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The Incognito Christ

Sometimes Jesus shows up when we least expect it.


April 12, 2007: A 39-year-old man stationed himself next to a trash bin at the L'Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, D.C. He had on a sweatshirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He was a busker—a street entertainer familiar to those who frequent public transportation. He opened a violin case and seeded it with some change. He started to play. He did not play just anything; he started with a Bach that is one of the most challenging pieces for violin. And he was not playing just any violin: He was playing a 1713 violin handcrafted by Stradivari, so famous it had been stolen twice.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest today. He was an accomplice with The Washington Post newspaper and willingly participated in an experiment: Would the greatest violinist in the world, playing the best music ever written on the most expensive violin, get anybody's attention at rush hour? He looked like a common street entertainer, standing by a trash barrel. What happened?

It was 3 minutes into his performance, and after 63 people had rushed by, that one man finally slowed down and looked—but did not stop. It was six minutes into it before one man stopped, leaned against a wall, and listened. In total, 1,070 people rushed by without giving any attention at all for 15 minutes. Twenty-seven people threw change in as they were running by, for a total of $32. Josh Bell usually makes $1,000 per minute at concerts.

The resulting newspaper article won a Pulitzer Prize. One line of print leaps out to me: "He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts."

Something about incognito stories grabs your attention: greatness unnoticed, talent ignored, fame overlooked. The first Easter Sunday evening has the greatest of all incognito stories.

Two disciples (from the margins of the disciples) are walking from Jerusalem to a village seven miles away. They are on the road with others, going home after Passover in Jerusalem. Dusk darkens the dirt. The mood of the walk is glum. Have you ever left an old friend for the last time at the hospital and walked through the cold rain toward darkness? It was that mood. Have you ever left a cemetery after laying someone to rest and walked into the lowering sun? It was that mood.

They were talking back and forth, batting words to one another. I think it was with low, hushed voices. Maybe it was intense. I think they were finishing one another's sentences like distracted people sometimes do:

"I thought he was the one, the prophet, but—"

"I know. You cannot kill our Messiah. He came to reign …"

A stranger overtakes them, someone else going home after Passover. There are footfalls behind them, the sense that someone is gaining on you. The stranger strides alongside them. On a dark road, a stranger needs to say something when he surprises you from behind. He asks them what they are talking about; they ask him if he is the only stranger in Jerusalem. The word suggests a resident alien who just showed up. It is a gentle reproof: a half-joke, with the other half a rebuke, like folks do when they are disappointed and tense. "What planet did you come from?" they're saying. "We are talking about what everybody is talking about."

Luke lets you in on the plot. This is more than Joshua Bell in the subway station. You know it, but the other people in the story do not know it. You are in on the joke. This is the Son of God, crucified on Friday, raised from the dead that morning, who has already been to the glory and is now on a dirt road at dusk.

Jesus shows up when you least expect it

In the King James Version, Luke opens this story with one of his favorite words: "Behold." An angel shouted at the beginning of this gospel, "[B]ehold, I bring you good tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10, KJV). Shocked shepherds left their sheep to the wolves and jumped over stone fences to get to a barn and see the Son of God in cow stable. Behold. Now, at the end, Luke wants you to hear that shout again. It is as if Luke writes, "If you think the angel choir singing to sheep was something, look at this: Here is the risen Son of God on a dirt road in the dark."

One of these disciples on the road has a name, Cleopas. It is the male form of the female name "Cleopatra," like how Joseph is the masculine equivalent of "Josephine." The other one does not have a name; the other disciple is anonymous. Some older scholars think it was Cleopas' wife, a sort of a first Christian family. We do not know. I think the second is nameless so you can put your name there. I can put my name there.

In an art museum in Florence, Italy, there are rooms of priceless masterpieces from the Renaissance. When you come to the exit, you find a surprise. At the end of all the masterpieces, there is an empty frame at the end of the wall. You can walk behind the wall and put your face in the frame. This nameless disciple is an empty frame. You can put your face into this story.

