• View Sermon Transcript

    Download sermon transcript icon Download .pdf

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the concept of a “black swan” event in his 2007 book of the same name. The expression dates back to classical times to describe something that—at least to Europeans—was considered as rare as a black swan. (Apparently, Australians don’t consider them to be rare at all because—well—that’s where black swans are from.) But the basic idea is that improbable events can have massive consequences. Black swan events by definition are impossible to predict given their extreme  rarity, but often seem obvious and perhaps even inevitable in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20. 

    We are, of course, living through such a black swan event right now. Despite the fact that people like Bill Gates warned several years ago that the world was unprepared for a killer virus that could quickly spread around the globe, the coronavirus has caught us off guard. We continue to be stunned by the way this little microbe has overwhelmed our hospitals, shut down the world economy, and completely altered our way of life. We feel like we should have seen it coming, and now it is causing us to rethink everything. Will testing, drug treatments, and vaccines come in time or will we have to suffer through a second wave of the virus? Will we experience a V, a U, or an L-shaped recovery? What aspects of life will be permanently altered even after this is all over? And when will the monotony of staying at home ever end? Even the introverts are starting to feel a little lonely.

    We usually regard black swans as negative events, but our scripture reading today presents us with a black swan event that is entirely positive—the resurrection of Jesus. This is the ultimate in terms of an improbable event leading to massive consequences. If we had paid attention to the signs, we might have seen it coming, but now it causes us to rethink everything we know. So let’s take a closer look. Let’s consider the improbable event, the missed signs, and the necessary rethinking.

    First, there is the improbable event. We tend to think that ancient people were perhaps more credulous than we are. But first—century people knew just as well as we do that when someone dies, they stay dead. No one from either a Jewish background or a Greco—Roman background was expecting anything like this. 

    Some Jews might have believed in a general resurrection of all God’s people together at the end of human history when God would eradicate all evil and suffering and usher in a new world. But none of them were anticipating the resurrection of one single individual while the world continues to spin as it always has.

    Some Greeks might have believed in a shadowy existence beyond the grave, but they thought of salvation in terms of the soul being liberated from the body. To come back to life in a physical body would have been considered a punishment not a blessing. 

    The point is—absolutely no one would have expected anything like the bodily resurrection of a single individual in the middle of time—no matter how much they missed Jesus or how depressed or hopeful they felt after his death. This just was not part of their mental maps.

    Ancient people understood as well as we do that—somethings simply never happen—well, until they do. That’s what we are discovering right now. And when the improbable happens, the onus is on us to weigh the testimony of those who were there and to consider what they saw with their own eyes. 

    That’s why the gospels record the testimony of at least 10 different appearances of the risen Jesus to different people, in different locations, and in different states of mind. 

    Here we are presented with one such occurrence which took place later on the same day that Jesus was raised from the dead. Two followers of Jesus are walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus located seven miles away. While they are walking and talking to each other, Jesus draws near, but they do not recognize him. This apparently was typical. Jesus bore the scars of his torture and execution, but there was also something different about his resurrected body that kept people from recognizing him right away.

    Jesus approaches and asks the two men what they are discussing with one another. They are surprised that this stranger hasn’t heard the shocking news of what happened over the course of the weekend. Their first reaction is to stop dead in their tracks. They stand still with a look of pained sadness on their faces. Then one Cleaopas explains that they had hoped Jesus of Nazareth was the one promised in the Scriptures who would rescue Israel, but it was not to be. Their hopes had been dashed as Jesus was handed over to the authorities who condemned him to death and crucified him. As anybody can tell you, a  dead messiah is a failed messiah. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was supposed to defeat their enemies, not get killed by them. 

    Now, these two men had heard the strange rumors from some of the women who had visited Jesus’ tomb earlier that morning and who reported that Jesus was not dead, but alive. But many of the disciples dismissed this news as nothing more than an idle tale. They acknowledge that some of the disciples went and inspected the tomb for themselves, but they did not see Jesus. As a result, these two are overwhelmed with sadness. Their hope had turned into despair. And we can probably relate to the feeling. Many of us now feel like our whole world has been turned upside down.

