How You Can Stay Close To God When He Doesn't Do What You Expect
This was the first sermon Pastor Wes Richards preached in Windsor on the 15th September 2002, following the funeral of his wife, Carol Richards, who died on the 29th June 2002, after an 18-month battle with cancer.
'we had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.'
This passage, and this text (Luke 24:13-49) in particular, has become very meaningful to me personally as it has, no doubt, to other Christians who have found themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their control and comprehension.
Sometimes there are experiences that seem to make no sense whatsoever but which totally alter your life forever. Hopes and dreams can be shattered in an instant.
Death, disease, divorce, a betrayal, a rejection, a vicious verbal or physical attack, among other dark experiences, each have the capacity to bring unexpected suffering. Pain and sadness may seem overwhelming. Questions loom larger than answers.
For the non-believer, who regards life as totally random, all this is only to be expected.
For the Christian, however, who believes in a God who is all good, all powerful, all knowing and all wise, there can come even deeper hurt when our actual experiences do not seem to indicate that God is all, or any, of the above.
Indeed for Christians who believe in the reality and possibility of modern day miracles it is particularly hard to accept when we do not see miracles that we have prayed for with such fervency and constancy.
Such experiences, while undeniably tough are, however, nothing new. Even the greatest of saints have experienced times when they were not at all sure what was going on.
John the Baptist no less, so known for his prophetic certainty, came to a moment when he was imprisoned and questioning. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 'Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' (Matthew 11:3). Imagine! The very one who was a forerunner of Christ had to be reassured that Jesus really was the Christ!
The great prophet Elijah was so depressed and exhausted he prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough Lord,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors' (1 Kings 19:4).
The Psalmist wondered, 'Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?' (Psalm 10:1).
In our text today we discover disciples who are sad and confused about the way God was working, or rather, in their view, not working.
These disciples were, to be clear, 'downcast' (Luke 24:17), and struggling to understand all that had taken place. In this, in view of our own recent experience, we find ourselves with some of the same emotions that these disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced. For we also 'had hoped' for a very different outcome.
These disciples had loved the Lord. They had followed the Lord. They had believed that He was the promised Messiah who would break all yokes of captivity.
And now their Lord of life had died. Seemingly he was just another victim of injustice, just another statistic, just another part of the realities of life. This then was where these disciples were at on their continuing but confusing journey.
But what happened next stabilized them, turned them around, and set them up for their future life and ministry. At the very time they felt so low they learned lessons that would raise them to new levels of fulfillment and fruitfulness.
There are lessons here that can do the same for us also.
1. They Learned That Jesus Was With Them - Even When They Didn't Realize It
Jesus was right there with the disciples in the time of their great sadness. He was 'walking along with them' (verse 15) but they didn't know it. No matter what happens in the life of a Christian this is something that we can always count on.
Jesus said, 'Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.' (Matthew 28:20). Hebrews 13:5 says, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.' John 14:18: 'I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.'
The promised presence of the Lord is one of the great recurring phrases of Scripture.
God promises us to be with us in all circumstances. Isaiah 43:2, 'When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.' Isaiah 43:5 adds, 'Do not be afraid, for I am with you.'
Psalm 23 famously pictures the Lord as the good shepherd walking with us in all the circumstances of life. Psalm 23:4 is emphatic, 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.'
In this past 18 months we have especially known the Lord with us. This was so evident in Carol as she faced up to the many hospital trips, tests and treatments, all of them to no lasting avail.
I shall never forget the times when we read the Bible, prayed together and chatted as she rested in bed before sleeping. There was such a sense of the presence and peace of God. She and I knew the Lord was there.
Sometimes we cannot see Him or feel Him but we do not and should nor rely on our feelings or human perceptions. For we have God's word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to assure us that He is walking with us. And sometimes He carries us.
The footprints poem has a Biblical basis. Isaiah 40:11, 'He tends his flock like a shepherd; He gather the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart.'
The Jesus of the Bible is Emmanuel, God with us. And He is with you and with me whatever the times or circumstances.
