On the Road to Emmaus
The last song ever released by the Beatles, as a single––in the U.S. that is––was called The Long and Winding Road. It was a Paul McCartney tune, and reads, in part, as follows:
The long and winding road
That leads to your door, will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before …
It always leads me here.
The wild and windy night, that the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears, crying for the day . . .
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way
Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried.
Anyway, you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried.
And still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door.
Once upon a time, in Palestine, there was a long and winding road. It stretched from Jerusalem all the way to a little town called Emmaus. Nowadays no one quite knows where Emmaus is––or was. Luke says it was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And sure enough, there are the remains of a first-century village at that precise location:––but that’s as much as people know for sure. On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, simply enough, were two men, walking home. They had just celebrated the Passover at the Temple––Herod’s Temple, the Second Temple––at the time of the death of Jesus, and were with countless other people. You wouldn’t think this was such a big deal––except it was.
Why? Because it was a Passover like they had never seen before. Jerusalem was in an uproar!! The Romans had just executed this Jesus, this famous rabbi; this hope of Israel; this talented healer and peerless teacher; this King-of-late enthroned on strewn-down palm leaves and garments: and all at the behest of the Sanhedrin (the ruling Council; the local religious authorities) who had managed to turn the apparently gullible “enthroners”––they of the palm leaves and garments––into equally gullible “condemners,” to ensure the conviction under Pilate
of this “controversial” and “divisive” man . . . this “Jesus,” of Nazareth . . .
“Hosanna” they had cried, which means, “Save us.” But there didn’t seem to be much saving going on: just death, and disorder. And as for these two companions, they obviously had much to talk about, walking this road.
“They were talking with each other,” simply enough, begins Luke, “about everything that had happened . . .” By which Luke meant, everything that had happened, vis-à-vis Jesus. They were lost and heartbroken: and if the heartbroken do anything, they take to the road, don’t they? Sigh. It’s the long and winding road.
If you’re a reader of great American literature, you may remember the celebrated 1957 novel On the Road, by the late Jack Kerouac. A quintessentially modern book, it tells the story of one “Sal Paradise” (yes, decidedly ironic name), a young drifter who takes to the road to find enlightenment––or assuage an almost overwhelming grief––take your pick.
“One day I started hitchhiking,” he writes, “heading to Bear Mountain Bridge. Five scattered rides took me there, but it began to rain, when I was let off . . . The rain came down in buckets and I had no shelter. I began crying and swearing and socking myself on the head for being such a fool. It was my big opening day––but I was only moving north (!) instead of the longed-for west . . . High up over my head the great hairy Bear Mountain sent down thunderclaps that put the fear of God in me. All I could see were smoky trees and dismal wilderness rising to the skies. “What am I doing up here?” I cried. It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America.”
But as they two men on the road to Emmaus walk, and talk, on and on and on into the distance, a stranger appears (of all things), and the party of two becomes a party of three.
Now there’s nothing unusual about this either. Pilgrims galore were on their way home from Jerusalem, and pax Romana notwithstanding, journeys in those days were not without risk,
and one welcomed company on any road. On the long and winding roads of the ancient Palestine “muggings” as we now call them were not unheard of, at any time.
But it is immediately clear that this “stranger” is a rather mysterious chap unforthcoming by way of his identity, but happy to engage in conversation. “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” asks he. The two men stop abruptly. (The Greek reads, “they stood still; stock still”––as if shocked by the question.) I suspect they rolled their eyes at this. After all, it did seem like a hopelessly naïve line of inquiry, given the circumstances:––
“What do you think we’re talking about, buddy? Have you been living under a rock, or what??”
Are you only a “visitor to Jerusalem” that you don’t know what’s happened?’”
“What things?????” the stranger asks, I suspect with a certain studied or affected naïveté.
“‘About Jesus of Nazareth, silly! He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people!!! The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the One who was going to redeem Israel. We mean, some of our women did amaze us,” the men go on, we’ll certainly concede that. (More eyerolling here? Likely.) They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.
Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
But as the story continues, you get the very clear sense that they weren’t necessarily about to believe any of it!!! As for all this “missing body” stuff; all this angel stuff; all this “Jesus is alive again” stuff––it was rather nice and all, but they would NOT believe!! They knew that it had happened––thank you very much––but they would not believe!!!
