"Stay With Us"

Today marks the second Sunday after Easter.  That makes last Sunday, of course, the first Sunday after Easter.  And last Sunday has what I would call an “infamous” title.  It’s traditionally called “Low Sunday.”  It’s called “Low Sunday” because after the joyous celebration of Easter, coming back to just another regular worship service can seem like a bit of a letdown.  In many churches, it’s also “Low Sunday” because attendance and offering amounts are also typically very low.

It’s almost as if we can’t handle too much joy.  It’s almost like we reach a threshold in our celebration that trips a circuit breaker in our emotional and spiritual lives.  We can only get this excited and no more.  Then we stop.  It not only happens after Lent and Easter, but it also happens just after Advent and Christmas too.

I have a theory about why that happens.  It all has to do with anticipation and expectations.  Both Lent and Advent are seasons of preparation leading up to “The Big Event”™.  We get so excited during the time of preparation.  We look forward to the day of the event.  We spend time preparing.  We plan meals.  We plan gatherings.  We plan surprises for the kids and the grandkids.  In short, we spend so much time preparing all the things for that one day that we forget what we’re supposed to be doing during the season of preparation.  Why, we are often so busy on the big day that we fail to even enjoy it.  No wonder we feel let down.  No wonder our reality doesn’t match our expectations. 

Brothers and Sisters, I think that what happens during these seasons of anticipation, our Advents and our Lents, is that we have exchanged the biblical concept of “hope” for the pale substitute of a wish. 

Hope, according to St. Paul, is one of the three cardinal virtues of a Christian.  If you remember Paul’s famous Ode to Love in 1 Corinthians 13, you’ll recall that after describing in ecstatic poetic terms the universal glory of love, he says something like this: Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.

Now, OK Paul, I’m tracking with you.  Love is the core of what God is like.  Love is what we do to show that we love God and love our neighbor.  And I’m also tracking with you Paul when you talk about faith.  We’ve talked about faith before.  It’s that trust in God’s promises.  The belief that God is who God says he is and will do what God promised.

But what of hope?  Of the three cardinal virtues of a Christian, I think that it is hope that is most misunderstood.  Most underrated.  Most unused in the toolbox of our spiritual life.

Part of this situation occurs because the dictionary definition of hope just doesn’t line up with the biblical use of the word.  According to the dictionary, hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  To me, that sounds an awful lot like how I would define a wish.  “I hope that this virus is soon over so people can get back to work” is basically the same as saying “I wish the virus would soon be over.”  … “I hope the Phillies make it to the playoffs this year” takes on as much weight as “I hope you avoid illness and have good health.”  Even though one is fairly trivial (you sports fans may beg to differ), and one serious, they both take on the same weight because of how we’ve shifted in our usage of hope over the years.

I think it’s time that we give hope it’s fully orbed meaning as found in God’s story, as revealed in Scripture.  Today, I want us to look at our two New Testament lessons in detail.  As we do so, we’ll find that “hope” isn’t something weak.  Something cutesy.  Something to throw about willy-nilly.  No, it’s something powerful.  Something serious—even something dangerous.  Let’s explore, shall we?

The Road to Emmaus

Our first passage for today comes from the Gospel according to Luke.  Remember the disciples hadn’t planned on things ending like this, even though Jesus tried to prepare them for what was going to happen.  They just couldn’t hear it.  They couldn’t understand.  They didn’t allow their expectations to be changed.

And so, at least two of the disciples, a man named Cleopas, and an unnamed disciple, perhaps his wife, depart from Jerusalem, the center of the ancient Jewish world, to return to their home—Emmaus.  Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem and would take a good couple of hours to get there at a normal pace.

And as you do, they decide to spend the time travelling by chatting.  Imagine a couple of friends that had just had all of their expectations upended.  They thought Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel.  And they expected the Messiah to be the one that would finally return the land of Israel to the way it should be: he would expel the Romans.  He would reinstate the rightful worship at the Temple.  God’s glory would return and Israel would rule the world.  That’s how they read their Bibles.  That’s what they believed the inevitable outcome of God’s promises in the Old Testament pointed towards.

