Northwest of Winston-Salem, there’s a little town called King, North Carolina. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Christian leader, teacher, and writer who has come and spoken to us at GFBC before, grew up there, and he called it “one of those last bastions of Christendom between the ever-expanding holes in America’s Bible Belt.” The people of King, much like many of us and our families, talked about Jesus as if he lived around the corner. Jonathan’s people taught him to love God, memorize Scripture, and follow Jesus in everything he did. During the 1980s, when Jonathan grew up, the people of King, North Carolina were swept up in the Moral Majority movement, a political movement led by Jerry Falwell that aimed to turn conservative evangelicals into a reliable Republican voting bloc. Jonathan got swept up in this fervor, too, and one day he decided that God had called him to be President of the United States … in Jesus’ name!
Jonathan worked hard and while he was still a teenager, he became a page for a United States Senator from North Carolina. I can only imagine how jarring the transition had to be for Jonathan to go from King, North Carolina (which, to this day, still numbers less than ten thousand people) to Washington, DC. If you drive down Main Street in King, today, the tallest things are the billboards for fast food restaurants and gas stations. Next thing he knew, Jonathan was instead walking beneath the massive dome of the United States Capitol Building and the daunting edifice of the Supreme Court. The strip malls of King were replaced with the imposing monuments to past Presidents and to soldiers who died in war. Jonathan described himself as “a country boy in the city, … dressed in my Sunday best, doing everything I knew how to fit in.” I can imagine myself at his age, running around trying to look professional despite the comedy of a disheveled suit that didn’t quite match the rapidly-changing proportions of a growing teenager.
Every day, Jonathan ran through Union Station, trying to catch the Metro to whatever meeting or appointment he needed to be at next. His daily journey was filled with new sights and sounds to process – the screeching of a halting Metro train, the thumping of street musicians playing on buckets, the fast-talking that happens in between too-busy lives in big cities, and the pounding of thousands of fancy-shoed feet on swelteringly hot concrete and asphalt. Not unlike the travelers in our Scripture reading for today, it was in the middle of one of these trips to Union Station that Jonathan met Jesus – and he totally didn’t recognize him.
We’ll come back to Jonathan’s story later and hear about his meeting with Jesus, but I want to dwell on that point for a bit. Jonathan didn’t recognize Jesus – in fact, Jonathan said he nearly tripped over him. Jonathan isn’t unlike our travelers to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel. Like Jonathan, they had been enthusiastic followers of Jesus for quite a while. Tradition says that Cleopas and his companion were among the seventy disciples commissioned by Jesus in the Gospels. They weren’t one of the Twelve disciples, but they were still pretty important folks. They were some of the first and most loyal followers of Jesus. They had done the first century equivalent of participating in all the church programs, memorizing all the Bible verses, singing in the choir, going on hospital visits, even volunteering for Family Promise! (That’s a shameless plug.) They’d done all this stuff with Jesus, but when he walked up next to them on the way to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him.
That’s weird, right? For centuries, Christians have provided a thousand explanations for why these travelers didn’t recognize Jesus. Some people wonder if Jesus actually looked different – maybe somehow his resurrected body was somehow different. But Jesus was raised in the same body in which he died, a body he still retains today, so that doesn’t seem to make sense. Others wonder if he was wearing a hood or something and they couldn’t see his face – or maybe he covered up his hands so they couldn’t see the nail holes. Others say that God prevented them from seeing Jesus, much like God hardened many hearts in the Old Testament. I think the explanation is a lot simpler than that, though. There’s a clue right there on the surface in how the travelers respond to Jesus.
As this stranger comes up to Cleopas and his companion, they were talking about Jesus. They weren’t having a particularly happy conversation apparently, because when Stranger Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, Luke tells us “They stood still, looking sad.” This sadness is confusing, though! Why are they sad? They go on to describe the life, death, AND the resurrection of Jesus. They already know Jesus has been raised! They know that death couldn’t hold Jesus, that somehow Jesus overcome death … but they were still sad. This good news wasn’t enough for them. This miracle wasn’t enough for them. What we see as world-shattering may have appeared odd to them, but it apparently wasn’t enough. Even resurrection disappoints.
Even resurrection disappoints.
Why were they still sad even though they knew of the reports of resurrection? In the middle of their response is a clue. Jesus asked them “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” But. We. Had. Hoped.
