Saturday, April 29, 2017

The God Who Is With Us - Psalm 22, Luke 24:1-35

New Testament Lesson                                                                Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[b] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[c] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[d] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed 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 they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[e]should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I was in a grocery store one day.  I have to admit I was looking rather grungy.  I had been working in the yard all day, and I was a bit dirty, but I wanted to go to the store to buy some bread for lunch, and in the store I saw someone I knew.  It was a church member.  I went up to say hello, and I could tell she did not recognize me, and that she was even a bit nervous with me speaking to her.  I quickly said, “It’s me.  Maynard.  Your pastor.”

She admitted that she didn’t recognize me without my pulpit robe.

Sometimes we recognize people, and sometimes we don’t.

This text from the New Testament is a strange text. 

Jesus Christ is in the midst of these folks who are walking along the road.  They are talking about the events of Jesus’ death and the report of his resurrection.

They all chat together, and they do not recognize him.

This story is interesting on several levels.  On one level it is a dramatic presentation of what the world is like today.

So many people are on a journey through life, and even with Jesus in their midst, they do not recognize him.

There are times when we all feel like the Lord has left us.

We struggle with cancer, and the days are dark.  There is pain and despair.  Bills pile high.  And it seems Jesus has deserted us.

We go into work one day, only to learn that we’ve been fired.  We feel overwhelmed, wondering how we will make ends meet.  We feel our self confidence sag.  And it seems Jesus is nowhere near us.

Our spouse dies.  We feel alone.  We are confused.  And it seems that Jesus is nowhere near us.

Part of the wonder of this New Testament reading is that these people who are walking along the way are in deep grief.  They had hope that Jesus was the Messiah, and now he is dead.  Even though they have heard some news about a possible resurrection, their grief is overwhelming.  And it seems to them that Jesus is nowhere near them.  Jesus is distant.  Jesus is absent.

And yet, in this story, Jesus is there all along!

We often think that Mother Teresa was a great saint who never had any doubts at all.  She walked with God and lived a life of such sacrifice and devotion.

And yet, for nearly the last half century of her life, she felt absolutely nothing of the presence of God.  In letters that she wrote to some of her spiritual leaders and mentors, she confessed that she often felt God as absent.  This began when she began tending to the poor and the sick of Calcutta.  It continued for the rest of her life, except for a brief period in 1959.  Imagine – she remained faithful to God and obedient to God even though she did not feel the presence of God in her life. 

That is a tremendous faith. 
It was faith that was NOT dependent on feeling.  It was a faith that was dependent on God alone.

What she felt was not unusual. 

In the Old Testament, Job was a man who lost so much.  He lost his property, his financial resources, his family and even his children.  In chapter 23 of the Old Testament Book of Job, it says,

If I go forward, God is not there;
If I go backward, I cannot perceive him;
If I go left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
    I turn
to the right, but I cannot see him.

    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

The psalmist felt the absence of God.  In the 22nd Psalm the writer cried out in desperate prayer,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It is this very psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross as he hung there in pain and agony, close to death, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Every week we stand and recite the Apostles’ Creed, and in that confession of faith there is this great line – perhaps the most important line about what we believe about Christ.

“He descended into hell.” 

In Ephesians, chapter 4, the writer talks about how Christ both descended into the lower realms, AND that he ascended into heaven.  We like to remember Christ ascending into heaven, but we don’t often give much thought to his descent into hell.

If we give any thought at all to Christ’s descent into hell, we might consider what St. Peter said in his first New Testament book, chapter 3, in which there is an explanation as to why Christ went into hell, which was to minister and preach the Gospel to those who died before his earthly ministry, and therefore had never known about the salvation offered by Christ.

Now those passages alone make the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell important, but what makes this line so very meaningful in the Apostles’ Creed is to stop and consider what hell is.

Traditionally, hell is defined as the absence of God.

Of course, hell is not literally the absence of God because there is no place that can exist without the presence of God.  But it is the perceived absence of God.

And the Apostles Creed, when it says that we believe that Jesus descended into hell, it is a reminder that Christ descended into the place of absolute perceived absence of God.

When he hung on the cross and cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was in hell at that moment.

So remember – when you are in the your pain of cancer treatments,

When you are in your darkness of grieving over a loved one,

When you are struggling with divorce,

When walk out of your work place after being told you have been fired…

When you feel that God is not present in your life and that he has disappeared from your world, remember, Christ has been there.  He has descended into hell and felt the total absence of God.

You are not alone, although you may feel that you are.

And in this text from the Gospel, these folks are going about their journey.  They are grieving and hurting.  Christ died on Friday, and now it is the evening of the third day, and while they have heard that Christ has risen, they don’t really know what to make of it.

They feel alone and isolated from God.

And yet, there is Jesus Christ, right there in their midst.

They do not feel the divine presence, but the divine presence is not dependent on what WE feel – it is dependent on the promise of God.

Now, in this Scripture lesson, they get to the point at which they become aware of God.

Open eyes! 

That is the way the Scripture puts it.  “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”

So how did that happen?  How did they have these open eyes so they could see the Lord was with them?

Three things happened.

First, they listen to the Word.

Luke says that as they walked on the road, Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

If you don’t feel God in your life, start reading the Bible.  Listen to God’s Word.

Second, in their time of despair, they came together.  When you feel God is absent, do not make the mistake of isolating yourself from others.  You need others in your life.  You need the company of family and friends and the church.  That is what they did in Luke.  They walked together.  They ate together.  They stayed together, and that helped them sense the presence of the Lord.

Third, worship.  In Luke they ate together, but it was more than a simple meal.  Listen to how Luke describes it.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them,
he took bread,
and broke it,
and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

What does that sound like?  He took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  That’s Communion.  That’s the Lord’s Supper.  That’s worship.

So when we feel God has left us, we don’t leave God.  Because God has NOT deserted us.  God is still with us, so whether we feel God’s presence or not, we continue to come to God in worship.

So these three things help us when we feel the absence of God. 

Listening to the Word of God in Scripture.

Keeping fellowship with other Christians.

And continuing to Worship.

In Hebrews 13:5 there is a powerful promise.  “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

The presence of God is not dependent on whether we feel it or  not – it is dependent on the faithfulness of God.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.