Luke 24: 13 – 35
A burglar broke into a house and was looking around. He heard a soft voice say, “Jesus is watching you”. Thinking it was just his imagination, he continued his search. Again the voice said, “Jesus is watching you”. He turned his flashlight around and saw a parrot in a cage. He asked the parrot if he was the one talking and the parrot said, “yes.” He asked the parrot what his name was and the parrot said, “Moses.” The burglar asked, “what kind of people would name a parrot Moses?” The parrot said, “the same kind of people who would name their pit bull Jesus”.
It’s very disconcerting to think that God can be watching us, indeed is with us, at any time, yet this is what the story of the journey to Emmaus was all about. But that story of the journey to Emmaus begins much earlier than that first Easter evening, in the book of Genesis.
Abraham and Sarah were very old and had no children but, according to the story in Genesis, God makes a promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have many descendents. In the story of Abraham and Sarah there is a crucial verse upon which the whole story hangs: God asks Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In other words, is there anything the Lord cannot do?
The Lord appears to Abraham by the trees of Mamre as he sits in the shade of the tent door. Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men standing by him, and then he bows himself to the ground; he knows it is the Lord. The three men, or angels, are referred to collectively as the Lord. Abraham provides a meal for them, and God promises Abraham that his wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah, who is eaves-dropping outside the tent, laughs at the very thought of it! The Lord, hearing the laughter of Sarah’s soul, asks Abraham, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?”
“Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” It feels like a trick question, rather like “have you stopped beating your wife, answer yes or no?” If we say yes something is too hard for God, then seem to be denying God’s power. If we no, nothing is too hard for God, our experience makes us, at best, uneasy in such an affirmation.
Is it true that nothing is impossible for God? In our theology, in our prayers, and in our hymns, we describe God as ‘Almighty,’ but does God have total freedom? Is there nothing that is impossible for him? Can God commit suicide? Can God swim? A six-year-old child can swim, but can God? Can God make an object which is too heavy for God to lift? Are we able to do something that God cannot do? Can God make an object so that it is black all over and white at the same time? The French philosopher, Descartes, believed so. He said that “God created this world with its laws of logic but God would have been capable of creating universes within different laws of logic. We simply have no idea … of what is and what is not possible for God, so we cannot lay down any limitations on God’s absolute omnipotence”.
Why am I telling you about the story of Abraham and Sarah in such detail, when we have that glorious story of the journey to Emmaus to consider? The story of Abraham and Sarah underpins the story of Cleopas and his friend with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his friend walk along the road to Emmaus discussing the death of Jesus and the events which surrounded it. Though they do not recognise him, Jesus joins them and together they discuss the Scriptures. Later, we are told that their hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke to them. Arriving at their home, they invite Jesus to stay with them; he is reluctant to come in, but agrees and they eat together. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, Abraham is joined by the Lord, they eat together and, later in the story beyond what we read today, when Abraham and the Lord travel to see Lot, Lot invites the Lord to stay with him. The Lord declines, Lot insists, the Lord decides to stay with Lot and together they share bread. The stories are very similar and, most crucially, the Gospel of Luke was written partly for the worship of the early church and on the Sabbath when the Jews would read the story of Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish Christians used the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The story of Emmaus, then, is one of God journeying with his people, of God being with his people in their darkness and, ultimately, of God bringing life out of death and the creation of a new community.
When we visited the holy land, we went to Emmaus, at least I thought we did. Now I’m not so sure. Having done more research, the actual location of Emmaus is more of a mystery than I first thought. There are several places that claim to be Emmaus. One is Emmaus Nicopolis (c. 160 stadia from Jerusalem); another is Kiryat Anavim (66 stadia from Jerusalem on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is Coloniya (36 stadia on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is el-Kubeibeh (63 stadia, on the Roman road to Lydda); yet another is Artas (60 stadia from Jerusalem); and the final claimant is Khurbet al-Khamasa (86 stadia on the Roman road to Eleutheropolis). The oldest tradition is Emmaus Nicopolis, and I think that’s where we went, but the claim is by no means certain.
I looked a little bit further into it, and discovered not only is there confusion over where the location is, but the very name of Emmaus itself causes yet more confusion. One of the oldest extant versions of the Gospel of Luke, preserved in an ancient text called the Codex Bezae, does not name the place as Emmaus, but “Oulammaus”. In the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, Oulammaus occurs somewhere else, and that was the place where Jacob was visited by God in his dream, while sleeping on a rock, which we heard in our other reading from Genesis. However, Oulammaus was not a real place name at all, but was created only by an unfortunate translation mistake. The original name of that place in Hebrew was “Luz”, which we heard today. This mistake is the story of Jacob has, of course, long been corrected, but it was still there at the time when Luke’s Gospel was written around AD100.
So, given there is immense confusion about both the location of Emmaus and the name, which bears a striking coincidence to a place name in the Hebrew scriptures being where Jacob encountered God, I wonder if Luke gave us this story to draw a parallel between Abraham and Sarah being visited by God, Jacob being visited by God, and the disciples being visited by the risen Christ.
Now, I don’t want you to go home and say that the preacher said the story of the road to Emmaus never happened and it’s all made up. I’m saying no such thing. It might very well have happened. What I am saying is that much more important, we have a story to remind us that the risen Christ is with us, just as God was with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob. The important message of the story of the road to Emmaus, then, is that the risen Christ is with his people today, as he was with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob, with Cleopas and the disciples.
This, then, is not something that happened once in history, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob, to Cleopas, but something that happens always and everywhere. This story of the journey to Emmaus, and its antecedents is not a story of something that happened, but a pointer and a reminder of something that is happening now. Just as God came to Abraham and Sarah, just as God came to Jacob, just as the risen Christ came to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, God is coming to us today, in this place, in this community, in this week. Will we recognise him? Will we point him out to others?
We must not allow the story of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus to become history, to be imprisoned in the past. The early Church took the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jacob, and re-worked them with their unshakable belief in the risen Christ, and we too must take the story and apply it afresh. Nothing is impossible for God: God is able to bring light to our darkness and life out of death, if we recognise it.