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I believe that one of things that so captures us about music is the universality of a message (and I suppose the same can be said about a number of things). I couldn’t help but think of the Four Tops as I was preparing for today. The opening of “I’ll Be There” starts with some auxiliary percussion, bass and flute playing the lead line. Eight bars in Levi Stubbs’ soulful/emotive vocal bursts in along with a sort of “Aaah” from the Tops. The line that he sings is, “If you feel that you can’t go on/Because all of your hope is gone.” The universality of human experience. The universality of the human condition. We never shy away from it, and neither does Luke. Particularly in the story that we are hearing today, which shows off everything about Luke’s ability as a storyteller. We see a journey of despair away from Jerusalem on the part of Cleopas and his unnamed companion, and we see a journey of hope back to Jerusalem. Here’s the question for everyone who’s listening to this story today:
“In what or whom do we hope?” Before we answer this question, we need to define what we mean when we talk about hope. When we talk about hope, we are not talking about something that we would like to happen, as in “I hope you can come to my bbq party next week” or “I hope it doesn’t rain on the day of my bbq party.” When we speak of hope in the faith, we are not simply speaking of wishing/hoping/planning/dreaming (because I’m on a roll now with the song references). In 2 Cor 1:7, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, and he says, “Our hope for you is unshaken…” The word for hope here means “confident expectation of good.”
This is what we mean when we talk about hope.
The question is, “In what or in whom do we hope? In what or in whom do we have a confident expectation of good?” Anyone? Anything? Nothing?
We who follow Christ follow the risen Christ. We are post-Easter people. We sing, “In Christ alone, our hope is found, he is my life, my strength, my song/ This cornerstone, this solid ground/ Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.” Make no mistake, there will be droughts and storms. There will be times (and we may be in one now) where we are saying along with these two travellers in our story as they walk the way of despair toward Emmaus, “We didn’t think things would turn out this way.” I didn’t think things would go this way. I don’t know that things will ever go any differently. This talk of hope and despair is a serious matter, and we don’t come to God’s Word to be unserious. This talk of hope and despair is matter of life and death, and this is good because we don’t come to church or engage with the Living Word of God simply to be entertained or distracted or made to feel good about ourselves. This is serious stuff. I remember a friend sharing the story of the death of their mother, who was not a woman of faith. On her deathbed, one of the things my friend’s mother said was, “This isn’t how I expected it to be.” My friend wasn’t sure what to make of this, “How did she expect it to be?” she asked. It does speak, however, to a dashing of hope.
So Luke tells the story, full of changes of mood and direction (literally), dramatic irony (where the listener is aware of something the people in the story are not), dramatic revealing of identity, a flurry of action and movement, a joyful sharing of news. I have to say two things about the story and what it signifies and has signified for the church in terms of what it has to say about the risen Jesus. This is the first - Jesus is made known/revealed in the Word – in the reading, hearing, exposition of, remembering the Word of God. On Easter Sunday, we talked about the importance of showing up (just as the women showed up at the tomb), which leaves ourselves open to receive something we perhaps did not expect to receive. It is the same with coming to the Word of God. Do not let us neglect it. This is the second – Jesus is revealed/made known when we gather around a table in his presence. Word and Table. Christ with us. God with us as we walk along together. As Cleopas and his unnamed companion walk along together. Let us put ourselves right alongside Cleopas. “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem., and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” All the things that we marked during Holy Week. Things did not go the way they expected them to go. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say, speaking of Jesus. Their journey away from Jerusalem is one of despair. It was the end of “confident expectation of good.”
We get this, don’t we? The experience which leaves us saying, “I didn’t think things would go this way.” It might be in our education or a job or a whole career. It might be with our children. It might be in a relationship or marriage. It might be in the death of a relationship of marriage. It might be in a death. Death is surely the thing like no other that signals the end of hope, isn’t it? Isn’t that the way things work?
But… here’s the thing. Here’s the “but.” It’s the same “but” that started this chapter. The same “but” with which we started Easter Sunday before Jesus had many any appearances. “But on the first day of the week…” It’s the first day of the week. It’s resurrection day. It’s new life day. It’s the day when the one who is the personification and embodiment of the confident expectation of good has been raised from the condition which had previously signalled the end of all hope – namely death. Someone has said that what these two travellers had seen in Jerusalem was not the end of hope but the beginning. Because Christ is risen. Not only has Christ risen, but he is walking along with them.
