The two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus on the evening of Easter Sunday are on a journey that began in sorrowful despair at the sudden death of their beloved friend and master. However by the time they reach their destination their outlook is completely transformed into one of light and hope. An unrecognized traveler joins them, and the conversation he holds with them causes their hearts to burn with new insight and excitement. This encounter changes their lives—a journey from blindness to enlightenment, from darkness to sight.
The motif of light as a symbol of increasing spiritual discernment is a favorite of Luke’s. When John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah, prophesies that his son will prepare the way for the coming of God’s mercy, just as the morning light breaks on those sitting in darkness (Luke 1:78, 79). The night sky outside Bethlehem is brilliant with angelic light as Jesus’ birth is proclaimed (Luke 2:13, 14). Dim-eyed Simeon pronounces that he has seen God’s salvation: a light to the nations, and glory to Israel (Luke 2:28-32). As he comes of age, Jesus announces the commencement of his public ministry by saying that the Spirit has anointed him to proclaim release from oppression and sight to the blind (Luke 4:16-21).
The Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13-35) is also saturated with references to sight and light. When Jesus first joins the travelers, they do not recognize him; they do not see him for who he is (v. 16). Eventually their eyes are opened to recognize him as they eat with him (v. 31). And then, in an interesting twist, Jesus immediately disappears (v. 31).
The dynamic of light and darkness, sight and blindness, presents at least two fundamental themes. First, it signifies the unveiling of a divine plan. God’s intervention in the dark world through Jesus marks the truth that in an unprecedented way God is now with us, and the kingdom of redemptive love and peace is here. Second, it invites us to explore how much we see. Like a city on a hill at night, like a lamp on a stand, the kingdom is here. Even more, the risen Jesus is here! Where do we see him? How much of his kingdom presence do we recognize in our midst?
These two foci will be at work as we join the Emmaus travelers on their pilgrimage of discovery in this Lenten season. Like them, today we experience similar thoughts and emotions, even as we live after the fact of the resurrection of our Lord. Each of the following worship services is themed after a certain aspect of the story. The flow of this series encourages the worshiper to travel with the risen Jesus in our life’s experiences through the cross to the empty grave and on to the celebration of resurrected life.
The “living mural” to be presented in the sanctuary is an organic part of the series. The images help worshipers visualize the spiritual development of the characters in Luke’s narrative. Each Sunday the mural changes to reflect the movement of the Emmaus road story. In the following service plans we describe in detail the changes to be made in the mural from Sunday to Sunday. The display requires weekly attention with constructed images, pins or thumbtacks, and a ladder. The road can be made of carpet, the village of posterboard, the figures of cloth, the crosses of wood, the grave of fiberglass or plastic, the sun rays of cloth. Once our congregation caught on to what was transpiring on the wall, a number of people began bringing their cameras or smartphones to record the unfolding story.
First Sunday of Lent:
Scripture: Luke 24:13-24
Living mural: A road leading to the village of Emmaus in the distance, a tomb along the path, two disciples walking in the foreground, the word “Sorrow”
In the opening message of this series, whet the congregation’s appetite for a spiritual journey that will invite them to explore what Jesus has done through Lent and Easter and how this opens our hearts and lives to new vistas of experience and meaning.
Any Star Trek fan in the congregation will remember the opening monologue of the original show: “Space . . . the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before” (we played the 30-second clip as part of the sermon introduction). So it was for the two disciples who left Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening; unknowingly they were embarking on a journey into unexplored historical and spiritual territory.
The two disciples begin their journey from Jerusalem perplexed, disappointed, discouraged, and, most of all, sorrowful. They’re perplexed that such a good and innocent man was suddenly and brutally murdered, disappointed that the dream of messianic peace had not been realized, discouraged by the sudden end to their path as followers of their teacher, and grieved by the tragic loss of their faithful friend. But that’s not all. Rumors had been started by some women who had gone to the tomb that very morning. They said that the tomb had been opened, the body was gone, and angels told them that Jesus was alive. It was all too much—the two had to get out of town. As they walk they try to make sense of it all.
Most of the people sitting in the pews have experienced these same realities of human life and relationships. Dreams and plans we have for our families, for our careers, and for our future fall through because of circumstances outside our control, causing significant disappointment. Injury, illness, or declining health discourage us. Broken marriages or wayward children cause confusion and heartache. Injustices we encounter in our personal or professional lives frustrate us. While untimely deaths can cause confusion and anger, the death of any loved one can bring an indescribable sense of loss. But in the midst of these dark realities we can experience an inexplicable sense of light and hope.
