People and dust choked the road as they vacated the city after Passover. Jerusalem once so full of life now reeked of death. The two clung to each other and shuffled more than walked. Dust rose and covered their tear-stained faces. Dashed expectations mingled with awful grief weighed them down like over-full donkey panyards.
Next to Cleopas, small like a desert hen, his wife smeared fresh tears from her face, the sleeve of her garment wet with them. She had been crying for three days. He was helpless to stop it.
“This is not what I expected,” she said for the hundredth time. “Was he not the Messiah?”
“No, wife.” He pulled his beard. “They could not kill the Messiah. Not without a fight. When they arrested him, I expected him to summon the host of God and smash this unjust and oppressive government. I was ready to fight. He was supposed to redeem Israel! How could we have been so mistaken about him? Did he trick us?” He spat dust from his mouth.
Just then a man fell in beside them. But they paid him no mind.
“What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?”* he asked.
“The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene.” Cleopas’ throat stung as if his words were splinters. “He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel.”*
The man listened and walked. But he seemed not to share their grief. Instead he said, “Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?”*
She gasped and grabbed Cleopas’ hand. The man’s words kindled a strange, small fire in her heart. Then quoting Moses, the Law and the Prophets the man told them of a suffering Messiah, a servant king, a high priest who shared their hearts, a different kind of kingdom, a Passover lamb who would be slain for them.
With each teaching, Cleopas and his wife looked at one another dangerous hope replacing their tears. Could it be? The things Jesus had said rolled through their minds like words on a scroll. Expectancy rose in them as if with bird’s wings. Their hearts opened.
Finally they stood before their home in Emmaus and the man said, “Isaiah himself wrote, ‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’ This was the Father’s plan from the beginning. Now I must go.”
Familiarity in the way he called the Lord Father fluttered in her heart.
“Stay with us, for it is nearly evening,”* she said her voice quavering. She believed this beautiful, wise man held more for them. She could not let the moment end.
He nodded. Smiled.
Inside she prepared bread and wine for them to eat. He took the bread and prayed and broke it and handed it to them.
And suddenly it was as if they were back in the upper room celebrating the Seder with Jesus. Light filled the room, truth filled her heart. It was Jesus. Now they saw the wounds in his hands. Now they saw the familiar love in his eyes. It was true. He had risen from the dead!
And then he was gone. That was just like him too. Hearts filled with fiery, joyful hope they left the meal sitting and ran, flew as if with eagle’s wings, back to Jerusalem to tell the others. What had happened was beyond their expectations. Jesus had not conquered Rome but death!
This recounting of one of the numerous encounters Jesus’ disciples had with the risen Messiah holds many truths and lessons for us. But the question my retelling addresses is why did Cleopas and his unnamed companion, whom I’ve chosen to name his wife, not recognize Jesus? Was his resurrected body transfigured in some way? Probably. Was their grief so deep? Surely.
But I believe it was also that their expectations of who they believed Jesus as Messiah should have been blinded them.
This had been the case from Jesus’ birth. No one expected Jesus to be born in a stable and hale from Nazareth. And from the stable on, Jesus’ life was a series of breaking people’s expectations, except for Anna and Simeon who waited expectantly for the Messiah and had their Godward hopes fulfilled.
God does not fit in our boxes labeled “Expectations.” God is too big, too wonderful, too holy.
We Are Blinded to Jesus by our Expectations
I grew up on rock ’n’ roll. My church was the cab of my pickup truck listening to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven cranked on the radio. After I started attending church, I naively expected the same kind of music. Boy, was I disappointed.
By God’s ironic sense of humor, in the 90s I served a wonderful but very traditional church in Tulsa. One of the hymns we sang often (too often in my opinion) was Be Thou my Vision accompanied by a full pipe organ. I would inwardly groan when I heard those first ponderous notes crank up and fill the sanctuary. I can honestly say I hated that song. All those thees and thous and the dirge like music. All I could think of was Christian rocker Larry Norman’s lyrics from his song Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?Norman sang, “I don’t like none of those funeral marches I ain’t dead yet!”
Then I attended a conference for pastors in Atlanta. It was a dry spiritual time in my life and my heart was yearning to hear from God. Though I had no idea how, I knew God had a message for me.
Right before we moved into worship singing, I left to use the restroom. As I walked back toward my seat, the worship band began to play Be Thou my Vision arranged for guitar and drums.
“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light”
Suddenly the meaning of the words struck me and I literally dropped to my knees right there in front of 40,000 other pastors. God sang to my dry heart, “I want your focus. Your heart’s desire. Your only vision.”
God transformed me that day. My heart for Christ came back alive. God spoke to me through a hymn I hated. I did not expect that. But God didn’t care. Now many years later Be Thou my Vision is my favorite hymn, even played on the organ. I learned that day that my expectations of God and what kind of music and style of worship God could speak through had deafened me to God’s sung and spoken word. By God’s grace, more often than not, I stand in awe and worship of God, dropping my box of expectations and placing myself in God’s hands with open anticipation. Expectancy.
Name and Replace Your Expectations with Expectancy
Maybe your expectations are that God can only speak through hymns or the KJV or a funny, relevant pastor or the kind of church you grew up in. Maybe you think God can only speak to you when you are on a river fly fishing or watching a sunset or sitting in holy silence. Maybe you believe God doesn’t speak at all.
But as Cleopas and the other disciple learned, God speaks when and how God needs to. Our role in hearing God and being transformed is laying aside our expectations and opening our hearts and hands to God with expectancy.
*All quotes in bold are from Luke 24 The Message.