Encountering God in Anxious Times

The Emmaus Road Discourse Luke 24:13-36

I’m very aware that we live in anxious times—yet, as I begin, I’d like to raise your personal anxiety a few more notches…There is a phrase that deeply affects every person on the planet: When God is silent. We’ve all had seasons in our lives when we have longed for God to speak and found God to be silent. Even confirmed atheists would admit that if God clearly spoke, they would believe.

There was a German scholar/theologian named Helmut Thielicke who lived through the Nazi holocaust[1] and one of his books is titled, The Silence of God., [2] which was published in 1962 after a period of research and reflection. In a nutshell here’s what Thielicke found:

Anxiety is the “secret wound of modern man.”[3]

Initially, he thought our natural tendency was related to a fear of death. But, he said, World Wars I & II proved otherwise…an example is that Russian soldiers were more afraid of pain than death. Thielicke traces our anxiety to a “fear of emptiness” and that our anxiety can actually be traced to a longing to know where God is. Thielicke’s hypothesis for his research was:

“Where is God in the face of the mass slaughter of war, or the frightening development of [universal pandemics] which seems to press us inexorably towards destruction and final catastrophe?”

The 4th-century theologian and theologian and philosopher, Augustine came to the same conclusion as Thielicke when he prayed:

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”[4]

In this essay, I would like for us to consider how a personal encounter, with Jesus Christ, will push back the anxiety of our lives. We will consider what’s called the Emmaus Road narrative found in Luke 24:13-35.

What we have on the road this Easter morning are two downcast, dismayed, and devastated disciples, who couldn’t recognize Jesus. It seems they had become spiritually blind. (I think it’s important to notice that even committed disciples can suffer from spiritual blindness.)

Two important questions we can ask of the text are:

  1. What causes spiritual blindness?
  2. How can we have a personal encounter with Jesus?

We’ll consider them one at a time…

  1. What causes spiritual blindness?

We tend to think that our greatest need is a change of circumstances instead of a change of heart. We first notice that Cleopas is speaking in the past tense in verses 19b and 21a “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed…21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

The Jewish people were looking for a Geopolitical King to liberate them from Roman oppression; instead, they got a Servant King, intent on liberating the soul. While the disciples certainly had moments of profound insight and revelation as they interacted and learned from Jesus, yet in the end, they failed to understand the primary purpose of the coming Messiah. To find true heart liberation, we must come to the end of ourselves and see our need for a Savior. This is both an initial need in order for salvation to take root in our lives—and an ongoing need for those of us who are active, intentional followers of Jesus.

A second posture that can result in spiritual blindness is, we can fail to recognize Jesus in the ordinary. Like with these disciples on the road, Jesus is closer to us than we realize. Jesus became an ordinary person to show ordinary people like us God’s extraordinary love. Right now, today, God is active in your life and using people and these current circumstances, in an attempt to reveal Himself to you—and to draw you closer to Himself.

The arc of biblical teaching—from Genesis to Revelation is that God doesn’t take us AROUND trouble, He takes us THROUGH trouble. And here’s His offer: a) He’ll go with us, b) He’ll teach us along the way, and c) we can go in His strength and power.

Remember, even disciples of Jesus can suffer from spiritual blindness.

Question: Where are your current difficulties or (unrealistic) expectations preventing you from seeing the active presence of Jesus in your life?

Unless we are willing to see Him in the routine and ordinary, we may miss Him.

  1. This brings us to our second question: How can we have a personal encounter with Jesus?

We encounter Jesus when we are humble and see our need for His grace and empowering presence.

In v.26 we find Jesus giving a succinct summary of the gospel: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

In terms of the gospel, Christianity is the only religion or philosophy of life that has an answer to this question, how can God be both infinitely just AND infinitely merciful? At first glance they seem to be at odds. Yet what we find is that infinite justice and infinite mercy intersect at the cross.

In v.26 Jesus is saying that He had to die to make full redemption available to humankind. Again, Cleopas thought they needed a General, he didn’t fully realize that he needed a Savior. What we see in this passage is that Jesus wants to go deeper than our circumstances and heal our ultimate anxiety, which is our separation from God.

With that in mind I have BAD NEWS and I have GOOD NEWS. Here’s the BAD NEWS: God demands perfect holiness to enter into His presence. The tiniest, most minuscule sin will separate you from God forever. To miss the mark by even a millimeter is still to have missed the mark. The GOOD NEWS—and it’s actually great news, is that Jesus the Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, was brutally murdered to take away our sins and then was resurrected on the third day. As our hearts are AWAKENED to this act of perfect love, perfect justice, and perfect mercy we receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which is un-earnable, based on what Christ has done—not what we must do.

We encounter Jesus in the Bible. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27.) They were on a 7-mile journey, which takes about 2-3 hours depending on the terrain. What we have on this journey is probably THE most important Bible study of all time. What we learn from this verse is, the whole Old Testament is about Jesus. What Jesus is doing on the Emmaus Road is opening their minds to the meaning of the Bible. Jesus is saying, “The whole OT is actually about Me.” Once our hearts are awakened to that perspective, we begin to see how the whole Bible—both Old and New Testaments only tells one story. It’s the story of redemption and reconciliation through Jesus.

Have you seen the movie The Sixth Sense?[5] We can only really see it twice. The first time the ending is quite shocking. The second time we become very aware of all the indicators that point to the shocking ending. It’s the same with seeing how the whole Old Testament points to Jesus. The Apostle Paul articulates this thought essence well when he declares, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Jesus left the comfort and perfection of heaven to come into our brokenness and provide us with a righteousness, a peace, and a joy that we didn’t—and couldn’t—earn.

We encounter Jesus as we come together. When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him.  Luke 24:30-31a Again, Jesus is closer than we think. He is already all over our lives. These disciples had been devastated and humbled—and in that condition—partaking of what we now know as the Lord’s Supper, which is an act of worship—they encounter the reality of the risen Christ. And notice too, how the disciples immediately take the good news to somebody else. Nobody can sit on this message when it truly comes alive in our hearts. “And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, 34 saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:33-34).

Returning to the German theologian’s conclusions regarding the root of human anxiety and our fear of emptiness, Thielicke writes that the “positive force, which defeats anxiety, is love.”[6] This parallels with what John says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

Thielicke says our anxiety is the result of a broken bond—and that God’s sacrifice on the cross restores that bond. He says, “once we know that we are loved, we lose our anxiety” and he likens it to holding on tightly to a father’s hand in a very dark forest.

In both Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the crucifixion, they record the anxious final cry of Jesus exclaiming: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Yet a closer examination will reveal that even in excruciating death Jesus never let go of His Father’s hand. Notice Jesus cries out, My God, My God…”  Jesus is bringing His anxiety to His Father. And because He did, so can we.

[1] There was an underground evangelical church movement in Germany during WW2.

[2]  Eerdmans 1962.

[3] Pgs. 17–21.

[4] Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5).

[5] An 8-year-old boy is visited by ghosts and he is too afraid to tell anyone about his anguish, except for Willis who plays a child psychologist. (M. Night Shyamalan) Available on YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes for $2.99.

[6] Pgs. 23–24.

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