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A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 8, 2011.                       

Psalm 116:12-19; Luke 24:13-35

Are you familiar with the concept of the elevator speech? It has to do with the ability, in just a minute or two, to share with someone the purpose and mission of whatever organization you represent.

Let’s suppose you catch the elevator at, say, Baptist Hospital, or the Prospect Building or one of the taller buildings downtown. You’re going to the top floor and an acquaintance steps on with you. After greeting your friend and before you reach your destination, you want to tell her about this church… who we are, what we do, how we do it and why. What you tell her is your elevator speech, a short statement that explains what this congregation means to you. You can do this in regard to Rotary, Heifer International, your bridge club… any group that has significance to you, and with which you think your friend might enjoy membership or involvement as well.

The idea of an elevator speech came to mind while reading once again this familiar story of the journey to Emmaus. When asked by the stranger who joined them as they ventured back home, Cleopas and his companion told of the events surrounding the past few days, and in so doing gave him a synopsis of all that had occurred. It was their elevator speech.

Luke, the writer of the third gospel who provides us this story (and Luke is the only one to do so), begins his account by saying, “Now on the same day…” What same day? Well, if you read the twelve verses that precede this story, you’ll find Luke’s account of the empty tomb. The same day is Easter Sunday, resurrection day. And already – already – this man named Cleopas has developed his elevator speech about Jesus.

Heads down, no doubt, in dejection and grief, Cleopas and his companion (Mrs. Cleopas?) are going back home to their little village. They’ve had enough of the big city, have had their fill of Jerusalem with the false gaiety of the Passover celebration, the Roman bullies, the violence and fear. They’ve decided to go back home because they have no reason – no reason whatsoever – to stay.

They discuss with one another the events of the last three days. They recall those magical times on the road when Jesus, so fully alive, told them about the kingdom of the heavenly Father, about how his God is a God of justice and righteousness, and about how, when God’s will is ultimately done that which is wrong will be made right, the last will be first and the first will be last. Those who are poor now will be rich, those who grieve now will know joy.

And boy, are they grieving just now, for all that Jesus proclaimed, as far as they know, ended with him on that Roman cross just three days before. At this point in the journey, they can’t possibly see how their mourning will turn into joy.

And as they walk slowly home on the road that leads from Jerusalem to Emmaus – about seven miles, Luke tells us – their elevator speech is developed. Except, their little speech does not speak of hopes and dreams, of mission and purpose. It is a story of pain and heartbreak.

Of course, they did not recall the events of the three prior days so they could tell everyone, or even anyone, about it. They simply relived it in their minds as they talked with one another, perhaps with the strange idea that the more they talked about it the more there might be the possibility that all they had experienced might go away. Just simply go away.

As they walk and talk with one another, a man comes near. Why, they didn’t even notice him at first, they were so preoccupied with their grief. It didn’t do, in those days and in those places, to be unaware when one traveled. The roads were filled with thieves and robbers, people who would just as soon attack you as to look at you. But they are so involved in their personal difficulties they don’t even see him.

“What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Startled, they turn and realize they are not alone. A stranger has stepped in with them. They take notice of him now, but if he is a thief or robber, it’s too late. He’s got the jump on them. There is a familiarity about this stranger, however, yet he is someone they do not recognize, someone they do not know. But, instantly, they realize he is someone they can trust. He has that kind of face.

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” “What things?” And that is when Cleopas delivers his elevator speech. “The things about Jesus of Nazareth…”

Do you know what a bullet point is? Well, you can put bullet points in front of everything Cleopas says about Jesus…

$ he was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people

$ our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death

$ he was crucified

$ we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

That might have been enough for others to include in their elevator speech, but Cleopas goes on. “And besides all this…” and we are back to the bullet points…

$ it is now the third day since these things took place

$ some women of our group were at the tomb early this morning and did not find his body there

$ they came back and told us they had seen of vision of angels who said he was alive

$ others of our group went to the tomb and found that it was as the women had said

$ but they didn’t see Jesus.

“Besides all this,” Cleopas says to the Stranger, referring to the awful events of just three days before, “Besides all this…” Not only are Cleopas and his walking companion in deep grief and despair, they are also confused. Not doubtful, like Thomas… confused. Can it be that someone who was so obviously dead – after all, they had seen the nails driven through him, the spear thrust into his side, his plaintive scream that it was finished – can it be that he, once so dead, is now alive? Can it?

Besides all this.

Luke places specific details in his story that, when you pull them out from the rest of the story and focus on them – highlight them, if you will – enrich the narrative tremendously. For example, he makes it a point to tell us that Cleopas and his companion stop walking in order to enter into conversation with the man. Why does he tell us this? It is an indication that the stranger has involved himself in something that is of tremendous significance to these two people.

