Where is Jesus When We Need Him?
April 7, 2007
Earlier this week I took a bike ride along the Natchez Trace. Exiting at Friendship Road, I rode a mile or two and came to Friendship Baptist Church, a neatly-kept brick building at the intersection of two country roads. Behind the church there was cemetery. As I rode by, I noticed a woman who appeared to be cleaning a particular gravesite. She was trimming the grass, picking up trash, and making it look neat. She was the only person at the cemetery, and as I rode by, I wondered who was buried there. A father or mother? A brother or sister? A husband? A child?
I know why she was there. Easter is coming and she wanted the grave of her loved one to be well-kept. Lots of people visit a cemetery during Holy Week. There is no better way to understand what Easter is all about. Visit a cemetery and ponder how great the miracle was. Two thousand years ago a man defeated death once and for all. He came out of the grave never to die again. God reversed the natural process when he raised his Son from the dead. It is a pure miracle and a mystery beyond all human knowledge.
That it happened we have no doubt.
But we cannot explain it.
And we cannot repeat it.
To come back from the dead—that’s the greatest miracle of all. And that’s why we’re still talking about the resurrection of Jesus twenty centuries later.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The longest walk you’ll ever take is the walk away from the grave of someone you love. If you have never done that, you can’t imagine how difficult it is.
–To walk away and feel as if the world has come to an end.
–To walk away and think about what used to be and what might have been.
–To walk away and realize, “I’ll never be the same again.”
–To play over and over in your mind the good times, the laughter, the crazy stories.
–To reach out and touch a face and find it gone forever.
–To cry until you can’t cry anymore.
–To watch them bury your dreams and hopes and all that was good about life.
–To know it is over, done, finished, the end, and there is nothing you can do about it.
–To walk away to friends who cannot understand and to a world that does hardly cares.
It is the longest walk and the saddest day. Every step takes you away from the tombstone of a broken dream.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The story is told in Luke 24. It is Easter and there is no joy. Two disciples are on the road to Emmaus, a little village about seven miles from Jerusalem. One disciple is named Cleopas. We do not know the name of the other disciple. As they walk along the dusty road, they leave Jerusalem far behind. They were followers of the man called Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, the teacher and miracle worker who claimed to have been sent by God. For a long time they had followed him. As much as anyone could, they truly believed.
And then came the terrible events on Friday. Jesus had been crucified. After his death, he was buried in a tomb. Although they had heard rumors that the tomb had been found empty early that morning, they could not and would not and did not believe any wild stories about a resurrection. If there was one thing the Romans knew how to do, it was kill people. They were good at it. They could make it fast or short, easy or horrific, public or private, relatively painless or excruciatingly painful. Crucifixion was the most terrible way to kill a man and only the worst of the worst suffered that fate.
How had it come to this? If he truly was the Son of God, how could this have happened?
It is Sunday. Jesus is dead. And they are going home.
Their question is our question, only slightly rephrased. Where is Jesus when we need him? Where did he go? Why did he leave us?
As they walked and talked, I am sure they did a lot of reminiscing. They must have talked about the time the man on the pallet was lowered through the roof. Surely they talked about the time when Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish and fed 5000 men. They probably wondered how Jesus could raise Lazarus and then be killed himself a week later. Like anyone who lost a loved one, they tried to make sense out of the tragedy. Only those who have seen a dream crushed and the death of a great hope can enter fully into this story. If you have ever walked away from a funeral so deeply hurt that you could not speak, if you have loved and been deeply hurt, tried and failed, believed and then been disappointed, you know what it was like for these two disciples.
The sweet dreams of youth, how quickly they fly away.
Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they’d never end,
We’d sing and dance forever and a day.
We’d live the life we choose,
We’d fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
There is an easy way to outline this story.
Everything you need to know is in those three phrases. Down the road the two men walked, deep in their sorrow and despair. Suddenly a stranger joins them and walks with them. When he leaves them, they are changed forever.
First their hearts are burdened.
Then their hearts are burning.
Then their hearts are bursting.
