March 30, 2008
[Scroll to bottom for audio of the sermon-song, "Burning Hearts"]
Nick and Tom are two men with real interest in the things of God. Nick grew up in and around the people of God, learning the scriptures, hearing the stories of old and how God desires for his people to live. He’s the kind of person that brings his family to church and makes sure his children participate in the youth program. Tom got involved later in life, but eagerly participates in everything that’s going on. He’s the kind of person that participates eagerly in Sunday school and sings loudly in church. Each man has a complaint, though. Nick is worn out from being thoroughly religious and just doesn’t find any meaning or fulfillment in all his religious commitments. Tom is excited about all the activities in which he participates, but he isn’t sure that he believes the message. Are these two people unusual? I don’t think so… I think most of us can relate to one or both of them?
Knowing Without Seeing
Two people walked away from Jerusalem. Their names were not Nick and Tom, but they were kindred spirits. The two walkers had been involved in the recent events during the week of Passover. They saw Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and were deeply saddened by his death. They had even heard that his body was now missing. And they were deep in conversation about all that had happened.
Now a stranger walks up alongside them and involves himself in their conversation. He wants to know what they are discussing. They can’t believe that the stranger hasn’t heard about the recent events in Jerusalem. The stranger asks them to tell him about these things. So, with downcast faces, the two travelers describe Jesus of Nazareth.
"He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed…" they say. "We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."
They knew about Jesus. They knew something of the prophecies about a savior – a Messiah. They knew about the empty tomb. But these two travelers did not see Jesus for who he was. They didn’t see God’s "vision" for humanity. And so, even with Jesus himself standing there before them, they didn’t see.
In many ways, their problem was that shared by Nick. They knew the teaching of scripture and knew that Jesus was a great teacher and religious figure, but they didn’t see God’s "vision" for us. Like Nick, they would probably bring their families to church, knowing that the children would learn good values. They would be faithful people, believing that God rewards good behavior and clean living. They would know that God wants something of us and they would strive to gain God’s blessing and approval. They would even realize that others who followed Jesus would think well of them for being devoted followers. But, perhaps like Nick, they would eventually wear out. Perhaps that is why they found themselves leaving Jerusalem rather than staying with the disciples. Perhaps their hopes had not been fulfilled and they just needed a break.
In a phrase, the travelers, along with Nick, knew without seeing. They have some knowledge, but they lack the vision of God’s purpose and will – the ability to see what God is doing in the world. And without that, religion becomes a wearisome exercise in futility.
Seeing Without Knowing
Our two travelers were also not unlike our friend Tom. And we might describe Tom’s problem as the opposite of Nick’s. Tom was struggling with seeing without knowing. And the two travelers demonstrated this limitation as well.
In literal terms, they "saw" Jesus there, but they just didn’t know who he was. They even welcomed him into their conversation and asked him to stay when he began to leave them. They saw that he was a teacher when he opened the scripture to them, and they saw him break the bread as they ate together. But until the very end, their minds were closed to his true identity. And this is just the difficulty Tom experiences. He is an active participant in all that the church does, and while his intentions are sincere, he is really just along for the ride. The meaning of all those songs, hymns, prayers, and sermons eludes him. He sees everything going on and jumps in eagerly – perhaps hoping to understand, but in his heart he doesn’t know God in a personal and concrete way.
And after a while, Tom starts to ask questions like "Why do we sing such long hymns?" And "Why are we asked about personal faith and acts of service in Christ’s name?" And "Why does the Church demand such high priority in my life?" If only there were some tangible way to experience God… if only I could know God in a real way…
Would I Know Jesus if I Saw Him?
Does this sound like a confusing and frustrating way to live? It sounds so familiar to me. I have been each of those people at different times in my life. What is the way out? Is it a matter of accumulating more knowledge, or somehow just looking harder for God?
