Hope in the Midst of Emptiness

One could say that we in the wealthy western part of the world are experiencing a plague of emptiness. In the past, only the very wealthy had the resources to even attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in life beyond the basic need to survive. Now, almost everyone can try. The Oxford dictionary defines emptiness as “the quality of lacking meaning,…; the quality of having no value or purpose, futility.” With all the wealth and prosperity that we have in the first world, there is an increased likelihood of that happening because the materialism that is so prevalent in our society both draws and drives us to focus on things which, in the end, will leave us empty. When someone experiences the lack of meaning and purpose that comes with emptiness there is an increased risk of thing like suicide.

Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash

In his “I Am Second” video, Pete Briscoe says “Emptiness happens when you get to the place that you thought would make you happy, and you discover it doesn’t. Or when you continually strive to get to that place and don’t quite reach it.” The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible describes how he sought to find meaning in wisdom, pleasure, work, climbing the ladder of success, riches and fulfilling his various appetites and he, in the end, found all those pursuits to be empty and meaningless.

Emptiness is a serious issue today.

Here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, we don’t want people to experience the devastation of emptiness. We want to be a church that helps the people of the Fraser Valley to thrive by reaching them with the Good News of God’s love and leading them into a growing relationship with Jesus. That is why, over the past several weeks, we have been going through a series based on a book by Carey Nieuwhof called Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. Today, the challenge we are reflecting upon is Emptiness.

The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34)

To guide us through the process of reflecting on Emptiness, we will be looking at a passage from the Bible written by Luke. You can find it by going to Luke, chapter 24, verses 13 to 34. The events in this passage take place on the third day after Jesus was executed on a cross and buried. In this reading, a village called Emmaus is mentioned. Bible scholars are not certain of its location, but it could be the village of Qalunya, which was about 6 km west of Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 1948. We turn now to the reading:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”

  1. The emptiness of the travellers

Notice, first of all, the emptiness of the travellers. These two were followers of Jesus. The had been with Jesus and heard him teach about how life in the Kingdom of God was now freely available to all through Jesus. They likely saw some of the miraculous things that Jesus had done, like healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, curing leprosy and removing the social stigma attached to that disease, and raising Lazarus and others from the dead. They would have witnessed Jesus’ radical acceptance of those whom the religious leaders of that time and place said were beyond redemption because they were sinners. People like prostitutes and tax collectors, the immoral and the unscrupulous.

They had hoped and believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but now all the hopes and dreams that they must have had because of Jesus were smashed two days before when Jesus was found guilty of a capital crime, beaten, flogged and led outside the city in a walk of shame carrying his own cross. Then he was stripped naked and nailed to a cross where, after several agonizing hours of excruciating pain, as people who passed by mocked him, called him names and spit on him, Jesus gave up his life and died. With the setting sun bringing on the beginning of the Sabbath Day, Jesus was hastily buried in a nearby tomb.

Now the two travellers could no longer consider Jesus to be the Messiah. The best they could do was call him a prophet. They had expectations of what a Messiah was going to be like and what life with that Messiah was going to be like, but those expectations died when Jesus died and the two lonely travellers had nothing left. There was news that some women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found that it was empty. But the two on the road to Emmaus had not way of fitting that news into the mental framework of all the others things that they had heard, seen and experienced. So that empty tomb news only added confusion to their sorrow and the travellers were left even emptier.

Maybe you have had expectations, hopes and dreams for your life. But then something has happened which crushed your dreams and left you feeling empty. And now life feels like it has no joy, no meaning and no purpose. Maybe you are a parent who raised your child to live a certain way and now they have grown up and rejected you and all that you have taught them. Maybe you have poured your life into a romantic relationship, and your beloved said, “I do.” But now some years have passed and your marriage relationship has left you feeling empty. Or maybe you have had your heart set on being good at sports, music or academics, and now you are starting to realize that you are never going to be as good as you hoped and your dream is starting to die.

The Good News of Easter is that there is always hope. It doesn’t matter what is coming to an end for us, even if it is life itself, we always have hope because Jesus died and rose again to give us a life with him that will last forever. In Jesus, you have the sure and certain promise that something better is going to happen for you and for all people in the future. One day Jesus is going to come back to this world in a visible way and make us and all things right once again. In Revelation, chapter 21, verse 4, that coming reality is described in this way:  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

So even when we are at our lowest and most empty point, we can be watching for the new and better thing that Jesus is going to bring to us. It could be a new and better way of looking at our present situation that helps us to have the courage and strength that we need to endure. Or it could be a new and better situation, or some combination of the two. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus can bring new life from our emptiness.

