Some things are only found on the road. J.R.R. Toilken once said of one of his most powerful characters: “Not all who wander are lost.” Sometimes you find more on the road than you do at your destination. Jesus has a way of meeting people on the road. Faith is much more like a journey than it is like a destination. This means that we are always in process, it means that we should re-frame how we talk about spiritual things in terms of “before” and “after,” it means that we should be careful to judge others because they might be walking the same path they are just further back. This month, Echo High Schoolers are looking at encounters with God on the road to see what we can’t learn about faith in process.
Luke 24:13-35 – tells a dramatic story, one you can imagine vividly. This takes place on Easter Sunday – the very first Easter Sunday, before many people have seen the risen Jesus. Two disciples are walking toward a town called Emmaus, their hopes and dreams shattered. They were confused and downcast – heading into the sunset physically and figuratively. They are travelling west; the setting sun before them is a constant reminder of the growing darkness in their hearts and their sinking hopes. These are people whose expectations have been frustrated. They are a picture of disappointment. They have just endured a wild ride of emotion: discovering Jesus, marveling at his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and eventually believing his claims about himself. They were compelled so much by the person of Christ that they left their former way of life and became disciples of Jesus. Then, all their hopes and dreams are dashed to the ground as Jesus is arrested, tortured, and executed. Try to imagine what it would have been like to ride this emotional roller coaster. The fall is so much worse because of how high they soared!
This line captures everything: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They had placed their hopes in him – they had bet on Jesus and risked their trust and affection. The expectation of many was that the Messiah was going to lead Israel to military victory and usher in the Messianic Kingdom. When Jesus was executed, his followers all assumed their hopes were misguided. Jesus was defeated; the movement he began would die out. Maybe these men were journeying back home to life as usual. Maybe they were going to give up. These people had to be confused like so many others were. They certainly felt far from God. In their minds, they had never been more defeated and Jesus had never been further away. How could God let this happen? Why did this happen? These are the kinds of questions that people ask as they process the grief and letdown of disappointment.
This is where the story gets very interesting, because they were wrong. Jesus was not far, God had not stopped acting, and God’s plan was still unfolding before them. When they felt like God was so distant, Jesus was actually walking with them. Maybe they are looking right at the setting sun to they can’t physically recognize Jesus because all they can see is his silhouette. Maybe their hearts are so broken that they cannot see with the eyes of hope. Whatever the reason, they cannot recognize the nearness of Jesus, his victory on their behalf, the activity of God to bring life and not death. This speaks to all us – can we see through the eyes of hope even when we are thoroughly disappointed?
What if God is closer than you think? These disciples learned something on the road to Emmaus: even if Jesus seems distant and hope seems lost, God is still at work and Jesus could be walking right beside you. Life takes us down all kinds of different roads. Some of those roads go through dark country and are treacherous and difficult to travel. In these moments of weakness or darkness or despair, it is easy to think that god is not there and that He is not working on your behalf. I just walked through something like this with a friend. His mom just died, far too young and far too tragically. What was remarkable was that in the midst of this loss and difficulty, my friend could still talk about how close God was, almost like he was being carried through the pain. I don’t know if the pain is any less, but it is better to bear when you are not alone. Another friend lost his fiancé to an evil crime just months before their wedding. When we talked to him, he told us about how great God was and how near Jesus and the community of faith came to support him through this time. Be careful about making the mistake of assuming that because you walk a lonely or difficult road, God is not there. It is precisely this reality that the Psalmist wrote about: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4).
Are you journeying toward the sunset or toward the sunrise? Another way of asking that is: does the road of your life take you closer to death or life? I don’t mean optimism or pessimism, I mean are you actually growing in life and journeying away from death? Do you walk toward choices and realities that will bring death and destruction into your life, sapping your hope? Or are you pursuing life and those things which strengthen you and make you grow? If Jesus wants to meet you on the road and journey with you, he does want you to go in a certain direction. When these guys realize that Jesus has been walking with them, they understand everything in new light. They are not defeated and downcast and depressed, they are filled with hope and life. They turn from the sunset and start heading toward the sunrise of something new. Hope has been awakened in them – hope for something better. Hope that God’s plan has not been thwarted and that God’s kingdom is still invading this reality and hope that Jesus is alive and that their present frustrations and difficulties do not need to define their reality. They can have hope in a better tomorrow and an even better one beyond that. This is a huge part of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom. It means recognizing and embracing the redemptive plan of God to restore this broken world. It means having eyes to see the beauty of God’s work rising from the ashes of our human mess. This is what it means to have resurrection faith: to believe that since the resurrection of Jesus, all creation is following him out of the grave as the Kingdom of God advances. This is the hope we can put our confidence in and share with a world that so desperately needs it.