“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” . That’s what the two exhausted, disillusioned disciples say to the stranger who joins them as they trudge along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, seven miles away. “We had hoped”. What a sad little phrase that is. It’s the way we talk about things we know can never happen now. “I had hoped I’d see my friend one last time before she died,” we might say, “but I was too late”. “I had hoped to be able to go back to my favourite place, but I’m too old or ill now to travel”. “We had hoped to have a child,” couples might lament “but we’ve tried everything and we’ve had to accept that it’s not going to happen”. None of us gets through life without regrets, and they can feel like heavy burdens.
These disciples “had hoped” that Jesus would throw out the Roman occupiers and restore Israel’s freedom and self-government. But his death on the cross seemed to have put an end to that hope once and for all. It was a shameful death which marked him out as a failure in the eyes of the world, and also implied that God had abandoned him too. “We had hoped, but we don’t anymore.”
The odd thing is that these disciples then go on to say that they’ve heard stories that Jesus’ tomb is empty and that some of his female disciples have had visions of angels telling them that he’s alive. You’d think they’d have wanted to stick around in Jerusalem and check that out, but instead it seems to have been the final straw, the news that’s propelled them out of Jerusalem, on their way home. But after the emotional roller-coaster of the past week, going from wild excitement as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the depths of despair when he was arrested and killed, maybe it’s easier to give up and slink away back to their old lives.
It all feels so pointless. They’d given their all to someone who they were convinced was God’s Messiah, but how can he have been if God allowed him to be crucified? If they’ve got that so badly wrong, what’s the point of even trying anymore?
But this stranger helps them to see what has happened in a different light. Bit by bit, he takes them through the stories in their own scriptures and shows them that again and again in their history, God has been at work in times of apparent failure. Grace has emerged from disgrace.
There was the time the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, apparently forgotten by God, But just when it seemed all was lost, he sent Moses to lead them out of slavery to a new future in the land of Canaan. Later on, the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon, when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by Babylon’s mighty armies. It seemed as if there was no hope for them, that they’d never go back. But through the prophets God encouraged them. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “ I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and hope.” (Jer 29.11)
That future might not look like the one they “had hoped” for, though. Isaiah spoke of a leader God would send, but he wouldn’t be a military hero. Instead he would be a suffering servant, “despised and rejected” held to be “of no account”, but through him they would find the healing and blessing they needed. Christians have often seen the likeness of Jesus in these words, whether that was what was in Isaiah’s mind or not. However we interpret them, though, they tell us something important about the way God works.
We tend to think of success as something big and obvious and shiny. We think of ourselves as successful when our team wins, when we get a promotion, when our business is making money. We measure success by the size of our salary, the number of people who vote for us, by how many “likes” we get on our Facebook posts. But the Bible tells us that God sees it differently. His grace, his presence, his blessing is often found in the events that look like disasters, the people who look like failures, losers.
As the stranger explained the ancient scriptures, it was as if the world began to shift around those two weary disciples. Perhaps this this awful thing that had happened wasn’t the end after all, but a new beginning? The Psalm we heard earlier spoke of God who delivered “my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Maybe God could be in the disaster of Christ’s death too?
Maybe they remember how, again and again in his ministry, Jesus had told them that God was at work in the small things - the grain of yeast, the mustard seed – and in the people his society saw as small too, those who were regarded as expendable, unimportant – women, children, the poor, the disabled. Was there a possibility then, , that God might be at work in the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, a punishment designed to mark people out as worthless nobodies?
It was only when they sat down with the stranger and asked him to break bread and give thanks with them that this new future started to come into focus though. In this familiar gesture they recognised him as Jesus, and everything started to make sense. Who else would have walked seven miles with them, in the wrong direction, away from the place where the action was? Who else would it be than the man who’d told them stories about prodigal sons who were loved even when they ran off and wasted everything they’d been given and shepherds who searched relentlessly for sheep who had wandered away until they found them? Who else would it be than the man who’d never given up on anyone? The future they “had hoped” for, of political and military glory for Israel might be gone, but God’s future, of a world where all were loved and welcomed, was alive and well. They leapt up and ran back to Jerusalem, along that seven mile road that had seemed so long, transformed by the joy of it all.
I don’t know about you, but this coronavirus lockdown is starting to feel like a long slog, like that despairing trek to Emmaus. Are we nearly there yet? No, apparently not. This could go on for a long time yet, and many of the things we “had hoped” for aren’t going to happen now. That might be trivial things like holidays, or really important things like careers, businesses, or even the chance to see loved ones whom the virus has snatched away. We wonder what the world will look like on the other side of this, and how we will live in it. But the promise of this story is that Jesus walks beside us through the losses and the failures, just as much as the successes. He’s with us as we are, where we are, accompanying us into the future, however different it is from the one we imagined, and blessing it with his presence in the ordinary things of our lives. What we “had hoped” for may be dead and gone, but God’s plans for us aren’t, his future for us isn’t and his hope for us never dies.