RPM, Volume 15, Number 49, December 1 to December 7, 2013

The Road to Emmaus

By Robert Petterson

Oswald Chambers wrote, "Before God can use us greatly, he must first hurt us deeply." Every one of us has walked the Road to Emmaus. It is the loneliest road on earth--the highway from broken dreams to the place called What Am I Going To Do Next? When we walk the Road to Emmaus--and every one of us will--here's what we need to remember: Finite disappointments pave the road to infinite hope.

Sermon Text:

[Text: Luke 24:13-16]

Andy's ability to withstand pain was the stuff of frontier legend. Raised by a poor widow in a hillbilly cabin, this runt of the litter learned to fight for everything he ever got. A nervous condition that caused him to slobber made him the brunt of cruel jokes. It also made him as tough as the hickory trees in his South Carolina forests.

At age thirteen, Andy ran off to fight in the Revolutionary War. When he and his brother were captured, he refused to shine the boots of a British officer. He was struck by a sword, leaving a vicious gash across his forehead. That blow would disfigure Andy, and leave him with a lifetime of debilitating migraine headaches.

During his imprisonment, two of his brothers came down with smallpox. Andy's mother walked 45 miles to the British stockade and somehow got her boys released. A few days later, his brother Robert died of the pox. Andy slipped into delirium and was unconscious when his mother died of cholera. He barely had time to digest her death when he heard that his brother Hugh had been killed in battle. But Andy rose from his anguish to attack life with a vengeance. When he wasn't fighting Indians, he was mixing it up in a barroom brawl and duels. The pain inside drove him to inflict pain on others.

Then he fell in love with Rachel. For the first time in his life, he was gloriously happy. But she was a divorcee, and he had political ambitions in an age when divorce was scandalous. After they married, Andy discovered that the court clerk had made a mistake. Rachael was still legally married to her first husband. For years afterwards, Rachel was the brunt of gossip. Andy fought thirteen duels defending her honor. Folks joked that his body carried so many slugs that when he walked "he shook like a bag of marbles." A bullet lodged near his heart caused his body to shake violently from hacking coughs that left his handkerchiefs drenched with blood.

He overcame his physical and emotional pains to become a military hero in the War of 1812. He parlayed his celebrity into a run for the presidency of the United States. The stakes were high in a country teetering on the brink of civil war. In one of the dirtiest political campaigns in American history, Rachel's name was dragged through the mud when Andy's opponents relentlessly portrayed her as a loose woman, unfit to be the First Lady. During that brutal campaign, Andy and Rachel were further devastated when their 16-year-old adopted son died of tuberculosis.

With the toughness that earned him the nickname Old Hickory, Andy won the election of 1828. But the savor of victory was short-lived. His Rachel, broken by the smear campaign, died of a heart attack. A grieving Andrew Jackson was sworn in at an inauguration that turned into a riot. After his drunken supporters trashed the White House, newspapers gave him a new nickname: King Mob.

Again, Andy overcame bitter disappointment to serve two terms as U.S. President. Through dogged determination, he steered the nation away from a civil war. He was the only American president ever to wipe out the Federal Deficit. He then skillfully navigated the country through the worst depression in its history.

Andy retired to Nashville to live out his pain-filled final days. His body was racked with that hacking cough, and his pillows drenched nightly with blood. During his last weeks, his migraine headaches were excruciating. Andy called his family and servants to his bedside. The former president spoke of the infinite hope that had empowered him to triumph over a life's disappointments. He talked about his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, and his conviction that those who put their faith in Christ would also rise from the dead. Then he uttered his final words: "Heaven will be no heaven if I do not meet my wife there. I go to meet Rachel. Do not cry for me, dear children. Follow Jesus, and I will see you in heaven."

Oswald Chambers wrote, "Before God can use us greatly, he must first hurt us deeply." Andrew Jackson would tell you that life's disappointments are the stuff that makes you as strong as old hickory. This morning we meet two disciples on the road to the Israeli city of Emmaus. They are traveling from a place of crushing pain. These two had followed Jesus across Palestine in hopes of seeing him rule the world. Instead, their dreams were crushed at a crucifixion outside Jerusalem, their Messiah has been buried in a hillside tomb, and now they have to pick up the pieces of dashed hopes. Every one of us has walked the Road to Emmaus. Andy walked it often. It is the loneliest road on earth—the highway from broken dreams to the place called What Am I Going To Do Next? When we walk the Road to Emmaus—and every one of us will—here's what we need to remember:

Finite disappointments pave the road to infinite hope.

