April 30, 2017, When God Is a Big Disappointment – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We Christians use a lot of words to describe the God that we worship – Savior, Friend of sinners, Redeemer, Comforter, Creator. He is Mighty, he is Kind, he is Merciful. He is our Righteousness, our Shepherd, our King. But today we read a gospel story where God is revealed in very different terms – God, the Big Disappointment. Here we still are, on that first Easter day. The dust has definitely not settled yet from the frightening and horrible days of Jesus’s arrest and the mockery of a trial and his brutal execution. It all happened so fast. The disciples hadn’t had time yet to figure out what to think about everything that had happened, except for this overwhelming feeling, expressed so simply and directly and honestly by Cleopas – this feeling of huge disappointment. “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Two of Jesus’ disciples, sad and weary and discouraged, were on their way home after what must have been the most terrible few days of their whole lives. One was name Cleopas. From John’s gospel we know that it was probably Cleopas’ wife who was one of the brave women who stayed at the foot of the cross with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus. And not only was Mrs. Cleopas a faithful disciple; John says that she is Mary’s sister. So the second disciple that Jesus met along the Emmaus road was very likely Mrs. Cleopas, and his own very devoted aunt. Luke doesn’t tell us for sure. But the thing we do know beyond the shadow of a doubt is that the lives of these two weary travellers had been dealt a huge and very personal blow at the death of Jesus, and the crushing of all their expectations.
Jesus, the man they loved and honored as a great prophet, a man of power and holiness, had been murdered by the very people he was supposed to have saved them from. They had been so sure he was the One the Jews had been waiting for for centuries. But now, even when some of the women had come back from the tomb and them that they had seen Jesus, alive, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe it. Their hopes were too crushed, and their hearts were too broken, and all they could think of to do, was to walk the seven long, weary miles back home to Emmaus. And it was on that road of disappointment that they met Jesus.
How many of us have traveled that road before? How many of us have found ourselves faced with a situation where we have felt utterly disappointed, completely let down, by God?
It seems to me that one of the greatest claims to truth in the Bible is that the pages of Scripture are not peopled with godly men and women whose faith is always steadfast and whose lives are as squeaky clean and as orderly as the characters in a Hallmark movie, and whose every conversation sounds like the lyrics to a worship chorus. Christian books are often like that – you can see it right away in the cover paintings with their neat, attractive people and their idyllic scenery all done up in pastel shades of pink and green and purple. But not the Bible. Bible people have messy, broken lives just like we do. Bible people do and say stupid and even wicked things just like we do. And Bible people put their hopes in God and then get crushed by disappointment when he seems to let them down spectacularly. Bible heroes get crushed sometimes, like Cleopas and his wife, trudging home from the total tragic devastation of the Crucifixion of the One they were so sure was the Messiah of God. Don’t we all know what that must have felt like? Haven’t we all felt that kind of dismay and disappointment? That brutal honesty is one of the things that makes me trust the words of the Bible. But the other thing that makes me trust the words of the Bible is that the story doesn’t end there.
Because Jesus came alongside these two disciples in their grief and in their disappointment. And the first thing he did was that he listened to them. He listened as if he didn’t know anything about what had been happening. He let them tell him every detail of what they and his other friends had suffered since he had last seen them. And that listening in itself was his first gift to them. I can remember the night of my father’s funeral, lying in my parents’ big bed with my Mom, and listening to her tell me the story of my father’s death, several times over: what happened first, and what happened next, and what decisions she had to make, and why, and who said what, over and over, most of the night. She needed to tell me, just as these disciples, in their grief, needed to share their grief with someone who would listen. Jesus, the risen Savior of the world, came quietly alongside these people he loved, to listen to them, to be there for them.
It was only after Jesus had listened to them that he began to speak to them, and to show them that what seemed to them to have been the most ungodly tragedy they could have imagined had actually been in the hand and mind of God from the very beginning. What had seemed to be the victory of death was in reality the triumph of life, a plan that had been written at the very beginning of time. Jesus – though they still didn’t know it was Jesus – made them able to see how all the pieces fit together, how it all happened just as it had to happen, how even the brutality of the Romans and the vindictiveness of the Jewish leaders were no more than instruments in this great work of salvation that God had ordained because of his great love for all people. Later on, after they had recognized Jesus, they said to one another, “Didn’t your heart just burn within you as he spoke to us?” “Yes! Yes! Did you feel it too?”
As we grow older, and as we have the time and opportunity, by the grace and guidance of God, to look back on the big griefs and disappointments of our life, we are often – not always, but often – able to begin to see what has happened from God’s perspective rather than our own, so that like those disciples our disappointment and dismay are transformed to thankfulness and peace. The Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, the same Spirit that spoke to those disciples on the road to Emmaus, speaks to us, sometimes through his Word, sometimes through the words of other people, sometimes in the quiet of our own hearts and minds, and as he speaks to us he reveals the good purposes of God to us, his good plans for us, formed from before we took our first breath in this world. And so, over the course of our lives, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we gradually come to see the loving hand of God in so many of those things that seemed to us unmitigated disasters when they first happened. And he reveals to us that even in the darkest times, when it seemed to us that the evil of the world had overwhelmed us and separated us from everything that was good, even then, he was present with us. These things our Lord teaches us, as we are able to listen.
Seven miles is a long way to walk, especially when you were exhausted with sorrow and fear and sleeplessness before you even began. The sun was getting low in the sky, and can you even imagine how tired Cleopas and his wife must have been as they drew near their house – and yet they wouldn’t hear of their new friend going on alone. They invited Jesus in, who was a complete stranger to them, as they thought, to share their evening meal and to spend the night in their home. They even insisted; Luke says they urged him strongly. And he accepted their offer. God himself accepted the hospitality of plain old human beings. And again, we recognize in this story how God so often reveals himself to us in the face of those who need us: the poor, the homeless, the friendless, the stranger. There isn’t any way of knowing if they would have recognized Jesus at all if they had gone into their house and let the stranger they had met continue on his way, to find a bed and a meal for himself. But they chose to show him kindness. And they saw Jesus.
But the actual moment of recognizing Jesus is at the very heart of this story. They opened their door to this stranger and offered him a place at their table. They would certainly have given him water to wash his weary, dusty feet. And as their guest they invited him to offer a blessing for the meal. And here is the moment: Jesus took the loaf of bread in his hands, he said the blessing over it, he broke it, and he gave it to them. And then – then it was that their eyes were opened and they knew that it was Jesus himself sitting at their table. And as suddenly as they saw him, he was gone, and they didn’t feel hungry or tired or sad or disappointed any longer, but they got up and hurried all the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell everyone the good news that Jesus was alive!
And this is truly the heart of the story for us, because it was Jesus himself who ordained the breaking of bread as the particular sign of his Presence with us, to all of his disciples everywhere, for all generations.. That’s why every week we do what we will do in just a few short minutes. In communion with the Body of Christ in every part of the world, past, present and future, and even in communion with the angelic beings who are his servants, we take the Communion bread, and we say the words of blessing that he taught us himself: “This is my body; this is my blood.” We break the bread, as his body was broken for us. And we give the bread into the hands of his people. And in the moment of the sharing of the bread we recognize the face of our Lord, in the sign of the bread and wine, but also in our brothers and sisters who share the bread with us. And it is his Presence with us that cures our sadness and our weariness and our disappointment, and gives us strength to go out and “do the work he has given us to do”.
So now, I invite you to pray again with me the collect we prayed at the beginning of the service, asking our Lord Jesus that as we share the bread and the wine with one another this morning, he will graciously allow us to see his face and be encouraged by his Presence among us:
“O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”