If you’re talking with someone and you really want to press home the point you’re making, what do you do? You stop, you stand face-to-face with your companion, you might even put an index finger in his chest. These two travelers don’t mind sharing with the stranger what is on their minds, and to convey how vital it is they stop in their tracks to discuss it. Besides, the stranger has given them an opportunity to rest for a moment. After all, how would you like to walk seven miles in sandals? And that is when Cleopas delivers his elevator speech.

Tuesday, I was talking with a friend from my Rotary club, and I told him a joke I have told from time-to-time for a number of years. He listened patiently and then admitted he had heard it before. “Why didn’t you stop me?” I asked him. “Because I’ve heard it so many times, and have told it myself, I wanted to hear your version of it.” Then he commenced to telling me his version, which was much better than mine!

I wonder if that’s not the same way the stranger responds to the news Cleopas shares with him. He knows everything Cleopas is telling him, obviously, but he wants to hear his version of it. When Cleopas finishes his elevator speech, the stranger tells him his version, and it’s much better! He says to him, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe…” Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets for them the things the scriptures had foretold of the coming Christ. After all, they had the better part of seven miles to go, plenty of time for this stranger to tell them all he had to say. And believe me, it was no elevator speech. Starting with Moses, he has a lot to say.

Still, through all this, Cleopas and his companion are not aware of who it is they are talking with. Until… until, after inviting him to their home, he breaks bread before them. That is when they know they are in the presence, not of a stranger, but of the Risen Christ.

Remember Luke’s story details we talked about? He tells us that as they neared the village of Emmaus, Jesus walked ahead as if to continue his journey. But Cleopas would have none of that. Hospitality was, and still is, vital in that part of the world. And besides, this stranger had been so kind and helpful to them, the least they could do was offer him a meal at their table. “Stay with us,” they said to him, “because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”

“Almost evening.”

Photographers refer to it as “the golden hour,” that time late in the day when the sun is going down and becomes an orange streak across the western sky. Take advantage of it while you can, is what photographers will tell you. It doesn’t last long, but it is when the light is best for taking pictures. It is the golden hour. How little did they really know how golden that hour was for them. “Stay with us,” they say to the stranger. And he did.

But what if he hadn’t? If he had gone on and not eaten with them, would Cleopas and his companion have ever known they were in the presence of Christ? What is it about being at table with Jesus that makes him known to them? Is it his hands? Did they see his scars, as Thomas did? Is it the words he speaks as he does so? What is it that suddenly lets them know who it is that is at table with them?

Another of Luke’s details… Though he is the guest, Jesus behaves as if he is the host. Did you notice that? He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. It is then — right then — that their eyes are opened. Maybe it is a miracle. After all, Jesus miraculously appears to them on the road. He is able somehow to conceal his identity from them. Why would it be hard for us to believe that while at table Jesus made it possible for them to know who he was? That as the risen Christ he had such control over his body?

But there is another explanation, one I really like and hope you will consider. Luke tells us it was at the very moment when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses it and gives it to them that their eyes are opened. Could it be the familiarity with which he does it? They have seen Someone do it just like that before. Just like that. When he fed the multitudes. When he shared bread with just the few, the disciples. It was the way his hands moved, the manner of doing so which is as unique as a fingerprint. The irony is, that while Luke is a master at giving us details, there are some things not even Luke can, or is willing to, provide. Such things are left to our imaginations.

But there is one thing we can know. What Jesus did that day for the two disciples from Emmaus he can do for you and me. He explained to them the scriptures. He had table fellowship with them. And in the blessing and breaking and sharing of the bread, he gave them the promise of resurrection.

No matter what we do, no matter where we are, Jesus is present to us. Whether we acknowledge him or not, Jesus is present to us. When we get so caught up in the details of living, when we make our plans and gather together our highest hopes, Jesus is there. The key to life in Christ, then, is to be aware of his presence… in the reading of the scriptures, in the fellowship of his Spirit, in the acceptance of his promise to eternal life. If we could somehow live as if Jesus were beside us every day in every circumstance, what a difference it would make.

You and I can make all our plans and invest in our greatest hopes. We can amass fortunes and have the world at our feet. But if Jesus isn’t at the center of it, it is all in vain. It is when we allow Jesus to be present to us – in scripture, in fellowship, in the promise – it is then our hopes are given to all eternity. When we realize that – finally realize it – besides all this, there is only one thing left to do: give our hearts to Jesus. And there is only one thing left to say: Thanks be to God!

Walk with us, O Lord, just as you did with these two on the road to Emmaus. May our Emmaus find us breaking bread with you, and knowing that you live in us. Amen.

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