I have just quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King. Last Thursday was the anniversary of the day that he was assassinated by a sniper's bullet at a motel in Memphis. When his civil rights movement was at its lowest point, and a string of disappointments had discouraged his followers, he wrote in a letter from the Birmingham jail, "Finite disappointments pave the road to infinite hope." Some 2,000 years earlier, Dr. Luke's gospel account of two disciples on the Road to Emmaus captures the very essence of Dr. King's words. Andy Jackson would surely say a hearty amen. I think that the story of these two disciples is ours too. So join me as we walk together as fellow travelers with these two ancient disciples on a road that every one of us has to walk—some of us more than others.

It's a Sunday afternoon in the year 33 AD. Luke 24:13-16 opens the story of a remarkable 7-mile journey down the road to Emmaus:

"Now that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him."

Verse 13 begins with the words, "Now that same day…" The verses before tell us that it is the third day after Friday's crucifixion. The women who came Sunday morning found an empty tomb. Angels announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. After the women reported what they had seen to the disciples, Peter ran to the tomb. He found both an empty tomb and empty grave clothes. Jesus had been wrapped like a mummy. Yet the strips were not torn, but collapsed like a butterfly's cocoon, as if the body had vaporized through it. About a neck's length away, the turban of strips that had wrapped his head was collapsed too. Had he somehow been able to get out of those grave wrappings, or others had helped him, the strips would have been torn apart and scattered. What Peter found defied natural explanation. That's why verse 12 says, "He went away wondering to himself what had happened." He still couldn't put two and two together and add it up to Resurrection. The early evidence hadn't convinced him that Jesus was alive!

It hadn't convinced these two disciples either. They were going home without hope. We know that they weren't part of the Twelve that made up Jesus' inner circle. Verse 18 says that one of them was named Cleopas. Maybe they were part of the larger group of 70 disciples, or among the 120 who would soon make up the Church at Pentecost. Around here we define disciples as fully devoted followers of Christ. But these fully devoted followers were now fully discouraged. Verse 17 says that they walked with "downcast faces." They shuffled along under the load of shattered dreams, thinking that Jesus was dead. What do we learn from this Road to Emmaus?

1. Disappointment Brings Blindness.

Verses 15&17 says, "…Jesus came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him." They should have recognized him. They had walked with him for the better part of three years. They had known him intimately. Not only that, they now walk with him seven miles to Emmaus. It takes awhile to walk seven miles in steep hill country—at least a couple of hours. As they walk, he talks to them. Surely they've heard his voice enough times over three years to recognize it. Despair also makes you deaf. It deadens all the senses: sight, sound, taste, and touch. Despondency narrows your frame of reference and distorts reality. The glass of gloom is always half empty. The French existentialist Albert Camus said, "Despair is like a fog that causes us to believe that the sun has disappeared and color no longer exists. It makes the despairing soul blind to reality." How does disappointment blind disciples?

1) We miss the One walking next to us.

Though Jesus was walking right beside them for seven miles, verse 16 says, "…but they were kept from recognizing him." What force blinded them? Maybe God covered their eyes for his own purposes. It could have been the devil. Or perhaps it was something within them. Surely, they had given up all hope. If you read what they say to the One walking with them in verses 19-24 you are struck by their logic. Mostly they focus on the death of Jesus. Gloom always focuses on the worst part of the story. They do admit that the women heard the angels proclaim that Jesus was alive. But they end verse 24 by saying, "Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women said, but they did not see Jesus." In short, they knew that the tomb was empty, but until they saw the living Jesus for themselves they wouldn't believe that he was alive. They were just like Thomas who actually saw the resurrected Jesus and still said, "Unless I can feel your wounds, I won't believe that it's really you."