Luke’s narrative reminds us that we do not travel through these life experiences alone; we have a number of very helpful companions. First, the two disciples listen to the Word and allow it to inform their thoughts. Second, as the events of the past three days are placed in context of sacred history, their historical and spiritual significance begins to emerge. Third, the two do not travel alone as isolated or even solitary individuals; they walk together in conversational community. Most important, the two have Jesus. They or we may not always recognize him in our midst, but he is nonetheless present, as he promised. These four guides will accompany us as we explore our own faith through the unfolding narrative of the Emmaus journey.
“Abide with Me” LUYH 466, PH 543, PsH 442, TH 402, WR 521
“Come to Us, Beloved Stranger” LUYH 207
“Lord of All Hopefulness” LUYH 378, PsH 558, WR 469
Second Sunday of Lent:
Scripture: Luke 24:25-32
Living mural: Add a third figure, Jesus, who joins the first two figures; add the word “Scripture”
Most of us have had the experience of being lost in a strange city. The two Emmaus disciples were in such a place spiritually, but a guide comes to their rescue in the person of the yet-unrecognized Jesus. The two spiritually searching men begin to find their bearings as the Word is opened to them. Luke uses the same root word (διανοίγω) for the “opening” of the Scriptures (v. 32) and the “opening” of their minds (v. 45). Light begins to dawn gradually on their despairing darkness. Later in the story the disciples will relate that their hearts were burning as Jesus opened the truths of Scripture to them. Intellectual recognition changed to excitement when the earthshaking significance of the words began to permeate their hearts.
But what Scriptures did their guide reveal? Luke tells us very little, but enough to know the essence: the stranger traced the words of Moses and the prophets, explaining how the suffering of the Messiah and his glory were something God had planned all along—all part of the salvation path. John Calvin, in one of his more familiar metaphors, likened the Bible to a pair of spectacles through which we can view the past, the world, and our experiences. The Bible sheds light that helps us interpret the successes, challenges, privileges, responsibilities, and relationships we experience in daily life before the face of a sovereign and benevolent God.
Wrought and written through the hearts and hands of those who lived in a world burdened with spiritual struggles, economic challenges, political turmoil, and personal trauma, the Bible speaks with inspiring hope and powerful comfort to every possible situation our congregants face (cf. Job 10; Ps. 22, 88, 90, 102; Lam. 3; Acts 8:1-3; 2 Cor. 11:20-33; 1 Tim. 1:3-7, 6:3-10; Heb. 11:1-40). As St. Francis of Assisi observed, all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one candle. No matter the moral darkness or human despair we encounter, it is no match for the light and love of the Word.
“Blessed Jesus, at Your Word” LUYH 763, PH 454, PsH 280, TH 303
“God of the Word” LUYH 765
“Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak” LUYH 754, PH 426, PsH 528, TH 560, WR 593
“When We Walk with the Lord” LUYH 327, PsH 548, TH 672, WR 443
Third Sunday of Lent:
Scripture: Luke 24:25-27, 44
Living mural: Move the three figures farther down the road (perhaps make a smaller version of the three figures, to give the impression of progressive travel); add the words “Sacred History”
This message works with the familiar Reformed theme of promise and fulfillment in biblical and current history. The primary question that drives our inquiry into the Emmaus story on this Sunday is “How do we know the truth of the Easter message?”
Rene Descartes, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, was captivated by the question of how we know truth. His answer was, put simply, that we know truth by logical thought—logical arguments bring us to credible conclusions. He was arguing against the belief that our senses can be trusted to render truth (e.g., it appears to the senses that the sun moves around the earth, but we know by astrophysical math that it does not). But the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection reveals that ultimately it is the testimony of God’s acts in history that affirm in the heart of the believer that Jesus is alive. This is how Jesus opened the eyes of his befuddled friends on the Emmaus road.