2. They Learned That God's Ways Are Not Man's Ways
The disciples were puzzled why their Saviour who was 'powerful in word and deed before God and all the people' (Luke 24:19) had ended up being 'handed over' to death by crucifixion (Luke 24:20). It didn't make sense.
We too as modern day Christians sometimes find ourselves equally perplexed by various experiences and events. Sometimes we may feel guilty or sub-standard in our faith if we admit to this. But the fact is, there is so much we do not understand.
When Billy Graham was asked by family members of the Oklahoma City bombing victims, 'Why did God let this happen?' he humbly replied, 'I don't know.'
I don't know why a pastor friend of mine still has a mother of 90 and a father of 95 when his little daughter drowned in his own back garden.
I don't know why my wife, who had so much to give and live for, should die at 51 after so much prayer.
I can understand why so much of the world lives in poverty - due to man's greed, violence and corruption - but I can't understand why one poor person lives and another dies.
And above all, like the disciples, I can't understand why God did not save his only Son from death on the Cross. Why did it have to be this way?
The position that Jesus outlined to the disciples, and which Paul taught in the Epistles, is that we are to trust that God knows what he is doing even when the opposite may seem to be the case.
What is so remarkable about the early church is not only that they suffered so much but that they did so with great joy and assurance. Remarkably there is no trace of self-pity or complaint in the Acts of the Apostles.
They were confident that, 'in all things God works for the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purpose,' (Romans 8:28).
Dr James Dobson writes, 'Every person who has ever lived, I submit, has had to deal with seeming contradictions and enigmas. You will not be the exception. Sooner or later our intellect will pose questions we cannot possibly answer.
At that point we would be wise to remember His words, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:9). And our reply should be, "Not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
God wants us to believe and trust in Him despite the things we don't understand. It's that straightforward.' i
3. They Learned That Jesus Was Revealed To Them In The Midst Of Brokenness
'...he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.'
It was in the breaking of the bread, symbolizing the broken body of Christ, that they saw Him. Brokenness is so often the unexpected key to closeness. One of the reasons our generation, in the West at least, does not know God, is because it has, largely, not been broken before God.
Pride has not been broken. Independence has not been broken. Self-will has not been broken. Self-confidence has not been broken.
But when there is brokenness the Lord manifests Himself. It was only when the expensive bottle of perfume was broken at the Master's feet that the fragrance filled the house.
Psalm 34:18 states: 'The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.' Psalm 147:3 states: 'He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.'
Brokenness of heart and spirit is painful yet potentially so powerful. In my studies of great Christian revivals in South Korea, Nigeria and Argentina I discovered a common factor. People's great experience of God came as they were broken in spirit through wars, and social and economic disintegration.
4. They Learned To Stay Close To One Another
This account is not of a solitary disciple but of two disciples walking together. They were clearly part of a close-knit community and it was as they all talked together that the Lord showed up again (Luke 24:36).
This is very significant. God wants to meet with us and help us and heal us in the context of church.
A key reason that the first century church triumphed in the face of such suffering was that they knew how to draw close to their own 'family.' In times of trouble especially, we must not get isolated. Through all that we have been through we have had such support from our friends and church family.
5. They Learned That In All That Had Happened Jesus Was Looking To Bring The Gospel Of Salvation To The World
Christianity is a life or death business. The basic and ultimate fact of life, no matter how many physical healings or material blessings are experienced, is that everyone is going to die. One out of one people die!
And the great facts of the gospel are that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all people everywhere can have hope and happiness beyond the grave in perfect fellowship with almighty God.
Jesus came on a rescue mission, to 'seek and save that which was lost.' And he commissioned every Christian to be a bearer of the good news that all people everywhere can be forgiven for their sin, freed from the power of Satan and filled with hope for this life and the next.
General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was asked to write in a book of the King. He wrote, 'Your majesty some men's ambition is art, some men's ambition is gold, some men's ambition is fame, my ambition is the soul's of men.'
I want my life, the life of our family and that of the churches we are involved with, to be anointed with a great grace to point people to Jesus.
How do we stay close to God when he doesn't do what we expect? Well, for sure, I don't know the answers to life's complexities, but I do know that if we focus on these great truths the Lord will surely help us.
- James Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993), 237.