Twice a year, I try to get back to my hometown.
Not for a class reunion. Not to meet up with old friends. Not to visit my former home, or church, or some other building that I remember from my childhood.
It’s to listen to a choir. The Coshocton Community Choir.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. Or of Coshocton, for that matter. Most people who live in Ohio have never heard of Coshocton. If they have, then they probably can’t find it on a map.
But one of the best community choirs in the nation calls Coshocton its home. Twice a year, when it performs for an audience of around 1,000, time stops. And life gets better.
Every year, the closing song for one of the concerts is “Stay with Us,” a three-minute acapella beauty written by Egil Hovland. (Here is a wonderful recording by the National Lutheran Choir.) The beginning and ending of the song have these words:
Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us
Stay with us, it soon is evening, and night is falling
Sound familiar? It’s from the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
To Emmaus and Back
It’s two days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Two of his followers, one of them named Cleopas, are still in a state of shock. They went to Jerusalem for what they thought might be the greatest Passover celebration since the Israelites were freed from Egypt. Instead, their world has crumbled.
Now, they are walking seven miles from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus. As they walk, they keep talking about what has happened to Jesus, trying to make sense of it.
Suddenly, a stranger joins them on their walk. He asks them what they are discussing.
What are they discussing? What is everyone discussing?
Incredulous, Cleopas answers, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
The stranger responds that he doesn’t, so the two travelers summarize recent events.
“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth,” they say, “a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.”
Then, Cleopas and his friend lower their voices, looking somewhat sheepish. “Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”
Oops. Maybe they shouldn’t have said that. After all, women are not reliable witnesses; their testimony is invalid in court. Concerned that they have undercut their story, they quickly add, “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
Well, that still sounds crazy. Why did they blurt all this out to a complete stranger? Does he think that they are delusional? Or just idiots? They hold their breath and wait for his response.
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” he says.“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
What? What does that mean? Now they are even more confused!
But the stranger is just getting started.
As they continue to walk, he slowly and steadily steps them through all of the Scriptures, beginning with Moses, and interprets everything in the light of what has happened to Jesus.
With Every Word He Says, Their Hearts Are Burning
Before they know it, they have completed their seven-mile walk and arrived in Emmaus. They slow up, but the stranger keeps walking, as if he is going much farther. They don’t want him to go! Everything is starting to make sense! So they urge him strongly not to leave:
Stay with us, dear friend, stay with us
Stay with us, it soon is evening, and night is falling
The stranger agrees to stay. He enters a house with them, and they prepare to have an evening meal. As they gather around a table, the stranger takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it.
And he vanishes.
“It was Jesus!” they exclaim.
So, what do they do?
They drop everything and run. Seven miles. In the dark.
They run all the way back to Jerusalem.
Stay with Us!
When they get there, they find the 11 disciples and those who are with them. Before they can tell their story, someone blurts out, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”Then they share their story of the walk to Emmaus, and how they recognized Jesus when he broke the bread.
While they are answering questions from the others, Jesus appears, right in the middle of the room, and says, “Peace to you!”
The room goes silent. Everyone is frightened out of his mind. It’s a ghost!
So Jesus reassures them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Can it be true? Can he be alive? They want to believe it, but it’s too wonderful to be believed. So he asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?” Without thinking, someone hands him a piece of broiled fish. He takes it and eats it. That simple, everyday action breaks the tension, and the room suddenly is filled with the release of emotion: laughter, tears, and shouts of joy.
Just as he did with the two on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains to his friends in the room that everything that has happened was foretold by Scripture. He walks them through each passage, so they can understand how the prophecies were fulfilled.
“You are witnesses of these things, he finishes. “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus is back with them. He has overcome death and the grave. And he is promising them that they, too, will receive amazing power from God.
Don’t leave us again, each one thinks. Stay with us, Lord Jesus.
Stay with us!
But Jesus doesn’t stay. He vanishes. And a few weeks later, he disappears for good, ascending into heaven.
Why Jesus Didn’t Stay
Wanting Jesus to stay was a natural reaction by his friends and followers. If we were there, then we would have thought and even voiced the same sentiment. Stay with us!
But his leaving was the best thing for them. And for us.
Consider the pair who walked to Emmaus. What would have happened to them if Jesus had stayed with them, as they wanted? They could have asked him a ton of questions. They could have celebrated with him long into the night. And the next day, they could have traveled with him wherever he went.
But they wouldn’t have run from Emmaus to Jerusalem.
They wouldn’t have risked everything to share the Good News.
Today, and every day, we need to catch the wonder of the risen Jesus, as they did when he broke the bread at their table. And when we catch it, we need to resist the urge to stay put and ask Jesus to give us more
We need to run and tell others.
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