2. The Bible is the key to seeing God at work

The second thing that I invite you to note is that a stranger appears and begins walking with these two empty travellers. The stranger is Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. The same thing happens with us. When we experience emptiness, we tend to feel isolated. It seems like no one is with us, no one understands us and no one truly cares about us.

But the Good News of Easter is that we are never alone. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has torn down all barriers between us and God and promised us that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Because of Easter we can know that Jesus is always with us. Paul describes the security of Jesus’ presence in this way: 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).

After the two travellers tell Jesus the news that was weighing heavy upon their hearts, Jesus then does something that we do not expect. He criticizes them for not seeing God at work behind all of these events. 25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)

Why does Jesus do this? There are a couple of possible reasons. First, Jesus may have chided the two travellers to shock them into being open to seeing things a different way. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of our sorrow so we can be open to seeing what Jesus has for us.

For example, there once was a time when Martin Luther was grumbling and complaining about how things were not working out the way that he had hoped. His wife Katie then changed into black mourning clothes, the kind of clothes one would wear in that time when grieving for someone who has died. Eventually Martin noticed this and asked Katie who she was grieving for. She replied, “God.” “What do you mean you are grieving for God?” Martin retorted. “Well,” Katie said, “judging by your behaviour, I assumed that God must I have died for you to be griping and complaining like you are.” Martin got the message.

A second possible reason for Jesus chiding the travellers is because the explanation for what God is doing was always available to everyone all along. From the first promise of a Saviour in Genesis 3:15, to the setting apart in Genesis 12 of Abraham and his descendants through whom the whole world would be blessed to the description in Psalm 22 of the one who would be forsaken and pierced, but vindicated, the Bible, and Jesus is referring here to what we call the Old Testament portion of the Bible, makes it clear that God’s plan for restoring and recreating this broken and corrupted world involved a suffering Saviour who would take the world’s rebellion, guilt and shame upon himself in order to set humanity free from sin, death and condemnation and save us for a meaningful, purposeful life that begins now and will last forever. The prophet Isaiah writes:

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

So when we find ourselves in the midst of our own valley of emptiness, we can turn away from despair and turn towards the Bible to find the promises of God that point us to the hope, the life and the forgiveness that we have even in the midst of our dark and empty time.

With Jesus’ help, we can even learn from our emptiness. There may be things that we have been valuing too highly and we need to change our perspective on those things. Or maybe our thinking is off kilter and we need to change how we think about things. Or maybe there are patterns of behaviour in our lives that have been hurting us and others and those things need to change. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus can help us learn from our emptiness.

3. The Jesus Shift

As we turn back to our story, we see that something happens which we could call “The Jesus Shift.” Jesus’ words to his two fellow travellers eventually begin to have some effect on their hearts because when they get to the village where they were staying, they invite this unknown traveler to come and stay with them.

Emptiness can cause us to have tunnel vision where we focus exclusively on ourselves and our feelings because we are in such great pain. But when our thinking has been reframed by interacting with Jesus and the Bible so that we are able to see that God is at work in the midst of our situation, then our focus is able to shift away from ourselves and we are able to see things from other people’s perspective and then we are able to be caring and considerate toward others.

I find it very interesting that the moment when the two travellers are able to be considerate toward a stranger is when they are able to see Jesus and what he is really doing. And after Jesus reveals himself, they realize what was going on inside of them during their time with Jesus on the road. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v. 32) Though they did not know it was Jesus who was explaining the Scriptures to them, their inner being was resonating within them as Jesus showed them how the Scriptures pointed to him and explained what he was doing. The human heart was created by God to beat in sync with God so that the passion of God to renew and restore all things through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus becomes our passion too.

And when we spend time in the Scriptures absorbing God’s promises and plans into our inner being, it can arouse within us a passion to connect the world with this Saviour who loved so selflessly, and died so shamefully, and was raised so spectacularly so people could be save with certainty and transformed so stunningly and live so significantly and be accepted unconditionally and be loved to infinity. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus gives us meaning and purpose that no emptiness can ever take away from us.

Conclusion: We are all on the Road to Emmaus. Just like that Road, our life will have a beginning and an end. There will be times of celebration and sorrow during our journey and we will struggle to make sense of it all. Sometimes there will be times of emptiness because something important to us has been taken away and life as we know it will no longer make sense.

But Jesus is walking on that Road with you. His greatest desire is to show you his purpose and plan for the world, to get your heart burning with passion for his mission of renewing and restoring all things. Jesus died and rose again to give you a purpose in life that is far beyond anything you could ever ask or imagine. The question is: “Will you invite him to travel with you and teach you as you journey along the road?”      Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on April 21, 2019.)

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