Another Great Forty Days
A surprise visit while going to Emmaus
The number 40 shows up often in the Bible. Because 40 appears so often in contexts dealing with judgment or testing, many scholars understand it to be the number of “probation” or “trial.” This doesn’t mean that 40 is entirely symbolic; it still has a literal meaning in Scripture. “Forty days” means “forty days,” "forty years means forty years" but it does seem that God has chosen this number to help emphasize times of trouble and hardship. From Jesus to the children of Israel in the Wilderness, the number forty shows that testing and trials are often associated with this number ... and if you have never been through a time of testing, of trial, of struggle in your walk with the Lord ... well, I'd be very surprised. As we read the Scriptures and read of all the great men and women of faith, we learn that a faith that is not tested cannot be trusted.
In 2 Cor 4:8-12 Paul describes the Christian life in this way:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
In the Scriptures, those times of being hard pressed are often linked to the number 40. In the Old Testament, when God destroyed the earth with water, He caused it to rain 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). After Moses killed the Egyptian, he fled to Midian, where he spent 40 years in the desert tending flocks (Acts 7:30). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf for 40 days and 40 nights (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25). The Law specified a maximum number of lashes a man could receive for a crime, setting the limit at 40 (Deuteronomy 25:3). The Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13:25). The Israelites wandered for 40 years (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Before Samson’s deliverance, Israel served the Philistines for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17:16). When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). and . The prophet Jonah powerfully warned ancient Nineveh, for forty days, that its destruction would come because of its many sins (Jonah 3:4). The prophet Ezekiel laid on His right side for 40 days to symbolize Judah's sins (Ezekiel 4:6).
In the New Testament, Jesus was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2). And, back to where we find ourselves now in the Christian calendar: there were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3).
Last week I reminded you of the central truth of our faith ... our primary proclamation ... our good news. And what is our good news: It is that a man who was well and truly dead and buried was raised to life on the third day ... and He is alive in 2018 ... and he is here now ... and he calls to you now ... and He says: "Follow Me." He especially calls to you in your times of "40 days" or "40 years" ... He calls to you in your times of trial ... of testing ... of being "hard pressed" ... He calls to you and to me in all the deaths that we suffer and that we live through ... that we are living through ... and tries to remind us again and again that Easter happened and that Easter matters ... every day. Did you here that? ... "Easter matters every day." Why does Easter matter every day ... well, because we suffer "little" deaths every day.
How or where have you died this week? ... that gossip about yourself that you overheard, or that someone "kindly" told you; that email that was like a knife turning into you; that doctor's letter with the diagnosis you've been dreading; that person who used to be so friendly but now doesn't have the time of day for you; that job that held so much promise, but you realise it's just not going to work out; all these "little" deaths and so many more ... how have you died recently.
Those two men walking to Emmaus, "their faces downcast" and who had "hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" ... they have suffered a "death" in the last week ... more than the death of a person, they'd suffered the death of hope itself, the death of a future they'd begun to look forward to ... too many of us sitting here know just what they were going through, don't we? ... the little deaths and the not so little deaths that we go through ... and someone draws up next to them (and hopefully that same someone is drawing up to you right now) ... and says "Easter matters!"
Easter matters because if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, if Jesus is still dead then He can’t help and ... we need His help. We desperately need His help… because we’re all dying. In big ways and little ways, but dying just the same. That’s why all of love the ending of Romans 7 ... What a wretched person I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Is there anyone who can help us? Right here? Right now? That's the question that was really on the minds of those two men on the road to Emmaus ... and there answer was "No, there isn't anyone who can help us right here, right now!" What's your answer in your struggles, your trials, your particular "40 days" ... is there hope ... is there someone who can help ... or like those two men, do you think it's all lost ... too late for anything or anyone to make a difference?
Here me again: "Easter matters!"
It’s not just Easter ... It’s every day. Someone spoke these words into my life recently. He said: "One of the things I love about being the pastor of a local church is that you get close to people’s lives. The one thing I hate about being the pastor of a local church is that you get into people’s lives."
And I realised how true that is. In my ministry there have been and still are a lot of days I walk around wishing I didn’t know what I know. Someone who discipled me in my early ministry, an Irish preacher, George Irvine, used to tell me to preach “as a dying person to dying people.” I don't think he was the originator of that advice, but be that as it may be, it would be several years until I fully understood the truth of that statement.
All of my people are dying…some in big ways. You’ve been to the doctor during the week and been told there’s nothing more the doctor can do. You’ve buried a husband or a wife recently. You’re struggling with the hardest questions of life. Does living mean anything? Is death the final word?
What does Easter mean to such people?
Some of my people are dying or have died in little ways. A marriage is past fixing. How many families have been through this ... and, despite all of their efforts, the couple can’t find love again. Something very precious is slipping away or has slipped away and died. Who can help? What’s left to say?
An addict starting using again. He knows his habit is killing him, but he can’t find the strength to get free. Can Jesus still defeat death? Even when death is in the bottle by your bed?
A child doesn't get into uni. Now what? All of the dreams, all of the promises of the future are now in the rubbish bin with the last rejection letter. What’s left? Get a job and work until you die?
Can Jesus defeat death when it kills you one dream at a time?
Last Sunday and this Sunday and the next few Sundays during this series Another Great Forty Days, I and Richard and Nick will stand in the pulpit and read familiar passages of the disciples being surprised by the resurrection of Jesus. We once again hear the story of despair giving way to hope, of death being buried by life. I will tell you and have told you and won't stop telling you that Jesus was raised from the dead and that He’s alive now!
Yes, that means nothing can separate us from Him or His love for us. It means when we die, He’ll bring us to be with Him. He won’t allow death to have the last word in our lives.
But it means more: He won’t allow death to have the final word in any of our days. Christ has defeated death – the final and ultimate destroyer of our lives and meaning - Christ has defeated death and Christ has defeated all of the little deaths we experience in the days until He returns. We are not left helpless or hopeless or ... worse off.
The broken people that broken marriages leave behind can be healed.
Addicts can be set free.
Depression need never be the final word.
Dreams can be put back together into better dreams, dreams we would have wanted if we had known they were even possible.
Easter matters and has made and continues to make, a huge difference in many, many lives and many, many situations.
Easter matters, not just on Easter Sunday, but every day. In fact, you can’t live on Monday or Tuesday or any other day of the week if you don’t believe Death has ultimately been conquered and all of the little deaths in between.
The man Jesus, who was dead and buried ... is alive. And that makes all of the difference. He surprised those men on the road to Emmaus ... He will yet surprise you ... He will.