I would like you to imagine with me for a few minutes about one of the most beautiful stories we have in our NT. In fact, I want you to go back in time almost two thousand years with me to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, to the time when Jesus became flesh and walked among us. The Incarnation.
Imagine yourself as a faithful Jew. Imagine that you had been born to Jewish parents who had also been born to Jewish parents, and so on. In fact, your Jewish heritage went back not just generations but for centuries, for well over a thousand years.
I want you to imagine that you’ve lived your whole life in Palestine just as had most of your ancestors. In fact, you now lived in a small town only seven miles from Jerusalem. Emmaus. You had been raised to know your scriptures. The fact of the matter is that you had been raised to know every story in your scriptures backwards and forwards. You had heard all the stories of your faith, and you had heard them many times. Your faith was your life. Everything you did as a person emanated from being a faithful follower of YHWH, a faithful follower of the LORD, the God of Israel. You were considered part of the faithful remnant – those Jewish people who loved and followed their God, those people who were waiting faithfully for God to act and finally fulfill the promises he had made to Abraham and his people.
Still, you knew that you were sinful and that your only hope for salvation would be in God’s grace and mercy. Along with all the faithful Jews you had also always awaited and looked forward to the renewal and restoration of all Creation. In God’s divine project of redemption you knew that one day God would remedy all of the evil, sin, suffering and death that had entered and intruded into God’s good Creation (Ge 1-2) in “the Fall” of humanity with Adam and Eve (Ge 3). For all of your life you had awaited the renewal and restoration of the whole created order long promised throughout all of your scriptures. Along with all of the other faithful Jews, you waited for God to return and be with his people again, just as he had once dwelled in the tabernacle in the wilderness and then in the temple in Jerusalem that Solomon had built for him.
But this time when God returned to his people, you knew from your scriptures that it would be in some ineffably magnificent way that would far transcend his presence with the people previously. You didn’t know exactly how it would be, but you knew from your scriptures that it would be magnificently greater. You knew it was going to be magnificently greater because this time there was going to be this final, new covenant, this covenant in which God would write his law on his people’s hearts from within. The heart-transforming new covenant of Jm 31. You also knew it was going to happen – because God had promised it would. And you knew God always kept God’s promises. You just didn’t know when it was going to happen – and you didn’t know how.
I also want you to remember that living so close to Jerusalem, that as a faithful Jew you had visited the Temple there at least once each week. You had been raised by devout Jewish parents – and you had also become a devout believer in the God of Israel. Along with all the faithful, you had been waiting for God to come again just as he had promised that he would through his many prophets. And, along with all the faithful you knew that when God came again, this time God had said he was going to come to be with his people – in their full time presence – forever. When God came to be with his people this next time, it was going to be forever.
Now, as a faithful Jew you knew the story which your scriptures told about the Creation of everything. You knew about creatio ex nihilo – Creation out of nothing. You knew your God had that kind of power. You knew about “the Fall” of Adam and Eve and, therefore, about “the Fall” of all humanity and of God’s good Creation. You also knew about the covenants that your God, YHWH, had made with your people – with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with Joshua and with David. You knew what these covenants meant for the people of Israel, yourself included. You knew about the priests of God’s people, and you knew about the time of the judges and then of the kings in your Jewish history. And you knew of all the prophets found in your Hebrew scriptures. You knew your story. You knew the story of the people of Israel, the people God had chosen to be his people many centuries before. You knew the story of salvation history and what God’s purposes were for his people Israel. And you knew the promises that God had made to his people Israel. You knew them well. Very well.
As a member of this big family of God, from your infancy into your now adulthood, you had participated in the various celebrations of your Jewish faith. Most especially, since your birth you had traveled to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the major festivals of your faith. As such, every year you had gone with your family to Jerusalem for the Festival of Unleaven Bread, the feast that your people Israel had by now been celebrating for over one thousand three hundred years. This festival was the Passover, the time of Pesach, something your people Israel had been celebrating since your God had freed your ancestors from the slavery and tyranny in Egypt in the great Exodus all those centuries ago. In the Exodus God’s angel of death had passed over the Jewish households and spared their firstborn sons – but not so the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. After over four hundred years in captivity, God had remembered his people Israel and had brought them out of their slavery through his prophet Moses. You knew that story was core to your religious heritage. You also knew that in spite of Israel’s ongoing idolatry as shown in Scripture, God had also continued to rescue his people Israel in the centuries following the Exodus itself. You knew your people Israel were the chosen people of God, but you also knew that they were a most sinful people nevertheless.
And now again, it was the time of year for the Festival of Unleaven Bread, the Passover. Just like the Passover had for centuries, it began on the 14th day of Nisan. As always, it would last for eight days. And, just as before, hundreds of thousands of faithful Jews would again come to Jerusalem this year to celebrate the Passover with fellow believers.
This particular Passover had been like no other Passover you had ever experienced in your long life as a faithful Jew. What you experienced at this year’s Passover you would remember forever. On the one hand, all sorts of things had happened during this particular Passover just as they always had. But this Passover had been experienced by you and thousands of others like never before. Things had happened differently at this Passover, and this time every one of those things which were different than before were centered on this one man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had come to this Passover as well. He, too, was a fellow Jew but there were things very different about him.
