Two disciples of Jesus journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, their deepest hopes and dreams having been crushed.
We use that word hope a lot. We hope someone gets better soon. We hope our favorite sports team wins. We hope the store has what we are looking for or that maybe it will even be on sale. And so, we easily forget what it is to really hope for something, to believe in something so much that we commit ourselves to it.
That is what these disciples had done. They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus. These were hopes that had been passed down over generations, promises from long ago. These were the hopes of not only individuals but of an entire people. The kind of hope that these disciples had in Jesus stemmed from events that were hundreds of years old. They were rooted in what God had done for Israel so long ago and so many times over. God delivered the people from their slavery in Egypt through Moses by conquering Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea. God had delivered the people into the promise land with Joshua at the head of Israel's armies. God had raised up judges and kings to lead them in their time of need. And God had delivered the people when they found themselves in exile in a foreign land. God had always raised up a leader to deliver Israel in its time of need.
Now many in Israel believed that they were in need of deliverance once again, this time from Rome and its powerful army and its pagan religions. And here came Jesus, doing these incredible things, healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, talking about God in a way that no one else could. As these disciples on the way to Emmaus say "He was a prophet mighty in word and deed". So they put their faith in him. They pinned all their hopes and the hopes of their people on him. They committed their lives to him, followed his teaching, believing that he was the one who could get the job done. This is what they mean when they "But we were hoping that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."
"We were hoping..." implying that they no longer hold that hope. Indeed, how could they? It would be foolish to hold such a hope. Perhaps we are even to imagine that these disciples are making this journey away from Jerusalem because they are fearful. Jesus, their leader, had been crucified and buried in a tomb. He had been defeated just like all the other pretenders, all the others who had claimed to be Israel's deliverer but had just ended up executed by Rome's enormous power. Maybe the Roman officials would come after Jesus' followers next.
No, there was no hoping now. There was only pain, confusion, and fear. I can almost imagine the conversation that these two disciples must have been having on their way out of Jerusalem. "How could we have been so stupid? We were so sure that he was the one. But clearly we were deceived." That is, after all, what the cross meant. At this point, there was no thought on the part of Jesus' disciples that his suffering was somehow redemptive or that it could bring salvation. No, the cross meant unquestionably, undeniably that Jesus had NOT brought salvation, that he had failed in his mission as messiah. Jesus was dead and Israel remained in need of deliverance, in need of restoration. In addition to all this, the disciples had now heard reports that Jesus' body was missing; that it was no longer in the tomb where it had been laid. And so on this journey to the town of Emmaus they must have wondered why someone would bother to steal Jesus' dead body from the tomb. This is a journey filled with questions and grief. It is a journey in the absence of hope.
Then Jesus shows up. At first, these two disciples mysteriously fail to recognize him. In fact, when Jesus asks what they are discussing they take Jesus to be somewhat ignorant, asking him "Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have have happened here in these days?" These disciples go on tell the one in whom they had placed all their hope about how now all their hope is lost. Jesus is not put off by their blindness or misunderstanding. Instead, he graciously continues to journey with them and he explains to them from the scriptures how this had been a part of God's plan all along. Jesus explains to them that his death was not his defeat but the beginning of his victory.
The disciples still do not seem to recognize Jesus but they invite this one they see as a stranger to stay with them for the night rather than traveling on by himself. Jesus agrees and shares a meal with them. It is only when Jesus breaks the bread to share at the meal, much as he had done at his last meal with the disciples and as he had done when he fed the crowds from only a few loaves and few fish, that they suddenly recognize who it is that has been traveling with them all along. Upon this revelation on the part of the disciples, Jesus vanishes from their sight but the disciples say "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the scriptures to us?" and they immediately get up and head back toward Jerusalem to share the good news that their hope is alive once again.
Perhaps you have been down that road to Emmaus yourself; the one filled with grief, pain, and confusion; that journey where it seems like all the hopes you ever had have been nailed to a cross and buried in a cold, stone tomb. Certainly, it is a common journey in this world of ours where we are surrounded by death, violence, greed, poverty, brokenness, and pain. To one degree or another, we must all walk that road. And at some point we may even look around in all of that pain and confusion and ask ourselves "Where is God in all of this?"
But the truth is God has been walking right by our side all along, we only failed to see that it was him. God is there in the bread and juice that we share together at the Lord's table. God is there in the fellowship that we share with one another. God is there in the simple acts of hospitality extended to a stranger. But most importantly, God is there when we are journeying down a hopeless road with nothing but fear and and questions, God is there.
The hope that we have as Christians is not a naive one. It is not a rose-colored glasses approach to our world that pretends there is no pain or suffering or that's it not important. Our hope is one that says that pain and suffering are not the end; that death does not have the last word because there is a God who is more powerful than death. We believe that our God and Father raised Jesus our Lord from the dead and that he will do the same for us. We believe that our ultimate enemy, death, has been defeated and if death itself can't stand in God's way then its hard to imagine what can.
That is why we gather for worship Sunday after Sunday. That is why we serve others and reach out to those we don't know with the love of God. That is why we have committed ourselves to Jesus. We have pinned all of our hopes on him because he has set our hearts on fire with his resurrection life.