BY CHAD BIRD
It’s like I’m eavesdropping on the two friends and the stranger who walks with them. Something about the way they hang their heads, something about the desperation in their voices, and certainly something about the stranger, has me grasping hold of every word as if gold is spilling from their lips. I’ve never met the two friends, yet it’s like I’ve known them my whole life. For in one of their questions I detect my own doubts, in their frustration I hear my own accent. If I were a ventriloquist, I’d swear my hand was up their backs, moving their mechanical mouths to mold my thoughts into their words.
They are the men from Emmaus, a sort of suburb of Jerusalem. Though this day sings songs of Easter triumph, in their hearts all these men hear is the third stanza of a Good Friday dirge. To them Jesus is still very much dead. A veil hangs over their eyes when he approaches to ask what they were talking about, so to them he’s just an inquisitive stranger. They give him a thumbnail sketch of what just went down in Jerusalem during Passover, including the crazy reports that their crucified rabbi had vacated his grave. In the middle of their explanation, one of the friends, Cleopas, says something that’s a balled-up fist slamming into my stomach. It’s like he’s taken the dark half of my life—the half that scratches at old scabs, the half where I feel let down by God, the half where I’m not even sure I believe in God—and squeezed it into one sentence, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” (Luke 24:21).
“But we had hoped….” At one time or another, I bet something like those words have echoed down the deep caverns of your soul. They have mine, more times than I dare count. These Emmaus men had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, but he went and got himself killed, and their hopes were buried with him. Sure, Jesus was a prophet; he was mighty in word and deed before God and all the people. But that didn’t unarrest him, and it certainly can’t uncrucify him. Now they feel worse than let down; they feel let down by God.
Most of us have walked our own dark road to Emmaus. What had we hoped? We had hoped that God was the one to heal our marriage, but we walk with a divorce decree in our back pocket. We had hoped that God was the one to heal our depressed and confused child, but we walk with graveyard dirt still stuck to our shoes. We had hoped that God was the one to arrest the spread of cancer cells, to keep our spouse from cheating, to finally land us a job, to answer the 9-1-1 prayers we dial on our knees in a desperate attempt to survive the sufferings of this life.
But it’s not always even catastrophic situations in which we find ourselves on the dark Emmaus road. A friend recently wrote to me (and I share this with his permission) that, even though he’s very involved in church, even when he hears the word of God preached, he almost feels worse. And there’s plenty of Christians like him, both in and out of the pulpit. It’s more than your butt that’s grown numb from sitting in the pew; it’s your heart and soul. You’ve lost that holy feeling, that peaceful feeling, that joyful feeling about the Gospel. And in its place there’s a keen sense of divine absence, as if this whole church thing is a religious farce. We had hoped that we’d always feel that sober intoxication of divine grace, that excited buzz of God at work in our lives doing great and awesome things. But all we feel is let down by the God who promised to always lift us up.
Just about the greatest struggle in the life of a believer is that God does not, and will not, live up to our expectations. And we do have great expectations of God, don’t we? The dilemma is that the expectations we have are ones that we ourselves have established. It’s like we’ve written a book of rules by which we expect God to operate in our lives. And when he breaks our rules, we throw a fit, maybe even call him names. I certainly have. I once spit out, “God, you’re nothing but the Great Deceiver!” I felt like he’d dangled hope and love and a new lease on life before my eyes, then snatched these gifts away when I was about to lay hold of them. And judging by many of the psalms, in which believers accuse God of catching some ZZZs while they’re catching hell, postponing the relief they need, and turning his back when they yearn for his embrace, I’m not the only one who’s felt this way.
So what do you do when God doesn’t live up to your expectations? Well, thankfully it’s not a question of what you do, but of what God does. When you’re hurt, disappointed, perhaps even screaming at the heavens, your loving Lord remains your constant companion. He stays right there, listens to you, and walks beside you on that dark road, as he did those Emmaus disciples. Your honest and bitter complaints don’t drive him away; if anything, they draw him to you. He is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” (Ps 34:18). When from out of the depths you cry unto the Lord, he is with you in those depths; even if you make your bed in Sheol, he is there (Ps 139:8). The Emmaus disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus who was with them, and in times of deep pain a veil is over our own eyes. But Christ is there. Whether we feel it or not, know it or not, confess it or not, he is holding us fast.
But he is not only present; he speaks. And the words he speaks are unlike any other words, for he “has the words of eternal life,” (John 6:68). To those two broken hearted men, Jesus spoke words of loving rebuke followed by life-giving hope. He said, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24:25-27). The great irony was that the loss which crushed these men’s hopes was the very event in which Christ was active to give them hope. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, but he was crucified. Yet in that crucifixion he did redeem Israel! So Christ preaches to them the theology of the cross: that it was necessary for the Christ to be hidden in these sufferings, for that is the way God brings about our salvation. Where the Emmaus disciples saw only darkness, the words of Christ were the dawning sun. Their hearts, like a cold campfire full of gray ashes, began to burn within them as Christ walked with them and spoke words that sparked life and hope (24:32).
This is the way of our Lord with us. He does not abandon us in our grief; he joins us in it. He suffers alongside us, for he himself has been a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). He can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). Indeed, in his darkest hour, he himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46). And he speaks to us words unlike any other words, for these nouns and verbs pulsate with life for they are packed with Jesus himself. They are sin-forgiving, hope-creating, grave-emptying words. Jesus pours himself into us in these words. We may feel numb, we may feel nothing at all, but his words will sustain us even through these times. He says, “In this very loss that’s crushed your hopes I am present to give you hope once more. Though all be darkness, I will be your light; though a flood of grief overflow you, I will be the ark in which you’re safe.”
The road to Emmaus ends with the Christ who fully reveals himself in the breaking of the bread. For Jesus not only walks with us in our sorrow; he not only speaks to us words of life; he is the God who feeds us. He fed the Israelites manna during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. He fed Elijah when that prophet was on the run. He fed the multitudes when they followed him out into the desert. He is the God who finds us when we are famished to feed us the bread of life. That broken bread heals our fractured hearts for it comes from the Lord who specializes in restoration. Take, eat, he says. Take, drink, he says. And from his nail-scarred hands to our sin-parched lips passes the food and drink of heaven whereby we are made whole.
Whatever dark road to Emmaus you’ve walked, or are currently walking, alongside you walks the Christ. He will never leave you, he will never forsake you. The powers of hell cannot drive him away; your sins and doubts cannot push him back; nothing and no one will separate him from you. Whether you feel it now or not, he is faithful unto death. He is the traveling companion of the weary and heavy laden. In him, in his words, in his breaking of bread, there is rest and hope for you.
Chad is an author and speaker who's devoted to honest Christianity that addresses the raw realities of life with the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. Chad has served as a pastor and assistant professor of OT theology, contributed hymns to the Lutheran Service Book, and cohosts the podcast “Forty Minutes in the OT.” He holds Master's degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. In addition to writing the books, Christ Alone and The Infant Priest, he has contributed articles to Modern Reformation, The Federalist, Concordia Pulpit Resources, and other journals. His new book with Eerdmans, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, is now available for pre-order at Amazon. His writings and other resources can be found at his website, chadbird.com. Chad and his wife, Stacy, enjoy life together in the Texas Hill Country.