Despair can blind Thomas to Jesus even when he stands in front of him, and do the same to these disciples even as he walks beside them. It can do the same to all of us. Martin Luther was given to debilitating depression. There was a time when he went through what St. John of the Cross calls "the dark night of the soul." He was a fugitive in hiding, declared a heretic, excommunicated, and condemned to die. His children had almost died of diphtheria. He was abandoned by some of his closest friends, and repudiated by other Reformers. In the darkest day of his despair, his wife came down the stairs dressed in her funeral dress. When Luther asked her who had died, Catherine replied, "Dear Martin, God has died and I am going to his funeral." Her audacity snapped Luther out of his stupor. "Woman, how can you utter such blasphemies?" Catherine didn't flinch. "Martin, it is your despair, not my funeral dress, that has declared God to be dead."

Jesus made a promise to his disciples—both then and now: "For surely I am with you always to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:20) He was keeping that promise even as he walked beside them on a road paved with disappointment. But negative talk buries truth in the grave of cynicism. Despair brings unbelief, and unbelief produces blindness. It refuses to see what despair declares to be dead. Catherine was right: Martin's despair was as radical a statement as the one made by another German, atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, three hundred years later: "God is dead." Every time I say something is hopeless, I am saying that Jesus has not risen from the dead, he is not walking by my side, and God is functionally dead too.

2) We lose sight of the Scripture's promises.

The One walking beside these hopeless disciples finally has enough: "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (verses 23&26) Jesus is rebuking all of us who claim to be his disciples: "Don't you know your Bible?" Pollster George Barna has concluded, "The vast majority of people who attend Bible-believing churches are biblically illiterate. And, even when they know what the Bible says, they often dismiss its dictates when they are unpopular or inconvenient."

It's not that these disciples didn't know the Bible. When you read earlier in verses 19-24, you are impressed that much of what they say is directly based on the prophesies of the Old Testament. If that wasn't enough, verse 27 goes on to say, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." Yet, still they don't recognize him. You can stuff yourself with Scripture, and still be blind to Jesus. St. Paul wrote of some disciples, "They are ever learning, but never coming to knowledge of the truth." (2 Timothy 3:7) Adam walked with God in paradise, yet he ignored God's Word. Jesus walked with and opened God's Word to them, yet they didn't recognize him.

The Scriptures are a treasure store of promises that God will never abandon us; that nothing can separate us from his love; that all things work together for our good; that we can overcome all things through the living and resurrected Christ; that greater is the One in us than all the powers of earth and hell that come against us; and that we will overcome and triumph in all things! We can know all that, and still mope around as if God is dead, Christ hasn't risen, and our Lord isn't walking with us on the road of broken dreams.

3) We lose sight of what others have seen.

In verses 22&23, they tell "the stranger" walking with them about what the women had seen at the empty tomb earlier that morning. In verse 24 they add what their companions saw when they went to the tomb. We can hear vivid testimonies of people who experienced the sustaining power of the Living Jesus when they went through the same things that fill us with doubt and despair. Yet, we still don't recognize the presence of Jesus. The blindness of despair is more powerful than all the evidence in the world. Only one Person can heal such blindness. On the Road to our own Emmaus we can do nothing but cry out, as they did in verse twenty-eight, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over." To put it another way: "O Lord, I can't see you, or feel you—even though we've walked together in intimate fellowship during days gone by. The day is almost over, and night is falling. Don't leave me, lest the darkness so overwhelms me that I totally lose my way!" In the original Greek language, this is a pleading, desperate invitation to the One who has become a stranger to them. All of us know of those times when the Jesus we once knew so intimately has become a stranger to us. Our only hope in hopelessness is that he will rescue us before we descend into the dark night of the soul. Thank God for the end of verse twenty-nine: "So he went in to stay with them." He always will, no matter how dark the night has become.

