Set in 19th century England, Charles Dicken’s novel Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an orphan adopted by a blacksmith’s family, who has good luck and great expectations, and then loses both his luck and his expectations – and in the process finds true happiness. Without rehashing a book you may have read decades ago, in the character Pip, Dickens portrayed the situation many citizens in 19th century England faced: the nation was becoming a wealthy world power, the industrial age was making factories more productive, inventions were making life safer and easier – and yet, in spite of all the progress, the average citizen still did not realize the wonderful life the turn of the century had promised. I suppose such a story could be told about any nation in any age. Does the theme of great – and often unfulfilled – expectations ever characterize our lives as Christians? Here we are, a mere 14 days from celebrating the ultimate turning point of human history: our Savior’s resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil. But it doesn’t even take 2 weeks for reality sap our joy, does it? Easter’s victory and joy already seem like a distant memory. Why? Easter has given us great expectations; so why do we so often feel gloomy and hopeless? On the road to Emmaus, our Savior teaches us a few things about Great Expectations; namely that human expectations lead to sadness, but that Scripture’s promises ignite our faith and renew our joy.
Luke 24 takes us back to Easter Sunday afternoon. For the disciples, it had been a chaotic and whirlwind week. On Sunday, Jesus had entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, Monday through Wednesday he taught in Bethany and Jerusalem, on Thursday he celebrated the Passover and then instituted a new meal as a sign of a new covenant, and then, in the span of mere hours was betrayed, arrested, convicted, crucified and buried; he was there and then suddenly, he was gone. Then Easter morning came and only seemed to complicate matters. The women who had gone to finish the burial of Jesus’ body reported that the tomb was empty and that an angel appeared, claiming he was alive. But when Peter raced to the tomb he didn’t find anything but some empty grave clothes. (Luke 24:1-12) Confused and sad, two of the disciples had given up hope and decided to return to Emmaus.
What would you say is the most important detail of this story? Jesus himself came up and walked along with them. We tend to pass over this detail because we are captivated by the words that follow: they were kept from recognizing him. How? There are many theories, but two things stand out to us: 1) Jesus now had a glorified, heavenly body so different from the humble human flesh he had before his resurrection that the disciples could see him, but could not recognize him; (Mark 16:12) 2) imagine you are driving home from the cemetery after a burial, who’s the last person you expect to see driving the car next to you? They believed Jesus was dead and gone; so they couldn’t see him right in front of them. In any case, Jesus was with them, but they didn’t recognize him (which, incidentally, is a gospel truth we all need to learn over and over).
Why did Jesus do that to them? He could certainly see how sad and confused they were. It seems cruel and cold-hearted to let them languish in their hopelessness. Why didn’t Jesus just reveal himself and remove their sadness and confusion immediately? Why do we ask those questions? Isn’t it bordering on heresy to suggest that Jesus could do anything less than loving? We ask these questions because we see ourselves in this story. We have all found ourselves in situations where we have more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity, more sadness than joy. In really tough times, we can feel a lot like those disciples: hopelessly walking and talking in circles. We feel for these disciples because we often feel like them. We feel bad for them because we often feel bad for ourselves. We wonder why Jesus didn’t relieve their pain and answer their questions sooner because we wonder why he doesn’t give us relief and answers sooner. As understandable as all that is, they overlook the most important fact, don’t they? Jesus was there! Jesus is always there, he’s always here; he promised! (Matthew 28:20) Then why didn’t he show himself, why didn’t he give them what they wanted? We ask the same question, don’t we? Why doesn’t Jesus just answer my prayers, why doesn’t he give me what I want and expect?
The truth is, we should thank Jesus for not living up to our expectations. Have you ever done that? You should. You should thank him every day for refusing to live up to all human expectations because if he hadn’t heaven would still be locked to us. Thank Jesus that he did not do what we want, but what his Father wanted. Humans expect God to stay in heaven where he belongs – but God’s Son was born in Bethlehem. Humans expect God to show favor to the good and rich and powerful – Jesus spent his time healing and preaching the gospel to the outcasts of society, to poor, weak, helpless sinners. Humans expect that God will accept them just the way they are – but when God’s Son appeared humanity hated him so much for who he was that they not only laughed at him and rejected him but nailed him to a tree and killed him. Humans expect to get what we deserve – God poured out on Jesus the wrath that we deserve so that we could receive the inheritance we don’t deserve. Humans expect dead people to stay dead – God raised Jesus so that we could be certain of our salvation. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. They didn’t realize it yet, but he did! He bought us back from sin, death, and the devil by suffering, dying and rising again. Who would have planned or expected that? No one but God. So, thank Jesus for not living up to our fallen, foolish, selfish expectations – because if we are looking for a Savior who lives up to our expectations, then not only will we mope through this life, but we will have no hope for the next.