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus himself came near and went with. Jesus himself comes near and goes with. Jesus’ knowledge of and accompaniment with his followers is tender and personal. Someone has said, “We may feel insignificant and alone, but when we see Jesus fresh from the cosmic trauma of death and resurrection monitoring the footsteps and heartbeats of a despairing couple, we know that we too are known and loved.”
Jesus asks them what they’re talking about. Let we who follow Jesus take a lesson from his example here when it comes to walking alongside those who are hurting, those who are struggling, those who are despairing and feeling without any expectation of good things. Jesus doesn’t impose himself or an easy answer upon them. He comes near, and he says, “Tell me what’s going on.” “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” asks Cleopas incredulously. The irony is of course, rich. Cleopas is speaking to the very person who was at the centre of all that had taken place. “What things,” replies Jesus, at which point Cleopas tells the story (verses 19-24)
19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[a] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[b] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’
Then Jesus begins to speak. We do well to listen to him. How foolish we are, how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have declared. This is why we come back to this Word time after time after time. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? This was the plan all along! “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Why do we come back to this story day after day and week after week? Jesus makes the story known in light of his death and resurrection. A story of humanity created to live in loving harmony with God and all of God’s good creation. A story of rebellion. A story of God’s promises running through the story of rejection of God and the consequences of this rejection. A story which is summed up in Joseph’s words to his brothers when, as Pharoah’s second in command to whom they have come for help in a famine, he finally reveals his identity to them. The brothers think he’s going to have them put to death for what he’s done. This is what Joseph tells them – “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” What do those words mean to us in the light of Easter and with the risen Christ walking alongside us? The whole story points to the cross. Being brought back to God, being delivered from sin and death, being saved from despair, was never about being saved from suffering, but being saved through suffering and death, which would lead to new life on this third day. It was always about the divine “but.” Remember, “But God remembered Noah…” “You intended to harm me, but God…” “My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” I was lost, but God. I couldn’t see, but God. I couldn’t forgive, but God. I was at the end of my resources, but God. I was in the depths of despair, but God. I couldn’t believe in any kind of expectation of any sort of good – but God. Are we still asking why we read this stuff? The sacrifice provided on Mt. Moriah pointed ahead to him. The Passover lamb, without a blemish, pointed ahead to him. The manna provided by God in the wilderness pointed ahead to the Bread of Heaven. The suffering servant of Isaiah pointed ahead to him. The one who proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind pointed ahead to the one who stood up in his hometown synagogue and read those words and announced, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. But on the first day of the week, Jesus walks alongside us and reveals Himself in His word.
What else could we do but invite him in to sit down and eat? Jesus revealed in his word. Jesus made known at a table. Once again, Jesus doesn’t impose himself here. The importance of extending and accepting invitations. “As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’” The day is almost over, but it’s not over. The day of the Lord’s favour. The day of grace. The day of unmerited favour. Stay with us, Lord. May this be the prayer of all our hearts. Word and Table. I’m coming to an ever greater understanding of the foundational significance of Jesus revealing himself at tables and at the Table. I have the sense that many of us are, and I am thankful for this. Jesus the guest becomes Jesus the host. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Bread of heaven, feed me ‘til I want no more! “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.”
The two walk with Jesus. The two hear Jesus speak. The two break bread with Jesus. Jesus is revealed. The two then remember. How often in our lives do we realize the extent of God’s work in our lives when we look back?
“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning with us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” I pray, “Lord give us hearts that burn with the fire of your Holy Spirit. French philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote of an experience of God, and he wrote “Fire…Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy” and then written several times like a signature “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ” and then “May I not forget your words.” John Wesley famously wrote of a conversion experience at a Church of England meeting in Aldersgate, London, put on by the Moravians (the first Protestants) – “ I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.'
When we talk about warm hearts or hearts that are on fire even, we’re not just talking about a relational warmth like we may feel warmly toward one another. We’re talking about a transforming fire in our hearts that makes us new; that deepens faith; that restores and strengthens hope – the assured expectation of good no matter our circumstances. We don’t need to call this fire up ourselves, it’s the Holy Spirit in us. We leave ourselves open to this fire by continuing together (because it wasn’t one person on the road) in God’s word and table, with the risen Jesus before us, behind us, alongside us. It leads Cleopas and his companion to get back out on the road, but this time they’re heading in the opposite direction in a journey of hope toward Jerusalem. They went, and they told. May we live in the same hope and always be ready to tell about it too. May this be true for all of us. Amen