Such is the power of the risen Christ. Here is an Easter message of hope for all who are confused and uncertain. It is also a message for those who feel abandoned by the Lord. Because he rose from the dead, Jesus is with us always, everywhere, at all times, in every situation.
I. Sometimes We Can’t Recognize Him.
Verse 16 says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Why didn’t they know it was Jesus? After all, they were his disciples. There are many answers given to that question. Some say they didn’t expect him so they didn’t recognize him. Others say that it happened at sunset so they were confused by the fading light. But the text gives us a different time. It was a supernatural veiling of their eyesight so that they saw a man but did not know it was Jesus.
Every part of this story is true to human nature as we know it. There is even a touch of humor in that Jesus is with them and they think he’s dead. As they walked with the stranger, they said, “He used to do this” and “You should have been there” and “He could walk on water!” and “He was so kind” and “We never met anyone like him” and, finally, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
On they walk, the two men talking, the stranger listening intently. Finally he breaks in asks, “What are you talking about?” The question perplexes the two men because everyone in Jerusalem knew about the crucifixion of Jesus. “Are you the only one who hasn’t heard?” And so they tell the story to this inquisitive stranger, their words a combination of love and grief, pride and sorrow, belief and doubt.
“He was such a good man.”
“He healed the sick.”
“He raised the dead.”
“We know he was a prophet.”
“He ran into trouble with the chief priests.”
“We heard he was betrayed.”
“They beat him until he couldn’t stand.”
“They put a crown of thorns on his head.”
“Then they laughed at him.”
Everything they said was in the past tense, which is how we normally speak of the dead. They still loved him and still believed in him as best they could, and they clung to every cherished memory. Crucifixion could not make them stop loving him. But they could not square the events of the past 48 hours with their faith that he was the Son of God.
They were disappointed disciples who felt their faith slipping away with every step on the road to Emmaus. They had heard the rumors of an empty tomb, but what did that mean? No one had seen Jesus yet, or so they assumed. There comes a time in life when you have to face the facts and deal with reality. So ends the sad tale of Jesus, a story that had such a promising beginning. They believed in Jesus, and he let them down. The third day was almost gone and Jesus was nowhere to be found. Bring down the curtain, it’s all over now.
This is what Good Friday looks like without Easter. Without the resurrection, the cross is nothing but a tragedy, a story without a moral, a drama that ends before the final act.
II. Sometimes We Are Slow to Believe.
As the two disciples pour out their confusion and despair, Jesus listens patiently. When they are finished telling of their broken dreams and dashed hopes, he begins to speak. He calls them fools, which simply means they were slow to apply the truth they already knew. And he says they are “slow of heart” to believe what the prophets had said. He rebukes them for one thing and only one thing–for failing to understand and apply the Scriptures. He doesn’t upbraid them for leaving Jerusalem and walking back home. He doesn’t criticize their doubt nor condemn their confusion. All of that was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances and the fragmentary information they had received. But he tells them they should have known and believed what God had said. That leads to what we might call the ultimate Bible conference. He tells them plainly that it was necessary for Christ to suffer and die on the cross. What seemed like the ultimate miscarriage of justice turns out to be the Father’s plan to glorify his Son. Christ was no victim being led against his will to the cross.
No one took his life.
He laid it down.
The cross was not an accident. It was part of God’s plan from the beginning. That’s why the prophets and the poets wrote about it. There are clues throughout the Old Testament that the Messiah would suffer and then would enter his glory.
2 Samuel 7
Don’t miss the point. The whole Bible testifies to Christ. And as the afternoon of the first Easter Sunday wore on, the two disciples listened with rapt attention as the third man, the stranger they did not recognize, explained how the Scriptures all pointed to Christ. We must not make the same mistake these two disciples made or else we too will be fools and slow of heart to believe. The Old Testament is full of Christ. He is on every page. He is the true theme of the Old Testament—by type, teaching, sacrifice and prophecy.
He is the prophet greater than Moses.
He is the priest greater than Aaron.
He is the king greater than David.
He is the captain greater than Joshua.
