One who appears to them as a stranger begins to journey with them and asks what they are discussing. They are surprised by this question for everyone knows what happened in Jerusalem. They speak of Jesus' death as one of those incidents where people are saying "Did you hear about..." and they don't have to finish the sentence because there is only one tragic event about which everyone is talking and of which they are trying to make sense. Nevertheless, the two disciples inform their fellow traveler about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed. You can hear their pain and disappointment bleeding through the pages of Luke's gospel. "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."
"We had hoped..."
Had. Past Tense. No longer. There is no hope now. Jesus is dead. For all his power, he was unable to prevent this tragedy of all tragedies. When his followers needed a miracle most, Jesus failed to come through.
This stranger who journeys with them has a different perspective. They thought the Messiah was one who would prevent these terrible things from happening. He points them to Scripture they had never considered to be speaking about the Messiah. He argues that rather than being a conquering warrior the Messiah was always meant to be a servant who would suffer with those who are hurting; one who would win his victory by weakness rather than strength.
As the three travelers near the village, the two disciples urge their new traveling companion to stay with them. He agrees and they sit down at table together. There, he blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them. It is only then, in this act of hospitality, this table fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, that they realize it has been Jesus himself who has been journeying with them all along.
This is not the text from which I had planned to preach this Sunday. It is one more often associated with Easter than the Sunday before Christmas. Nevertheless, I find it to be an appropriate word for the final Sunday of Advent. For in this season we remember that Christ has come but that his kingdom is not yet. In Advent, we are reminded that Jesus was the long-awaited prophet, mighty in word and deed. But we are also reminded that we are still waiting. That our hope has not yet been fulfilled. That our world is far from being filled with the peace and justice of God's reign.
Most of the Christian life is walked on that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We've placed our trust in Jesus. We've pinned our hopes for God's redemptive purposes in the world on Jesus. We've confessed that he was the one who could deliver our world. But then a 20 year old man walks into a school and takes the lives of 20 children and 6 adults after killing his own mother. And our confession threatens to become past tense. We had hoped that he was the one but what can stand up against this kind of evil? This kind of brokenness? We thought Jesus was supposed to put a stop to precisely this kind of madness. If in all of God's power and might, he failed to act in this most critical of times, this time when his intervention was needed most, this time when 6 and 7 years old were crying out to him for help, then perhaps he does not deserve our hope, our trust, or our faith. Perhaps we are best served by giving up on the idea that this world can ever change.
There are no answers in these times. There are no explanations that can make things better. Explanations don't bring children back from the dead.
But I do believe that in the midst of our darkest tragedies, Jesus walks that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with us. I believe that when it seems that God is dead and powerless, he is actually walking right beside us. In all likelihood, we will not be able to see that it is Jesus who walks with us. The pain and tragedy are real; blindingly real. But Jesus isn't put off by our inability to see him. He keeps walking with us. He lovingly listens as we tell him about the tragedy, about why we've lost all hope and faith in him. And he keeps walking with us. He tries to show us that God is one who suffers with those who suffer. And he keeps walking with us.
And because he keeps walking with us, I do not believe that our blindness to his presence will last forever. If, in the time of our deepest tragedy, the time when we question our hope for God's redemption of our world, we can manage to show hospitality to a stranger... If we can continue to enjoy table fellowship together... If, despite all the reasons to give up hope, we can continue to break bread together then our eyes will eventually be opened and we will realize that Jesus is far from dead. He has, in fact, been traveling with us all along. And though we may not be able to say it now, we will eventually be able to say of this time "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road?" even when we didn't recognize the one who spoke with us.
Then we will be a people who proclaim an Easter hope in a Good Friday world. Not because everything is OK. Not because there is no tragedy. Not because we are blindly optimistic. But because the resurrected Jesus, the God who suffers with the suffering, walks with us. Because God's love for us is so great that he took on our flesh; the weak and vulnerable flesh of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, James, Jesse, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, and Allison. Because death is not the end of God's redemptive purposes in the world. Because he is present with us in the breaking of the bread until his kingdom comes.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.