This message may speak to younger Christians who find themselves in apologetic conversations with fellow students and friends about religious beliefs. I once knew a professor of art history who could not believe in Jesus’ resurrection because it simply did not make logical sense. (For her the story was imaginative “wish projection.”) Had she been familiar with the historical testimony of the Bible, she would have discovered that the resurrection is quite within the bounds of good reason (with the aid of the Holy Spirit and faith, of course). However, beyond arguments for Christian beliefs, the promise-fulfilment theme boldly invites young people (and all of us) to ask pertinent questions: What is my place in the new life God has won? To what purpose or mission is God calling me? Where am I called to serve? And what shape will my vocation take as I seek to respond faithfully to God’s call? How might I be a participant in the pattern of promise and fulfillment?
“I Serve a Risen Savior” LUYH 365, PsH 405, WR 302
“In Our Lives, Lord, Be Glorified” LUYH 861, WR 465
“Lead Me, Guide Me” LUYH 329, PsH 544, WR 498
“View the Present Through the Promise” LUYH 470
Fourth Sunday of Lent:
Scripture: Luke 24:19-21, 25-27
Living mural: Add three crosses along the path; move the three figures close to the crosses; include the word “Sacrifice”
A biblical and systematic theology of the cross commonly underscores the necessity of atonement for the forgiveness of sins. In this service, we chose to focus on Christ’s death from the perspective of Jesus as the one who suffers for us and with us.
On the cross we see Jesus sharing in our troubles. In so doing, a number of things happen: our suffering becomes more bearable (Heb. 4:14-16), our suffering begins to take on some purpose or meaning (2 Cor. 1:3-7; Phil. 1:12-14), and in the light of our Savior’s suffering our pain mysteriously contributes to the work of our redemption (Rom. 8:28). This does not minimize the emotional weight and physical pain of suffering, and the sensitive pastor will bear this in mind. However, the message we bring is that Jesus’ suffering places our hurting in a completely new light.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who was imprisoned in a number of gruesome concentration camps during World War II, observed that the prisoners who had a purpose in life found the determination to survive the horrid ordeal. After the war he developed this theory in his counseling practice, helping clients work through their difficulties by discerning their purpose in life and discovering meaning in the very troubles they were
facing. Because living in and for Jesus is the fundamental purpose of our lives, we are encouraged to discern what God is up to when we face suffering. Sitting before the pastor on any Sunday morning are people who are experiencing hardships and burdens. I am discovering that the more fruitful question to ask is not “Why is God letting this happen to me?” but “How is God at work here? What is he doing in my heart through this valley?” Through the suffering of Jesus our struggles are used for the goal of our redemption—a work that ultimately gives glory to God.
“Beams of Heaven” LUYH 454, PsH 577
“Come, You Disconsolate” LUYH 614, PsH 538, TH 615
“Praise the Lord Who Heals” LUYH 442
“We Cannot Measure How You Heal” LUYH 446, WR 628
Fifth Sunday of Lent:
Scripture: Luke 24:22-24
Living mural: Move the three (smaller) figures to the place beside the stone grave; add the words “Silent Tomb”
The empty tomb does not get a lot of homiletic “press”—few words or thoughts are spent on the vacant grave. Once the empty tomb is noted, the transition to a resurrected Jesus is quickly made. We would rather not stop and linger beside an empty grave, scratching our heads.
But that is what happened after the resurrection. John records, in a somewhat anticlimactic way, that once some of the disciples saw the opened sepulcher, “they went home” (John 20:10). Mark’s gospel ends on a similar note: once the women saw the bodiless grave, they ran home and did not say a word about it to anyone (Mark 16:8). No bullhorn announcements of Jesus’ resurrection, just contemplation of the empty tomb. This week we too will hit the “pause” button and spend a little time wondering about the message a silent, empty tomb brings.
When a loved one dies we treat the body with respect, laying it to rest on the day of the funeral. This helps us acquire a sense of closure—an important part of the grieving process. However, seeing the corpse also may stir up a host of feelings, and thoughts connected to the departed: it may be a tangible reminder of tangled memories, regrets, sadness, unfinished business, and unanswered questions. The corpse-less tomb of Jesus changes all this. Death was powerless to hold his body in its grip. The vacant grave proclaims that death no longer has the last word, and the corpse has lost its powerful voice. A deceased body may still stir emotions and conjure thoughts, but the silent tomb of Jesus speaks louder, with more authority, and surely with more comfort.