That’s a demoralizing phrase: “but we had hoped.” It speaks to the disappointment that followed years of eager anticipation for a salvation that did not come – even in the resurrection! Perhaps Cleopas and his companion were among the number who believed Jesus was here to overthrow the Romans, topple the religious establishment, and make Israel great once again. There were many movements in Jesus’ time that wanted to re-establish Israel as a great nation, an empire to be reckoned with alongside Rome. So many anticipated a Messiah who came with a sword and shield to protect and defend the homeland. So many expected a conquering hero, a divine emperor, or a supernatural warlord. Apparently, resurrection didn’t change that. Jesus did little to fulfill these expectations. Even resurrection disappoints.
Maybe that’s why they couldn’t see Jesus.
Their own expectations clouded the miracle before their eyes. Their own ideas about who God had to be made the resurrected Jesus look like a stranger to them. Their own goals, agendas, and priorities made God disappear before their very eyes. Resurrection, miraculous as it was, did nothing for the hopes and expectations they had set for themselves and for God.
That’s an experience familiar to all of us.
We have all these hopes and expectations for our lives, and not all of them turn out. Not all of them pan out exactly how we’d like – or at all. Some of these hopes can prevent us from seeing Jesus, too.
As a youth minister, I’m aware – acutely aware – that if there is any place in the church where we have larger-than-life hopes and expectations, it is for our youth. We put expectations on our teenagers that no one in their right mind can handle or accept. We have these hopes for our youth to follow a plan we may or may not have followed ourselves. We hope they will get good grades right now. We hope they will work their butts off to get into a good school. We hope they will graduate from college and get a good job right away. We hope they will meet someone nice and settle down to start a family. We hope they will have children as soon as possible so we can be grandparents. We hope this American Dream for them, but the bad news is that hope can often prevent us – all of us, youth and adults – from seeing Jesus.
It's not that all these hopes are necessarily bad. Not all of Cleopas’ hopes are bad. Our hopes and dreams are not necessarily awful or totally uninteresting to God, but when we idolize our hopes, they can loom so large in our mind that we miss Jesus right in front of us. We can put so much pressure on our children to succeed, to excel, to achieve, even to be someone they’re not, that we can prevent them from hearing, seeing, and feeling what God wants in their life.
Holding all these hopes and expectations can produce great fear in us. That’s precisely what is happening on the way to Emmaus. Frederick Buechner, a Christian writer, says that Emmaus is where we go when life becomes too much for us to bear, “wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’” He says, “Emmaus is … wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die.” That’s what our hopes can do to us when they loom so large, over ourselves or over others, like our youth. They create fears of loneliness, inadequacy, or neglect. When so much is put on our plate, it can feel like no one has ever been where we are before. When so much is expected of us, we can feel like we are alone to face these expectations. When the hopes people have for us are so high, we can feel like we are not good enough a person to live up to these hopes. We can feel like God didn’t make us good enough for the people who love us. We can also fear when left alone with these expectations that no one cares for us apart from what they expect for us. If we fail to meet these hopes and dreams, will anyone care about us at all?
But it’s exactly on the road to Emmaus, the road of all our fears, that God meets us.
Even as all these hopes and expectations prevent us from seeing Jesus, Jesus is still there. That’s the good news. That’s why if you’ve spent any time with us in the youth ministry over the past few months, part of everything we do as a youth ministry has to do with being able to stop and try to meet God where we are. We do all these different prayer exercises and ways of reading the Bible hopeful that we just meet God right where we are. We do that because when Jesus was near, Cleopas and his friend say that their hearts burn. Even as we prevent ourselves with all our hopes and expectations, the good and the bad, our hearts burn when God is near.
Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, the movement of God to save the world, Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is within you.” When God is near, our hearts burn with the kingdom of God. Even in the midst of all our fears, even while all of everyone’s hopes and expectations may distract us, our hearts still burn when God is near. And, let’s be clear, that burning is a scary, unsettling feeling. It’s not a cozy warmth that you feel next to the fireplace in the winter. It’s a divine chest pain that lets you know something needs to change, something isn’t right, and that intervention is necessary.
The kingdom of God is a scary concept that calls us to live different lives than we had hoped to live.
The kingdom of God is a scary place where the rules aren’t what we expected them to be.
