Recently, I received word that a man I greatly respected and someone I considered a good friend died of a sudden heart attack. He is survived by a beautiful family of 5 wonderfully strong women. My heart has been filled with sorrow at his loss but with joy at the outpouring of love that has been expressed for his family. When things like this happen, it’s no surprise when people ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a question, even as a Pastor, that often plagues my own mind. In these moments of intense loss, confusion, doubt, and fear are all natural responses.
Every time I return home to visit, I always call my friends and family to make plans. Whenever you visit your old stomping grounds, it makes sense to call those that you are the closest to. When you have big news, maybe you call your mother, your father, or your best friend or spouse. When big things happen, or when you are visiting a place for a short time, it’s customary to notify those closest to you first. Jesus, though, doesn’t always follow this pattern.
Luke 24 contains one of the most perplexing stories in Scripture to me. The Road to Emmaus is one of the oddest moments in the New Testament not because of what happens, but because of when it happens. Jesus has just been brutally tortured and crucified and has been in the grave for three days. On the third day when the women go to the tomb to tend to his body, they find it empty, and instead of Jesus appearing to them, instead two angels appear before them and explain that Jesus is still alive. The first question that this raises in my mind: why didn’t Jesus appear to them Himself? For the same reason I call those closest to me first whenever something new happens in my life, it’s not unreasonable to expect that when Jesus is raised from the dead He would want to tell His closest disciples and followers. Instead, they get a messenger.
So who are the first people Jesus appears to? Cleopas and an unnamed disciple. In other words, two followers of Jesus who we have no record of prior to this story and no record of after this story. Yet, they are the ones privileged to see the risen Christ first. Here is the kicker: they don’t even recognize Him. Jesus proceeds to walk seven miles with them to Emmaus, and He finds they are depressed because, well, Jesus is dead. They thought He would be the Messiah and free them from Rome and establish His kingdom, but instead, they watched Him die, and with Jesus, their hopes for the future also died. So Jesus walks with them in their sorrow and grief for seven miles and begins to explain to them all the things concerning His life and death and the Old Testament. In this explanation, Jesus makes an interesting remark: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Eventually, Jesus would reveal Himself to them, and they would be able to rejoice that He is alive and live in that joy.
After reading this story, I came to a few conclusions that I believe are necessary for us to understand how Jesus works with those who are suffering. The first thing I noticed is that Jesus, even in his resurrection, does not show favoritism. He appears to a couple of disciples that are not who we would expect Him to appear to. When people are hurting and are also far from God, it’s not uncommon to hear them say, “I’m so far from God, what will He do for me?” This story shows us that Jesus is willing to draw close to anyone, regardless of how far they are from Him. The second thing I noticed is that Jesus regarded His death as necessary. In seeing His death as necessary, it also means that He saw the pain and suffering of His disciples at his death as necessary. While I don’t mean to imply that Jesus is personally responsible for the pain and suffering you and I have experienced, what I do mean is that Jesus knows there is no other way for history to have played out then by letting humans experience the consequences of choosing sin. In doing so, instead of resigning us to that fate, He entered our experience and felt that pain personally. He didn’t let us suffer it alone, He suffered it with us. The third thing I noticed: not only does Jesus know our experience is necessary, He walks with us through our own journeys.
I love serving a God who looks at my life and says, “I know the path you will walk is hard, so I am going to walk it right alongside you and be with you every step of the way. You will not be alone, and I will not abandon you.” Just like Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, God draws close to those who are suffering and knows firsthand the excruciating pain of losing someone you love. You are not alone.
I can’t understand all the reasons that some of the intense suffering we experience is a necessary part of our lives on Earth, but I can trust that God, in His infinite wisdom, has never abandoned me to suffer alone. So, where is God when you are suffering? Chances are He is walking right next to you and you may not even have realized it yet.