(Written 18th April 2013).
Please read the Bible reading: Luke 24:13-‐35. I want us to look at the phrase in verse 21, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”. In particular those four words, “but we had hoped”. These two men had been looking for the earthly triumph of Jesus, as he became king in Jerusalem, fulfilling the sure words of Zechariah 8 and other prophets. They had been watching him fulfilling prophecy – just one week before he had made his acclaimed royal entry into the city on the foal of a donkey as predicted in Zechariah 9. It was all coming together! How exciting! These ancient prophecies were being fulfilled before their very eyes! But now Jesus had been crucified. He had not even come down from the cross at the last moment…! He had been buried. And that was three days ago… It was all over… How COULD God have possibly allowed that to happen? It did NOT make sense at all! Their hearts cried out, “Where are you, God? I thought that you were faithful to keep your promises! But it does not look like we can trust you after all”. I wonder if you have had emotions like that arise in your hearts? I have. And not just once. But over and over. And still sometimes now. Every version of the Bible I have uses these same words in Luke 24:21. “We had hoped”. It is not often there is identical translation like this. One Greek text carries the explanatory word “trusted”. “We had hoped (trusted)”, emphasising the strong sense of personal commitment to the cause of Jesus Christ made by these two disciples. Yet now their whole body language was “downcast”, verse 17, dejected, sad and downhearted. Hope is “a feeling of desire for something and confidence in the possibility of its fulfilment”. For these two men, and many other disciples living in Jerusalem at that time, their hopes inspired by the word of God himself were dashed, destroyed, frustrated, impossible. Jesus was dead. What more was there to say? It was all over. Let me share with you a personal example. Although I was living in Britain, I had been visiting Sudan since 1979 with programmes for three weeks or so every year. Along with a team of nationals we served God by holding training conferences and series’ of evangelistic meetings in a variety of towns and cities. Twenty years later In 1999 I became a resident in Sudan as a pastor to Khartoum International Church. Not long after my arrival I devised a ten-‐year plan for preaching and teaching through the whole of the Bible at our Sunday morning Bible Class and evening service. By recording them and printing them into booklets I thought a large number of people, Christians and Moslems, Sudanese from every tribe and background, could be helped, whether by reading them themselves or by listening to them being read. But, after eighteen months I began to experience physical blackouts for no obvious reason. After a while I was medically evacuated, unconscious, back to England. A few months and lots of hospital tests later, Brenda and I resumed ministry in Khartoum only to have the same things happening over again. After just four years our great vision was over! What “I had hoped for” was gone. All sorts of things went through my mind. You may be able to identify with some of it. · Did I (and others) get God’s guidance wrong? I sincerely didn’t think so. · Had the devil got the upper hand? My theology didn’t let me believe that. · Was I sinful and lacking in faith when, believing for my recovery, many made prayers? Self-‐examination brought little to light and certainly nothing to cause all this. On returning “home” I had more questions: · What did others around truly think of me? I knew what people said to my face, but what did they say to one another? · What did my (did our) future hold? · Would we still be supported financially, and if sohow? On good days I knew Sovereign Lord was in control. But I did have plenty of bad days too when doubts weighed me down. · “We had hoped”. I felt like a blossoming tree, soon to bear much fruit, which had been savagely felled and left to rot. All the fruit that would have been produced for God’s glory would never develop – never benefit anyone. Yet, in God’s hands, some sprouts soon appeared from the stump. Let me explain. After a while we started working on writing and publishing for (and with) Sudanese believers. But it felt like an apology compared with the real work on the ground in Sudan. But with our limitations, perhaps that was the best we could do. Then I recorded my lectures, given at Gideon Theological College, on to DVDs, with Sudanese background pictures and illustrations. This was finished in May 2005. . These were seen by scores/hundreds of people across Sudan. I mostly wrote the book “Christian Theology in a Sudanese Context”. We had this published in Khartoum in Arabic as well as English, with the help of the Bible Society “My” ministry was now spreading wider than just at one church in Khartoum. We were helping others work in Sudan too. Things were rebuilding for us! It was getting exciting to see what God was doing, even with our limitations! But then In November 2006 God took back the voice box He had lent me for 57 years. I was diagnosed with aggressive cancer in the voice box. This meant either its removal, or death within two months. I chose to live, but without a voice. How could I still be a preacher without a voice? If I lost my legs, or my sight I could still preach – but my voice? I felt as if that sprouting stump of my life was hacked away again, leaving it almost level with the ground Two years later, in April 2009, came further cancer in the neck, with another surgery, this time followed by a stressful course of radiotherapy. Something that went wrong then has left me in a lot of pain a good deal of the time, and on very heavy drugs for its relief. I seemed to have no ministry left at all? I felt that even the little I had was chopped away, leaving the stump below ground level. The questions I had for God flooded back and I really did have questions: · Why me, God? Why now? Why this? · Haven’t you got it wrong, God? Surely we followed your will for us in our projects, etc.? · In the Bible there are stories (examples) of successes and of healings. God, I believe you are able. But, you don’t seem willing! God that seems