Preparing for a God Encounter this Lent

Lent, the penitential season of prayer, self-examination, and repentance prepares us for the celebration of Easter and our heart’s deepest desire: an encounter with the risen Lord. Few songs convey that longing like Paul Baloche’s Open the Eyes of My Heart. Over half of the lyrics consist of the title appeal, followed by the reason: “I want to see you.” The relentless repetition of those phrases expresses a desire, bordering on desperation, for a life-giving encounter with our Lord and Savior.

The good news is that Christ does have a habit of showing up in the lives of his people, sometimes in unexpected ways. To Saul, he came in laser-bright intensity on his murderous march to Damascus. To Mary Magdalene, he came whispering her name in her frenzied search at the garden tomb. And to two confused and crestfallen disciples, he pulled alongside them as they traveled a dusty road in Judea.

The Emmaus Road
On Resurrection Sunday, Cleopas and another disciple were making their way to Emmaus, a seven-mile hike from Jerusalem. Embroiled in discussion over the events of Passion Week, they are joined by another traveler who, unbeknownst to them, is Jesus. Luke describes the disciples as downcast, as their remarks to their companion make clear.

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They reference their crucified Lord as a “prophet,” the one hoped “to redeem Israel,” indicating that they had expected him to be the conquering Messiah, not the suffering Servant. Even the early reports of Peter and John and Mary Magdalene about the not-so empty tomb—containing only grave clothes in a collapsed, cocoon-like condition—had not helped them put the puzzle pieces together.

Jesus chides them for their ignorance of Scripture (“Those I love, I rebuke and discipline”), then proceeds to connect the dots for them.

Tracing the thread from Moses to the Cross, Jesus likely began with Genesis 3:15 where, in the aftermath of the fall, God informed the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman … he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” From there, Jesus probably reminded them of the animal skins given to Adam and Eve to cover their “nakedness”—coverings provided by God at the cost of innocent life—a divine initiative that foreshadowed the sacrificial system culminated on the Cross.

Exhausting the Pentateuch, Jesus moved to the Psalms and Prophets pausing, in all likelihood, on Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Daniel 9. When he reached Zechariah, his two companions would have been particularly stung by the prophet’s warning, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,” given their quick exit from Jerusalem,

But whatever discomfort they may have felt, they were so stirred by what Jesus said that when they arrived home they pressed him to come inside for food and fellowship. Jesus graciously obliged them, entering and eating before vanishing before his breathless hosts (“If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”)

Seeking and finding
When Cleopas and his companion set out that day, the hope that they would meet their crucified Master was as far from their thoughts as the idea that they would meet Abraham. But their hospitality to a stranger and hunger for Scripture led to a high voltage encounter that energized them to make the seven-mile journey back to Jerusalem (the same day!) to share the good news.

For those who long for a similar God encounter, these two disciples have much to teach us.

First, although it should go without saying, wanting a God encounter is a prerequisite for having one. As Yahweh told Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all you heart” (Jer. 29:11-13). Thus, one lesson from the Emmaus Road is that if we would meet God, we must earnestly seek him, knowing full well that a soul-searing conviction may accompany our eye-opening experience.

Another lesson is that we meet God in his Word.

From Genesis to Revelation the central subject of the bible is Jesus. While this is obvious for the New Testament, it is equally true for the Old Testament, the Scriptures that Jesus unpacked for the Emmaus travelers. Whereas the NT presents Jesus in re-view, the OT presents him in pre-view through the sacrifices, feasts, and even the design and details of the Tabernacle—two warranting special mention here: the Ark of the Covenant and the Table of Shewbread.

In its material construction, the Ark foreshadowed Jesus’s dual nature. Made of acacia wood, a symbol of humanity, and overlaid with gold, a symbol of divinity, the Ark prefigured Christ as the Son of Man and Son of God. Inside, the tablets of the law, a symbol of the old covenant, pointed to the law’s fulfillment and the new covenant; the jar of manna, a reminder of God’s past provision, pointed to the Bread of Life, God’s future provision; and the budded staff, a symbol of the temporary leadership of Aaron, pointed to the eternal leadership of the Good Shepherd.

The Table of Shewbread (also constructed of acacia wood and gold) held twelve loaves of bread, arranged in two piles, signifying Jew and Gentile in unity at the Lord’s Table. The loaves were unleavened and punctured, representing Christ’s sinless body pierced for our transgressions. The bread was divine food the priests ate as they fellowshipped with God in the Holy Place.

The Christological types and foreshadows of the OT segue seamlessly into their NT fulfillment, giving us confidence that when we open God’s Word we can encounter him on every page.

The Emmaus Road also teaches us that we meet God in fellowship with other believers, especially spiritual directors, confessors, and seasoned soul friends (anam caras).

Moses instructed the people to talk about God things “when you walk along the road” (Deut. 6:6-9). Jesus promised, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). That is not to say that we cannot encounter God outside the circle of Christian brotherhood; but, rather, through our diversity of gifts, experiences and knowledge there is a synergy in fellowship that leads to a Solomonic “iron sharpening iron.”

Whether they were conscious of Moses’s instruction, Jesus’s promise, or Solomon’s proverb, Cleopas and his companion were engaged in a session of “iron sharpening” that drew the Lord to them, and them to the Lord.

Which brings us to the last point of the Emmaus Road: We meet God in his Sacrament.

Although they had spent the better part of three hours with the traveling expositor, it wasn’t until he sat at the table and broke bread that they had their “Aha!” moment. When he vanished, leaving them agog, they turned to each other, as if to make sure the whole experience wasn’t a dream, with the breathless question, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

It is possible that the Emmaus disciples had heard about the Passover meal a few nights earlier in the upper room. It is also possible they were in the crowd Jesus fed with a few loaves of bread before announcing, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven… This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

But whatever knowledge they had of these events, Jesus’s Eucharistic actions brought the Old Testament “shadows” to life for them.

The manna and showbread, the shadow images of the Food from heaven, pointed to the realities of the Lord’s Supper. By partaking the physical elements of bread and wine, the believer receives the spiritual, but real, Presence of Christ making Holy Communion the visible sign of the invisible reality that our mystical union is complete, being “in Christ” with “Christ in us.”

This Lent, as we prepare for Easter with the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting, let us embark on the Emmaus road of Scripture, fellowship, and communion in the joyful expectation of meeting our Lord along the way.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Supper at Emmaus” painted by Caravaggio in 1601.

  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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