In only four words — “But we had hoped” (Luke 24:21) — we find one of the most profound expressions of human emotion in the entire New Testament.
In the midst of all that was taking place around Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago, Cleopas “stood still, looking sad,” for his life had taken a surprising turn for the worse. He had hoped that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,”yet it appeared that such dreams were shattered. Because of it all, Cleopas was left to move forward into a reality that he had not previously imagined. But we had hoped.
One can presume that Cleopas and his travel companion on the road to Emmaus not only felt shocked, lost, angry, and afraid, but also that their collection of emotions were representative of most who have come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. While many had expected Jesus to be with them “mighty in word and deed” for many years to come, he was suddenly removed from their presence. In light of all that took place, the dreams of those who believed in Jesus were abruptly dashed, and the community of disciples was left — both literally and metaphorically — wandering down the road into a future that seemed removed of joy and filled with despair. But we had hoped.
David Lose discusses how at various points in life we all have either uttered or pondered such words. Our existence is filled with unforeseen twists and turns that can lead to distress, discontent, and even disillusionment. When our lives contain unanticipated struggle we hope for it all to be made well, and when all seems to be well we hope that it all will continue for as long as possible. While we as human beings are diverse in countless ways, we all have experienced sudden moments of unpredicted disappointment and we all have felt the torrential downpour of despair.
...But we had hoped the cancer would heal.
...But we had hoped the marriage would work.
...But we had hoped the promotion would come.
...But we had hoped the legislation would pass.
...But we had hoped the money would last.
...But we had hoped the children would behave.
...But we had hoped… But we had hoped… But we had hoped… But we had hoped….
With these four profound words, we not only learn to relate with all that Cleopas and others were feeling immediately after the death of Jesus. We are also inspired to name and claim those moments of surprising disappointment that we also often experience.
When dreams appear to shatter and our plans for the future do no match up with what has actually occurred, at times we react with anger and try to pass blame. Yet perhaps most of all, we are left wondering — like Cleopos and other disciples — where was God in the midst of it all? Was God not with us? Where was God when our secure and predictable future suddenly became insecure and unpredictable? Where was God when we felt pain by no fault of our own? Where was God when we cried, screamed, and shouted with sadness? Where was God when the path forward seemed to crumble and we were left to wonder how the pieces could be placed back together? But we had hoped…
When Cleopas and the other disciples experienced deep grief, “their eyes were kept from recognizing” the presence of God in their midst, and this momentary spiritual disability kept them from seeing the awesome possibilities that were standing right in front of them. However, in an amazing twist of events, Jesus eventually opened Cleopas’ eyes, and in doing so Cleopas was shown a new way to walk an old path. For instead of disappointment and anger, Cleopas and his travel companion embraced the awesome new life that was awaiting them. Through it all, the two on the Road to Emmaus were shown how God was at work in the complexity of their daily lives — and no matter what the circumstances, they had nothing to fear and everything to embrace.
Ultimately, the disciples were shown that the clouds of life will clear, the sun always rises, and the risen Jesus gives his followers burning hearts to keep moving forward on the path laid out before them. As we collectively look to the future and wonder what it all may bring, we can listen to the story of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. Just as God made their hearts burn within them back then, God continues to do the same for us here and now.
More specifically, we are reminded that although most things in life never stay the same, we can be fully assured that one thing will remain unchanged: the promise of Jesus to accompany us.
Whether the future brings that which was once expected, or even if the time ahead bring that which could not have been foreseen, in Jesus we are given the blessed assurance that we have nothing to fear. Through this, we are set free to experience life in its absolute fullness.
And so, regardless of which path we are all called to travel, may we continue to look up, reach out, and see the awesome presence of God in every face we see and on every road we travel. For it is with God’s Spirit that we are given all that we need for the journey ahead.
May we embrace the promise of God’s abiding presence, feel the comfort and challenge that comes with it, and together, may we move forward into an unknown future with confidence that all will indeed be well.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).