The first lesson we learn on that road to Emmaus is that human expectations lead to sadness now and eternally – so Jesus doesn’t live up to human expectations. The second is that the promises of Scripture are better than anything we would expect – so that’s where we should look for Jesus. Again, don’t forget the most important detail of this journey to Emmaus: Jesus was with these disciples. He walked beside them. He talked with them. And, when he had heard their hopeless story, he rebuked them and corrected them. How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Jesus put his finger on the real problem, didn’t he? The problem was not with Jesus, the problem was with the disciples; they had the wrong expectations. We shouldn’t think that these disciples expected what many of their fellow Jews did: a revolutionary Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire. No, even though their faith was weak and incomplete, it was there. And from what they report about the events of the previous week we gather that their disappointment didn’t stem from the fact that he died, but the fact that he hadn’t yet showed himself to them alive – they had hoped for Jesus to establish a kingdom on earth. And yet, while Jesus would reveal himself to them in the end by breaking bread with them, that expectation was misplaced and foolish. Why? Because faith doesn’t need to see and touch, faith needs only to hold on to God’s promises. (see Luke 16:31) The disciples weren’t lacking visible proof of Jesus’ resurrection; they were lacking faith. That’s they lesson they learned in the end, wasn’t it? Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Jesus rekindled their faith and joy, not by revealing himself to them – he disappeared again in moments – but by pointing them back to Scripture.
Have you felt sad or downcast or disappointed in the 14 days since Easter? Why? Is it because it turns out Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? No, he did; more than 500 people saw him alive. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Is it because you have committed a sin that can’t be forgiven? No, John assures us that the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) Is it because your life has taken a turn you didn’t expect? Maybe. Is it because you have grown frustrated with the people around you or life in general? Possibly. Is it because Jesus is not the Risen Savior you expected him to be? Getting warmer. Or is it because like those disciples you are slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken – or even worse, you don’t know your Bible well enough to know what the prophets have said? Bingo. If you don’t know your Bible and believe what it says you will always be disappointed because you don’t know what Jesus has promised. So if you’re tired of wandering through life like those disciples, then turn to the one place Jesus promises to be found – and you will find that what he promises is better than anything you could have expected.
That’s a pretty big claim; let’s put it to the test. I’m struggling with chronic pain or a sickness that just won’t go away, I’ve prayed about it and was expecting Jesus to have cured me by now. No wonder you’re sad. Jesus has promised no such thing. This is what he did say to the Apostle Paul when he pleaded with the Lord to take away the thorn in his flesh: my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) If a physical ailment has forced you to rely on God for strength – that’s a good thing! I looked around the church on Easter and saw how full it was and I was expecting that God would keep bringing those people back and keep our church growing. No wonder you’re disappointed (I am too!). You’ve forgotten that even as Jesus commands us to preach the Gospel to all people, he reveals that the seed will fall on all sorts of different kinds of soil, that most people who hear the Word will let the devil or the world or worry or unbelief crowd it out. (Matthew 13:1-23) I have sinned but I repented and so I was expecting that I wouldn’t face any consequences. No wonder you’re confused. Forgiveness doesn’t prevent earthly consequences, but even then the book of Hebrews offers this assurance: do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. (Hebrews 12:5-6) Discipline is not a sign that God has abandoned you, but that he loves you! Life is short and hard, and at the end of it, you die – I expected more as a disciple of Christ. No one is denying that life is hard. That’s why Christian hope is not built on what we see but on what is unseen, safe with our Savior in heaven. Paul wrote: Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18) Those are just a few examples, but I hope you get the point. Hoping that Jesus will live up to your fallen, limited expectations will only leave you sad and disappointed. But when you open your Bible and read it and trust it, your will find that God’s promises are better than you ever would have expected; so that you can say: was not my heart burning within me while he talked with me and opened the Scriptures to me?
Charles Dickens was on to something. People of all times and places have great expectations, but reality regularly dashes those expectations. Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus had great expectations for Jesus. They were sad because Jesus wasn’t what they expected him to be. But when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them he taught them that their Risen Savior was even better than they expected. He is our redeemer; and our redeemer lives! Turn away from your own expectations – expectations that regularly leave you sad and hopeless. Turn instead to the promises of Scripture – where Jesus walks with you and talks with you, rekindling your hope and joy; that great expectation will never disappoint, because Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Amen.