    The question is: How does Jesus respond to their despondency? He doesn’t try to soothe and comfort them by telling them not to worry—there’s always next year. No, he asks them: Hey guys, Where have you been? Why are you so foolish and slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken? The signs were all there. If you had paid attention to the signs, then you would have seen this coming. But they missed the signs!

    So what does Jesus do? He gives these two disciples a little bible lesson while they are on the road. Verse 27 reads: And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. That expression—“Moses and all the prophets”—was a common shorthand way of referring to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures or what we know as the Old Testament. Jesus is saying that all of the Scriptures were ultimately pointing forward to him—and specifically to his death and resurrection. 

    Wouldn’t we love to know what Jesus said during that 7-mile walk to Emmaus as he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself? Consider the possibilities. Maybe Jesus reminded them of some of these clues. 

    God promised Adam that there would be conflict between the offspring of the first woman and that ancient serpent who led the world astray. But one day there would come a man who would crush the serpent’s head —though his own heel would be wounded in the process. 

    God promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Even if Abraham’s family broke God’s covenant and proved unfaithful, God himself—not Abraham—would bear the consequences and be torn to pieces so that God’s love for them would remain unbroken. 

    God promised Moses that one day God would raise up a prophet like Moses who would rescue God’s people from their ultimate bondage—not bondage to the Egyptians, but to sin, evil, and death itself.

    God promised David that his throne would be established forever and one of his descendants would rule over a kingdom that would never end.

    God promised Isaiah that he would chose a Servant in whom his soul would delight who would suffer in the place of his people so that by his wounds they might be healed. 

    God promised Daniel that one like a Son of Man would be vindicated after a period of distress and suffering and receive an everlasting dominion and a kingdom that would never be destroyed.

    You see, all the signs were there. But even Jesus’ own followers read them the wrong way. They thought the signs all pointed to a great victory that ruled out the possibility of suffering and death. Therefore, the cross at first seemed to cancel rather than confirm the hope that Jesus was the one to rescue Israel. It’s only now, in light of the resurrection, that they can see that the back story of Israel was always pointing in the right direction. The resurrection forces us to look at the cross from a different angle, and only now does it become clear that it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer before entering into his glory. 

    In other words, Jesus is telling us we need to rethink everything in light of the resurrection. That’s when things finally begin to make sense.

    My friend, NT Wright, is a retired Anglican bishop and a world-renowned scholar. In 2018, Professor Wright was invited to give the Gifford Lectures which is perhaps one of the highest honors that an academic like himself could ever receive. 

    In his Gifford Lectures, Professor Wright made an analogy between the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus and our own today when it comes to the question of who God really is. Here is the analogy. The history of Israel was filled with signs pointing forward to a promised future—yet all those signs led devout and sincere people to reach a conclusion about how the story would end that the cross then seemed to cancel out…In a similar way, the world in general and human life in particular is full of signs that seem to be pointing to some kind of deeper meaning. None of these signs will lead the unaided mind straight to the God who is the Father of the crucified and risen Jesus. Just as Jesus had to reinterpret the signs for the two disciples on the road, so we have to rethink everything in light of the resurrection. As we do, we too may be led “to the shocking conclusion that the place above all where the true and living God is revealed is actually in the event which appeared to destroy hope and falsify the story.”

    Our world is filled with signs that seem to be pointing to some kind of deeper meaning. What might some of those signs be? I’ll give you a couple of examples. Take justice. We have a sense that there really is a way things should be, and we dream of a world where things work out the way they should, where societies function with fairness and equity, and where we not only know what we ought to do—but we actually do it. And yet despite all our attempts to fix the injustices we see all around us, we just can’t seem to do it. Sometimes it works out, but often times it doesn’t—and justice slips through our fingers. This longing for justice and virtue seems paradoxical.

    Or take love. We know that love is the most powerful force in the world and love is what makes life worth living. We live for love and sometimes we’re even willing to die for it. We agree with the bible: love is stronger than death. It’s the most precious thing we have, and yet for all that, we still find it so hard to make our relationships work—even with those we care for the most. And then there’s the added confusion introduced by some in our world today who tell us that love is nothing more than a chemical reaction in our brains, encoded in our DNA over the long millions of years simply to ensure the survival of our genes. Have we fooled ourselves into thinking that love is real?