This means that believers are called to live without a sense of closure. God cannot be boxed into our limited imaginations or expectations. Life does not end in the cemetery, and the pall of death visiting a grave casts over those who are still living has lost its sting. Jesus is on the loose, somewhere, doing unexpected things. We should never mistake the empty tomb as some benign detail of the passion path, easily glossed over as incidental. On the contrary, it speaks with a powerful voice of the unfinished story of a life of faith—the open-ended journey prepared by God that leads to places we cannot imagine. An empty grave testifies that this is a venture that even death, the final enemy, is now powerless to stop.
The sudden and mysterious disappearance of Jesus once he was recognized by the two disciples reminds us of the new reality Jesus has inaugurated. It’s a teaser, if you will, for a life we can only begin to imagine. Encourage the congregation to reflect on these words of Paul: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine . . .” (Eph. 3:20). Just try to imagine the immeasurable!
“All Praise to You, My God, This Night” LUYH 394, PH 542, PsH 441, TH 401
“Christ is Risen” LUYH 197
“Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory” LUYH 389
“The Strife is O’er, The Battle Done” LUYH 185, PH 119, PsH 391, TH 275, WR 290
Sixth Sunday of Lent: Sight
Scripture: Luke 24:28-31
Living mural: Remove the three figures from the mural (on this Sunday they are presumed to be in the village, out of sight); add the word “Sight”
Given the themes of dark and light at work in Luke’s gospel, today’s passage may be the climax of the Emmaus road story. The “stranger” is revealed to be none other than Jesus himself, obviously raised from the dead! Physical sight merges seamlessly with spiritual enlightenment as the disciples recognize their Master. Although Jesus rose in a glorified body not completely subject to the laws of physiology, it was still physical and thus visible, as this episode clearly reveals.
It seems appropriate to consider a painting of this story as an exploratory commentary on the text. In his painting “Supper at Emmaus” (p. 8) Rembrandt van Rijn used light to draw the eye and attention of the viewer to the figure of Jesus. However, rather than lighting the primary object (Jesus) the artist used what might be called “reverse lighting”—he presents Jesus as a silhouette, indicating the physical yet glorious nature of his body and the fact that there is something unearthly and “unseeable” about it. But the popping eyes of the disciple, staring in goggling incredulity, convince us that he is seeing something unquestionably physical. As Jesus shares bread with the disciples, their knowledge is transformed through the sense of sight, and we are invited to engage in the drama.
Although a number of scholars argue that today’s passage is not a description of communion, we felt it was fitting to celebrate communion in this service because of the emphasis in Luke’s text on the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus. The Lord’s Supper offers the body and blood of Jesus (John 6:48-59) and an opportunity for the believer to be strengthened in relationship to Jesus in a visual, tactile, and even gustatory way: we see, touch, and taste the body and blood of our Lord (see Art. 35 of the Belgic Confession and the writings of John Calvin, Institutes IV. xvii).
In a pastorally sensitive manner, introduce a different way of celebrating communion that may help congregants reflect and experience the physicality of the resurrection of Jesus and our union with his body through the sacrament. Some ideas as to how this might be done: reflect on the material nature of the elements with the congregants as they hold the piece of bread or the cup in their hands; share a loaf of bread and a common cup, rather than individualized portions; have the congregants come to the front of the sanctuary and gather around the table; offer a dramatic reenactment of the Emmaus story or the Last Supper and invite the congregants to participate at the appropriate juncture. It is in the breaking of the bread that we recognize the Lord’s presence among us.
“Alleluia! Jesus Is Risen” LUYH 205, WR 306
“May the Mind of Christ My Savior” LUYH 334, PsH 291, TH 644, WR 464
“O Jesus, Joy of Loving Hearts” LUYH 823, PH 510/511, PsH 307, TH 646
“This Little Light of Mine” LUYH 930
A phone call, a dinner, a walk
Lots of talk
Another phone call, a visit, more talk
Friendship nurtured as we ponder the unthinkable
Groundwork, framework, structure
Of two lives moving into sync as we walk and talk
And then He appears, right there
Unfolding before our eyes
Like a pop-up picture book
Walking with us
Seeing a glimpse of abandoned hope
Hearing our fears
Smelling the scent of doubt
Touching hearts that burned
Speaking the gospel truth
More talk, more time, more prayer
We begin to see what God has planned
And is allowing us to discover
There is joy in that journey
Are we ready?