The kingdom of God is a scary life that doesn’t match up with our own hopes and expectations – for ourselves or for our children.
But maybe the only thing scarier than the kingdom is the weight of all those hopes we have for ourselves, all those expectations people have for us. The burning hearts that recognize that God is near recognize that in Jesus we find liberation and freedom from all these fears that haunt us. Fears that we are alone or not good enough. The burning hearts that recognize God is near – even if we can’t see God right in front of us – recognize that in the kingdom of God, God is working to make things right. The burning heart calls us to a different world and a different life, one this is so much better than the one we – or anyone else – had dreamed up for us. It may not have the fenced-in yard, a nice car, 2 kids, and a dog like the American Dream, but Jesus will be there.
Back to Jonathan’s story.
As you remember, Jonathan was eagerly trying to become President … in Jesus’ name! He was a page for a United States Senator and in a rush from one important meeting to another. In his busy, daily rush through Union Station, Jonathan was trying to look cool, calm, and collected despite all his anxiety, anticipation, and ambition. He ran through Union Station, as one does, and he noticed ever-so-briefly a homeless man leaning against the wall outside the turnstiles. The man looked up and locked eyes with Jonathan and all the things Jonathan had been taught about this man came to his mind. “Poor folks in the city,” he’d been taught, “[they were all] lazy and begged for money to buy drugs and booze.” Their eyes locked, the man asked Jonathan if he could spare any change and the man held out a brittle Styrofoam cup. Jonathan, remembering all that he’d been taught – well, not all, as he’d soon remember – looked right on through the man and didn’t say a word. He stepped into Union Station and the glass doors closed behind him.
And then his heart began to burn.
Words fell into place for Jonathan in his mind’s eye and a memory verse from Sunday School appeared. In the old King James, “Verily, I say unto you inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not unto me,” or in more modern language: “I promise you, what you haven’t done for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.” “I knew that if those words were true,” Jonathan thought, if all the things I’d learned about God throughout my life were true, if all the prayers I’d said, the hymns I’d sung, if all of them were true, “I had not only just ignored a fellow human being; I had completely missed the Lord I was trying to serve.” His heart burning with the kingdom of God, Jonathan abandoned his work and ran as fast as he could back to his little dorm room to grab $20 for Jesus. “It was the only thing I could think to do at the time,” Jonathan wrote later. “I just didn’t want to miss Jesus.”
Jesus can be right in front of us and we’ll miss it. But the good news is that Jesus meets us right where we are, in the middle of our walks, in the middle of our homes, and in the middle of supper, to remind us of the world God has for us. God disrupts not just our comfort and our easy life, but God disrupts our fears and our hard life, too, offering a new hope, a new way, and a new life.
Jonathan grew up with the hope and expectation of succeeding and achieving so much that he would become President of the United States. Today, Jonathan is not President – obviously. Instead, Jonathan has lived for many years in an intentional community in Durham. He started a movement of Christians who have tried to live together in an alternative way that’s kind to their community, the environment, and each other. He was in Baghdad during the part of the Iraq War, trying to practice making peace and learning from our Iraqi brothers and sisters. He founded the Rutba House, his intentional community, and the School for Conversion, that helps everyday folks deal with issues of justice and inequality in the world. He works, too, with prisoners and emphasizes the importance of reconciliation instead of retribution in the criminal justice system. That’s not the life Jonathan had planned for himself, but it’s where Jesus took him.
Let’s be clear, I don’t tell you all that about Jonathan to present him as some kind of saint or hero. I have a feeling he wouldn’t appreciate that. I tell you that about his life because it shows us just how much God can have for us when we pay attention to when our hearts burn. I don’t know what makes your heart burn, I don’t know where God is trying to meet you right now. Maybe your heart burns when you hear the stories of refugees trying to have a new life. Some Baptists opened a Welcome House for refugees last week about 10 minutes away from our church. Maybe your heart burns when you realize how many people in our community are hungry when they don’t have to be. We feed over a hundred kids through our Backpack Buddies program each week. Maybe your heart burns when you think about all of those people without homes in our midst. Family Promise hosts families at churches every week of the year, including ours. Wherever your heart burns, though, know that it might be doing that because God is there and God wants to meet you there. On the other side of that divine heartburn, there may be a whole life you didn’t know you could have. On the other side, you just might find the kingdom of God.