Isaiah 41:1-10, Luke 24:13-35
May 4, 2014
Today, we’re doing “one more Easter story.” And this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. This is the story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and their encounter with the risen Jesus. And it takes place later on Easter day.
Now, one of the first things I want to say about this, is what I often say. Like many of the stories in the bible, we the readers know what’s going on here. We know this is Jesus who approached these men on the road. We know they were “kept from recognizing him.” And we know that, not just because we know this story, but because Luke tells us that right at the beginning. So then, in the end, these men learned what we already know, and they learned it in a wonderful revelation!
Another thing I’ve been saying for years that God has a “flair for the dramatic!” Anyone who doesn’t believe that has never really read the story of the Exodus, the story of Esther, the story of Elijah, the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of Saul, or of course, the story of the Resurrection. And I could go on. Throughout the Bible, God has always dealt with his people in dramatic ways. In the Old Testament, God is said to have done his great works, “With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm!” Maybe you remember those words from the Psalms.
I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. And I’ve come to believe that the reason God works in such dramatic ways is that he doesn’t just want to inspire our minds, he wants to touch our hearts! He uses great drama because he wants to amaze us! He wants to “wow” us! And I know that he might not work in our lives in quite the same way he did in the scriptures, but I think he still wants to touch our hearts in the same way. He still wants to “wow” us!
I don’t know if this describes you or not, but sometimes “we people” can be “hard-headed.” In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were described as being “a stiff-necked people.” They were stubborn. They were hard to “get through to.” And sometimes we’re like that! And sometimes we need to have challenging and convincing things happen to us in order to persuade our minds. But even more than that, we need to have dramatic things happen to us in order to break through to our hearts! Isn’t that true? Who of us is never stubborn like that? (And again, watch out for that ninth Commandment! No “False Witness” here.)
Well this is just such a dramatic story! And I have always believed that the drama in this story was intentional. And I’ve heard some people try to “explain” this story by saying that these men were simply so grief stricken that they were unable to recognize Jesus. But I say Jesus deliberately concealed his identity so he could talk to these men and tell the story the way he did. Then he purposefully revealed himself in the dramatic way he did, so he could break through to their hearts! And that he did! They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road?” I love that! In the end, this was about reaching their hearts!
Notice, though, that those two things – convincing our minds and inspiring our hearts – are sometimes hard to separate. Yes these men said, “Did not our hearts burn within us – while he talked with us,” but also “as he opened to us the scriptures?” That’s a teaching thing, isn’t it? That’s a matter of the mind.” But Jesus was reaching their hearts even in that teaching time – as he often did in his ministry. So the two can go together. In fact, sometimes we do put the two together. If we really learn something well, we say we know it “by heart.” You see? And the heart is the part that’s the easiest to forget.
Well, as we think of these men, we also have to remember what they had been through. That’s the other part of this. And maybe there is some sense of the idea that they were so grief stricken they couldn’t recognize Jesus. Maybe he just used that state of mind in a supernatural way to help conceal his identity. When Luke tells us that they “stood there looking sad,” I believe that was an huge understatement! It would be interesting to do a word study on that word translated “sad.”
They told him what had happened “in these days.” And we get a sense of their grief from this almost exasperated statement, “Are you the only one in town who hasn’t heard this?” “How could you not know?” We get a feeling of their devastation from that, their total loss of hope!
Think about this. How do you feel when your favorite sport team gets knocked out of the playoffs. Did anyone see the Flyers game on Wednesday? They fell short by one goal – in the seventh game! As the time ticked down, all hopes of a championship were dashed, and then the season was ended. It was all over! There would be no tomorrow! Isn’t there a sense of loss there?
Well, these men had feelings like that, only thousands of times worse! Everything they had hoped for, everything they were excited about for the future, was gone! This Jesus they loved was dead! There would be no tomorrow! These men were devastated! And because of that devastated frame of mind and the brokenness of their hearts, I believe it would have been difficult getting through to them.
So, I ask you, are we ever in that state of mind? Are circumstances in our lives ever so overwhelming that it’s difficult to get through our heads that things could ever be better? Are our hearts ever so broken that it seems they will never heal?
That’s what our emotions do to us in such times! They make us feel like things are never going to get any better. Sometimes we hurt so much, we can’t imagine how the hurt will ever end. Do you ever feel that way? Have you ever been with someone who was feeling that way? When I am, I often tell them, “It’s not always going to be like this.” And I know that sounds a little trite, but it’s actually a good thing to say. Because people need to know that “things aren’t always going to be like this!” Of course the down side of that is that things might get worse! But, the truth is, they’re not always going to be like this!
These disciples needed to be told “It’s not always going to be like this.” And Jesus did just that! Through the dramatic way he spoke with them, and then the way he revealed himself to them, things changed completely. And as I read this story, I try to imagine the range of emotions they went through. Because they went from the depths to the heights, from the valley to the mountaintop, from total despair to great joy! And remember the understanding C. S. Lewis had about the word Joy. Part of his definition of that word was that it contained a sense of “surprise.” Joy is often that which is unexpected. Well, that’s this story, isn’t it?!
We don’t often get that “surprise” part of their joy, do we? Not with the same intensity! That’s because, again, we know this story. And that’s where we miss out. We read this “surprising” revelation of Jesus, we see these men filled with joy, but we’re thinking “Well, we knew that!” So we need to step back and try to imagine this from their perspective. We need to try to imagine their grief. That’s why I asked you to do that. We need to think what it would have been like to walk with Jesus unaware, and then to have him suddenly reveal himself in the breaking of the bread.
When we do communion, the more modern liturgy actually uses this story. At the beginning I say, “When the risen Lord was at table with his disciples, he took the bread and blessed it and gave it to them and their eyes were opened and the recognized him.” That’s this story. And it does seem a little unusual to put this story in the communion liturgy – rather than the story of the Upper Room. But I like it because it gives me the chance to add my own words at that moment. Do you remember what I say? “May the same be said of us, that we recognize the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread.”
Maybe when we celebrate communion the next time we can think a little more about this story. Maybe we can remember that the breaking of the bread was not just a reference to the first communion – like it certainly would have been for these men. It was also part of the drama. It was part of that moment when they recognized Jesus. Maybe the next time we use those words we can think about their context. Maybe we can think about their state of mind. Maybe we can think about their sorrow and devastation. Maybe we can think, “…and their eyes were opened and they recognized him, after they had walked with him in the midst of their great sorrow and grief.” Maybe that will help with our understanding. Maybe that will help with our hearts!
This is a great story! And yes, God has a great flair for the dramatic! And I for one am glad! And I hope we can think of those times God has broken through our hard hearts and “wowed” us! And may he continue to do so again and again. And may we recognize those times when they happen. And may we see, like those travelers along the road, that we are part of something much larger, much more glorious than we could ever imagine in our own limited understanding. May we know that great Joy and the “surprise” that’s part of it.
And to God be all glory, and honor, and praise, now and forever, world without end! Amen.
Heavenly Father, you break into our lives in powerful ways, but too often we fail to see. Help us to be more in tune with your spirit so that we can see more clearly your kingdom. Help us to know your “unexpected joy” as we follow together your son, our risen Lord. For we pray in his name, Amen.