The key must be there in the story, for by the end the two travelers "saw" and "knew". Something happened… something triggered a connection and they recognized Jesus for who he was… the risen Savior and Lord.
Partly, increasing their knowledge helped them to see. Jesus "opened" the scriptures to them, leading them through the Old Testament teaching in the Law and in the Prophets. He showed them how God’s righteousness and the requirements of the Law necessitated the suffering of the Christ. He recounted the prophecies that spoke of God’s Messiah, who would be both King and Servant, and who would redeem God’s people. So Jesus addressed their lack of knowledge with clear teaching from God’s Word.
And Jesus also helped with their sight. He repeated the act of communion that he had recently shared with the disciples. He came to them in a familiar way so that their blurry and dim vision might see a familiar sight. He did something ordinary and recognizable – he broke bread with them, giving thanks and sharing with them in the manner of the Last Supper.
These two acts certainly helped two travelers who were struggling with "knowing" and "seeing". But there is one more detail that is the key to understanding what happened in their recognition of Jesus. After he disappeared, 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?" Their "burning hearts" revealed faith stirring within them.
In the book of Hebrews, faith is defined for us. Faith is "being sure of what we do not know…" and "being certain of what we do not see." Faith does not come through knowledge or through concrete "proof" of something. Rather, faith is confident belief in what we hope for – that is, in God’s love and promises for us.
Faith is stirred by God’s Spirit working in our lives. Often the hearing and application of God’s Word in scripture and the experience of shared worship and sacraments can kindle faith or accompany it. God stirred faith in the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and God stirred faith in the lives of Nick and Tom.
Nick, who had trouble seeing God’s vision for his people, is Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was the religious of the religious. He crept to Jesus one night to try to see just who Jesus was. Jesus talked about being "born again," and we weren’t sure if Nicodemus understood or not. But we read about him coming in the daylight to bury Jesus’ body in the tomb. Apparently his eyes were opened along the way and he discovered what Jesus meant by being "born again."
Tom, who couldn’t "know" the reality of God without concrete proof is Thomas the disciple, who missed Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples and demanded to touch Jesus’ wounds before he would believe. But Thomas’ heart was opened when he saw Jesus. He didn’t have to touch the wounds to know Jesus, but believed in faith, crying out, "My Lord and my God!"
Is God Creating Faith in Me Now?
This is the question of the burning heart. It is the question of faith: is God stirring your heart so as to create a certain hope that extends beyond proof, knowledge, verification, sight, and experience? Are you experiencing a "burning heart?" If you are, I urge you to open yourself to God in faith. Your hope will not be misplaced or disappointed. For God’s love and promises are real and trustworthy. You will find faith confirmed and encouraged in scripture and worship, but faith itself is a gift from God. Search yourself this day, for God desires to be in fellowship and relationship with you. If God is creating faith in you now… if your heart is burning within you, act in faith. Talk to someone; talk to me or an elder or someone you know has a relationship with God. Confirm what God is doing in your life. That kind of hope does not disappoint.
And if the answer that question of faith is "No" or "I don’t know," be reassured that if you keep opening yourself to Word and Sacrament, God is at work in you. For God’s Word and Sacrament are effective means through which God stirs and creates faith. God’s Word is a "two-edged sword" – it either turns one away or draws one to God. So take heart, if you hear God’s Word to you, God is already at work in your life. Come back and keep asking the question of faith.
Burning Hearts (Emmaus Road)
By Gerrit Dawson and Robert Austell, 1999
On Emmaus Road, heads hung low,
A stranger joined who didn't know
Of Jesus and the Christ he seemed,
Now dead, except in rumor's dream.
Weren't our hearts burning within?
More than we dared to hope,
To see Jesus alive again!
As if he'd written every word,
He taught the Scriptures and we heard
Of the Christ who first had to die
To enter his glory on high.
He made to go on, but we cried
Oh stay with us, evening is nigh
He broke the bread, gave and we knew,
Our eyes opened--it was all true!