"...but they were kept from recognising him" (Luke 24:16).
Recently I read a written reflection posted by my friends in ministry, Alvin and Ken. We all serve in the Covenant Group ministry of our church. Ken and Alvin were reflecting on Luke 24:16 and they and asked this question: "Why would God (who is Love) keep us from recognising him?"
They spent a week discussing this question on WhatsApp. Ken pondered this question while carving out time for a personal retreat in his garden at home. Alvin prayed this question while he jogged up and down the multistorey carpark in his condo.
After that, they co-wrote a devotional with some key points on why God might have kept us from recognising Him:
When God normally reveals Himself in his full glory, we might be overwhelmed
There is some inner work we need to do with ourselves first
God allows us time to slowly change because change takes time
His peace can be felt without his Presence
God relates to us even when we do not recognise Him
Ultimately, God kept them from recognising Him because God knew they were not yet ready to encounter Jesus himself face to face
Because God, who is love, knows us more than we know ourselves.
What struck me when I read their reflections is that we can all take time to meditate on His Word. And when we do so, the Spirit of the Living Christ will bring His Word alive to our hearts and to our times. And what a joy - we can also enrich each other's lives through a joint devotion!
Today, as I look into this phrase - "But they were kept from recognising him" - I realise that we can all experience the God Who Seems To Work Slowly.
This leads us to the rich and deep biblical theme of waiting. Many key characters in the Bible waited patiently for something.
Noah - Waiting and enduring
Abraham - Waiting and trusting
Moses - Waiting and learning
David - Waiting and worshipping
Jesus - Waiting and obeying.
When the apostle Luke wrote his gospel, he presented his readers with a huge cast of people who were waiting for something. One writer mentioned that when we read the stories of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, we quickly realise that they represent "well-seasoned waiters."
Waiting is something very real in daily life. What are the things you are "waiting" for in your life today?
The items on our wait list could stretch to the double digits. As we journey with parents with special needs, we are all waiting for the day when our children will be more independent and able to earn a living for themselves. As Malaysians, we are still waiting for good and just leaders to govern the fragmented country. Most people are waiting for the economy to recover. Many are waiting to recover lost income.
On a more painful note: some are waiting to be admitted to the hospital due to serious infections, Covid-related or not. Meanwhile others are waiting for their loved ones to recover from Covid and to be discharged from hospital.
In all these situations, God seems to work so slowly.
Maybe that's because God has His own sense of timing. God's people were waiting for a long time for the Messiah but God was not in a hurry. It was only when the time had fully come, at God's right or kairos time, that God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of God's children (see Galatians 4:4-5).
The author Philip Yancey once observed that when Jesus performed an impressive miracle, his followers wanted to spread the word immediately. But Jesus often shushed them: "My time has not yet come." Jesus understood something about God that normal disciples don't understand: God acts slowly.
Slowly, little by little, God acts. The disciples were kept from recognising Jesus. Jesus could have acted instantly to open the eyes of the disciples, but usually he seems to work slowly.
During the long waiting period of the pandemic, my youngest son, has asked me the same question in many different ways: "Why is Jesus not coming back yet?" "Why is not coming back now to solve and end the Covid problem?" "Why doesn't God end all sin, once and for all?"
How do I answer these questions? It seems to me that all the answers touch on the fact that God seems to work slowly, and also that God is not showing his presence and power in the ways that we want Him to. While I cannot answer my son directly,
2 Peter 3:8-9 can be helpful for us to think about: "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."
We admit we may not fully understand how God works but for parents who are waiting for their "prodigal" children to come back to God, we can be encouraged that when God seems to work slowly, it does not mean that God is not loving us and our children.
In the story of "The Prodigal Son" in Luke 15 (which Tim Keller retitled as The prodigal God), we see the picture of the father patiently waiting for the lost son to return home. Again, God seems to work slowly here. In contrast to the Good Shepherd who goes all out to seek the lost sheep until he finds it, the father in this story does not go all out and rescue his prodigal (excessively wasteful) son. We don't know why. But we see something even more clearly here: the father demonstrates prodigal (excessive) love toward the prodigal son.
