Vicar’s sermon 23.4.23: Emmaus Road

Luke 24.13-35

It is some time since Kim and I indulged our appreciation of Kevin Costner films. They sit there, on the shelf in the lounge -our favourite The Bodyguard, but also, Waterworld, The Postman, The Untouchables, Robin Hood Prince of thieves, Open Range, Dances with Wolves and No Way out. Do you remember ‘No Way Out’?  It came out in 1987 (which all of a sudden seems a long time ago), and in the film Costner plays a high-ranking US Naval Officer who is charged with uncovering a mole deep within the military establishment. The tension in the film builds as the authorities get closer and closer to discovering the identity of the spy and, towards the end of the film, a bleary picture of the Russian agent is being worked by computers that are enhancing the image. 1987 is a very long time ago in computer terms so we’re shown state of the art (then) programmes at work, line by painstaking line, working on the pixels of a picture which is slowly being printed off…emerging from a printer deep inside the military establishment. Slow work. Slowly, slowly, the picture comes into focus and everything becomes clear.

Two men were walking away from Jerusalem on the first Easter Day, trying to get their heads around what had just happened with Jesus who they regarded as a ‘prophet, mighty in work and deed’ – and they just can’t do it. They have already heard the story of the women – that they had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. They had also heard the second part of the womens’ account – that they had seen a vision of angels who had announced that Jesus ‘was alive’, but this had only confused them all the more. Despite knowing these things we’re told that they were ‘sad’: any thought of ‘resurrection’ had not got past the trauma they had experienced at Jesus’ crucifixion. All they had thought about Jesus had been trashed. They believed that he was the one to ‘redeem Israel’…but that hope had evaporated the moment he was arrested and handed over to be crucified.

We skip past the verses too easily. These men, along with the other disciples, had put their lives on hold to follow Jesus. We know that the fishermen ‘left their nets’. We know that Matthew left the tax collector’s office. We know that Peter had told Jesus ‘we have left everything to follow you’ and Jesus’ response had been to promise that those’ who had left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and the good news’ would receive a hundredfold in this age and in the age to come’. So where was it? Where had this promise all gone on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. To be so wrong about someone. To have to go home and admit to everyone that you were wrong about him: that’s where Cleopas and his friend were. They had given up everything…for nothing. They had put their trust in him, they were a long way from home (and their families), it was all over. It had been too much to hope – this talk about a kingdom where mercy was paramount. How could they have been fooled so easily? And what was God doing in all this – Jesus had seemed so plausible, his miracles and his words suggested he was the real deal?

What Jesus does on the Emmaus Road is like those computers in the Costner film: as he talks to them he sharpens the image, he clarifies the picture, he helps his friends to ‘see’ things in a different way. Just as in the film the printer slowly produces a clarified image of the person the authorities are looking for, Jesus (as he discusses the scriptures with Cleopas and his friend) enables a different picture to come into focus: a picture of who He is and what God has been up to. The final denouement of the story happens when the ‘penny drops’ and they see him for who He is as he breaks bread at table with them.  So what does he say? What did they talk about in that hour or two as they made their way towards Emmaus? We don’t know but we can make a guess because the early church very quickly started to read the Old Testament scriptures in a new way, in a way that pointed towards Jesus being the Messiah, the Suffering servant, the prophet long awaited by Israel, the Lord.

This story, says Jesus, is my story. All of the scriptures, not just bits of them, point to me in greater or lesser degree. Which is why, for all that we might struggle with these ancient texts and the strange culture that created and heard them, Christians ‘own’ the Old Testament as our scriptures too. Our story begins with Genesis and the creation of the world, not just with Matthew Mark, Luke and John. Our story speaks of the Fall and God’s determination to bring the whole of creation back into relationship with Him. It tells us of His choosing a person, a tribe, a nation to reflect His glory and bring blessing to the whole world. Our story gives us examples of exile and return, judgement and renewal: Noah and his family are shut up in the ark for months but emerge to recreate the earth after the judgement of the flood; Jacob must leave everything to escape Esau’s anger but returns with blessing for his family. Joseph is thought to be dead…but is alive in Egypt and saves his family, Moses is given up to the River Nile but drawn out of the water to become Israel’s redeemer; David must leave Jerusalem in the civil war but returns triumphant; the whole people are cast out of the land and sent to Babylon…but return to start again living as God would have them. We have the dry bones that can live, the prophet Jonah who prays from the belly of the whale and is delivered, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who are cast into the fiery furnace but emerge alive to the praise of God. We read of Jeremiah’s suffering with his people, Hosea’s broken heart and Isaiah’s suffering servant. In Exodus we hear of how God dwells amongst his people in the tabernacle and later of how his glory fills the temple: we have the whole curious edifice of sacrifice and thank offerings, priests anointed and blood shed; the Lamb of God cast out into the desert to take away sin, animals killed and their blood sprinkled on the altar. In the Psalms of lament (as we heard in our Holy Week reflections) we have the righteous man praying for God to act to vindicate him: in Psalms 22 and 69 we have descriptions of individuals who seem to have died and yet are raised to life.

That journey and that conversation will have covered a lot of ground. ‘This’ is my story, says Jesus, ‘can you not see?’ And then, as if with another turn of the lens on the camera the picture becomes clear. The image of a crucified Messiah becomes clear and the one these two have been looking for, hoping for, is revealed to be the person sat at table with them. This Jesus has relived so much of Israel’s story. This Jesus is the righteous man whose suffering is met with the faithfulness of God. This Jesus is the prophet the people were waiting for, He is the King returning to His people, the suffering servant, the lamb of God cast out into the desert, the lamb killed as a sacrifice for all.  This Jesus reflects the broken heart of God. This Jesus brings life to the dry bones. This Jesus renews the world in God’s name after the flood has come over Him on Good Friday. He is the tent of meeting in the wilderness. He is the new temple where heaven and earth meet and God’s presence is best known. He is Lord. All this takes shape in the disciples’ minds and their sadness turns to joy for God has revealed Himself perfectly in this Jesus and He reveals Himself present to them as he breaks bread at table and He is present to all who gather in His name just as He is present to us now.

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