It’s one of the most compelling narratives in all of Scripture. So fascinating is the scene, in fact, that Luke opted to record it in detail.
Two disciples are walking down the dusty road to the village of Emmaus. Their talk concerns the crucified Jesus. Their words come slowly, trudging in cadence with the dirge-like pace of their feet.
"I can hardly believe it. He’s gone."
"What do we do now?"
"It’s Peter’s fault, he shouldn’t have … "
Just then a stranger comes up from behind and says, "I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing you. Who are you discussing?"
They stop and turn. Other travelers make their way around them as the three stand in silence. Finally one of them asks, "Where have you been the last few days? Haven’t you heard about Jesus of Nazareth?" And he continues to tell what has happened. (Luke 24:13-24)
This scene fascinates me—two sincere disciples telling how the last nail has been driven in Israel’s coffin. God, in disguise, listens patiently, his wounded hands buried deeply in his robe. He must have been touched at the faithfulness of this pair. Yet he also must have been a bit chagrined. He had just gone to hell and back to give heaven to earth, and these two were worried about the political situation of Israel.
"But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."
But we had hoped … How often have you heard a phrase like that?
"We were hoping the doctor would release him."
"I had hoped to pass the exam."
"We had hoped the surgery would get all the tumor."
"I thought the job was in the bag."
Words painted gray with disappointment. What we wanted didn’t come. What came, we didn’t want. The result? Shattered hope. The foundation of our world trembles.
We trudge up the road to Emmaus dragging our sandals in the dust, wondering what we did to deserve such a plight. "What kind of God would let me down like this?"
And yet, so tear-filled are our eyes and so limited is our perspective that God could be the fellow walking next to us and we wouldn’t know it.
You see, the problem with our two heavy-hearted friends was not a lack of faith, but a lack of vision. Their petitions were limited to what they could imagine—an earthly kingdom. Had God answered their prayer, had he granted their hope, the Seven-Day War would have started two thousand years earlier and Jesus would have spent the next forty years training his apostles to be cabinet members. You have to wonder if God’s most merciful act is his refusal to answer some of our prayers.
We are not much different than burdened travelers, are we? We roll in the mud of self-pity in the very shadow of the cross. We piously ask for his will and then have the audacity to pout if everything doesn’t go our way. If we would just remember the heavenly body that awaits us, we’d stop complaining that he hasn’t healed this earthly one.
Our problem is not so much that God doesn’t give us what we hope for as it is that we don’t know the right thing for which to hope. (You may want to read that sentence again.)
Hope is not what you expect; it is what you would never dream. It is a wild, improbable tale with a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming ending. It’s Abraham adjusting his bifocals so he can see not his grandson, but his son. It’s Moses standing in the promised land not with Aaron or Miriam at his side, but with Elijah and the transfigured Christ. It’s Zechariah left speechless at the sight of his wife Elizabeth, gray-headed and pregnant. And it is the two Emmaus-bound pilgrims reaching out to take a piece of bread only to see that the hands from which it is offered are pierced.
Hope is not a granted wish or a favor performed; no, it is far greater than that. It is a zany, unpredictable dependence on a God who loves to surprise us out of our socks and be there in the flesh to see our reaction.