2. When Jesus Opens the Word he Opens Your Eyes.

I take such great hope in what happens next. Remember they are now in Emmaus. Emmaus is at the end of the road. To put it another way, they are at the end of their hope. To be even more graphic, they are at the end of their rope. But it is at moments like that, that Jesus often reveals himself most vividly. Verses 30&31 say, "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and begin to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him." It was when he broke the bread that he also broke the despair. There are so many applications here. Maybe one of them is this direct allusion to the Lord's Table. Perhaps God is telling us to avoid that greatest of all temptations: when we are down in the dumps, we often avoid the very thing that will lift us out of despair. We neglect the fellowship of other believers, stay away from worship, skip church, and fear coming to the table of communion. But God has made these sacred moments means of grace to lift us up and wipe the blindness from our eyes. Bread is what we feed on to gain strength. Jesus said that he is the bread of heaven. Even when we can't see him (even when despair has caused us to lose our appetite for him) we must still come and feed on him by sheer faith. The Word of God is also bread. Jesus said to Satan, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4). When I open my Bible, but despair has taken away my hunger for what's in it (and gloom has blinded my eyes to the Jesus in it), then I must cry out to Jesus, "You break the bread for me, for I cannot do it. You show yourself to me, for I cannot see you." Faith does not rest on what we see or feel. Faith puts one foot in front of another and doggedly pursues Jesus and his promises, until he breaks open the bread of life.

3. Open Eyes Renew Hearts.

Look at what the two disciples say to each other in verse thirty-two: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" They are using the language of passion: hearts that burn with fire. We will never burn within unless Jesus opens the Word to us. People often say to me, "Pastor, you make the Word of God come alive." I appreciate the compliment, but it's so wrong. It's as if they are saying that the Bible is dead, and it takes a great communicator to make it come alive. The truth is quite the opposite: I am dead, and the Word of God makes me come alive! Here's the key to setting hearts ablaze: If we open the pages of Scripture and try to find Jesus, or attempt to stir up our own passions, we will leave empty. If I open the Bible and teach you from my own pulpit skills, you may go away with some new Bible facts, even pumped up or entertained. But your hearts won't burn with fire that only Jesus can ignite. That's why I got on my face at 5 am this morning and desperately prayed that Jesus would come and open the Word. Every time I personally go to the Word, I beg Jesus to break it open for me. I can promise you this: what I give you, he has first given me. Let me repeat it: if our hearts have grown cold with despair, disbelief, lethargy, or cold cynicism, they can only be set afire when the Resurrected Jesus ignites the flame!

4. Renewed Heats Lead to Infinite Hope.

Again, I love those words that Dr. King wrote when folks thought that his dreams were dead. Disappointment is finite. It can't last forever. But hope is infinite—infinitely more powerful than hopelessness. Verse 33 says of these two disciples, "They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem." The Road to Emmaus has now become The Road to Jerusalem. The Road to Emmaus was only seven miles. Disappointment really is finite. But the Road to Jerusalem will take these two to the ends of the earth, and all the way to heaven itself. Indeed, hope is infinite! When they get back to the disciples they had earlier left, they found gloom turned to gladness. In verse 34, their friends shout out, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon!" Not only that, he had appeared to Thomas who had even put his fingers in the Lord's wounds. What a difference it makes when Jesus walks with us on the Road to Emmaus. If you will walk with him through seven miles of despair—even when you can't see, hear, or feel his presence—he will turn you around and take you the opposite way to a place of unimaginable joy and purpose.

5. Infinite Hope is Contagious.

The joy in that place was contagious. Every one had his own Resurrection story to tell. Peter had seen him. Thomas had felt his wounds. The women had talked to angels. These two topped them all. They had walked with him for seven miles, and shared a meal with him. There's not a single disciple who hasn't encountered the Living Christ. We could talk about all kinds of depressing things. Bad news is everywhere. Negative talk is on most folks' lips. But we are not like those who haven't encountered the Resurrected Christ. We have a Resurrection story to tell. Let's talk about that—not only to each other, filling this place with joy, but also letting it spill outside to those still walking the lonely Road to their Emmaus. There will be disappointments for all of us. But they are finite. Sorrow lasts for a night, but joy does come in the morning. So let's fill the air with the good news of a Living Christ. Bad news, like disappointment, is also finite. But good news, like hope, is of infinite more value and power. Dr. King was right about that.

Andrew Jackson would also agree. The next time you get down in the dumps, reach into your wallet and pull out a $20 bill, and look at his picture. Then smile and say, "Andy, you're right. Jesus has risen, and, because he has come back from the dead, so will I. I will see Rachel (you plug in the object of your broken heart) again!"

Copyright 2008-2013, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from Dr. Robert Petterson, Pastor Trent Casto or Covenant Presbyterian Church of Naples.

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