On top of all that, they had just celebrated a huge, celebratory feast of Passover. So much hype. So much tradition and celebration and pageantry. But their expectations hadn’t been met. Their preparations led to a big let-down. Even if they weren’t depressed, disheartened, or despairing, they were surely confused and disappointed.

And as the two disciples walked along, a stranger approaches.  We as readers know that this is Jesus, but the text tells us that the eyes of the disciples were kept from recognizing him.  In the Greek, a literal translation might be that “their eyes were seized” so that they couldn’t see who or what was really approaching them.  And that’s all to the good because Jesus wants to do some investigating!

Jesus asks the disciples what they’ve been chatting about. Cleopas then goes on to tell of the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.  And then they make that remarkable statement.  They say “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.  They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.”

But we had hoped…Yes the disciples had hoped.  They had wished that Jesus would overthrow the Romans.  They wished he would cleanse the Temple.  They wished that he would usher back God’s glory to the holy of holies.  But they only wished.  They did not really hope.  For hope is not grounded on a wish, but it is grounded on the revelation of God.  It’s an anticipation grounded on God’s Word.  It’s an expectation based on God’s promises.  It is knowing that what will happen is in God’s character.

And all along, Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—had been telling the disciples that their hopes were misplaced.  They counted on violence and military might to overthrow and defeat the powers of evil.  But Jesus consistently showed them a new way.  A different way to confront the evil of the world.  It was the power of humility.  It was the power of service.  It was the profound holiness found in meekness.  It was the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in their midst that reversed the entire script that had been running the world until this point. Jesus’ power wasn’t in horses and chariots, in tanks and guns, in riches and bribes, in an army or a threat, was it?

You see, no one at this time expected a suffering Messiah.  Everyone fully expected that Messiah would be a mighty warrior-king that would kick out the enemies of God and restore the land of Israel to its rightful owners. That’s still what many people expect today. But God has something else in mind.  God wasn’t content with just staying in one small corner of the Middle East.  No, this God is the God of the entire universe and would stop at nothing until it ALL was reconciled and redeemed.  And Jesus knew this wasn’t going to happen by means of violence, retribution, or conquest—but by conversion of the hearts and minds of these enemies—these Jews and Gentiles at cross-purposes with God’s will.  It is through the exercise of love, humility, and servanthood that the all-powerful God of the universe will win victory.

And I think you can hear Jesus’ frustration come out in his words to the disciples there on the road on their way to Emmaus.  He scolds them for being foolish and slow of heart to believe what was written in God’s Word—in what we call the Old Testament.

But Jesus doesn’t give up.  No indeed, he enters teaching mode once again and starts with the 5 books of Moses and shows these two precious souls how the scriptures pointed to Jesus.  Using the view-point of the deadly cross and unexpected resurrection, Jesus showed them how he was the prophet like Moses to come from Deuteronomy 18, how he was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, how he was the Lord enthroned above in Psalm 110. 

We don’t know exactly which scriptures Jesus used that day on the way to Emmaus, but it’s no understatement to say that the church has spent the past 2000 years or so looking through the Jesus lens when we read the Old Testament.  You can find him in every passage.  They don’t all speak directly about Jesus, but they point us forward to him.  In some sense the Old Testament is a story without an ending—a prophecy awaiting fulfillment.  And we believe that these promises find their Yes and Amen in Christ Jesus.

And as this group of three travelers reaches the home of the disciples, Cleopas and his companion urge him strongly “Stay with us.” Like a magnet to iron, so the disciples are to the teachings of Jesus.  They desire him to stay, to continue the lesson.  And when they reach their home, they invite the stranger in for a meal—the least that was expected by ancient standards of hospitality.

But normally, it would be the owner of the house that did the honors at the table.  It would be the owner that would, in good Jewish custom, pick up a loaf, break it and say “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe who has blessed us with the gift of bread.”  But not this time.  It’s Jesus who takes the bread.  It’s Jesus who takes the blessing.  The guest becomes the host and serves the master of the house.

