Our gospel lesson contains three of the most heartbreaking but realistic words in the New Testament: “We had hoped.” Notice it doesn’t say: “We still have a glimmer of hope” OR “We believe we can get our hope back.” It devastatingly says, “We had hoped.” As if to say, “Our hope is dead. It’s history. It’s a thing of the past. It’s not returning any time soon.”
How is that for a post-resurrection Easter story? There is no “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” here. Instead we have two disciples who left Jerusalem on Easter Sunday without an once of hope in their hearts. They are exhausted, discouraged and defeated. Most likely, they’ve packed up their things and are returning to their hometown of Emmaus.
“We had hoped,” they replied to a stranger on the road, “that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel. But now he is dead, and we are defeated. We had hoped…he would start a revolution. But he was handed over to the Romans who condemned him to death and crucified him. We had hoped…the news our sisters shared with us this morning was true. But all we have is an empty tomb and Jesus is nowhere to be found. We had hoped…but now those hopes are gone. And so we packed our things and are going home.”
This is certainly a sad state of affairs! It’s not the post-resurrection story we would like it to be. But before we judge them too quickly, we need to remember we’ve stood in their sandals a time or two! We know what it is like to utter those words “We had hoped.” We know what it’s like to feel exhausted, discouraged and defeated. We had hoped…the degree we earned in college would land us a well-paying job. We had hoped…our parents would love us no matter what. We had hoped…the doctor would find some kind of pill or procedure that would make us feel better. We had hoped…we would be able to retire, OR heal our broken heart, OR mend a damaged relationship, BUT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN! We had hoped..But now hope is dead. It’s history. It’s a thing of the past. It’s not returning any time soon.”
Friends in Christ, the death of hope is a scary thing to experience. But the truth of the matter is it happens to everyone. People disappoint us all the time. We disappoint others all the time, because there is not one single person alive who can meet all of our needs and expectations.
Life is not one big mountaintop experience where we continue to climb higher and higher. Instead it’s more like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, fast turns and loop-de-loops, and we simply try to hold on for dear life. Now, I’m not trying to bum you out this morning. I’m simply speaking the truth. If Jesus’ first disciples had days when they experienced the death of hope, there is no way we can avoid the same fate. In fact, I take some comfort in knowing the disciples had days of despair, because it means there’s nothing wrong with you or me when we find ourselves in the same position. The truth of the matter is God’s people sometimes experience the death of hope. But the good news is that Jesus promises we will not be left there to wallow in self-pity and distress.
Think about what happens in our gospel lesson. The first thing we notice is that Jesus meets the two disciples on the road. He doesn’t appear before them in Jerusalem. The angel didn’t tell the women “Go to church and you will find him there.” Jesus wasn’t waiting for them at home, or told them they’d have to be good little girls and boys before he would appear. Instead Jesus meets them on the road. He went to their location, and appeared right smack in the middle of all the pain, disappointment and hopelessness they felt.
I don’t think I have to tell you that this is good news. But just in case you didn’t figure it out, THIS IS GOOD NEWS! Jesus doesn’t expect us to go to him. Instead he promises he will always, always come to us EVEN when we don’t recognize that he is there.
This brings me to the second thing we notice about our gospel lesson: Jesus promises to meet us on the road, but he doesn’t promise we will always be able to discern he is there. It’s the one thing about this story that drives me crazy! Luke simply says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” which is a rather odd way to describe the situation these two disciples found themselves in.
The Voice’s translation is a little more helpful. It says “But for some reason they didn’t recognize him.” The New Life Version says “Something kept their eyes from seeing who he was.”
What I think Luke is trying to tell us is that their sense of hopelessness and despair blinded them from seeing that Jesus was with them. This observation is HUGE. It’s a sermon unto itself! The truth it is telling us is that somehow we have to trust that Jesus is with us, even when we can’t see, feel, or sense his presence in our lives. That may very well be the true definition of faith.
When we, like those two disciples, find ourselves feeling exhausted, discouraged and defeated, we need remind ourselves that we are not alone. We may feel like we’re alone, but we are not alone! Jesus is with us! And I believe he will do whatever it takes to make his presence known in our lives! This is what happens as the story continues!
After the two disciples pour their hearts out to someone they think is a complete and total stranger, Jesus gives them a Bible study. He goal was illumination. He hoped they’d see the events of the past week in a new and different light. He hoped they’d finally figure out that Jesus was standing right in front of them.
It was a great plan…but it failed epically! These two despairing disciples at least made some kind of connection with the stranger because they invited him to stay at their home in Emmaus for the evening. Jesus accepts the invitation. Although inwardly he was probably chuckling to himself, thinking, “I can’t believe they still don’t know it’s me!”
So he devises another plan. This plan is a complete and total home run! The three of them sit down to share the evening meal. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them. I believe it was almost on the tip of his tongue to say “I’ll give you one more clue: This is my body, given for you. Remember? Remember?”
But this last ditch effort was not needed! Luke tells us “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” FINALLY! In the midst of their sadness, in the midst of their dashed hopes and dreams, Jesus found a way to make his presence known in their lives. He met them in Word and Bread and Wine and it changed their lives forever. Their hearts began to burn within them, which I take to mean Jesus was refining their hearts. He was burning away the sadness and despair so that hope could be reborn, once again. In spite of the late hour, these two disciples high-tailed it back to Jerusalem and told the others “The Lord has risen! Jesus is alive! We recognized his presence in the breaking of the bread!”
Friends in Christ, this is such good news that I can hardly stand it! Every time we find ourselves saying “We had hoped;” Every time we feel exhausted, discouraged and defeated; Jesus promises to meet us wherever we are, and make his presence known in our lives. We don’t have to “do” anything for this to happen. We don’t even need to believe that Jesus will be there. Because Jesus promises us he will be there whether we believe it or not, whether we see his presence or not! He will be there in Word and Water, Bread and Wine. He will keep coming back to us again and again and again, until we finally get it! Until our hearts begin to burn within us and we can proclaim the good news that “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”
So, next time when we find ourselves uttering those despairing words “we had hoped,” let us remember this story and the promises contained within it. Let us remember that Jesus will meet us wherever we are on there road of life and take us on a journey from despair to hope! AMEN
Copyright ©2017 David Eck