unfair! · What will happen to my ministry without me? Are others able? And willing? And strong enough? · God. What are you doing? It seems you have forsaken me! But even with the stump cut so close to the ground, God has yet again brought forth some new shoots. It is His doing and He must receive the praise. Between 2009 and the present, April 2013, I have mostly moved in bottom gear, or just plain stopped. Sometimes I have been in bed for days on end, unable to do anything useful. Sometimes my pain has been so severe that I could hardly think, or the painkillers that took away the pain left me unable to think. Yet despite all this, God has enabled me to write an Encouragement letter six times per year and send it to 70 leaders, personal friends of mine, in Sudan and South Sudan. He has enabled us to maintain a website for Sudanese Christians. I am writing a monthly Crossthought article for our website aimed at teaching and building up Sudanese believers. We were up to 4400 pages being downloaded per month in May 2012, and it settled near that figure every month. Recently it has dropped to 800, possibly because of the restrictions the Sudanese government have put on the electronic media. But still 800! Did I ever preach to or teach 800 people while I was there? And this number is starting to rise again. Also we lead a Home Group from our church, with 13-‐20 elderly folk coming to us every fortnight. And I write articles 5/6 times per year for an American Christian magazine called Grace & Truth. We have had a recent consultation with an Episcopal Church of Sudan Bishop, and we shortly have another with an Africa Inland Church Bishop, regarding writing topics, methods of distribution, to encourage Sudanese nationals who can to write, to help their fellow Christians and churches grow in their Christian walk and reach out to the lost around them. Through email I have discussed this too with the Sudan Interior Church and the Sudanese Churches of Christ. Was this MY vision fourteen years ago! No, it was not. Was this God’s vision fourteen years ago! YES, I now believe it was! Cleopas and his friend said, “We had hoped”. Time after time, deep in my heart, came those same words, “We had hoped” Our feelings of disillusionment have been changing! But it has taken a few years. My brain knows the theology of all this. My Sovereign Lord is always, and in everything, working out His purposes. It is His glory. It is His way. It is sometimes mysterious, but it is always right. Sovereign God even uses the devil to accomplish His purpose. On the Emmaus road, the two men were shattered by the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. They could not see what God was doing. Only when Jesus, the unknown stranger, opened the Scripture to them, and they were ready to invite Jesus into their lives, their home, their meal table, were their spiritual eyes opened. It was God who brought about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, after the necessary time in the grave had elapsed. My mind knows all this, on a good day. Yes, God can and will bring about far greater good than we can imagine. But my feelings, however, are often so different from my mind. Ten years on from leaving Khartoum, seven years on from losing my voice box, my feelings are sometimes still as raw as if these were yesterday. Grieving over loss is a God-‐given process and tears are often a safety valve. Remember Joseph and his brothers in the Genesis account. · What if?
· Did I make mistakes?
· Could I have changed things?
· What do friends and family think?
Let me take you to an earlier phrase, in Luke 24:15. “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them”.
In our troubled feelings, honest questions, sincere doubts, in our tears, our pain, our hurt emotions, our aching hearts, let us remember this. Jesus is walking with us. He was “expelled” from our ministries with us. He was rejected with us. He is now at “home” with us (a new home for some expelled from Khartoum, yet not unexpected by God).
I also notice in Luke 24:31, when the two men’s eyes were eventually spiritually opened they only had one brief glimpse of Jesus. After that glimpse, they could not physically see Jesus any more. This is something of a dichotomy. God had kept them from seeing, verse 16. Now God opened their eyes, verse 31. Apart from those few seconds, they would have loved to look at him for a few hours, at least! But they had just that one brief glimpse. Maybe that is all we will get.
Now look at the results of Jesus’ death.
Which outcome was better? The disciples’ expectation of a physical kingdom on earth, with Jesus as king, or God’s plan for the risen Christ, building his eternal church from every tongue and tribe, people and nation?
Which was better? The disciples’ plan or God’s plan?
We must let God be God. It may not seem like it, but He is still in charge, and he has the better plan!
In all our inner doubts and turmoil we all know that the most important thing any of us can do is seek to enjoy Jesus in our walk together with Him. Let us hear his voice, as he said to Peter washing his feet in the Upper Room, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but later you will understand”, John 13:7.
He walks with us through our confusing valley of darkness.
His unfailing arms are around us, holding us close to him, because we are so very precious to Him. Even in our tears, we still do need to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:4-‐5. Pray with Him. Read with Him. Listen to Him. Wait on Him. Delight yourself in Him.
Those unfulfilled visions that “we had hoped” will be brought into the right perspective, when we see them along with our Master, Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the one seated in the place of authority at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
For Brenda and me, we had our great vision, but God has been bringing about an even greater one! All praise to Him. Jesus asks us to trust Him, always and in all things, that He knows what He is doing. I’m not saying this is easy. I know from experience that it is not! Trusting Him through this is probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Sometimes it means saying, “Lord I believe a little bit. But, please, help my unbelief.”