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Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – April 23, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, who is risen indeed. Alleluia.
You’ve probably seen it happen. The local sports team is way behind. It looks like they are facing a certain defeat. And so some of the disappointed fans pick up their things and head for the doors. They start streaming out of the stadium while the game is still being played, thinking it is already essentially over, that it is beyond hope. Maybe it is a baseball game or a football game or a hockey match. Whatever the sport, you’ve probably seen it happen. Maybe you yourself have left early when it seemed like your team had no hope of victory.
The two disciples we meet in our gospel reading for today had no hope, and so they left Jerusalem. They thought there was nothing left to see there. They thought Jesus has been defeated, and that there was no point in hanging around any longer. They had seen Jesus being handed over and arrested. They saw him being crucified. They saw his dead body being taken down from the cross. They had heard about the empty tomb, but this was not a sign of victory to them. It just meant that the body was now missing, which just added to their sense of defeat.
These two disciples had no hope. They could only see defeat. They thought it was game over for Jesus. Their hearts were slow to believe. And so they left Jerusalem and headed down the road to Emmaus.
And here is one of the remarkable elements of a story that is chock full of them: the risen Jesus went after them! Jesus chased them down on the road to Emmaus! Can you imagine a quarterback or a closing pitcher running out of the stadium, out into the parking lot, calling the discouraged fans to come back in? That’s just what Jesus did! And these two disciples weren’t even among the twelve Jesus had called. These were two from the larger group of disciples who had followed Jesus around, often at a distance. They were not part of that intimate group, and yet on the day of his resurrection, Jesus went chasing after them. He didn’t want them to leave without knowing about his come-from-behind victory. He didn’t want them to remain in unbelief. He didn’t want them to remain without hope.
They didn’t recognize him at first. We don’t know why. I always picture Jesus with one of those silly big nose-and-glasses disguises on, just waiting for the right moment to take it off and surprise them. There’s just so much irony and even humor in this story that I think it fits. Luther’s interpretation is more serious, and probably more accurate. He speculated that they were so overcome by grief and shock that their brains couldn’t process that it was Jesus.
At any rate, Jesus caught up to them on the road to Emmaus, sidled up to them, and casually asked, “What are you guys talking about?” Cleopas replied, “What do you think we’re talking about? Have you been living under a rock for these last few days? Are you the only person who doesn’t know about the things that just happened back in Jerusalem?” “What things?” Jesus coyly replied. Isn’t that funny? The guy to whom all the things happened asked, “What things?” Cleopas gave his recap of all the things, which, from his perspective looked like a complete and utter defeat. “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” Cleopas said.
Jesus then gently chided these two disciples, saying, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets had declared!” He told them it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer all these things and then enter his glory. Then he led them through the scriptures, pointing them to all the passages about himself. He interpreted the entire Bible through the lens of all the things that had happened in Jerusalem, assuring them that this had been God’s game plan all along.
Can you imagine getting this Bible study from Jesus himself? I took a literature class in college from Carol Doig, the wife of the acclaimed author Ivan Doig. We read one of his books in class and then he came in to talk to us about it. Here was the author himself in front of us! We could ask him anything about the story or the characters or the themes, and he could tell us exactly what he intended. In the same way, these two disciples learned about the Bible from the Author himself. They learned about the Word from the Word made flesh! And he was telling them that the whole book is about him. The whole book is about his death and resurrection for our salvation. The whole thing is about his ultimate victory over sin and death, a victory he shares with us.
When evening came the two disciples asked Jesus to stay with them. They still didn’t recognize him, but it was evening and the day was almost over, and so they urged him strongly to stay. He did, and when he sat at table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And now at last their eyes were opened. They recognized him.
Jesus then vanished from their sight. He had done what he came to do. He helped them to see him and know that he was indeed risen. He helped them to believe. He restored their hope.
Now these two disciples knew that Jesus had not been defeated after all. They went back to Jerusalem. They celebrated his victory with the eleven disciples. They shared with them how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
We know the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We know the road that feels like defeat, the road that feels hopeless. We have walked it ourselves. It could be the journey home from a frustrating or disappointing day at work. It could be the walk through a struggling relationship with an uncertain future. It could be a stroll down a lane of memories which bring regret or shame or trauma. It could be a trip home from the doctor’s office after a devastating diagnosis. It could be the lonely and heartbreaking road home from a cemetery. We know this road. We have all walked it. There are defeats which are much more profound than those in any sporting event. There are defeats which leave us struggling to find hope.
But our risen Lord doesn’t let us walk that road alone. He comes to us. He chases us down. He cares about us – even us who are the least among his disciples. He cares about us too much to let us leave without knowing about the great victory he has won for us.
Our Lord Jesus comes to us through his Word. While he isn’t here in person to lead us in Bible study, he has given us the interpretive key to unlocking all of scripture. It is all about him! Every story whispers his name! He is the seed in Genesis which would crush the head of the serpent, saving us from sin. He is the Lamb of God in Exodus who delivers us from death. He is the suffering servant in Isaiah by whose wounds we are healed. We know the meaning of scripture because it has been disclosed to us by the Author himself. We know the Word because it has been interpreted to us by the Word made flesh. And in our hearing of this Word, our hearts begin to burn within us. Faith is kindled. Hope is lit in us.
Our Lord Jesus also reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread. He shows himself to us in bread and wine, his body and blood. He opens our eyes to his presence among us, literally feeding our faith. And once our eyes are opened to his presence among us in his Holy Supper, we can look back on the road we’ve been walking and begin to see that he was with us all along, even when we didn’t recognize him.
At some point in our lives we all walk the road to Emmaus. We walk with the assumption that defeat is inevitable. We walk believing that there is no hope, that sin and death have already won – in our world, and in our lives. Maybe you’re walking that road today.
But our risen Lord Jesus does not let us walk that road alone. He chases us down. He comes after us. We might not see him. We might doubt he is there. Our hearts are sometimes foolish and slow to believe too!
But our risen Lord patiently walks with us every step of the way. He points us to his Word, so that we would understand God’s game plan. He reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread so that we would trust that he is risen indeed.
He turns us around on that road, turning us from unbelief to faith, from sadness to joy, from dejection to hearts burning within us, from despair to hope.
He turns us from the assumption of defeat to the assurance of his victory over sin and death.
So lift up your heads, friends. Team sin and death have taken an L. Our opponent, sin, has been defeated. You are forgiven. Our opponent, death, has been defeated. You have nothing to be afraid of anymore.
So walk in peace. Walk in hope. Walk in joy. Walk in newness of life.
Christ has won, and he promises to share his victory with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church