Preached 20 April 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Back in 1988, one of my favourite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, published a book called Disappointment with God. And in the introduction to the book he tells how, once word got out that he was writing about disappointment with God, his phone hardly stopped ringing. “I’ve never dared admit it before,” people would say. “But I’m disappointed with God. Can I tell you about it? And can I ask you what I can do about it?”
The truth is that many, many Christians are disappointed with God, and I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t a good number here tonight. But no one will admit to it, of course. Not in so many words. They dare not. It would sound almost … well, blasphemous! But the disappointment is there alright, deep down inside; and what I want to ask you now, before I go any further, is this. That if there is disappointment with God inside you, you acknowledge it, to both yourself and God … and that then you join me on the path that was fashioned for you and all the others like you some 2000 years ago. The path that goes by the name of the Road to Emmaus.
The story of the Emmaus Road is one of my favourite New Testament stories. It is found only in Luke’s Gospel, and though it has the ring of truth in every word of it, it contains a number of puzzles. Why were these two people leaving Jerusalem when, on there own admission, so many strange things were going on there? Jesus was dead, yes. But there were rumours of angels who said that he was alive again! And the body had vanished! Fresh news was coming in by the hour. So why leave Jerusalem at such a time? We just don’t know.
And who were these two? The story starts with “That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus.” Two of them? Two of whom? Not two of the eleven disciples, because we find out later that one of these two was called Cleopas. But if we backtrack a few verses, we find that the eleven were not in hiding on their own. They were there with “all the rest”.
But who were “all the rest”? Well Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James are all named; and now, too, is Cleopas. So we may conclude that “the rest” were ordinary followers of Jesus. Not apostles. Not VIPs. Just people who had heard Jesus teach, seen his works of love and healing, become attracted to him, believed his truth, joined his company of camp followers. Strange, though, that only one of these two is named. Who was the other? Cleopas’s wife? Or … here’s an interesting thought … Could the other person have been Luke himself? Luke who wrote the Gospel?
Mark wrote himself into his gospel by describing the “young man with just a linen cloth round his body” who followed Jesus and the disciples to Gethsemane and who nearly got captured by the soldiers. Matthew wrote himself into his gospel by describing the time Jesus turned up at a tax office and called the tax collector to follow him. John wrote himself into his gospel by all his references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” … So maybe this is Luke writing himself into his gospel?
Well, it’s an intriguing possibility. But maybe the name of Cleopas’ companion is left blank for a different reason. Maybe it is blank so that I can put my name in there and you can put yours. Cleopas was certainly disappointed with God. And so was the other person with him on the road. And maybe that other person is you. Maybe you are to walk the Emmaus Road with Cleopas tonight … and, who knows, find the answer to your disappointment just as Cleopas found the answer to his.
The first thing that always strikes me about Cleopas and his companion is their sheer wistfulness. When a stranger joins them and asks them what they are talking about, they “stand still looking sad” and then, when pressed about their sadness, they tell him about Jesus and say, “We had hoped …” We had hoped. Oh, what a weight of disappointment in those three words. Are they words which characterise your Christian life? We had hoped …
Are you a wistful Christian? Am I? Are we standing still … at a standstill … looking sad? Are we stuck? Stuck in John Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond”? Years ago, we started a journey, and way back then we were full of excitement, full of anticipation and hope. We were alive to God, committed to him, full of faith – and even full of fervour. But then … ah then … something went wrong. Somehow, over the years, the fervour died, the faith became mainly a matter of talk, and hope grew dim.
Why? How? Well, maybe prayers didn’t seem to get the answers we looked for. Maybe things happened that we didn’t think should have happened. Maybe we felt let down by God … or even ignored by him. And a disappointment began to build inside of us … a disappointment with God that has set us, like Cleopas and his companion, on a road away from Jerusalem.
And that’s where we catch up with these two … Cleopas and Luke, or maybe Cleopas and you … trudging along, heads down, shoulders stooped, united in their disappointment. And as we catch up with them, something wonderful happens. Jesus himself draws near and walks with them. That is wonderful, isn’t it? Let’s take encouragement from that. Our disappointment with God doesn’t drive him further away … We might expect it to, but it doesn’t. On the contrary, it seems to be what draws God closer to us in the person of Jesus. In fact … if you are disappointed with God, I think I can safely promise you that Jesus has drawn near and is walking alongside you tonight.