The New Testament has these intriguing supporting characters, and I for one am glad. I cannot identify with Peter, Paul, or James, the towering marquee stars. They stand in stone in the huge statues in cathedrals. I cannot be them. They loom over me and belong to the ages. But I can identify with some guy named Cleo and his unnamed buddy on a road, walking into disappointment. It encourages me that Jesus made his first recorded personal appearance in Luke after his resurrection not to the leading characters, but to two supporting characters: one of whom we do not know.

Thanks be to God that Jesus does not just show up for Peter, John, or Matthew; he shows up for some regular folks walking home in the dark of disappointment. He is the Lord today who does not only show up for the theologian, the archbishop, at the university, at the palace, or at the cathedral. He is the Lord who is in that little room you inhabit, that walk-up apartment, that windowless back room where you toil all day. He is there.

Have you ever been talking about somebody and suddenly they walk up behind you, and you did not even know that person was there? Maybe a friend in front of you, who was looking behind you, started signaling to you to shut up. The very person you are talking about is right there. An arresting fact about Jesus is this: You cannot talk about him behind his back. He is the Lord who walks up in every conversation. How my own conversations would be so different every day if I could only remember that the incognito Christ is always walking up from behind in every conversation.

Come close for a moment if you are unbeliever, a doubter. Do you not have a sense in your life that somebody is there? Probably not in the throngs on the sidewalks and in the subways—the noise and the press of people distract you. But when you are quiet, still, alone, in the twilight before sleep, in the startled awakening in the midst of the night—do you never have a sense that somebody is there? I think you do. And yet …

You do not know him when he appears right there beside you

"[T]hey were kept from recognizing him" (Luke 24:16). Something or someone grasped their vision; their eyes were held and their vision was dulled. Some think they were simply preoccupied. Darkness was falling, hearts were heavy, and the mood was glum. They were preoccupied. I can understand that. They were even preoccupied talking about religion; there is a difference between talking about religion and knowing the Christ right beside you. It is the difference between discussing electrical theory and sticking your finger into a light socket.

Some think this passive tense verb suggests divine activity: God held their eyes, like that morning when, according to John, the risen Son of God appeared to Mary and she thought he was only the gardener. Indeed he is; he planted every mighty redwood that ever grew, every towering oak that ever reached to heaven, and every flower so small it holds thoughts too deep for human tears. But she did not recognize him. Just a few days later, we read of seven disciples absent without leave, going fishing on the Sea of Galilee. A stranger appears in the fish camp on the shore. They do not recognize the risen Son of God until his power gathers a congregation of fish.

We live with the reality of this very moment. Inside this church are hundreds of you for whom, even though you do not see him, he is for you more real than any other. Right there beside you is someone else who sees nothing about Jesus today. While I am preaching, they are considering their Sunday lunch. Their eyes are held. Just outside the wall are those whose eyes are held. Just beyond that thin brick veneer, people are walking by on that sidewalk whose eyes are held. In that sense, this whole world seems to be on the road to Emmaus.

What a mystery it is. Go to Oxford, for example. On the one hand, there is an Alister McGrath with three doctorates from Oxford: in molecular biophysics, theology, and intellectual history. He sees Jesus Christ. His eyes are not held. He is one of the great defenders of the faith. At the same university is an emeritus fellow, Richard Dawkins, who is world famous because he sees no Christ. He sees a vacant heaven. Why does McGrath see and Dawkins does not? That is the mystery beside you in here, out there on that street, and in the university. "Their eyes were held."

There is a mystery about it. Jesus told an old religious professional, Nicodemus, "[N]o one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again" (John 3:3). Paul prayed for the Ephesians in what is today western Turkey, "that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people" (Eph. 1:18). Would someone here today pray to God at this very moment, "Open the eyes of my heart that I may see the very Christ who is here"?

