Sermon text: 1 Kings 19: 4-8
There are times in our life when it feels like no matter what we do it is not enough. We complete a task, a chore, a job and there’s no thank you. There’s no gratitude. But another task will quickly pop up, another to-do item will populate our lists, another job will steal our time.
When this cycle continues and repeats again and again real damage occurs in this one square foot of real estate. We feel ineffectual. We feel exhausted. We feel overlooked or taken for granted or just plain hurt. We know that the world doesn’t stop turning, but sometimes it would be nice to feel like our efforts paid off. That everything wasn’t in vain.
That’s how we meet Elijah today. He is exhausted, in danger, harassed, burned out. He is afraid. He has nothing to show for all of his ministry, even though he has been “successful.” How does this prophet of God get to the place where he is walking into the desert with nothing, curling up under a tree, and pleading to die?
What’s interesting is that Elijah is coming off of his biggest win of his career. He just finished up a contest with nearly 1,000 prophets of the gods Baal and Asherah. Perhaps you recall the story. King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel were promoting idol worship in Israel and actively trying to destroy the worship of the God of Israel.
Three years earlier Elijah made a grand public entrance, clothed in black camel’s hair and speaking a message of doom: “There shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” For three years there was a draught and the prophets of the weather god Baal couldn’t even make it rain. Elijah exposed their fraud.
Finally, there was a showdown between God of Israel and Baal, between Elijah and the small army of Baal’s prophets. Both groups were given the task to light a burnt offering on fire. Baal’s prophets pray and pray and pray and nary a spark. After their performance Elijah soaks his pyre in water, a slap in the face to an exorbitant amount of a precious, scarce commodity during a draught, and then God sets the entire altar on fire with a blaze from heaven.
As this takes place Elijah instructs the people of Israel to seize the prophets of Baal and all of them are put to death. It’s a gruesome victory, a bloodbath, but it leaves no question of who’s in charge.
The victory was all well and good, but now Queen Jezebel is angry that all of the prophets of her god are dead. She is out for blood and has sent men to kill Elijah.
Alone and on the run he flees into the wilderness, depressed at his situation, doubting all the work he’s done—a shadow of the man who just stood courageously against the King and the prophets of Baal.
There’s an interesting theme in scripture that we witness repeatedly, one where God shows up in the wilderness. We see that with the Israelites as they travel, with Jesus fasting in the desert, in the stories of Abraham and Jacob, even Haggar and Ishmael encounter God in the wilderness. Recently we’ve followed the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in a deserted place. In scripture people encounter the divine in the wilderness.
I love the irony that the wilderness is so fertile. In this spacious, blank setting we enter into a place of possibility, a place of unknowing, away from the expectations and overstimulations of the world. That’s why I love to go hiking out in nature. It’s time spent on retreat is so valuable. It’s why the vast expanse of the open ocean can feel so calming. Our situations in life don’t always have easy answers or quick fixes, and in the wilderness God opens us up to the Spirit’s presence so that we may see a way forward.
First, there’s the wilderness, next, there’s rest. Elijah falls asleep, twice, like a college student after a week of all-nighters and finals. Perhaps, as he sleeps, he can release the burden of his holy work and find peace. I think it’s important that Elijah rests and that he doesn’t try to cover over his pain through unhealthy means. He doesn’t try to numb or distract through drinking or shopping or binge watching or doom scrolling. He rests. And when we rest we open ourselves to God’s future call and direction.
Do you seek rest in the right places? Where do you seek rest?
Most importantly, as we have touched on these past few weeks in the wake of the Feeding of the 5,000 and the gift of manna from heaven, God nourishes Elijah. A simple meal is given in the midst of great need. Twice he is fed by God’s messenger to strengthen him for what’s next. Otherwise the journey will be too much for him. God knows that our bodies and souls need fuel for what is to come.
That’s my entry point into this story. Of course we have times when we feel exasperated and stretched thin. There are times when we feel like we are always on the run. To quote Bilbo Baggins, “I feel thin, sort of stretched like butter scraped over too much bread.” There are times when we need rest from our journeys and our trials.
In all times we need nourishment. We need morsels to lift both the body and spirit. We need the simple meal of bread and wine that Jesus offers at his table. We need the nourishment of his presence that accompanies his communion. For whatever journey we are on, whether we are running for our lives or trying to keep it together with paperclips and bailing wire, God provides.
Years ago, when I was in Junior High School I attended one of the Synod youth events at the old Ramada. For some strange reason the theme of one of those events stuck with me—Bread for the Journey. Not only can I still name the theme, but I can also still sing the first stanza of the song that had the same title. Some twenty years later these words still kick around in my brain and come to me when I need nourishment. May these words be a prayer and a blessing for you today:
Give us bread for the journey, give us bread.
Give us bread for the journey, give us bread.
When our legs are getting heavy and we’re hanging down our heads,
Give us bread for the journey give us bread.
Nourish us Lord, with your presence, with your body and blood…otherwise, the journey will be too much for us. AMEN