Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
There would be a strangeness to preaching Christmas sermons in January, right? Christmas is in December, and when we get to January, we move on from Christmas themes until next year. But it’s not so strange, I think, to have Easter sermons after Easter. Sermons on the resurrection are always in season. And every sermon, even the sermons that do not mention the resurrection explicitly, are resurrection-sermons because they only exist because Jesus does. So, for the next month, as we finish out the rest of Luke’s gospel, we’ll continue celebrating Easter, which is what I hope we do every week.
I’ve made it a point over the five years I’ve been a teaching pastor here to never repeat stories in sermons. It’s a rule I’ve only broken a time or two. I don’t know why I feel that way. I think it has something to do with the stereotype of preachers as those who have like six stories on repeat. But the biblical authors don’t share this same aversion to repetition. The apostle Peter wrote at the end of his second letter, “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder” (2 Peter 3:1). In another place he writes, “Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth . . .” (2 Peter 1:12).
I bring this up because the passage we come to this morning in Luke 24, I’ve actually preached before. And the more I restudied the passage and looked at the earlier sermon, the more I decided it only needed a facelift and not a rebuild. So if some of this sounds familiar to you, that might be why. There was a saying one of the major television networks used to use when they ran re-runs: if you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you. So if this doesn’t sound familiar, then it’s new to you.
And for all the epic-ness of the Good Friday story and the profundity of the words Jesus speaks from the cross, you might be surprised by the first words of Jesus after the resurrection recorded in Luke’s gospel account because they seem so plain. But they might be my favorite in the whole of the Gospel.
If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read Luke 24:13–19a. I’ll read just a portion of our passage now, then we’ll pray, and then we’ll spend time studying these verses, as well as the rest of the passage, together. If you are new to the Bible, the big numbers are the chapters, and the small numbers are the verses. Again, it’s Luke 24, starting in verse 13. You can follow on the screen or if you want to use one of the Bible’s in the pew to follow along, it starts on page 1007. Luke 24:13–19a,
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 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. 18 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?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” . . .
Years ago, one evening I remember saying to my wife, “Do you smell gas coming from our kitchen?” And it turns out that there was. Thankfully, the situation was resolved with nothing bad happening. But of course you realize, don’t you, that that was a dangerous and delicate situation.
In the Christian calendar, the week before Easter is called Palm Sunday. And it too was a dangerous and delicate situation. Understanding what was happening on Palm Sunday helps us understand much of what happens in our passage this morning. Palm Sunday gets its name because many followers of Jesus had placed palm branches and their cloaks on the road to Jerusalem as Jesus came to town riding on a donkey.
37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37–40)
This scene is of course wonderful and strange and foreign to us. We call this Jesus’s Triumphal Entry, and here’s why: It was in a similar fashion that King Solomon began his kingship, riding on a donkey into the holy city (1 Kings 1:33). And also consider that there was a prophecy from the book of Zachariah that Israel’s king would come riding into Zion on a donkey, and the people were to rejoice and shout for joy (Zachariah 9:9). Now, consider this too: Jerusalem typically had some 40,000 people, but during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which culminates in the celebration of Passover, the city swells perhaps six times its normal size. So, as Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey during this festival, he’s coming to a crowd of some 240,000 people, with 200,000 of them being Jewish worshipers who have newly traveled to Jerusalem (and all to celebrate how God overthrew a foreign nation who was oppressing his people).
And when you add to this the fact that the relationship between the Roman rulers and the religious leaders was tenuous at best, all of a sudden, the slow-build of pressure throughout the system becomes apparent. In short, Jesus was coming into a house filled with gas: dangerous and delicate, and the wrong spark would make the whole thing explode.
Let me put it like this. On January 20, 2017, our President was sworn into office. Imagine what would have happened if early in the morning, as crowds are already lining the streets, the runner-up in the presidential election got into a black Suburban in an escort of other black Suburbans and had men in black suits walk alongside the vehicles. And then the whole entourage made their way down Pennsylvania Ave. and Constitution Ave.
Do you see what’s going on? That’s not a parade; it’s a statement. That’s a dangerous and delicate situation, just as is ridding in to a holy capital city while people shout “Hail to the King,” when Roman is in change, not Israel.
Now back to the passage we just read. The first question Jesus asks these travelers, though they don’t know it’s Jesus yet, is this: “Hey guys, whatcha talking about?” And what happens next? We read:
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?” . . . (24:17b–19a).
