Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Text: Luke 24:17, 21
They stood still, with sad faces. … We had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free!”

 

Walking with hope

There have been some very influential figures who have stood against powerful opposition and somehow managed to remain focused, bold and victorious.  I think of a man like Nelson Mandela whose heritage, background, political and religious influences brought him to a head-on collision with the regime of South Africa and its policy of apartheid – a policy of racial segregation. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

How was it possible for him to remain so positive about his role in reforming the attitudes of both the black and white people in his country?  What enabled him to come out of prison with not one word about revenge or retaliation for the lengthy time he spent in jail?  In a speech after his release, he expressed only one desire – that there be peace and reconciliation in his country.

It would have been easy to rally the black majority to hatred and vengeance but what was it that drove Mandela to seek peace and reconciliation? 

Hope.  Hope looks to the future and sees something better and brighter.  His hope for South Africa was that it be better than what apartheid offered; a society that accepted people regardless of their racial, cultural or religious background.
His hope for South Africa was that racially motivated violence no longer be a part of its culture.
In a letter to his wife Winnie, Mandela wrote, “Hope is a powerful weapon” (1969).

Today we hear of two men, Cleopas and his friend, travelling along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They were discussing the events that had just happened in Jerusalem and they were clearly disappointed, disillusioned, discouraged, and defeated.  Overwhelmed by the way the events of the past weekend had turned out, they had lost hope. They couldn’t see anything positive and good from what had just happened.

They had high expectations of Jesus – he was a prophet and did powerful things and spoke wonderful things about the Kingdom of God, but he died on a cross at the hands of his enemies.  And here is that sentence that gives away their frame of mind, “We had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free!” “Yes, we heard”, they added, “that his tomb was empty and that some of the women and disciples had seen angels who told them he was alive, but that they didn’t see him. We had hoped for more but our hope was in vain.”

Cleopas and his friend had their own idea about the way things should have turned out and when it went all wrong they were so overcome with their own feelings of doubt and disappointment and discouragement, nothing was going to cheer them up. 
The last three days had been so dark, their hearts so full of despair,
they were so preoccupied with so many unanswered questions, such a feeling of doubt and disillusionment,
that they didn’t even recognise the stranger who was walking with them.

Have you ever walked like that – feeling empty inside, churned up because of the way things have turned out, feeling disappointed, discouraged, even angry and confused?  Kind of walking aimlessly, wondering what it’s really all about, doubting what you will do next? 
It feels like the bottom has fallen out of your world.  The things you had pinned your hopes on, the dreams you had, the expectations – shattered. 

Human hope is a fragile thing, and when it withers, it’s difficult to revive. 
We need to note the number of people who take their own life because despair and discouragement have sucked the last bit of hope out of their lives. 
When a job goes wrong,
someone unexpectedly dies (maybe a child or a parent) or has a serious illness, which goes on and on, and despair sets in,
when a friendship or marriage or a relationship with a child goes horribly wrong and all attempts to fix it go wrong,
it almost becomes impossible to hope for a bright future.  You may even be afraid to hope because you believe that you couldn’t cope with another letdown.

We are so overwhelmed with our circumstances, so focussed on what has sucked the energy and life out of us, perhaps even asking what Jesus has been doing while we have been hurting, that we don’t see him walking with us.  We say with those disciples, “We had hoped… that things would turn out differently.  If only Jesus would be here with us at least we wouldn’t be feeling so lost and feeling helpless and hopeless.  If only …!”

The strange thing is this – we know Jesus.  We know his promises of love and his presence.  We know that Jesus promised at our baptism his never-failing presence in our lives, and reminds us of this every time we receive his real body and blood in the sacrament, but like Cleopas and his friends, in the middle of our feelings of sadness and discouragement all of that seems distant and removed and unrelated.  But the amazing thing is this – regardless how we feel, Jesus walks right beside us and we don’t even know it!