Jesus gives you every opportunity to open up to him

"What things?" (Luke 24:19)

Here he is indeed the great physician, the master psychologist, the tender shepherd. These men carry a confusion and deal with a disappointment. He gives them the opportunity to tell him about the very things he has just experienced, as if he did not know it. This is as if Chopin would ask a five-year-old how to play a chord on the piano or Michelangelo ask a beginner to show him how to paint. By every right, Jesus could have been indignant, super-sensitive, overbearing, patronizing. He is one who has been denied, betrayed, flogged, mocked, stripped naked, humiliated—but he lets them tell him what they thought about what he had just experienced. "What sort of things?" he asks.

These depressed disciples open up like a flood. They tell him his own name, where he came from, what he was, what they thought he would do, the strange events around his empty tomb—they tell him, and he listens with such patience.

This is a humility beyond humility. Here is the risen Son of God, prince of heaven, keeper of the cosmos, lord of galaxies, and sustainer of the universe. And where is he? Letting ignorant, disappointed disciples on a dark road on the way to tiny town tell him what happened to him!

As the hymn goes:

Jesus knows all about our struggles,
He will guide till the day is done;
There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus,
No, not one! No, not one!
"No friend like him is so high and holy,
No, not one! No, not one!
And yet no friend is so meek and lowly,
No, not one! No, not one!

How many times has he given you an opening? Burdened, depressed, betrayed, forgotten, alone, disappointed, sick, isolated—"what things?"

You can tell Jesus how life has disappointed you

He wants you to do so.

"[W]e had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). Oh, the pathos in those words. They remind me of Phillips Brooks' Christmas carol: "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." These two marginal disciples emphatically, personally, continually raised their hopes that this One was the One who would pay the price to redeem the nation of Israel. They were an occupied country. Every road and every intersection witnessed a Roman legionnaire. That had crashed every hope in the history of their people. A descendant of royal David was supposed to be ruling in Jerusalem, and the nations were supposed to be coming to them. Their identity was totally invested in an imaginary Jesus of Nazareth who would do what they wanted him to do.

How many times have your hopes been riveted to someone who did not work out? Some of us are relationship junkies. Every time we meet someone, he is Mr. Right, and then we find out he is not even Mr. Half-Right. You meet your dream boat, and she turns out to be the Titanic. But you move from person to person to meet your needs—just like these two, you had hoped that one was the one. Or you fasten all of your hope to being accepted at a university, earning a credential, or getting a promotion and once you have it, you are still empty—just like these two, you had hoped that this was the one.

God has so designed life that everything short of Jesus will have the dimness of disappointment, the odor of decay, the texture of the travesty, and the feel of the fleeting. C.S. Lewis warned about the tyranny of the "false absolute." When you give to anyone or anything the place that belongs to God, you will spend a lifetime saying with disappointment what these two said: "We had hoped that he was the one."

Life is always one half-step away from disappointment. If I go to a musical instrument and play a C and an E and a G, it is a bright, sunny major chord. But if I changed the E to an E-flat, it becomes a sad, somber, dolorous chord. Life is always one half-step away from some disappointment.

One of the silliest little Christian choruses is this: "Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before." No! Ask Paul when he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra if that was sweeter than the day before. Ask Paul when he was beaten in Philippi if that was sweeter than a before.

Yet, you can tell Jesus all about that. Hebrews 4:15 exclaims, "[W]e do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses." When hope is gone, you need someone above: a Savior. And he comes right down here on your path and walks beside you and listens to your broken dreams and lost hopes, and he heals them. You need someone who holds your hope.

In mountain climbing the world over, climbers tether to one another because the hope is that one above them has hammered a piton into the stone or screwed one into the ice above. Climbers use wedges and hexes and cams jammed into the mountainside so that when they are roped to one another, somebody up there has a grip—somebody up there has an anchor into the rock. In 1953, a team was trying to climb K2: the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest. Something went wrong, and five of the climbers were pulled off the face of K2, ripped away by the weight of those falling beneath them. Yet one climber, Pete Schoening, had used an ice axe to set and hold a line. While his five friends dangled in thin air, he had set an anchor in a rock that held. Those five owed their lives to someone above who was an anchor.