It’s like they had bifurcated minds; minds with “compartments.” (They say that Bill Clinton was a master of this sort of inner compartmentalization, by the way. It’s how he survived the scandals that plagued his presidency, most especially the Monica Lewinsky one.)
In one compartment; on one side––as it were––they knew what had actually happened; that some of their companions had gone to the tomb and found it just as the women had said . . .
But in another compartment; on the other side––as it were––they knew this be “true” but would NOT believe it. They lived, to wax a little modern, in a “post-truth” world. In one half of the world lies what we know to be true; on the other half lies what we want to be true. It didn’t matter that these two halves of their brains could not be reconciled, or defied reason; they were just willing to live with this inner inconsistency. They were not constrained by the facts––in other words––but by their willingness to believe them.
The Resurrection, to moderns? Well, we’re not so sure. One half of our Clintonesque brains says “yes,” the other half says “no.” But more than any of this, I believe that this “decided inability to think straight” had more to do with how exhausted these two men were, spiritually; emotionally. The road had been too long, and too windy, and they were about to give up.
These days, it seems like the whole world is exhausted. Do you know what I mean? For if there anything that Covid-19 has brought us, it is exhaustion. We’ve forgotten what day it is. We have trouble tracking time and thinking straight. We don’t know which way is up and which way is down.
Some months ago, out of the blue an old, old friend made a solemn announcement to me.
“What could it be?” I said to myself. “Was he getting divorced?” (No he wasn’t.) “Was he losing his job?” (No, not that either.) “Was he losing the curl out of his naturally curly hair?”
(Actually, he no longer has much hair.)
As he readied himself, I looked at him straight in the eye. “I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted by life. I’m exhausted by Covid-19. And so I no longer believe in God,” said he.
Exhaustion. It turns the whole world upside down.
“Dear God,” writes a woman named Rita Jade. “I used to believe that I was the author of my life. I thought if I wanted something bad enough, it would be destined, to be mine. What I wanted more than anything was to spend the rest of my life with a man that I loved; that I still love. [The catalyst for this letter is obviously a lost relationship.] I wanted us to grow old together. I had a vision for my life––but that vision is gone. Since our separation, I’ve been forced to let go of the dreams I once held. The life I thought was mine––or the life I thought I would create––is now absent. Now there is nothing but silence that echoes on my path. Even silence from You . . . I don’t know which way to go; I don’t know which way to turn. I don’t know what lies behind the horizon. In despair, I wrote you an angry letter. I poured out my heart to you, my soul and everything in between. I cried silently, as not to be heard outside of my bedroom walls. I searched for air in that silent despair. My breathing slowed down. I entered emptiness, and all became still.”
Exhaustion, and the distinct sense that the whole universe has gone silent––silent of God. It can tear the human heart to pieces.
But suddenly the stranger who speaks up, taking over the conversation entirely. (Don’t you just hate it when people do that????) But these men were all ears, for there was something about this man that they couldn’t quite put their finger on. “How foolish you are, he said to them, “and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things––and then enter his glory???” “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” says Luke, “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
I suspect they had felt their hearts “strangely warmed,” as John Wesley did an eternity later, in Aldersgate, London, England in 1738. Wesley had just returned from North America, where he had walked, and ridden, a score of long and winding roads, and was very, very discouraged.
Nonetheless, Wesley was praying, one day, and reading what Luther had written about the Book of Romans, when the Holy Spirit touched him, very, very deeply, and the eyes of his heart were opened, as never before. “About a quarter before nine,” Wesley wrote in his journal, “while Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins––even mine––and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
God had certainly spoken to the men en route to Emmaus, and a certain heavenly heartburn had set in. So they asked the stranger to stay with them. “As they approached the village to which they were going,” Luke concludes, “Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together.
And they finally said to them, “It is true! The Lord has risen.”
Then the two told what had happened on the way. And the whole of life changed––in a moment; in a twinkling of an eye.
Yes, the road is long and winding––especially now. Yes, I suspect you are exhausted; deeply exhausted, in the midst of this crazy pandemic. Therefore, trust God. Walk with God. Talk with God, and seek out his voice.
The road may be long. It may “wind,” precipitously:––but you’re in good hands: very good hands, even the hands of God.