And here was Jeff, a 5-year-old boy, looking down into the deep empty hole. And Jeff looked up at his momma and he asked her “How’s grandpa ever going to get out of that grave?”
And Jeff’s momma proceeded to tell Jeff about Jesus! She told him: “You don’t have to worry about Grandpa coming out of that grave, because Jesus already has come out of the grave.” And she told Jeff all about the hope we have in Christ.
As we stand on this side of Calvary, we know that God’s other plan was to raise His Son from the grave. Jesus was risen back to life!
This concept of a resurrection is built into our faith. It’s the very foundation of why we are Christians. You take the Resurrection of Christ out of Christianity – and you got nothing! Dr. John Stott has written, “Christianity is in its very essence a resurrection religion. The concept of resurrection lies at its heart. If you remove it, Christianity is destroyed.”
Paul wrote: “…how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him - if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead...” (1 Corinthians 15:12b-20).
For these two disciples, they failed to what the scriptures had to say about the death of the Messiah and His resurrection. And so Jesus said to the them that they are “…so slow to believe all that the prophets said? Didn't you know that the Messiah would have to suffer before he was given his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 CEV). And then Luke tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 NIV).
I believe this has to be one of the best ways to cope when your hope has faded. Be reminded of the promises of God found in the Bible. Too often, our own agenda determined our expectations. Many people back in those days made the mistake of thinking that the Messiah would simply recapture the glory days of King David. In other words, they hoped Jesus would bring Israel the same power and prosperity she once enjoyed, only magnified and multiplied. Given their exclusive worship of God, this would not be an inappropriate wish. But compared to the reality that lay before them—Roman oppression and a dead Messiah—their hopes for glory seemed to have been utterly destroyed. Without knowing the promises of God, our agendas determine our expectation and when they are changed, so too is our hope. But learning and trusting God’s promises enable us to hope against all hope.
In keeping with ancient Near Eastern rules of hospitality, the two followers then invited the “stranger” to stay the night. Jesus accepted their offer. We are told in verse 30 that Jesus took some bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to the guys. While this is typical phrase of having a meal together, some have suggested that Jesus was having a form of communion with them.
As they were eating, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:31 NIV).
Here’s the irony - the disciples had been staring into the face of the risen Jesus, yet they didn’t recognize Him. Then, a careful review of the Scriptures gave them a divine perspective on what they once saw as dismal circumstances. Once their eyes were opened to the reality and implications of the resurrection, Jesus became visible to their physical eyes. The Greek phrase ophthalmos dianoigo epiginosko, translated “eyes were opened and they recognized Him,” literally means “their eyes were completely opened” and “they came to fully comprehend Him.” This action was more than a mere recognition of His features. They came to recognize Jesus in all His significance as the Messiah, the Son of God, and their risen Lord! Then Jesus literally became “invisible”—aphantos—meaning that He suddenly vanished from their midst once their eyes were open.
Now, their new, resurrected hope carried them back to Jerusalem to share the good news to others (Luke 24:33–35). Their crushed hope was restored, renewed and “on fire”. They had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus! Their eyes were opened. Their hope soared. What an encounter they had.
As Luke tells the story of the two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus, we cannot help but identify with their pain. We, too, are pilgrims on a journey through life. We, too, experience life’s disappointments from time to time. We, too, lose hope when our expectations come to a hard end. But remember, every trial is an opportunity to discover what God wants us to see.
As in the case of the two followers on the road to Emmaus, we must allow God to open our eyes. Here are four ways:
1. Invite Jesus in. Have you invited the Lord into your life? Cleopas and his companion listened intently to the Voice of truth and invited Him into their home. If you haven’t begun a relationship with God, you will continue to struggle in vain. Invite Jesus into your life.
2. Surrender your expectations. Your expectations may be good and honourable, but we still need to pray “Your Will be done”.
3. Seek God’s perspective. To help the two disciples see their circumstances from God’s perspective, Jesus explained the Scriptures. And we have the same opportunity to share God’s vantage point by reading our only completely reliable source of truth, the sixty-six books of the Bible. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply set aside as little as ten minutes each day, and read.
4. Trust God’s timing. God, in His perfect discernment, did not allow the two disciples to recognize Jesus until the time was right. He didn’t allow them to suffer in grief a moment longer than was absolutely necessary, yet He didn’t end their discomfort too soon. Spiritual maturity rarely occurs instantaneously. Growth usually requires a journey, and journeys take time. Submit to God’s will and trust His timing. He is faithful.
Circumstances, especially those involving loss, are usually perceived as difficult because reality does not mesh with our expectations. The two followers on the road to Emmaus undoubtedly felt utterly alone as they mourned the death of their dreams. During their suffering, God was indeed nearby, and He allowed their pain to continue until their own desires no longer held them captive.
Like the two on the road to Emmaus, you do not travel alone. God is with you. Are you willing to see Him?
(These last few paragraphs were adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Jesus: The Greatest Life of All (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 245–58. Copyright © 2008 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.).