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Detour

Written by Pastor Aaron Decker. Posted in Sermons

Easter 3(A) - Luke 24:13-35

When I graduated from High School, I was one of those lucky people who had been successful in discerning my future goals and career plans.  It had become so clear as a junior and senior, particularly thanks to the leadership of Mr. Weiss, a teacher with a goofy sense of humor who called all of his students “Chief,” I suspect, because he wasn’t very good with names—but who recognized my interest in the subject matter and made sure that interest was stimulated.  So by the time I entered college, I knew for certain:  I was going to be… a theoretical physicist.

And ever since then, I feel like my life has just been one giant detour.  I remember a night in early December, halfway through my fifth year at the little four-year college I was attending in Michigan.  I was with a bunch of friends at a pre-Christmas party at the home of the college music department’s staff pianist, who had just gotten the new Batman video game and was showing it off.  My friend Holly and I spent a good half hour trying to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew—it turns out that a butter knife does NOT make a good substitute.  It should have been a fun evening, but I couldn’t concentrate on it.  An hour earlier, I was on the phone with my mother, and finally had to admit that my grades had slipped.  A lot.  Again.  And she informed me, quite rightly of course, that when the semester came to an end two weeks later, I’d be coming home, and I wouldn’t be going back.

This, of course, meant that my life was over.  I was dropping out of college.  It is, incidentally, particularly difficult to break into theoretical physics without a college degree.  In fact, in our world today, it’s rather difficulty to break into anything, even with a college degree.  My future wasn’t just uncertain.  It was hopeless.  And I would also be leaving my friends, and the place I’d called home for four and a half years, and stuck back in that backward place where I’d grown up.  Things were pretty bleak.

You can hear a kind of bleakness in the words of Cleopas and the other disciple on their way to Emmaus.  The crucifixion is certainly on their mind.  They’re talking about it even before this stranger comes along.  And then when he asks about it, the disciples tell him, pretty thoroughly, what has happened.  Jesus was condemned to death and crucified.  “But we had hoped…”  We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.  Which, of course, implies its opposite.  We had hoped, but obviously not, since he was killed.  We had invested all our hopes in Jesus, and now?  And now what hope do we have?

It is a little difficult to take them really seriously, since we know that the Jesus who was crucified is walking there along with them, is in fact the person they are describing all these things to.  But, of course, they don’t know that.  Which is, admittedly, a little odd.  After all, they have just spent months, if not years, following Jesus around from place to place, listening to his teachings, witnessing his miracles.  How is it possible that they don’t recognize him?  There’s this great image that the materials we use to put together our bulletins has, with Jesus walking with the two disciples, except that the hood of his cloak is pulled down over his eyes so you can’t really see who he is, like that’s how silly the idea is that they don’t recognize him after spending so much time with him, that that’s the best image we can come up with!

And then they tell him about the resurrection, or at least about the empty tomb.  “Just this morning,” they say, “some of the women among us went to the tomb, and the body was gone, and an angel came and said that Jesus was alive.”  They say it.  But they don’t believe it, because if they did, they’d know who they were with.  So then Jesus begins explaining to them from the prophets that the Messiah must suffer and then enter into his glory—or not really explaining it, but reminding them of it, because it’s something Jesus has been saying all along.  They’ve heard it before, and from the same mouth, but they still don’t understand.  They still don’t see who is standing there with them.  How exactly can they be that out to lunch?

A lot of interpreters say that there must be something fundamentally different about Jesus—or at least the way he is embodied—after the resurrection.  This is taken to explain why they don’t recognize him; it’s because he doesn’t look like he used to.  And there’s a lot of evidence for that opinion, especially since it seems to be true in several of the Gospels.  Mary doesn’t recognize him in the garden near the tomb, thinking he’s a gardener until he says her name.  He enters the room with the disciples even though the door is closed and locked, and then does it again a week later to show Thomas his hands and side.  Something is different about him, to be sure…

