Sermon for Easter, April 12, 1998
Text: Luke 24:13-35
"Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippety-hoppety, Easter's on it's way." That's one of my first memories of Easter--rabbits, eggs, spring, Easter presents and new clothes. That's the meaning of Easter for most people who observe it. Ask your average person what Easter's about, and you're just as likely to hear about the return of spring and new life in nature and the Easter bunny as you are to hear about Jesus. Wasn't this week nice? Warm weather, plants starting to grow, days getting longer again, perfect for celebrating Easter. But Easter isn't about spring or nice weather or the growing season! Easter is something much more important than that! Easter is more than being happy because the weather warms up. Christians celebrate Easter because Jesus is alive! The last 6 weeks during Lent we've spent time walking with Jesus, listening to him, watching the last days of his life. Jesus' own disciples thought their walk with Jesus was at an end when he died on the cross. But they were wrong! They had something to celebrate when Jesus Rose from the Dead on the first Easter. Today we learn from Jesus himself that Jesus rose as Scripture said. From the example of his followers, we see that Jesus turns sadness into joy.
I'm sure you've heard the doubters. You hear them every year on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, among your family and friends. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Every year it's popular sport to ask the question: did Jesus really rise from the dead, as Christians believe? It's an important question! Jesus rising from the dead is what Easter and Christianity are all about. So how about it? Is Christianity true or false?
It's too bad to see every year to see how many so-called "religious experts" answer the question, "Did Jesus really rise from the dead?" with a big "no." That's how even Jesus' own followers felt in the two days after he died. Jesus had promised to come back from the dead, and yet he was dead, lying in a tomb outside Jerusalem. Some of Jesus' disciples themselves had put the body there. Passover was supposed to be a happy holiday, but it was a sad weekend for Jesus' followers. After putting so much time and so much hope into Jesus, he was gone! He was dead!
Early on Sunday morning, some women who had followed Jesus came running with an amazing claim: Jesus had risen! They had seen an angel who announced that Jesus was alive! But as the morning went on, nothing new happened. Where was Jesus? He sure wasn't in Jerusalem. Those women must have made a mistake. Two of Jesus' followers were ready to give up. They decided to head for home after the big Passover festival, home to a village called Emmaus, about 7 miles from Jerusalem. It was a 2 hour walk or so, and they wanted to get home by evening.
As these 2 followers walked along, they "were talking with each other about everything that had happened." That would have been natural--to try to make sense of all they had seen, to try to figure out what they should do and think about Jesus. But this trip home was different: "Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him." Jesus pretended that he didn't know what had happened. He wanted these two men to explain it to him! He wanted to see what they believed about him. He wanted them to have hope. The two travelers told Jesus how "the chief priests and rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him." They seemed surprised, disappointed, because they "had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel." Yet they had no reason to be surprised!
As Jesus and these two followers walked along the road, Jesus taught them what the Bible had to say. "Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." Everything which had happened to Jesus had been foretold in the Bible. A week earlier Jesus had come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. That's just what the prophet Zechariah, hundreds of years earlier, had said he would do! Jesus took all the details of his suffering, details which would have been clear in his followers' memories, and explained how the Bible had foretold them all. It was a Bible class you wouldn't have wanted to miss! Jesus was betrayed by one of his own close followers. Psalm 41 predicted it: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Jesus was sold for 30 pieces of silver, as Zechariah had hinted. Jesus was crucified with criminals, just as Isaiah had foretold that he would be "numbered with the transgressors." He went to his death quietly, as Isaiah had said he would: "he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." Jesus was buried alongside the rich, again as Isaiah had foretold: He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth."
Even this report about Jesus rising from the dead was something the disciples should have expected. The Old Testament predicted that Jesus would live again: "you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay." Jesus himself had said that he would rise from the dead. Before Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time, he "took the Twelve aside and told them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again." Now it all had come true!
Jesus' two followers had left Jerusalem sad. Their teacher, their master was dead. Or so they thought! As Jesus explained the Bible to them, showing them everything which had been foretold, the disciples began to think. They realized that everything they had seen, every sad event they had witnessed, was actually part of one big plan! They started out doubting, but Jesus used the Bible to get rid of their doubt. Everything up to Jesus' death had been foretold in the Bible. But what about now? What about after his death?
Jesus had promised to rise from the dead, and he showed his followers that he had fulfilled that promise too. Jesus doesn't break his promises! Jesus doesn't lie! When Jesus said he would live again, he meant it! As the travelers reached the town of Emmaus, Jesus acted like he was going to keep going, but the travelers begged him to stay. At their house, Jesus showed them who he really was: "Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. Then they asked each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" Jesus' followers realized that he really was risen, alive again, just as he had promised, just as God's Word had said!