At once, the eyes of the disciples are opened.  The Holy Spirit blesses the hearts and minds of the disciples and they are enabled to understand the Scriptures.  The revelation of Jesus Christ overwhelms them.  And as soon as they understand everything, Jesus leaves—he vanishes in a flash, as quickly as he came upon them.

The disciples now understand that this “sudden revelation” was not so sudden after all.  Already on the road their hearts were burning with the knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ as he opened the Scriptures to them. “Ah ha! I knew it all along!” they say with the laughter and excitement of children. Now what must they do?  They have to tell the others, of course.

And don’t lose sight of the oddness of their next move.  They don’t wait, like a sensible person would, until the next day to go and tell the others in the safe light of day.  No, they risk stubbed toes, turned ankles, and possibly more, by running in the dark, easy prey for robbers and bandits, all the way back to Jerusalem.  They expend their energy and risk their health to tell others that the Lord is Risen, he is Risen indeed!

They go to Jerusalem, compare notes with Simon and the others, and soon realize the magnificent truth of Easter.  The Lord lives.  The Lord reigns.  The Lord will come again in glory. 

In his best-selling sequel, the Book of Acts, Luke tells how the message of the risen Lord spreads from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Peter and Paul and many others preach and live the message of the non-violent power of God, and they plant, encourage, and support churches throughout the known world. It is to one of these churches, later in life, that the Apostle Peter writes his first Epistle. 

First, Peter reminds them of the story.  He reminds them of the grand narrative of the Bible that we now can see in retrospect.  Before the foundation of the world itself, God had orchestrated the plan of salvation.  At the right time, Jesus was born and entered the world.  In Jesus, the world found an end to the old way of things and a new beginning, the start of new creation.  And it all centered on his life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus has been revealed for our sake.

Sometimes he is revealed in Scripture.  Sometimes he is revealed in the testimony of others.  Sometimes he is revealed in the breaking of the bread.  Sometimes he is even revealed in the midst of our suffering and pain.

It’s in this God that we place our trust.  The resurrection of Jesus, the climax of the story of God, places God’s stamp of approval on everything that Jesus did and taught.  Everything points toward Christ, who shows us the way to the Father.

And it’s to God that we now place our faith AND our hope.  Our hope isn’t just a wish for something nice to happen after we die.  Our hope isn’t just for a little bit of peace in this life and enough means to get by. No, those are only small snippets of the grand cosmic hope that God has in store for those who love him and respond to his call.  The hope, the expectation, the anticipation, that we hold in our beliefs is that God has in store through Jesus Christ nothing short of the salvation of heaven and earth and all that is in it.

God means to reconcile and redeem everything and everyone.  God means for all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  God means not to throw out the wicked and the corrupt like yesterday’s garbage, but to renew and restore them.  Is anyone beyond God’s redemption?  NO!  God’s grace is sufficient for even the vilest offender.

And our hope is different than a wish because we have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our lives bearing witness with our spirits. We have the hope that what we read in the Bible, hear preached from the pulpit, ponder in our hearts, and share with others, is true.  Our anticipation is true hope because it has been revealed to us by God.  And God cannot lie.  God doesn’t play coy and hide the truth, but he graciously reveals to all who ask.

So, where are you placing your hopes today?  We’re living in troubled times.  Are we placing our hopes in government, in science, in medicine, in our own abilities?  Or are our hopes firmly grounded in the character and actions of God, the Creator and sustainer of the universe?  If we place our hope—our assurance and trust in the promises of God that have yet to come to pass—based on what he has revealed, we will have no need to despair when our leadership fails us, when science and medicine and technology fail us, when we fail ourselves.

We don’t need to be downcast when disappointment comes, because we know this isn’t the end of the story.  We’ve been through Good Friday, let’s not get stuck in the blackness of Saturday but always remember the events of Sunday!  He is risen from the dead.  The precious promises of love, redemption, and eternal life are ours for the taking.  Our hope is not in vain.  Our hope is grounded on the firm foundation of the promises of God, which find their yes and Amen in the completed work of Jesus Christ. When all else fails, our hope, grounded in God remains, sustains and protects us. Place your hope in him and you’ll never be disappointed. Amen.