But I’m not convinced we need to resort to that explanation for why these two disciples don’t know it’s Jesus.  They have a clear expectation.  Jesus was crucified, and died, and was buried.  And for all the talk about raising from the dead, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen.  And, in fact, maybe it’s good that sort of thing doesn’t happen.  After all, if Jesus really had risen from the dead, why, it would change everything, wouldn’t it?  It would change the meaning of what this life is about, if we really believed, if we really knew, that life doesn’t end with death.  If we really believed that God was good and loving and cared about us so much that he’d die for us—and then defeat death for us.  If we knew our lives weren’t just seventy or ninety years long, but were really lived for all eternity; if our fundamental purpose wasn’t to earn a living, or raise a family, or succeed in a career, or make something of ourselves and hopefully pass something on to a further generation, but if our fundamental purpose was to be loved by our Creator, if that was what we were here for, we would have to live our lives pretty differently than we do, we would have to make different choices in our lives, we would have to do everything differently.  In light of the new life promised to us in Jesus Christ—  even that, listen to the language we use:  “Promised to us,” as if it’s not actually already true, it’s just a promise that might someday come true.  All of the expectations we have of our lives, all of the worldly values that we cling to, all of the things we do for the sake of short-term personal gain, all of it would have to change.  Could it be that we’re afraid of seeing Jesus resurrected, because we’re afraid of what it will do to us?  Because we’re in love with our worldly lives, and we don’t want to give them up, and if we see Jesus alive, we know we’ll have to?  Maybe those disciples on the way to Emmaus don’t see Jesus there, right in front of their face, in part because they don’t really want to.

Not that they had a choice.  Jesus followed them to the village, and sat with them at the table, and he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and then they saw. And then, they did something interesting, something that’s easy to miss when you’re just reading this story.  Within the hour, they set out, and went to Jerusalem.  At the beginning of the story, after the crucifixion, they’re traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a good seven miles, presumably to head back to their old lives.  They had followed this Jesus around for a while, hoping that he would prove to be the Messiah, but instead, he came to a tragic end.  Their hopes were dashed.  What was there to do but go back to their old lives?  Go home and pick up the fishing nets.  Go back to work at the tax collector’s office.  Go back to the way things had been before.  This had been a nice little detour, but ultimately a foolish one, and it was time to get back on the right path.  And then they see the risen Jesus, and they turn around, and go back to Jerusalem, to rejoin the band of disciples, and proclaim the Good News, and their lives have changed forever.  Jesus is the detour, and they are actively avoiding him, but he shows up anyway, and there’s no going back.

I wanted to be a theoretical physicist.  I’m amazed that the universe works in the very strange ways it does, that the speed of the passage of time varies depending on your frame of reference, that virtual particles are constantly popping into existence and destroying each other within nanoseconds everywhere all the time, that the way that things work on the subatomic level makes a whole lot more sense if we assume our universe has not three or four but twenty-one dimensions.  These things are fascinating!  I wanted to spend my life studying them!  And I could probably make pretty good money at it too.  Which is why I’m here, in a pulpit in central Massachusetts, and probably happier than I ever would have been doing Calculus on subatomic particles.  And I’m 37 years old now, and I’d really like to finally settle down somewhere, put down roots, become invested in a community, and have a home and a family and a life.  It’s time for all that.  Which is why I’m moving into a tiny dorm room on a college campus in a few months, going back to school to upset the apple cart all over again.  My life is constantly on a detour.  Because, after all, that’s exactly where following the risen Jesus gets you—and I’d hardly say I’m the best example in the world of what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ.  But even if you do it as poorly as I do sometimes, you still can’t help but have a changed life because of it.  That’s the bad news.  It’s also the good news; the very, very good news.

Sisters and Brothers, I know it’s difficult and frightening to be a disciple of Christ.  It requires you to give up an awful lot of what you hold dear.  It means you’re going to have to do some things that look very foolish.  It means giving up all your priorities and living according to God’s priorities instead.  And so I’m not going to exhort you to be better followers of Jesus.  Because, as it turns out, you don’t really have a choice.  Jesus reveals himself to you over and over again, as he will in just a few minutes in the breaking of this bread.  And when he does, your life will change, like it or not.  Life with Christ is a major detour.  But oh, how wonderful are the places he’ll take you.  Amen.