Jesus asked, “What things?” Those are my favorite two words in all of Luke. Oh, I think Jesus knew something about what happened: the Triumphal Entry, the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the temple courtyard, the arrest, the flogging, the nails, the crucifixion, the wrath of God poured out on him, and the empty tomb. Oh, I think he knew something about “what things.” Jesus has a purpose for being so sneaky, so let’s talk about that now.
1. Why the delay in recognition?
Why does Jesus delay their recognition of who he is? This for me is the question that unlocks what’s going on in the whole story. In v. 16 we read,
But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Why? Why this delay? Why would God veil their ability to see who Jesus was—I mean, Jesus is alive! Just say it right away; enough with the suspense already! And why does Jesus seem to “play dumb”? Why does Jesus say, “I see you’re talking about something; whatcha talking ’bout?”
Later in the story, which I’ll read in a moment, their eyes are opened. They get it. They behold Jesus. They see Jesus for who he is, and they run around telling people about it. But why the delay?
Well, on top of everything I said in the introduction, to make the situation in Jerusalem even more precarious, something else was also happening. In Jerusalem, the cultural expectation that the Messiah would primarily be a political revolutionary was starting to become more and more enticing to more and more Jewish people. And it’s understandable, really. The Jewish people had undergone such a pounding over and over by Rome (and others), and they had already made so many compromises with Rome (and others) just to keep the peace. The people were tired. The hope that someone would redeem Israel was all they could think about. And so they took their little hope—which wasn’t necessarily wrong—but they lifted that hope up so high that they could hardly understand who the real Messiah was.
Let me put it like this. A few years ago, the gym where my wife had been working out changed their policy. I won’t name the gym, but the policy had been that childcare was included with a gym membership, which was a fee of only $23/month. Not too bad, especially when you consider that we had four children at the time. But while my wife stopped working out for a few months when we had our fifth child, the gym changed the policy so that each child in childcare would now cost $9 extra each month. I can’t say for sure whether we were the reason that the policy changed or not, but I do know our membership went from $23/ to $68/month, and that was not going to work for us for a very basic gym (no pool or basketball court; just weights and cardio).
So, we went “gym shopping.” Any guesses what feature was crucial to us? Yep, “free childcare.” Forget about the weights or the pool or the spinning class or the locker room facilities or the personal trainers or the rock wall. We just want someone to watch our munchkins. I know that’s silly, but I hope you get my point. In Jesus’s day there was an extreme narrowing of expectations regarding the Messiah. They just wanted someone who would throw off Rome!
And this explains, I believe, the delay in recognition. If Jesus shows up to these two disciples and his first words are, “Hey, it’s me! I’m alive! ” guess what they would have done? They would have shouted, “Yeah, free childcare! Get rid of Rome.” That’s all they were thinking about.
Their hope in the Messiah as a defeater of Rome, their “gospel” if you will, was too small. And Jesus was going to expand it.
2. How was their gospel hope too small?
Let’s talk about this for a moment. In what ways was their gospel hope too small? Let me read more of the conversation. Look at vv. 19–27.
19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
There is more going on in these verses than I’ll be able to cover. But let me point out a few things. They say, “There was a guy named Jesus, and he was awesome—or so we thought. He was mighty in word and deed. And we had hoped he was the one to set Israel free. In fact, there are even rumors that he is alive, but maybe that’s all that they are: rumors.”
In many ways, this passage isn’t just about them. It’s about us too. We too can overlay our little hopes—our little gospels—on top of the real Jesus, and when we do, we miss the Big Gospel, the Big Jesus.
I see at least three ways in this passage that they had made the gospel too small. Let me name them quickly and explain what I mean by each. There was “power Jesus,” “Pick-and-choose Jesus,” and “Prosperity Jesus.”
Power Jesus: I won’t spend much time on “Power Jesus” because we’ve already talked quite a bit about it. They wanted a powerful ruler who would galvanize the hopes of the people and lead them to throw off Roman rule, thus leading them into a new Golden Age. Now, this might not be exactly the same hopes we have today. But there is certainly pressure to take Jesus and mold him into your political system, whatever you believe politically. The reason, however, Jesus didn’t want to reveal himself immediately to these disciples was because they might have simply co-opted him to their political hope, and that is too small of a gospel. It was for them, and it is for us.
Pick-and-choose Jesus: Another aspect of their gospel smallness was what I’ll call, “pick-and-choose Jesus.” What do I mean by this? I mean they focused on certain aspects of the Messiah to the neglect or exclusion of other aspects.
What does Jesus say to them? Again,
25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (vv. 25–27)
Notice two things. First, he says it was “necessary” that the Christ should suffer. Suffering comes before glory. In their pain, they had picked the promises they liked and ignored the ones they didn’t. This walk they were on from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus was about seven miles, so it took them perhaps two hours. I don’t have two hours to talk with you, so I’ll resist reading the many, many Old Testament verses that teach about the sufferings of the Messiah.