He is the seed of the woman, the fulfillment of the brass serpent, the goal of all the sacrifices, and the true meaning of the tabernacle. He is the Kinsman Redeemer, the Scapegoat and the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. He is the great high priest who lives forever to intercede for us. He is the lion of the tribe of Judah and the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
If you want to find Jesus, just open your Bible because the whole book is about him. If you want to understand the Bible, look for Jesus. He’s there on every page. The whole purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. He’s the theme of every book from Genesis to Revelation.
I find great encouragement from this story. Where is Jesus when we need him? He is with us even when we are slow to believe.
III. Sometimes He Seems to Leave Us.
Verses 28-32 paint a touching picture of Jesus eating supper with Cleopas and the other disciple. Remember, they still don’t know who he is. They think they’ve stumbled upon a stranger who knows everything there is to know about the Bible. They have no idea it is Jesus.
There is one little phrase in verse 28 that we should not overlook. Jesus “acted as if he were going farther.” The word “acted” means “pretended.” What a thought that is. Was Jesus trying to deceive his own disciples? No, that can’t be right. Was Jesus planning on leaving his disciples alone on the road of doubt? No, but he makes them think he is going to leave them behind so that they will invite him to stay. Think about that for a moment. Our Lord sometimes seems to leave us so that we will ask him to stay. He seems to leave us behind so that we will seek him all the more. Those days when we feel alone and confused are part of God’s plan to wean us away from the things of the world and bring us to a place where we say, “O Lord, it is you and you alone that I seek.”
Note what happens next:
1) Jesus comes in when he is invited.
2) He eats with them.
3) He vanishes as soon as he is recognized.
Note this carefully. Jesus disappears, but not until his disciples recognize him.
Think about it this way:
1) He came in because they asked him.
2) He broke bread that he might have fellowship with them.
3) He left because they no longer needed his personal presence.
Why did he leave so suddenly? The answer is, he didn’t leave them at all. He simply became invisible. Leaving implies a change of geography, but it’s not as it Jesus moved to a different location. He appeared to them on the road but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Even when he taught them the Scriptures, he still did not reveal himself to them. Only in the course of sharing a meal together did Cleopas and his friend recognize who he was. And then he vanished.
That doesn’t mean he left them. It simply means they could no longer visibly see him. This is the point of the whole story.
Just because you don’t see Jesus doesn’t mean he isn’t there.
Just because you can’t feel him doesn’t mean he has left you.
Just because you think you are alone doesn’t mean he is no longer by your side.
Once you know that Jesus is alive, you have certainty in your heart. There is no need for him to stay longer. He stays long enough for them to believe but no longer. There are times when we all say, “Lord Jesus, it would be wonderful if you would stay a while longer.” And the Lord answers back, “My child, I am with you even though you think I’m gone.”
Where is Jesus when we need him? He is with us even though he seems to leave us. This is the profound insight of our text. Because Jesus is alive, he is with us even when we don’t know it. He is with us when we think we are walking alone through the dark valleys of life. And even when we have given up all hope, we discover that he was with us when we needed him most.
When you come to the conviction that Jesus is alive, everything changes!
Back to Jerusalem
That’s why the two disciples couldn’t wait to get back to Jerusalem. Even though it was late in the evening, they had to go back and tell the others what they had seen and heard. Once you encounter Christ, nothing will ever be the same again.
If Jesus is alive, there’s no time to waste.
If Jesus is alive, everything we believe is true.
If Jesus is alive, then death has been defeated.
If Jesus is alive, then heaven is more than a dream.
If Jesus is alive, then our sins are really forgiven.
If Jesus is alive, then all his promises are true.
If Jesus is alive, then we can never truly be alone again.
Where is Jesus when we need him most? He is with us because he is risen from the dead.
Let’s go back to that simple outline of this passage:
It is a picture of life after the resurrection.
There are two men alone in their despair.
Jesus comes and gives them hope.
Jesus leaves but the men are changed forever.
You say, “He’s been gone for 2000 years.” But that’s not quite right. He is gone in terms of his physical presence on the earth, but he’s more with us now than he was when he was here. How do we know this is true? Because of the last verse of Matthew’s gospel:“I am with you always, to the end of the age”(28:20).
He is with us always …
Even though we do not recognize him.
