The Mysterious Stranger
The "road to Emmaus" story has always intrigued me. After Jesus' resurrection, two disciples walk toward a small town about seven miles from Jerusalem. Along the way, a stranger joins them. The newcomer, seemingly ignorant of the events of the day, listens as the two men tell him about the crucifixion of Jesus and the report of his resurrection.
As they walk, the stranger begins to teach them. At sunset, they stop for a meal. In the "breaking of the bread," they realize they have been talking to Jesus all along. Then Jesus disappears (see Lk 24:13-35).
The story intrigues me for a number of reasons. First, I've never figured out why they didn't recognize Jesus. Even if he had some kind of heavenly body, he must have been the same shape and size. If nothing else, wouldn't they have known from the sound of his voice, or the way he spoke, the depth of his teaching, or the intensity of his words?
I understand the story on an experiential level though. I have encountered those mysterious strangers in my life-people God sends just to answer my prayers. They're unexpected messengers of God. I've listened to their message. Then, being totally in tune with the Holy Spirit, I say, "Ah, yes, this is God." Right?
Well, uh, not quite. I'm a bit dull at hearing God speak to me through mysterious strangers. I read my Bible and ask God to "enliven the word," as we used to say in one church. Or I pray with a specific request and expect God to speak to me through impressions, doors opening or closing, or something happening.
Like many others, I've been praying and just then-like the proverbial lightning bolt-comes a moment of insight. That's God answering my prayer.
But through strangers? How can that be?
In the Old Testament, it happened. For instance, God calls Gideon to deliver the nation from the Midianites. But he is an illegitimate son in an insignificant clan of the tribe of Manasseh, and calls himself the least in the family. Who is he to do such things? In his insecurity and uncertainty, Gideon seeks guidance.
Most people know the fleece story. Gideon prays for God to work through signs. The first night he puts down a wool fleece on the threshing floor. He says, "If the dew is on the fleece but the floor itself remains dry, I'll know God is speaking to me." God gives him the answer he asks for.
The next night, Gideon reverses his request and in the morning the wool is dry but the ground is wet (see Judges 6:36-40 . In the next chapter, Gideon and his servant, Purah, go to the edge of the enemy camp. They hear soldiers on guard duty:
"Gideon overhead one enemy guard telling another, 'I had a dream about a flat loaf of barley bread that came tumbling into our camp. It hit the headquarters tent, and the tent flipped over and fell down.' The other soldier answered, 'Your dream must have been about Gideon, the Israelite commander. It means God will let him and his army defeat the Midianite army and everyone else in our camp.' As soon as Gideon heard about the dream and what it meant, he bowed down to praise God"(Judges 7:13-15a, CEV).
God spoke the truth-and gave guidance-through a heathen soldier. Wasn't that like a mysterious stranger? It was a voice of God that Gideon had never expected.
Those mysterious strangers have come my way more often than I may have realized. They are answered prayers and often I don't realize it. Or I figure it out much later.
Yet, increasingly, I hear the divine whisper (and it's usually a whisper instead of a shout) that comes to me from the most unlikely lips. One day, I was grumbling about all the projects I had going and the small amount of time in which to do them. After a couple of minutes listening to me, a man-a casual acquaintance-smiled and said quietly, "You know, you don't have to save the world today. The less important things will wait until tomorrow."
In my frenzied state, I almost didn't hear the mysterious stranger speaking. In fact, I had my rebuttal already half-formed in my head (we compulsive people do that expertly), and then I stopped. He was absolutely right!
I didn't accomplish everything I had planned that day. But when I went to bed that night, I knew I had finished the important things I needed to do.
Another time, we were visiting a church and I didn't feel particularly comfortable with the style of worship. Even more distracting for me was that I was focusing on something going on inside me rather than on the service. I was struggling with a problem that had happened several years ago, and I realized I'd never fully shoved it into the past.
Just then the minister quoted Philippians 3:13 (NKJV), "but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things that are ahead." Then he added, "Looking back means going back."
I jerked to attention. I felt as if that man had read my mind. Later, as I reflected, I realized it was one of those visits from the Mysterious Stranger.
My wife, Shirley, isn't exactly a mysterious stranger, but once in a while she takes on that role. In her quiet way, she'll make an offhand comment that strikes me almost as if I'm listening to the final crescendo of the Hallelujah Chorus.
One more example. I usher at the early service. One Sunday morning I went into a nervous frenzy. I couldn't find the bulletins, the flowers weren't on the altar, and my classroom had not been set up properly for me to teach immediately after the service. Just then, a woman came in early, looked at me and said, "Hmm, your god must have died last night."
"What?" I said.
"Every time I've come here, you've been warm and smiling. Today, you're a picture of gloom. I thought maybe your god had died."
"Nope," I said, "I'm the one. Only I'm not dead, just marginally terminal." And I laughed, but just then I heard the voice of the Mysterious Stranger.
I don't know when the Mysterious Stranger is going to come. I hear voices around me all the time, especially those that want to direct my life or cure me of some kind of character flaw. Like yesterday morning I spoke with Mike on the phone about a situation I was dealing with.
"I know a first-class therapist," he said. "She sure has helped me." For several minutes he tried to sell me on her.
I thanked Mike, and I knew he meant well, but as I prayed, I knew it simply wasn't the voice of the Mysterious Stranger. I'm not opposed to therapists, but I'm a stubborn independent who works things out internally. I couldn't hear someone else's Mysterious Stranger. I have to hear my own.
So how do I recognize the Mysterious Stranger? I don't always. I suspect the Stranger has whispered 23,431 times in my life when I haven't gotten the message.
When I do hear, however, it's like a pager going off or the alarm pulling me out of deep sleep. It's like a voice that says, "Ah, ha" and I feel a jab in my stomach. The internal witness says, "This is an ordinary human being, but God has just used her to tell you what you need to hear right now."
As I pray, I ask God to keep me open to divine appearances in the form of the Mysterious Stranger. I want to hear God speak through a child's smile, a grandmother's embrace, the words of a hymn, or even someone who doesn't like me.
The Mysterious Stranger is around, and I've committed myself to develop a listening ear.
"Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" [said one of the men on the road to Emmaus]. --Luke 24:32, NIV
speak to me through the Bible,
or with a word from friends or people I don't know.
Use your voice as the Mysterious Stranger,
but most of all,
speak to me,
and when I hear you,
enable me to whisper, "Ah, yes." Amen.
For more from Cec, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cec for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.