One somebody here today came in these doors thinking of somebody, some position, some promotion, or some situation, saying sadly, "I thought that was the one." And it was as empty as anything else. There is only one who holds the hope. He is anchored above you in the heavens. He is the cosmic Christ. He broke the chain of death against the marble wall of the sepulcher and walked out holding the keys to death, hell, and the grave. Even though you cannot see him now, you can pull on the rope, every day, and know that someone above anchors you.

Jesus can open your eyes to who he is, not who you think he is

"Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:26)

In reading that great theological commentary, Facebook, I am amazed at who folks think Jesus is. For some, he is the liberal Jesus who sponsors every secular agenda there is out there. For others, he is the conservative Jesus who endorses the status quo. For still others, he is the prosperity Jesus who wants them to have a jet. I am astonished at how many invented versions of Jesus there are.

These two on the road had invented a Jesus: a military messiah who would give the Jews political freedom. He would have a throne without suffering, a crown without a cross, a government without humiliation, power without pain. He was an invented Jesus. That is why this stranger rebukes them: "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25). That must have taken their breath away: Who is this pilgrim on the road to tell us we are mindless and stupid? That is what his words mean.

Give me one minute to give you the key to understanding this conversation. Here is the combination to the lock. Here is the password to the webpage. In all of Hebrew history, there is not one—not even one—rabbi or biblical interpreter who interpreted Genesis through Malachi and found a suffering Messiah. Not one Jewish interpreter ever found a messiah who would suffer. A throne—yes. An army—yes. Humiliation, a cross, a tomb—no.

Jesus opens the door to tell them: "Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:26) The thorn room is the way to the throne room. The cross is the way to the crown. None of us want that. Few of us believe that. They did not want it, and we do not want it. They had not even seen the wounded healer in Isaiah 53:5: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, / he was crushed for our iniquities; / the punishment that brought us peace was on him, / and by his wounds we are healed."

On that road, suddenly, they saw it, and their hearts burned. For the first time, two Jews on a lonely road in the dark saw, and their hearts burned. He came to suffer for us.

Have you looked at that optical illusion, the two chalices? You look and look, and you see two chalices side by side. Then someone says, "Look again, and there are two faces looking at one another." And suddenly you see it. For these two disciples, it was a moment like that. They saw it. This coming somebody has to be wounded before he can heal, suffer before he can save, go through the thorn room before the throne room. He must be the disfigured Christ before he can be the delivering Christ.

A surgeon, Richard Selzer, has written of moments from his surgical practice:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, somewhat clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, had been severed. She will be this way from now on.
I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, the moment is a private one.
Who are they, I ask myself? He and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so generously, so lovingly. The young woman speaks.
"Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks.
"Yes," I say, "it will. It is because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.
"I like it," he says, "It's kind of cute."
All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God moment. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.

Here is what the two on the road did not expect. No one expected it: that God himself would come down to us and twist himself because we are twisted, distort himself because we are distorted, disfigure himself because we are disfigured.

"And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). As they walked into the dusk, the unknown, incognito stranger suddenly confronted them. He called them "foolish" and "slow." Who is this man to tell these fellow pilgrims that? Then the stranger began with Genesis and took them on a thorough exposition of the Old Testament, from Genesis to the end, in all the Prophets. Jesus told them about Jesus, from the Scriptures about Jesus.

