Luke 24: 13-35
Have you ever found yourself living in the days following a great disappointment when something you had been hoping for and praying seemed just about ready to come true, and then suddenly it just seemed to vanish or evaporate right in front of your eyes? Perhaps you had a relationship that you thought was going to blossom into marriage. Perhaps you were poised for that new job or that promotion on the job that you thought was coming your way. Perhaps it was an academic program you were pursuing, and just as you were closing in on completion something unforeseen occurred and your dreams just vanished away. One of the great challenges in life is waiting to see what God may still have in store for you on the other side of a great disappointment.
The message that I want to share with you today is that the disappointment you experience today may well be nothing more than a prelude for something even better tomorrow. God may withhold something from you at one point in time because he has something different and often something better that he has in store for you later on down the road. If you have recently gone through a great disappointment or if you are sitting here today wondering why God did not allow a certain dream to come true or why God seemed to prevent you from reaching a certain goal, it may be because God has something else waiting for you just around the corner that you will never achieve if you focus only on the dreams you have for yourself.
That is the point of our text for today taken from Luke 24, where two disciples of Jesus were walking from the city of Jerusalem back to their home in the nearby city of Emmaus a few days after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were engrossed in a conversation about their dashed hopes and their staggering disappointment. They had come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited messiah of Israel. They had come to believe that he really was the Son of God and the savior of the world. They were undoubtedly in the crowd on Palm Sunday cheering for Jesus as he made his way into Jerusalem amidst a hero’s welcome. Like everybody else in that Palm Sunday crowd, these two men believed that something great and wonderful was just about to happen.
How quickly their dreams turned to disappointment. Instead of overthrowing the Romans who occupied the land of Israel, Jesus was now under arrest and was being beaten and humiliated by a group of Roman soldiers. Rather than seeing Jesus sitting on the throne of power, they were probably standing in that crowd outside the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who was sitting on his throne and deciding whether or not to put Jesus to death on the cross. These two men were most likely among the minority of voices calling the name of Jesus when the rest of the crowd was shouting “Give us Barabbas”, the murderer that Pilate had brought out of prison so the crowd could choose which one of the two prisoners would live and which one would die.
Then things went from bad to worse. Barabbas was released and allowed to go free and Jesus was condemned and put to death by crucifixion. I do not know if it is possible for us to comprehend the depth of their despair and disappointment. Their hearts were broken and their dreams were dashed. Their sense of expectation for a bright and glorious future had suddenly been upended and now they were living out an actual nightmare.
At some point during their 7 mile journey back home, these two men were joined on the road by a third traveler whom they do not recognize. Their grief is so heavy and their disappointment is so profound that they do not realize that the person they are talking with and walking with is Jesus who has already been raised from the dead. The third man, not yet known to them asks them what they are talking about, and their whole conversation is phrased in the past tense. They said, “We were talking about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet in word and deed…We had hoped that he was the one that was going to redeem Israel.” They were no longer looking forward with expectation. Instead, they were living in the past tense, life was viewed through a rearview mirror; we had hoped.
That is where you and I sometimes find ourselves, is it not, in the land of “we had hoped.” Have you ever lived in that land where your career, or your finances, or your relationships were concerned? At one point you thought things were going to move in a certain direction and end up in a certain way, and then everything begins to unravel and all you are left with is “I had hoped.” I had hoped to have that job by this time, but it did not come through. I had hoped to win that election or be given that appointment, but it did not happen. I had hoped to be married, or have children, or get on with my life after a death or a divorce, but instead I find myself stuck in the land of “I had hoped” and I am still looking at life through a rearview mirror.
We need to see how this story ends so that we can have a better sense of how our story can end as well. Here are two men talking about we had hoped, and the very man they had been hoping in was walking and talking with them at that moment. God had kept his promise and their dreams of a Messiah, a savior a redeemer from the power of sin had come true even if it did not come in the way they had been expecting. Jesus had been dead, but now he was alive. Their hopes may have seemed dashed, but now they could hope again. Yes, Jesus had been crucified and that was unexpected and hard to accept. But now, clearly beyond their wildest expectations Jesus has been raised from the dead.
After walking along together for some distance, these two men invite Jesus to spend the evening with them and to share an evening meal. It is during that meal, when the Lord offers a blessing over the food that they finally realize who this is who been in their company all of this time. Jesus is alive. The grave could not hold him. Redemption was being accomplished. Evil men had not been successful. The future was opening up once again.
Not many minutes later they would realize who they were talking to as they shifted from the grim reality of crucifixion to the glorious realization of resurrection. These two disciples had moved from resignation to recognition. No longer were they heartbroken or downcast. Now they were excitedly saying to one another; “Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us by the way?” One minute they were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in dejection and despair. Not many minutes later they were running from Emmaus back to Jerusalem with the news that they had just seen Jesus.