Good Friday: Strong Communion
Scripture: Luke 24:20, 26; 23:44-46
Living mural: Move the three figures temporarily back to the three crosses for this service; no new words are added
This service is designed as a review of the complete Emmaus story before the final celebration of Easter. The service was structured around a dramatic reading written by Bert Polman entitled “Were Not Our Hearts Burning?” (RW 26). Near the beginning of the service we read a poem entitled “Beyond Emmaus” (see sidebar) written by Ed DeYoung, a member of our congregation, which set the tone of pilgrimage with Jesus as our companion. We included a brief meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus, focusing on his last words from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The final words of Jesus as he breathes his last reveal the intimate relationship between the Son and the Father. Taken from Psalm 31:5, some commentators say this was a bedtime prayer Jewish parents taught their children (not unlike our children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .”) Jesus may have been uttering a prayer he had learned as an infant, expressing a childlike trust and tender intimacy with his Father. The gospels record seven “words” of Jesus spoken while he was being crucified. In biblical symbols, seven represents completeness or perfection. Thus it is fitting that the seventh word of our Lord signifies that his mission on earth is complete. The salvation of his people has been accomplished.
The temple curtain tears from top to bottom as Jesus utters his last prayer (Luke 23:45, 46). Now all may have access to the holy of holies, all can enter into the presence of the Lord and share Jesus’ intimacy with the Father. Recently a retired pastor told me that in his forty years of ministry, he has found that that the one main need expressed by his parishioners is “comfort”—that strengthening knowledge in the heart that God is close to us in all circumstances. As Jesus commits his spirit to the Father, we know he has accomplished for us full access to the comfort of God’s intimate communion.
“Ah, Holy Jesus, How have You Offended” LUYH 172, PH 93, PsH 386, TH 248, WR 262
“Come to Us, Beloved Stranger” LUYH 207
“Were You There” LUYH 166, PH 102, PsH 377, TH 260, WR 283
“What Wondrous Love” LUYH 164, PH 85, PsH 379, TH 261, WR 257
Easter Sunday: Salvation
Scripture: Luke 24:31, 33-35
Living mural: Remove the three figures completely from the mural; include rays of light that radiate from the tomb; add the word “Salvation”
This service will seek to highlight the transforming power of Easter light as it conquers and dispels the darkness, moving us from dark to sight. Recreate briefly the situation of the disciples on that Friday evening, heavy with the disturbing dominance of evil. Pontius Pilate has signed Jesus’ death warrant after an unjust trial. Priests are stirring up the mob to shout bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify him!” Backed by the indomitable military machine of the Empire, Roman soldiers heartlessly drive spikes into Jesus’ hands and feet. And Satan, the prince of darkness, sneers with perverse glee as God hangs, seemingly helpless, on a cross. Even the sun hides its face as the world is shrouded in darkness (Luke 23:44, 45). The disciples cower behind locked doors, hiding fearfully against the night. And so, with evening shadows lengthening as they approach the village, the two Emmaus road travelers invite a friendly stranger to stay with them, perhaps not so much out of hospitable obligation but because they are afraid of the dark, and his company had begun to bring them light.
Even after we have confessed and celebrated Jesus’ victory over the malevolent forces of darkness and death, we still experience that darkness in numerous ways. In this Lenten series we have been encouraged to keep Jesus close in the midst of darkness, to have him as our companion in the journey of life and faith, to invite him into our hearts and homes, to live in the gospel light of hope, healing, redemption, and peace. He gives us a new, transformed vision with which to frame the experiences of life we encounter, and his resurrection also transforms our hearts and lives.
The resurrection of Jesus has flung open the doors of the kingdom of heaven and beckons us to live as new risen people in the realm of Easter light. It’s the best news we have, and it’s news to share. The two Emmaus disciples could not keep the good news to themselves once they realized Jesus was raised from the dead. They hurried back to Jerusalem to tell what they had seen and heard. Since then, the church has been busy spreading the news, continuing the mission of our risen Lord. Our goal is to be like Jesus, who was anointed to preach good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind.
“Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing” LUYH 206, PH 108, PsH 413, WR 312
“In Christ Alone” LUYH 770
“O Gladsome Light, O Grace” LUYH 393, PH 549
“See, What a Morning” LUYH 181
This Lenten series was created by the Creative Team of Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta. Members are Dawn DeJager, Martha DeKlerk, Tina Notenbomer, Chris VanderBerg, and Lorraine Visser. This description was written by the pastor of Maranatha, Tony Maan, who appreciates the collective imagination of the Creative Team and along with them finds visual images to be an endless source of Christian insight and inspiration.