There is an interesting word in the language of the New Testament. He gave them a thorough hermeneutic. That is a technical word, a precise word, a vivid word. Your hermeneutic is the rule you use to interpret anything. For sake of a metaphor, your hermeneutic is the lens you look through when interpreting anything. You use a hermeneutic every day, even though you do not know the word. At the grocery store, when you read a label, you are using a grocery store hermeneutic. When you read the sports pages, you use a sports hermeneutic. You bring a different lens to both. Jesus gave the two on the road a new lens to read the Old Testament: a Jesus lens. Ever since that day, Christ-followers have looked at the Old Testament with a Jesus lens. It is like going to a 3-D movie; when you put on the glasses, everything changes.

Let me give you the example that Jesus gave to Nicodemus in John 3:14. Jesus gave Nicodemus some Jesus glasses with which to read the Old Testament. He pointed Nicodemus to the dullest book in the Old Testament, Numbers. Buried in Numbers 21 is a picture of Jesus. The Hebrews started complaining about their diet of manna. They were sick and tired of manna. God gave them food in the desert, but they were sick of it. So God let fiery, poisonous snakes infest their camp—carpet vipers, still in the Middle East. The Hebrews were dying of snake bites. They repented. That snake up on a pole in the middle of the camp? Everyone who looks at that snake will be healed.

That is why you find that snake next door to the most famous verse in the all of the Bible, John 3:16. The snake was innocent. The snake had done nothing. The snake had no poison in it at all. All they had to do was look. They did not have to walk, run, or even sit up. If they would just look, they would live. Put on your Jesus glasses, and that dull book comes to light. Like the snake, the Savior was lifted up. Like the snake, the Savior had nothing wrong in him. Like the snake bit the Hebrews, all you have to do is look and you will live.

When Jesus is that close, you need to ask him to stay

"Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, 'Stay with us'" (Luke 24:28-29).

While he talked, their hearts began to burn within them. They wanted more of this stranger. Yet he was going to go on down the road, past the village, and into the night. They strongly urged him to stay with them. It was late. They all needed to eat. Could he not stay? He relented and consented to stay and eat with them. But he would have gone on if they had not asked him to stay. This was no play acting or pretending. He was going to go on, until they constrained him to stay.

He walked with them, let them open up to him, heard their disappointment, and instructed them. But then he was going to go on unless they made the next step.

Dare I say it? That is the same right here. Through the word of the gospel, he has drawn near to one somebody in this throng of people. Something in you has opened; there is a sliver of hope; you have told him your heartache, and he has instructed you from this Scripture. It may be that your heart burns. But the next move is yours.

He will draw you, but he does not drive you or drag you to himself. Just as the spring warmth draws the daffodils and the crocuses from the ground, he draws just as the spring warmth brings the sap from the roots of the trees in the park. He will draw you, but he will not drag you. He will not force you, over-persuade you, or coerce you. Just as the gentle pull of the moon's gravity raises the tides every 12 hours, so he will draw you but not drive you. He is the risen Son of God. If he acted on you with coercion and force, it would crush you. These two had to take the next step.

He was going on because he had somewhere else to go. If they did not want him, then 3,000 Jews at Pentecost wanted him. If they did not, a village of Samaritans wanted him. If they did not, an Ethiopian on the road wanted him. If they did not, Lois and Eunice and Timothy and Lydia and a jailer at Philippi wanted him. If the Old World did not want him, the New World wanted him. And if the UK and the USA no longer want him, millions in Nigeria and Kenya and Ghana and Sierra Leone want him. You will not thwart him. He will go on to the millions who do want him.


If, today, you do not need him or want him, he can pass on by. He can go right down the street or avenue or boulevard and stop at another that wants him. In that house will be joy and peace. He can save a marriage in that house. He can bring renewal to that house. He can bring eternal life to that house right down the street.

An old Christian hymn prays, "Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art waiting, do not pass me by."

Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Jesus shows up when you least expect it

II. You do not know him when he appears right there beside you

III. Jesus gives you every opportunity to open up to him

IV. You can tell Jesus how life has disappointed you

V. Jesus can open your eyes to who he is, not who you think he is

VI. When Jesus is that close, you need to ask him to stay