For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 10 – 1 Kings 19:4-8 (Related)
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
I love this chapter, and I have preached on it often: indeed it forms an important part of my own spiritual journey. Often you will have read me moaning about the little snippets our lectionary gives us, and seen me trespassing into the wider context. But it has been useful for me this week to have to focus in on a few verses of a passage I know and love as a whole chapter.
We do need a bit of context, though. Elijah is the prophet fighting for the soul of the nation as Baal worship looks as though it might replace the worship of Yahweh in Israel, and he has just won a mighty victory by calling fire down from heaven on Mount Carmel. But as is so often the case, after a great victory comes an immediate come-down. The Elijah we meet here is a very different man from the bold prophet confronting false worship on the mountaintop. Instead he is broken, suicidal and alone in the wilderness. Last week we talked about liminality, that place of no-mans-land where we have to learn lessons which will take us into the future. Elijah finds himself here in a liminal space, so let’s think about what is going on: what he does, and what God does.
Firstly, he runs off into the wilderness. As we heard last week, this is a very special place in the Bible, and fundamentally it is a place of encounter with God, often because there is simply nothing else there to do. Biblical heroes, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Paul all spent time there with God. It is a place of nothingness, and so there is nothing for us to do, to plan, to worry about. We just are. There we spend time with our own secrets. In our activity-driven world, and in an increasingly performance-driven church, it feels like a cop-out to stop and just be. Even retreats, in my experience, can be filled with stuff to do. Elijah just stops, and discovers some of his deep feelings, feelings of despair and brokenness.
So he asks God to end his life. We all hope, in some way, to be better than our ancestors, to leave a mark on the world. But Elijah’s fear of Queen Jezebel distorts his perspective, and in spite of a massive victory he can see nothing of worth which he has achieved. In the liminal stages of early retirement I had to wrestle with the question ‘What has it all been about?’ 38 years of hard labour for the C of E, and what have I actually achieved? What is there to show for it all? It’s easy to lose perspective, even if it doesn’t drive us to suicide. This request for death is significantly followed by him lying down and going to sleep. He wants to die, but he wants it to be in his sleep; good and painless.
It can be only when we reach the end of our resources that we can surrender to rest and sleep. When I was diagnosed with cancer, and told by my consultant to kiss goodbye to the next six months of my life, I was able to rest and sleep free of guilt that I ought really to be doing something. My family were beautifully understanding, and let me go for a sleep any time I felt I needed one. Sadly most employers are not as understanding, so we feel that to nap, or to sleep in, is really a bad thing to be doing. Elijah feels no such pressure to get on with it, and in fact sleeps twice. This isn’t a power-nap, this is deep, refreshing, perspective-restoring sleep. Many of us get far to little of it.
But while Elijah is sleeping, God is at work. God is going to give so much to Elijah in this chapter, but these few verses concentrate on just one thing: nourishment. He sends an angel with freshly-baked bread and water, and Elijah’s bodily as well as emotional needs are taken care of. In spite of a society in which diet has become an obsession we have not entirely learnt the lesson that our emotional states are linked to our bodily condition, and that often the best thing we can do when we feel down is to eat, drink, exercise and rest properly, all of which can be the very last things we feel like doing. So I guess that an angel commanding us to get up and eat might be just what we need!
Later on God is going to reassure and recommission Elijah for ministry, but he knows what he needs first: a total break from everything. Wilderness, nourishment and rest provide that break, and prepare him for the forward journey. When we feel that the journey is just too much for us, maybe a good place to begin is to stop, rest and eat. Paying attention to the physical can work wonders for the emotional. We know that in theory, but when we’re in the middle of it it’s really hard to remember.
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