The second thing to notice is Jesus’s repetition of the word “all.” He uses it three times. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! . . . beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” All, all, all. Let the sweep of that statement land on you. Think of the claim Jesus is making here. The whole Bible is about me, says Jesus.
As a staff last week, we read a recent interview in the New York Times. The woman being interviewed is the president of a theological seminary. And in the interview in addition to rejecting the bodily resurrection of Christ, the seminary president also dismissed the reliability of the Bible, human depravity, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross, and any hope or sorrow in an afterlife.
I don’t bring this up to scoff because perhaps this is how you feel about Jesus and the Bible. To you, I’d simply point out that this certainly isn’t how Jesus felt about himself and the Bible. When the rest of the New Testament authors see in the Old Testament a focus on the Messiah who is Jesus, these New Testament authors are not doing something creative and inventive. No, they are only following the pattern of Jesus himself and the way he interpreted the Bible, namely, as good news all about him: from suffering to glory.
You see, the ending that we have to the gospel of Luke, an ending that includes the death and then the resurrection of the Son of God (suffering and then glory), is not like an alternative ending that you can pick and choose if you want. You can’t have Jesus as a good teacher who is mighty in “deed and word,” as these two say of him, who is not also the crucified and now the resurrected Lord. We can’t pick and choose.
Prosperity Jesus: Finally, their gospel is too small because it was a prosperity Jesus, a Jesus who brings relief to this life only. They wanted Rome out, and they wanted that now. But we can’t blame them too much for this. They were suffering, and they wanted the suffering to stop. Once, I shut my thumb in my car door. It hurt that day. It also hurt a lot the next day. In fact, it was the next day that I learned the meaning of the word throb; I could feel my heartbeat in my thumb. It was all I could think about. It wasn’t wrong to pray about this. Not at all. But it would be a mistake to begin to think that the sole reason the Messiah came to the earth was to make my life prosperous and free of pain. Sometimes “prosperity Jesus” shows up when we need a spouse. Or when we need God to fix the spouse we do have. Or when our kids are out of line, or when needing a new job or a new house or a second home or when we need Rome to be overthrown. There’s nothing wrong with these by themselves, but what if Rome was overthrown? What if Jesus started a violent revolution? I guess Israel would have prospered, at least for a time. And yet, sooner or later, her prosperity would fall away, just as it always does.
This is why Jesus came not to unveil a small gospel but a big gospel, and the Big Gospel changes them.
3. How did the big gospel change them?
To see how the Big Gospel—the Big Good News Story about Jesus—changes them, let me read the end of the passage in vv. 28–35.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together,34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This will be a short point. But do you remember what was said about these two at the beginning? Luke describes them as “sad” (v. 17). But now what are they? They comment that their “hearts burned” as Jesus explained to them the Big Gospel, which, by the way, is the only gospel there is. I don’t know all that it means to say “their hearts burned,” but what I think it means is that when the Jesus who is talked about in all the scriptures was explained to them, they encountered something better than they could have possibly imagined: a savior who is not going to be just in charge of Israel but the whole world. Verse 47 says “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” All of Jesus in all of the Bible to all the nations.
And far from being sad, though it’s late at night, they rush the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell everyone about what they learned. They are changed.
Let me close with this thought. It’s strange to think about the way Jesus veiled himself in this passage. He almost seems sneaky. I’ve read a number of systematic theology textbooks, and when discussing the attributes of God, I’ve never seen a discussion of the sneaky-ness of God. Yes, the holiness of God, the sovereignty of God, his grace, his mercy, his knowledge, his creative power—but never his sneakiness. I’m being silly, of course, because sneaky is not the right word.
Would you call a bride who wears a veil sneaky? No, we would not. She’s not sneaky but strategic. I’ve officiated formal weddings where the bride wore a veil, that is until her veil was removed. The point was not to veil her beauty indefinitely but for the purpose of displaying it at just the right time to the one she loves.
Beholding the beauty of the Big Gospel is so much better than all of our small gospels. It’s good news that we can’t manipulate the real Jesus into being our political leader. And it’s good news that we can’t pick and choose what counts and what doesn’t; how could we ever do that anyway? And it’s good news that the prosperity Jesus gives can’t be taken away when you die. The real story of the Messiah is about one who dies for his people and then rises again. It’s a Big Gospel. And it’s for you too. You can have joy and hope forever with God because of what Jesus has done.