Even though we can’t find him.
Even though we are slow to believe.
Even though he seems to leave us.
All of this is true because Christ is risen from the dead!
He is gone from our sight that he may be seen by our faith.
It’s Saturday but Sunday’s Coming.
A few days ago I got an email from Denise Willhite. She wrote to a few friends asking for prayer because her husband Keith died a few days before Easter four years ago. When I read her note, it didn’t seem possible that four years have passed so quickly. Each year brings its own challenges, but this year is hard because their oldest daughter Katie is graduating from high school and Keith won’t be there to celebrate with her.
I first met Keith when he was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in the mid-80s. When he and Denise starting attending the church I pastored in Garland, we became close friends. They came to our home for meals and to watch football with us. That was almost 25 years ago. We kept in touch as Keith got his doctorate, pastored a church, taught at Denver Seminary, and eventually returned to Dallas Seminary where he became chairman of the Department of Pastoral Ministries. In 1997 he was diagnosed with malignant brain tumors. He fought back with all his strength, enduring radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Shortly before he died, he told Denise he wanted me to speak at his funeral service. He died on Wednesday of Holy Week four years ago. It turned out that his funeral was on Saturday of Easter weekend. As far as I can remember, it’s the only funeral I’ve ever done on Easter weekend. I remember that it was a bright and sunny day when hundreds of Keith’s friends gathered for the service in Rockwall, a suburb east of Dallas.
Because there were many who wished to pay tribute, my talk came at the end of the funeral service. When I got up to speak, I could see Denise and Katie and David seated in front of me. During my message I remarked on the significance of the middle day of Easter weekend. In Christian tradition, it is often called Holy Saturday. It is the day when Christ’s body lay in the tomb. It is a day for contemplation and preparation. There are solemn services on Good Friday and joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday, but we don’t have Holy Saturday services. We rest, we wait, we pray, we contemplate the sufferings of the day before and the joy that will come tomorrow. I commented that if you have to die, the best week of the year to die is Holy Week because it always ends in a resurrection. It seemed significant that we were burying Keith on Holy Saturday–the day of preparation that comes between Good Friday and Easter. The message of Holy Saturday is, “Get ready. Something is about to happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.” I said to Denise, who was seated right in front of me, “The problem is, Saturday seems so long. It feels like Sunday will never get here.” Then I told the congregation that I had checked and even though it was Saturday in Texas, it was already Sunday on the other side of the world. Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Easter has already arrived. And it’s coming in our direction. Thank God, we’re not moving back toward the crucifixion. It may be Saturday but we’re moving toward Easter. Sunday’s coming. All we’ve got to do is hold on a little while longer and Sunday will soon be here.
When I got Denise’s email a few days ago, I wrote back with a few words of encouragement. Then I closed with this sentence: “Blessed Easter–It’s been a long Saturday but thank God, we’re still moving toward Sunday.” She wrote back and said, “Ray, thanks, for the reminder that it’s Saturday…but we are still moving toward Sunday. I needed that.”
It’s been four years since we buried Keith. Four years of waiting. There is no doubt about where Keith is. He is with the Lord. But oh, how long Saturday seems when you are waiting for Sunday to come.
We all live somewhere between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We are on the long Emmaus Road journey together. There are times when we feel alone and overwhelmed and doubts creep in and our heart gives way and we feel like we can’t go on. Then Jesus comes to us and says, “You are not alone. You never were alone. Even when you thought were alone, I was with you every step of the way.”
We still make that long walk from the grave. We still weep and remember and wonder why. But everything is changed now. It may be Saturday for many of us, but thank God, Easter has already dawned across the universe. A bright light shines from the garden tomb. The light slowly chases the darkness away until one day, the darkness will be gone forever.
Child of God, behold the risen Christ! You can never be alone again.
We are Easter people marching from Good Friday through Holy Saturday on our way to Easter Sunday. We’re not quite there but we’re moving in the right direction.
It’s Saturday, but Sunday’s coming.
And so every Easter we celebrate the great triple truth of this holy day.
The tomb is empty.
Jesus is alive.
We are not alone.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.