Before Jesus had even arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover along with all of the other Jews, you had been hearing things about him for over three years. You had heard, for instance, and as strange as it seemed, that he had been born of a virgin. The Incarnation. You had heard he did miracles, too numerous to count; he healed people of their sicknesses; he brought people back to life; he exorcized demons from people. You had heard that he walked on water and that he had stilled the storm. You had heard he was a teacher, that he went about teaching people about their scriptures, about the kingdom of God and about their God. He went about telling the Jewish people, and showing them, who God was. Jesus was going about, revealing God to the people. You had never heard of anyone like this Jesus before and now, just like you, he had come to be with his people during Passover.
You had also heard, that before he had even begun his ministry a little over three years previously, that he had been baptized in the Jordan River by the prophet they called John the Baptist. You knew that John had later been beheaded by Herod Antipas but you also knew that John the Baptist was the messenger figure promised by the prophet Malachi. You knew that this messenger figure was also known as the fulfillment-time Elijah, the eschatological Elijah long-promised in the scriptures. This messenger figure had been introduced in the book of Isaiah, and then a later prophet, Malachi, had told the people of God even more about this messenger figure than they had known before. By the time of Malachi the people of Israel had been consternating for over a couple hundred years just who this messenger figure was.
And, because you knew that John was this fulfillment-time Elijah, you knew that could mean only one thing. Isaiah the prophet had told the people of Israel (Is 40) that when this fulfillment-time Elijah figure came, this figure would be preparing the way for YHWH, for the LORD, for God himself. So you knew that meant that this John the Baptist fellow was the one meant to prepare the way for the coming of YHWH himself to Jerusalem. Since John had now come over three years previously, that meant that God had to be coming to Jerusalem also. The divine YHWH himself was coming after all these centuries of waiting. But how would that be. When and how would that happen? In fact, had it already happened and the people just didn’t realize it? [Yes, it had!]
But during the time of Jesus’ ministry you also had heard all sorts of other things about him. During his ministry this Jesus had talked about himself as the Son of Man figure you knew from your own scriptures (Dn 7). But people also talked about him as possibly being the long-awaited human Davidic king promised throughout Scripture (2 Sam 7, Ps 2, 72, 78, 1 Ki 8 and in many other places). Some thought this Jesus was the human Messiah promised in Is 9, 11, 16 and 32. Some thought he was the human servant figure that the prophet Isaiah had prophesied concerning (Is 42, 49, 50 and 53). Still others saw him as the human prophet-like-Moses promised in Dt 18 and 34. As a faithful Jew you knew that the rabbis and the leaders of the church were constantly looking into who these figures were and what their connection was to the promised coming kingdom of God.
In fact, some even thought this Jesus might be coming to fulfill all of these human expectations promised in their Hebrew scriptures. Many people even thought this Jesus of Nazareth whom they’d heard so much about might be coming to inaugurate the long-promised and long-awaited kingdom of God. They thought that somehow this human figure Jesus might be, or was somehow involved in all of the prophecies and promises in their scriptures. They thought that this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one to fulfill all of these human streams of expectation found in Scripture and by doing so, somehow inaugurate the kingdom of God.
Imagine that the week of Passover had begun eventfully with Jesus entering as a king – although on a donkey – at the beginning of the week. Jesus had also caused a real ruckus in the temple. People wondered what all of these things meant. The chief priests had tested Jesus, and Jesus continued teaching about the kingdom of God, just as he had been doing through the whole course of his ministry. Most importantly, on the night of the Passover meal Jesus had taken the meal and made it his own – the Lord’s Supper. He had purposely changed the words used for over one thousand three hundred years in the Passover meal. Jesus had said “this is my body” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood”. In doing so he had instituted the long-awaited new covenant, the covenant long promised, the covenant which Scripture told the people would come when YHWH himself came again to be with his people forever. [In doing all these things Jesus had inaugurated the kingdom of God but the people would not understand that for three days – with Jesus’ resurrection. And even then Jesus would be with them for another forty days bringing them up to speed.]
Then, later on that evening of the Passover meal, the Romans had captured Jesus, tried him in a variety of ways and eventually Pilate had agreed to have Jesus killed. Jesus had then been mercilessly scourged in the worst way by the Roman troops, and ultimately, Jesus had been put on a cross to die, which he did on that Friday afternoon, the day before the Jewish Sabbath began (sundown Friday). Jesus had also been buried that very Friday afternoon before the start of the Sabbath. Then, three days later, when the women went to the tomb very early in the morning, they found the stone rolled away from the tomb and when they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
Word of these things, of course, spread very quickly. The angels at the tomb had told the women what had happened to Jesus. He has risen. But that made no sense to them just then. Complicating everything was that all of this was very unexpected. No one had seen this coming, even though Jesus had been telling them all along what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem.
Looking back on the whole week of Passover, you knew that many people, including his disciples, had thought the kingdom of God was coming with Jesus. Jesus, however, had been killed and buried. But now his body was missing. He had become just another dead Messiah figure to the Jews and the Romans.
None of the followers of Jesus knew what had happened. This Jesus they had expected to be the Messiah, even God himself, had been killed on a cross. And now, they couldn’t even find his body. Everyone was in a state of loss, disappointment and confusion.
This brings us to Lk 24 13-35.
As Christians, as Lutheran-Christians, this is our religious heritage as well. We come from a long line of other Christians, including Cleopas and his companion on that very first Easter, April 5, 33.
Another Christian from our religious heritage is the incomparable St. Paul. We Lutherans especially owe a great debt of gratitude to Paul, for how we Lutherans so wonderfully understand God through Paul’s many letters. One of his letters is the one we call 1 Cor and one of its most well-known, famous chapters is 1 Cor 15, the great resurrection chapter of the Bible.