    Justice, love, beauty, truth, freedom…These are the signs pointing to some kind of deeper meaning. And yet the signs seem broken. We know they are important, but we do not seem to be able to grasp them the way that we feel we should. 

    But like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, if we rethink everything in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, perhaps things will start to fall in place and make a lot more sense.

    Let me tell you a story of a man who did that kind of rethinking.

    Paul Kalanithi was raised in Arizona, the son of immigrants from India, who nurtured within him a deep love for literature as well biology. He pursued both interests as an undergrad at Stanford where he says: “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.” In time, Kalanithi would become not only a doctor, but a neurosurgeon because this was the place where his two passions came together: “I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.”

    After completing medical school at Yale, Kalanithi returned to Stanford for his residency and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience where he quickly gained a reputation for being not only a brilliant surgeon but a deeply compassionate doctor who felt it his responsibility to not only inform but guide his patients through potentially life—altering decisions for themselves and their loved ones.

    One day during the final year of his training, he flipped through a set of CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. Over the years he had examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different—because this was his own. At the age of only 36, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Now after 10 years of training, when he was on the cusp of a break—out career, the future that he had imagined for himself quickly evaporated.   

    Before his diagnosis, he knew that he would die, but he didn’t know when. After his diagnosis, he knew that he would die, but he didn’t know when. But now he knew it actutely. The problem wasn’t a scientific one. It was something else. What makes life meaningful in the face of death? If he had 10 years, he would return to neurosurgery. If he had 1 year, he would write a book. If he had 3 months he would spend time with family.

    During a brief respite from the cancer, Kalanithi and his wife Lucy were able to have a child together, and he even returned to surgery for a brief period of time but eventually the cancer came back.

    During the final months that Kalanithi had left, he turned to his literary gifts and took up the pen rather than the scalpel to write a beautifully written and moving memoir entitled When Breath Becomes Air. In it, he describes the last time he scrubbed in for a surgery, and then hung up his white coat and took off his ID badge for good. He includes some of the final words he wrote to his infant daughter whom he will never see grow up. He seeks to nurture a new life even as his own fades. Through his writing Kalanithi reminds us that the dying are often the ones who have the most to teach us about how to live.

    Kalanithi had always wrestled with the questions of life, death, and meaning, but now the search became deeply personal and eventually it led him back to Christianity. This is how he describes it. He writes: 

    [I came] “back around to Christianity after a long stretch, following college, when my notion of God and Jesus had grown, to put it gently, tenuous. During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds…There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God…I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes…The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning…If you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any…Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, virtue….I returned to the central values of Christianity—sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness—because I found them so compelling.”

    Do you hear what Kalanithi is saying? This was a committed man of science who received neurological surgery’s highest award for research. But for all his love of science, he recognized its limitations. Science cannot tell us anything about the most central aspects of human life. So what did he do? He did the necessary rethinking. He reinterpreted the signs of love, beauty, honor, weakness, striving and virtue in light of the death and resurrection and it led him back to Jesus.

    In this time of crisis, when we too may wonder what makes life meaningful in the face of death, I would encourage you to consider the improbable event of the resurrection of Jesus. Take another look at the missed signs. And do the necessary rethinking. You may just find everything makes a lot more sense in light of Jesus.

    The Oxford professor C.S. Lewis once wrote a short story about a man born blind who undergoes an operation to restore his sight. All of his life, this man has lived in darkness and has heard people talk about “light.” So he expects that when they remove the bandages from his eyes, he will be able to see this thing called “light.” He becomes increasingly frustrated because he does not realize that light is not necessarily something we see, but something that makes all seeing possible.

    Speaking for himself, C.S. Lewis would later say: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

    Will you please pray with me? 

    Father, we recognize that the bodily resurrection of Jesus strikes us as the most improbable event. And yet however strange and unexpected, it is the only key that fits the lock of our troubled lives. Help us to consider all the signs we may have missed and rethink our conclusions. Help us to see that our longing for justice, for beauty, for love can only be fully and finally resolved in Jesus. Help us to deepen our trust in him so that we might see everything else in his light. Amen.