Today we continue our relatively short, 4-Sunday walk through the post-resurrection (that is to say AFTER Easter) appearances of Jesus. The series has an odd name that might seem a bit of a mystery at first glance- Closing Night Strike. Closing Night Strike is a theater term. In educational theater, we would do the play or musical over two weekends- 6 performances. And then, after closing night, we would “strike”- put away the set, the costumes and the props. After months of work, the show opens…and closes. A couple of hours of clean-up and it’s all gone. And you’re left with a strong sense of, “What NOW?!”
Churches spend SO much effort and energy getting to Easter. The worship services are powerful, meaningful. And then…Monday comes. Show over, sets struck, costumes in storage. And the church is left to ask, “What NOW?!” Each week has a song tied to it that relates to the story.
Today’s song is Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2. The song was a collaboration- lead vocalist Bono (NOT the name his mama gave him!) was interested in the theme of spiritual doubt. Meanwhile, lead guitarist The Edge (ALSO not the name his mama gave him!) had written the words “still haven’t found what I’m looking for” and a chord progression to go with it. They put it all together and ended up with the 2nd track for their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. The lyrics include- “I have spoke with the tongue of angels. I have held the hand of a devil. It was warm in the night. I was cold as a stone. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Sounds very much like someone crying out to God, looking for what they don’t have. And then, as if Jesus is responding to us, the song offers, “I have climbed highest mountains. I have run through the fields only to be with you. I have run, I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls, these city walls, only to be with you, only to be with you.”
Have you ever been near the end of your rope and then, somebody says something, or you hear a song or read a story, and you realize it’s a message from God?
2Chronicles 15:2b-4 The LORD is with you as long as you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you abandon Him, he will abandon you.
Israel turned their back on God. But in their time of deepest need, they turned back to Him and found He had been there all along- waiting for them. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.
One of the oldest and most time-worn conventions in all of entertainment is that of mistaken identity. What 60’s and 70’s sitcom didn’t use the “evil twin” convention? Movies like The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin, The Court Jester and North By Northwest and books like The Prince and the Pauper A Comedy of Errors are squarely rooted in the premise of someone being mistaken for someone else. In today’s story, Jesus shows up in an unlikely place and is met with a case of mistaken identity and some surprising results.
Luke 24:13-18, 27-32- That same day two of Jesus’ followers were going to a town named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking about everything that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and began walking with them, but they were kept from recognizing him. Then he said, “What are these things you are talking about while you walk?” The two followers stopped, looking very sad. The one named Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know what just happened there?” Then starting with what Moses and all the prophets had said about him, Jesus began to explain everything that had been written about himself in the Scriptures. They came near the town of Emmaus, and Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they begged him, “Stay with us, because it is late; it is almost night.” So he went in to stay with them. When Jesus was at the table with them, he took some bread, gave thanks, divided it, and gave it to them. And then, they were allowed to recognize Jesus. But when they saw who he was, he disappeared. They said to each other, “It felt like a fire burning in us when Jesus talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us.”
Today’s story takes place on the road to Emmaus. 2 amazingly ordinary people are walking along one amazingly ordinary road, wallowing in grief, when suddenly an extraordinary stranger shows up. People ask about these 2- Cleopas and Friend- “How could they NOT recognize Jesus?” Well, He probably looked a bit familiar- “Haven’t we seen you someplace before?” But you have to remember- they weren’t LOOKING for Him…He was dead. Recognition isn’t just a function of memory- it’s also about relationship. Is this story about a stranger who turns out to be Jesus, or is it a story about Jesus…Who turns out to be a stranger?
Did you notice that our 2 travelers weren’t following directions? They weren’t on their way to Galilee to meet with Jesus. They weren’t staying in Jerusalem, waiting for the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit. They were out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, trying to put some distance between them and their crumbling world.
We’ve all been on the road to Emmaus- that temporary hiding place, that momentary distraction, that change of scenery. When the hurt gets so deep, sometimes you just have to get away. And let’s be honest- some days we ARE Cleopas and friend- trying to get away from it all. Then we hear footsteps behind us- a stranger, intruding on our misery. We don’t want to talk to anybody, and this stranger doesn’t even know what happened! So we tell him…and He starts lecturing us! We invite him in for dinner. We pass Him the bread- first. And suddenly…we recognize Him- it’s Jesus! “Lord, forgive us! We didn’t realize it was You!”
It was only when they broke bread together, when they did something they had done so many times before, that Cleopas and his friend recognized Jesus. Their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, He was gone! And they were left to ask each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” After that revelation, they immediately returned to Jerusalem and met with the other disciples, telling them what happened and how they recognized Jesus when He broke the bread.
The reality of this story is that moments of TRUE revelation are, more often than not, frighteningly ordinary times. When our eyes are opened and we suddenly recognize Jesus for Who He is, then we know- really know- that God understands. He understands our tiredness, our sorrow, our sadness. And in those moments, with groans too deep for words, we make a strong, personal connection with Jesus. We can hear Him say, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
Emmaus reminds us that our God will never leave us alone, even when we’re hurt and disappointed, even when it seems that the brightest and best in life is gone, over, destroyed. God loves because God IS love. And when the love of God is alive in us, Jesus is alive in us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m delighted about the fact that Jesus being alive today isn’t dependent on my ability to understand how the Resurrection actually happened. We tend to keep on misunderstanding Who Jesus is and what He’s about, just like those 1st disciples did. We keep right on worshiping the wrong things, chasing the wrong dreams, being taken in by false messiahs. And in the midst of it, God just keeps right on loving us, often despite us. Emmaus moments happen. Emmaus moments are those times when, right smack in the middle of life, you meet the Risen Christ. And when that happens, Easter is so real you can taste it.
Jesus is alive, up close and personal. He cares about you and wants to reveal Himself to you, just like He revealed Himself to Cleopas and Friend on the road to Emmaus. He’s NOT dead and buried. Instead, He’s alive, well and with us. That’s what 2 travelers discovered on the road to Emmaus. They were discouraged, downhearted, defeated. And just when they were about to give up, they encountered Jesus.
People say to me, “I don’t need to go to church to find God! I can find Him just fine on the golf course! After all…isn’t God everywhere?” True enough- He is. But in worship, in the presence of other believers, when the Scriptures are shared and the bread is broken- that’s where you are most likely to encounter God. Why do we come to church? Because it’s the decent thing to do? Because you like the music? Because it looks good to other people? Because it serves as inexpensive medication? The best reason to go to church…is to find God. Or better yet, to open yourself to God. In worship, we here the echoes of eternity. When we bow before the throne, God is here. We need to open ourselves to God and hear Him speak to our hearts.
Ephesians 1:16-19 I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength.
Back to the song for a moment as we close. This last verse offers us the true meaning behind the Emmaus story- “I believe in the Kingdom Come, when all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one. But yes, I’m still running. You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, of my shame. You know I believe it. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
In God’s Kingdom, all the colors bleed into one. There IS no black, white, old, young, male, female, rich, poor, whatever. We are radically equal in God’s eyes. And yet, we still run, we still search. But the Good News of the Gospels is that Jesus broke the bonds and loosed the chains. He carried the cross of OUR shame. Have YOU found what you’re looking for? If not, stop looking- it’s right here. What you seek, that part of you that simply refuses to be complete, can be made whole only in the healing and saving presence of Jesus Christ. Turn to Jesus on YOUR road to Emmaus and say to Him, “My Lord and my God.”