God is also excessively patient in his love toward his children (us).
Yes, God may seem to work slowly. But at the right time, God is not slow.
In the story (Luke 15:20), while the son was still a long way off, the father ran to his son. He ran - not stroll - to welcome back his son.
The pair of disciples experienced Jesus revealing himself to them, little by little. It was not immediate. It was gradual. Isn't that how God usually works with us?
In our daily life and walk with God, we can experience how God reveals to us in many different ways. God takes time to reveal himself and his Word to us. And it takes time for us to take Him in.
It took me just a few months to write the Emmaus Road reflections. But actually, the incubation period for writing this has taken years. During this time, I have been experiencing the God who seems to work slowly. He has been revealing to me devotional thoughts, inspiration, and Scriptural insight as I go through a life of ups and downs. If I think of writing in terms of cooking, then writing this devotional is definitely not a stir fry; it's about simmering. The raw ingredients and sauces simmering in the pot include experiences, stories, biblical meditation and more. Many things need marination. The cooking process is slow.
Likewise, in what ways have you experienced the God who seems to work slowly in your life's situation? How are you getting to know the God who is not in a hurry?
Let us not be surprised when the God seems to go slow may also call us to slow down in our lives. Maybe some of us feel knocked down or even knocked out. Others may feel burnt out, rusted in or dried up.
These are the times when God may want us to slow down to "let our soul catch up with our bodies" so that we can experience the Lord's slow medicine to heal our heavy and troubled hearts.
When we're down or when we're out of breath, we can learn to wait upon the Lord and trust Him. As we lack strength, we can take on the Lord's strength (see Isaiah 40:31).
In the Emmaus account Jesus did not urge the pair of troubled disciples to hurry on. The three of them took a long slow walk for seven miles. The disciples were kept from recognising Jesus because the God who seemed to work slowly was patiently guiding them, step by step, to see Jesus more clearly in Scripture before they could feel risen Christ in their hearts.
Jesus was not being cruel toward the disciples (or us). His gradual revelation of himself allowed them to learn certain lessons about trusting God's promises. The gradual revelation finally enabled the disciples to remember and realise that everything Jesus said about himself - first predicted in the Scripture - will come to pass.
Jesus was not being manipulative when he walked with them on the dark night. In fact the disciples would later realise that in their "dark night of the soul," Christ was most present to them.
Likewise, we're not alone when we go through dark nights or when we sense that God is hidden. Like the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross who wrote the poem on the "dark night of the soul," we may feel abandoned and forsaken by God who seems to work ever so slowly that his presence seems so far away.
However, the dark night of our senses does not reflect reality, just as the two disciples did not appreciate that Jesus himself was walking with them. The theologian Simon Chan writes: "The soul that perseveres through the dark night comes to a dawn of a new day. A deeper, more mature love emerges. It enjoys a kind of intimacy in prayer that is comparable to the golden years of a marriage."
I believe that when we experience the God who seems to work slowly, we can tell ourselves this: it's okay not to be okay in our emotions. God does not hurry to reveal himself fully to us immediately because we may need to go through some necessary emotions such as grief, sadness, anger and confusion. Like the psalmist, we can learn to lament and be honest and real with God.
Marva Dawn, a veteran in experiencing a life of pain and disappointment, shared that, "God already knows how we feel, so we might as well not compound our problems by being dishonest about it."
Lord, you may seem to work slowly in today's instant culture. But we find courage because you are still the God who is love, and love is patient. Thank you for being patient with us, for you know our needs and the emotions we're struggling. You know us more than we know ourselves.
Thank you that you go slow and give us time to learn about waiting. Waiting teaches us to trust you, and to grow in our faith. We might still ask you, "Lord, how long?" Your answer may not come immediately. But grant us the grace of your comforting presence. Amen.