Hope Beyond Hope

In the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are introduced to a couple of Jesus’ disciples. They are on their way to the village of Emmaus, about seven miles west of Jerusalem. Like many of Jesus’ disciples, these two had recognized in Jesus the promised Jewish messiah. Then, his story took the unanticipated downturn. Now these two discouraged disciples are making their way home, holding a conversation in which they are intensively reviewing their experience.

When Jesus approached, the two disciples didn’t recognize him. Some commentators say that is because the disciples were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus in a westerly direction, and in the late afternoon, the setting sun blinded them. Perhaps bright light partially explains their lack of recognition. Naturally, neither one expected a dead and buried person to suddenly be walking beside them. Luke’s gospel indicates that Jesus was not recognized because something or someone prevented it. The Greek word used indicates that their eyes were “held back” or “restrained.” Rather than approaching in an overpowering fashion, Jesus makes a subtle entry, and quietly walks beside them.

If you read much of the gospels, sooner or later you’ll notice that Jesus is a master interviewer. He knows just how to phrase a question, and just when to ask it, in order to achieve maximum learning. Now he poses a simple open-ended question that invites the two disciples to reveal their troubled inner thoughts: “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?”

The stranger’s interruption surprises Cleopas. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there is these days?” The disciples pour out the whole confusing story. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they sadly lament. Now, they wonder whether only doom awaits Jesus’ disciples.

Commentator Richard Swanson suggests that there is an intense emotional journey packed into the concise imperfect tense Greek verb translated “we had hoped.” Jesus’ fame had spread from the early days of his baptism at the Jordan, to the growing ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee, to his debating victories over the religious leaders in the temple courts, to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then came betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. Things seemed to be getting better for the people of God and the nation of Israel, but then things got much worse. “We had hoped.”

It’s the sort of thing we might hear or say when families pack up the items they brought to the hospital for a loved one, put them in plastic bags and onto the little cart to shuttle to the elevator. It’s a phrase that comes to mind when diseases return, job security evaporates, or one of any of dozens of dreamed milestones fails to appear on the path we are traveling. “We had hoped.”[1]

In the context of the disappointment that the disciples are feeling, Jesus’ rebuke seems rather harsh. “How foolish you are and how slow to believe.” Today, training and experience would lead most pastors to a gentler response. “I can see why you look at things that way ….” “I understand that you’re feeling deep pain ….” Maybe Luke’s frustration with the disciples in the early Church makes him cast Jesus’ reply with more boldness and bluntness than Jesus really intended. In any case, Jesus doesn’t let the disciples linger too long with their sense of disappointment. Instead, he gives new meaning to events by explaining that the ancient prophets had clearly foretold that Jesus must suffer, die, be buried, and rise again. Hopes and dreams may look shattered to the disciples. But Jesus calls the disciples to hope beyond hope.

I have a half-dozen sermons by Elam Davies, who served from 1961-84 as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Davies tells about the scene he witnessed one evening from atop the Great Orme, a massive limestone promontory on the north coast of Wales, west of Liverpool.[2] Visitors go to the top of Orme to view the sunset. Or, as Davies says in his florid prose, to see “the sun as a ball of fire descending behind scudding clouds, transforming an ocean into myriad colors, and the moving clouds as if they were a kaleidoscopic evidence of beauty.”

On this particular evening, the attention of Elam and Grace Davies was drawn from the sunset to a rather beat-up car that had pulled up next to theirs. They saw an older couple with an adult child, who obviously was incapacitated in a serious way. As the ball of fire was descending into the gray ocean, the couple moved around to the back door of the car, and tugged their son toward the edge of the back seat, where he could bring his legs down toward the ground. But the young man didn’t have enough strength to lift his head. Just as the sun was to give its final burst of glory, the father put his finger under the young man’s chin and lifted his gaze toward the horizon.

Elam Davies says that at that very moment, he knew that God was being revealed. God was reflected in the glory of the sunset, of course. But, even more, God was there in the parents who moved beyond the disappointment of “we had hoped” to point their son to hope beyond hope. They journeyed with him when he was in pain, and broke the bread for him when he was weak. And in the compassion, and grace, and love that they shared, Davies says, his eyes were opened, and he knew that Christ was there.

May we be blessed with the same vision and grace.

[1] Richard Swanson, “Commentary on Luke 24:13-35,” 4 May 2014, www.workingpreacher.org

[2] Elam Davies, “The God in Whom We Can Be Confident,” Sermons for the City, Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1996, pp. 35-39.

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~ by JohnH1962 on May 4, 2014.

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