Do you believe that the same experience can happen in your life? Do you believe that you can be heartbroken on one day, and yet by the power of God your heart can be lifted and your spirit can be restored and your dreams, long deferred can still come true? I know from personal experience that when you just give your life over to God you will often find yourself moving from resignation (or accepting what looks like a terrible outcome) to recognition (or discovering that God has brought you back into a happy and totally unexpected ending).
I may have told you that between 1973 and1975 I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University in New York City. I had always wanted to attend a prestigious school like that, however they were not cheap. We did not have the money for me to attend one of those schools for my undergraduate degree and there was nobody at my school willing to help me get there by way of scholarship assistance. Going to a school like Columbia was my dream, but it was a dream deferred.
I had also wanted to get a Ph.D., because when I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966 I was impressed by the fact that he had earned a Ph.D., and I wanted to achieve that goal in my life. Now here I was, going to an Ivy League school on a full scholarship to get a Ph.D. degree. I had taken all of the courses and all of the qualifying exams. I had taken the field exams and was beginning to shape a dissertation topic in the field of Old Testament. My dream was just about to come true.
Then, without any warning it began to unravel. The faculty members I was working with either retired or took jobs at other universities. In fact, my primary professor and academic advisor took a position that moved him from New York City to Berkeley, California. At the most critical moment in the Ph.D. process I found myself without a committee with which to work. All the wind came out of sails and I was heartbroken. I could not control the situation; I could not prevent these men from moving on with their careers or from retiring and bringing their careers to an end. Like many people in life, I was caught up in a situation beyond my control. All I could do was say to myself; I had hoped that I would earn a Ph.D.
How could I have known that what God was doing was exercising his divine prerogative to redirect my life according to his plans for me? Instead of getting a Ph.D. at that time so I could pursue a career as a teacher of Old Testament, God was sending me into a career in pastoral ministry. No sooner had the Columbia dream vanished then a church in New Jersey contacted me and in less than a year I had been called to be their pastor. Ten years later I was called to Cleveland to serve at this church. Then, much to my surprise and delight, after I got established here at Antioch I was told that Case Western Reserve University, one of the top 30 universities in the country was offering two full scholarships to minority students who wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in any subject of their choosing.
Today, I am in the vocation that God intended for me to pursue, but I also have the Ph.D. that I had always dreamed about receiving. I have moved from resignation (not having something) to recognition (God can do anything he wants to do whenever he wants to do it even if it is not how you had planned for things to happen). I know what it is to have dreams not come true today, but I also know that God can find you somewhere along your own personal road to Emmaus, going home in disappointment and he can pick you up and renew your joy and fulfill your dreams in ways you would never have imagined. God got what God wanted and I got what I wanted; what a mighty God we serve!
This story gets better, because it also involves my 30-year marriage to Peggy. You may not know that Peggy had been engaged to another man before she and I ever met. She was a student at Clark College in Atlanta and he was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and they both came from Elberton, Georgia. He was a man who was all set to attend medical school, and in a few short years she would be the wife of a medical doctor; surely there was a life of privilege and comfort awaiting them both.
She had accepted his offer of marriage; and in so doing she had turned away from other young men who were interested in spending time with her. However, on the same day that the announcement about the wedding was posted in the local newspaper her fiancé announced to her that he no longer wanted to marry her because he had found somebody else that he loved more than her. She was heartbroken and embarrassed and her dreams came crashing down around her. She would not be marrying a man who was a doctor after all.
However, God had other plans for her on the other side of this experience. God did not want her to marry that man any more than God wanted me to follow my earlier dream. God was holding Peggy for me, and he had to get that other fellow out of the way so that the path would be clear just a few years later when I came knocking at the door. She had resigned herself to the fact that she would never get married and that she would have to find her fulfillment in her career in the federal government. Then she and I met in a blind date and while her hopes for marriage may have been delayed they were not denied forever. God was working things out against unimaginable odds in both of our lives to bring us together. It is amazing how God can move us from I had hoped to Glory, Hallelujah!
Now consider that Peggy and I have been married for 30 years, and her first fiancé never married that other woman, he has been married twice and has lived an up and down life ever since. It may be that today he is finally married to the woman of his dreams, but God would not let him have my Peggy. God was holding her for me. And guess what, because God allowed me to get that Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University, Peggy is married to a doctor after all, albeit it is a doctor of a different kind. Isn’t God wonderful?
Of course it was painful for her at the time, and many of us know what that pain feels like when our dreams seem to be dashed and when our hopes seem to be put on hold. But what Peggy and I both learned is that God has a way of saying no to us on one day and then saying yes to the same dream, sometimes in a different way, at another point in the future. Just because you have to resign yourself to an unhappy outcome today does not mean that God cannot or will not bring you into a bright sunshine at some point in the future. Listen to me; do not sink into depression. Do not commit suicide. Do not give up hope, no matter how great your disappointment may have been. I am a living witness that “The Lord will make a way somehow.”
That is the essential message of our faith; life is not lived through the rearview mirror, because the God we serve holds tomorrow in his hands. The Gospel song says:
Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand,
But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.
Marvin A. McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.