He was walking alongside Cleopas and his friend. But the sad thing is, those two just didn’t recognise him! “How could they not?” we ask ourselves. How could there be just the two of them and Jesus and they not have a clue who he was? Well, I would suggest that there are a number of possible explanations. And the first is a very practical one — the sun was in their eyes. There really is nothing worse than walking directly into the setting sun. It really does make you blind. And we know that the setting sun was in their eyes because they were headed in the wrong direction for them to be able to see clearly. They were leaving Jerusalem, going west. Interesting, isn’t it, that the slang expression “to go west” means to founder, to collapse, to head for disaster, even to die. These two were going west, heading in the wrong direction.
And there may be a lesson for some of us here; because it may be that in our disappointment with God we are headed in the wrong direction too. Away from the place of the cross and the empty tomb and the fellowship of the apostles. We’re going west. So that the sun is in our eyes. So that the god of this world is blinding us to the reality of the risen Jesus who walks beside us.
The sun was in their eyes. That’s one possibly reason for them not to have recognised the risen Jesus. But here’s another. It may be that Jesus looked very different from the way they might have expected him to look. Bear in mind that Cleopas and his companion knew Jesus as the teacher from Galilee. They had a certain picture of him in their mind’s eye … standing there in his dusty robes, very much the country preacher, waving his arms around as he talked to the crowd around him: “A sower went forth to sow …” But now he was with them not as the very human teacher from Galilee but as the very divine, risen-from-the-dead, Son of God. What had the raw energy of God done to him as it blasted him back into life and out of the tomb? Was this any less of a transfiguration than the one on the mountain when Jesus met with Moses and Elijah? Maybe, despite the marks of the nails that were still in his hands and feet, this was a very different Jesus from the one they once knew.
And maybe that’s our problem too. Maybe we are stuck with an image of Jesus that we have carried with us through the years, even from childhood, and maybe the image we carry bears little resemblance to the real-life Jesus who is trying to confront us today. How open are we to encountering a different Jesus?
Or here is a third of the possible reasons why Cleopas and his friend did not recognise the one who walked beside them. Maybe they simply did not expect to encounter Jesus at all, so they were not even open to the possibility that the one talking to them was he. They are quite dismissive of the suggestion by Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus is in fact alive again. Maybe their problem was one of closed minds.
And is that perhaps the real problem with some of us tonight. Maybe we too have long abandoned all thought of a real encounter … I mean a real encounter … with the risen Christ. Oh yes, we encounter him in his church. His church is his body, so when we come to church we do, in a sense, come to Christ and meet with Christ. We encounter him in his word. He is the word of God so when we come to the pages of Scripture we are, in a sense, coming to Christ. We encounter him in the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is my body, this is my blood. So as we take the bread and the wine, we do, in a sense, take Christ to ourselves.
And these are all valid encounters. But there is another encounter of which all these should be — are intended to be — merely echoes. An encounter which all Christians should seek, long for, expect, and not rest until they have experienced … a real person-to-person encounter with the living Lord Jesus. And no wonder we are disappointed Christians if we have resigned ourselves to never having such an encounter, or, if having had such an encounter 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago, we have resigned ourselves to never having another. Or if we have even talked ourselves into thinking that it would be wrong to expect any such thing.
Well, the Emmaus road story is there to contradict us … It is there to jolt us back into a state of expectation, a state in which marvellous things can happen! For marvellous things do happen to these two … to Cleopas and his friend.
First, their hearts begin to burn within them. “Did not our hearts burn within us?” they say. What does that mean? I’m sorry but I cannot really explain it. If it has happened to you, you’ll know. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, I promise you that you’ll know when it does! John Wesley experienced it on 24 May 1738 in Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote that, of an instant, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. And thus there began his encounter with the risen Christ that first of all changed John Wesley and then changed the face of the United Kingdom. But that encounter, that experience of the warmed heart is not just for the Wesleys of this world, it is not even just for Cleopas, it is for his companion too. For you. For me.
Hearts set on fire. But not only that … eyes opened too. “And their eyes were opened and they recognised him.” Note that it is “their eyes were opened,” not that “they opened their eyes.” There is a difference. To have your eyes opened is revelation. It is to be given vision. It is to be enabled to see what ordinary sight cannot show you. And it is God who does that enabling, as disappointed men and women receive to themselves the one they hardly know and let him break the bread of their lives before them.
This is the truth. It is the truth of Easter Day and every day. That you and I can know our hearts strangely warmed. That you and I can have our eyes opened, can have those moments of revelation when we recognise the risen Lord Jesus. That you and I can know him. Do you believe that? Do I? If we do, we have opened the door for an Emmaus Road encounter to take place. Soon our sorrow will be turned to joy. Soon wistfulness will be wiped away. Soon we shall be part of that company who can say with all their heart: “The Lord has risen indeed!” And we shall have our own new tale to tell of what has happened to us in the way.