That's encouraging for us too. A lot of people doubt Jesus. They doubt he rose again on the first Easter. It doesn't make sense to human reason, that a dead man should come alive again. But it doesn't depend on human reason! Jesus rising from the dead doesn't depend on our belief, our understanding. It depends on God and his promises. God himself said Jesus would live again. His Word announced it. Hundreds of people saw Jesus after he rose and talked about it. Many people like to say no, Jesus didn't rise. But they don't have the authority! Instead, you have God's Word, the Bible, and many eyewitness accounts by people who saw Jesus with their own eyes, telling you that Jesus rose from the dead, just as the Bible said he would. That's reason to celebrate, because Jesus turns sadness into joy.
Imagine how happy those two followers must have been! They thought Jesus was gone for good, dead and not coming back. But suddenly they realized: Jesus himself had been teaching them all afternoon, walking with them, eating with them. They had seen Jesus with their own eyes, and he was alive! In one instant their sadness turned to joy! Everything was true: the Bible passages Jesus had told them, Jesus' own words, the women's report that he was alive. Imagine having someone close and important to you die. In the depth of your sadness and loneliness, you find out your loved one isn't really dead. You'd be happy beyond words! That's how the two disciples felt. They had left Jerusalem sad and confused. Now they had reason to be joyful!
And they were! They had no doubt what they needed to do next. "They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem" [even though it had to be getting late]. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, 'It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.' Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread." Jesus' two followers' lives were changed forever, and they had to share their good news so everyone else could be happy too! When you have good news, you're eager to share it. It's even better when the news is good for many other people too. This good news was good for all Jesus' followers--he had turned all their reason for sadness into joy instead!
That's what Jesus does for you too. He takes your sadness and turns it into joy. That's the reason we celebrate on Easter, why Easter is so happy for Jesus' followers even today, 2000 or so years after Jesus rose from the dead. We're happy that Jesus is living, that he rose as he promised, because that gives us a promise too. Jesus promised his followers, "Because I live, you also will live." Jesus promises us that we will live forever! That's a big comfort, a big encouragement. Who doesn't want to know he's going to heaven? Who doesn't want to know for a fact that she's going to live forever? Everyone wants that!
Yet we doubt. Just as many people doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, we doubt too. We doubt God's Word. We doubt that he exists. We doubt that he means what he says. As sinful creatures, we doubt God. He can't really mean it when he says, "Be perfect." He doesn't really mean it when he condemns us for disobeying him! He doesn't really mind if we ignore him, turn our backs on him, refuse to listen to his Word. He certainly never would hold our sins against us!
Human beings like to think that way. We like to hope that God doesn't mind sin, because we certainly do enough of it! And yet for all our wishful thinking we can't escape God's verdict: "The soul who sins is the one who will die." Sin earns death! For all our disobedience, all our rebellion toward God, we deserve the grave--even worse, hell--forever! As sinners we're sad, because we have no hope, no peace with God, no life!
That's why Jesus is good news for us today, on Easter, and every day. Jesus turns our sadness into joy. Death makes us sad, even afraid, because we know that we deserve death forever. But wait a minute--Jesus isn't dead! He's living, just as he said he would! And that means his promises are true. When he said that he "came to give his life as a ransom for many," he was telling the truth! Jesus died on a cross as a ransom for you, a sacrifice to pay for your sins. "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" for you! God doesn't want you to be his enemy. He wants you to be part of his family, part of his kingdom, part of heaven. Since sinners can't get into God's kingdom, God had to wipe out your sin, your guilt. That's why Jesus died--to pay for you, to buy your soul, to take away your guilt.
And now Jesus lives! That means you will live too. Jesus rose from the dead. One day you will rise too! Jesus' followers saw him alive with their own eyes. One day you will too, when Jesus comes again to bring you to heaven. "Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Jesus has an important message for you this and every Easter: he is risen. Jesus lives! That's a promise that you will live too. Jesus calls you to believe that he lives, to trust that he has paid for your sins, to turn away from your own sins and follow him, listen to him, worship him, serve him. So what are you going to do about it? Some of you will leave here and say, "No thanks." That's human nature; that's sinful nature--to turn your back on Jesus and his forgiveness. Don't! Don't let the devil take heaven away from you. Don't let doubt take your faith and life away. Instead, come to your Savior. He lives! No other religion has a leader who has come back from the dead. Jesus promises you life and he shows that he means it. He has the power to give you life. Trust him. Hear him. Live for him. He is your risen Savior, and he has heaven for you.