It’s interesting to note when Jesus joined those two disciples, he takes on a listening role.  In effect he asked, “Tell me what is it that is troubling you?”  And then he listened to them.  And they talked how everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.  Life was a bummer.  Evil people were the winners and good people were the losers.  Jesus of Nazareth, the most wonderful and most grace-full person they had ever met, had been brutally executed. 

How could God allow this to happen?  Why didn’t Jesus use his power to stop this atrocity?  “We had such high hopes for Jesus, but now, well, what is left to hope for?”

Jesus not only listened and soaked up their burdens and sadness but he is good friend indeed and at the right time it’s his turn to talk.  He wants to take their focus away from their feelings of hopelessness and to restore hope by reminding them how the events of the past few days were all part of a much bigger plan – the plan to save all humanity – all of which had been spoken about in the Scriptures.  What this fellow traveller said to them did comfort them and restore hope because they refer to his words “like a burning fire within them” but they didn’t know why.

The penny didn’t drop until a bit later that the man walking beside them and talking with them was Jesus himself.  The hopelessness of death was still a barrier.  Jesus was dead.  

But as we know, their eyes were soon to be opened and they do have their “aha” moment as Jesus broke some bread and blessed it and gave it to them.  In this sacramental moment, they instantly recognise Jesus.

Can you imagine Cleopas and his friend standing in amazement; perhaps embracing in great joy, asking each other, "Wasn't it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?"  Their world had come together.  They had experienced something of the grace of God.  Because of his love for his despondent disciples, graciously Jesus came and met them on the road to Emmaus.  Graciously he cleared away the fog of confusion; he showed them the heart of God and his plan of salvation, and finally he revealed himself to them – he was alive, and would never abandon them even in the deepest darkness of trouble and disbelief. Hope had been restored.  Now they could see beyond their immediate pain.

The road to Emmaus is a symbol of the Christian life.  This is our story. This story is about ordinary despair, and ordinary Monday-morning drudgery.  This is a story about hopelessness, despair, doubt, unexplained events, troublesome thoughts, discouragement, death and confusion.  It’s a story about how all-consuming these feelings can be and drive us in on ourselves to the point that we can no longer see Jesus and his presence in our lives.

It’s a story about Jesus walking with his friends, their hearing of his words of comfort, sitting down at table and sharing a meal. 
This is a story about the meaning of Easter for us.  It enables us to see that the risen Lord gives hope and joy, when all we see is disappointment, discouragement and
despair.  It enables us to see the world, not as a place of death, decay, and defeat, but as a place waiting, groaning toward God's final victory. 

This walking with Jesus is what I call walking with hope.  That’s not my idea, it’s an idea that comes from the Bible.  The apostle Paul talks about this all the time.  We all know that he had to endure all kinds of hostile situations as well as hardships as he carried the message of the Gospel far and wide. 

At times, the troubles he endured must have been almost more than one person could handle, but he was always insistent that he could continue and succeed because Christ was travelling the journey with him, and gave him the strength to endure any kind of hardship.  Hope enabled him to look beyond the present trouble and see Christ, his presence, and the path that he was on.  He was always confident that nothing can ever separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  He was certain that he could endure all things because Christ gave him the strength to do so. 

Paul never walked alone, even though from a human point of view, he was often alone in a jail cell, or alone in his stand against the evil in the world.  Just as Jesus walked with those two disciples, he walked with Paul, and he walks with us.

In the days and years ahead, when we are wading through a quagmire of emotions and feelings, recall those two disciples who were doing the same not realising that Jesus was walking beside them.  When we are the valley of darkness and we can’t see anything positive ahead, Jesus is there.  Look to him.  He is your hope, your only hope and that hope is a powerful thing.  It raises you up above the present and gives a vision of the future.  Hope comes from knowing Jesus – knowing him in his Word in the Bible, trusting his promises.  Hope places our future firmly in Jesus’ hands, as we will say next week on Good Shepherd Sunday,
“Even if I go through the deepest darkness, (the threat of terrorism or nuclear war or disease or death),
I will not be afraid, Lord,
for you are with me.
Your shepherd's rod and staff protect me” (Psalm 23:4).

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
30th April 2017
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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