(This sermon, based on 1 Kings 19:4-8, was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN on August 12, 2012, the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B)
The prophet Elijah’s voice thundered fierce and confident, calling down fire from heaven to consume the water and wood, the altar and the animal sacrifice. He would show these so-called prophets, followers of Ba’al, who the real God is. Their so-called god was a no show. Elijah’s God, the true God, the God of Israel, he would show up. He would send fire. He would consume the offering. And he did. Fire rained down from heaven, and in an instant, all of it, the water, the wood, the altar and the animal, consumed.
Now Elijah was even more confident, consumed with passion for his God and angered by Ba’al and his prophets. So, with a word, a thunderous, murderous word, he excited the congregation of Israel and they turned and slaughtered the Ba’al prophets, all 850 of them.
But, Jezebel, Israel’s pagan queen, the one who brought Ba’al worship into vogue, fierce and confident in her own right, she could not let Elijah’s mockery and murder stand. So she sent him, by way of a messenger, a murderous word of her own. “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life [Elijah] like the life of one of [my prophets] by this time tomorrow.”1 In other words, I’m gonna kill you!
...So, that is the back story which brings us to today’s reading from 1st Kings. When we catch up with Elijah today, he is no longer so fierce and confident. No, he’s afraid and running for his life into the wilderness. Alone, confused, exhausted there in the wilderness, he collapses under a large desert bush and asks to die, telling God, “It is too much; now, Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors."
Oh, to have been able to hear the inflection in Elijah’s voice. Was it stressed in tone? Or, depressed? Was he exhausted, broken, feeling like a failure? Or, was it more like a confused, exasperated complaint? Was it more of a “What in God’s name is going on?! I just destroyed those idol worshippers and look what I got for it. My very life has been threatened and here I am alone in the wilderness.” Maybe Elijah was feeling used, used up, tossed out...forgotten by God. Or maybe, it is guilt he feels. He had overstepped his bounds. God hadn’t told him to murder the prophets of Ba’al. But Elijah had got caught up in the moment. Thus he had sinned. He had failed. And thus, in many ways he had brought Jezebel’s wrath upon himself.....Or, maybe it is all of the above. We cannot know for certain all that Elijah was feeling. All we have is the conclusion he comes to...“It is too much; now, Lord, take away my life,...It is too much.”
What about you? Have you ever uttered those words, It is too much Lord? Have there been times in your life, maybe even right now, when you’ve been there alone, depressed, in the wilderness. Have you felt times of exhaustion, brokenness, failure? Are you confused, rejected, wondering “What in God’s name?...How did I get here? This isn’t the way it was supposed to work out? Did I bring this on myself? Or, am I cursed? It’s too much! And, where is God in all this anyway? Because I sure don’t see God. Have I, by my failures & brokenness somehow removed myself from God’s forgiveness and love? It’s too much. Where is God?
Where is God for Elijah? That’s what Elijah wants to know. After making his request to die, or his confession, however you see it, Elijah falls, exhausted or depressed, asleep. But then a messenger, this time from God and not from Jezebel, wakes him and commands him to rise up and eat. Rise up Elijah, from the sleep of death, and the things that bring death. Rise up and eat.
Choon-Leong Seow, Princeton Seminary’s Professor of Old Testament, in his commentary on this passage writes: The food that is before Elijah is described as a ‘cake baked on coals, and a jar of water’. The only other place in the Old Testament
where we find the Hebrew word used for coals is in Isaiah where it refers to the coal that touched Isaiah's lips to purify him, when Isaiah expressed his dismay at his ability to accept God's commission. The word used for jar is another uncommon word, appearing only in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings. In the latter, it refers to the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath. Because of God's provision, that jar miraculously remained full during the drought, and provided food for Elijah and the widow. Thus the very vocabulary used to describe Elijah's food and drink recall another prophet who felt unworthy, and reminds us of God's provisions for Elijah in the past.” 2
What Elijah receives are practical, tangible provisions that enable him to go "in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights". What is given, then, is sufficient and strengthening.
But what about us? Where is our holy messenger and holy food? We often fall, exhausted or depressed into the sleep like death and the things that bring death, and, it seems, there is none there to wake us. I wish there were something so visibly obvious like Elijah’s holy messenger and holy food. A sign like that would be extremely helpful from time to time.
...Then again,...maybe there is something...or someone...who is for us that holy messenger and holy food. Someone who has fallen exhausted & suffering into a sleep, not just like death, but of actual death. This one knows what it is like to be broken, forsaken, a failure. And this one knows what it is like to rise up out of that death. Yes, this one, Jesus has shown up, into our very sleep like death to be for us that holy messenger and holy food. In him we see that God does not have death in mind for us! No, God has in mind for us life, new and abundant life!
Thus, God in Christ Jesus is the God who shows up. Holy messenger. Holy food. Even when it isn’t so visibly obvious to us. Our God is the God who shows up, feeding us with God’s love in Christ, even when we’ve made a mess of things, even when we don’t think we deserve it. Our God is the God who shows up, feeding us with God’s forgiveness and love.
Yes, God shows up, touches us with his grace and calls to us to rise up. Rise up from the sleep of death and the things that bring death. Rise up from your fear and confusion, from your rejection and depression, from your self-inflicted & other-inflicted wounds, and from the pain & brokenness that has ravaged you. Rise up and eat....God’s forgiveness, God’s love, and God’s hope for you. Rise up and eat....the bread of life.
...Now, the thing is, I know life is so much more complicated than that. The sleep like death and the things that bring death thunder fierce and confident through our lives, always threatening to consume us. I can only hope and pray, the God who shows up, his promises and his faithfulness are even more powerful. That somehow God’s daily showing up, calling for us to rise up and eat, that this, God’s provision, will be enough, in lives that are often too much to bear. That God’s provision will be sufficient and strengthening in whatever wilderness in which we find ourselves...That God’s provision will fill us up, and "in the strength of that food” we may truly live...the new and loving and abundant life...
1 1 Kings 19:2
2 Leong Seow, "1 Kings." New Interpreters Bible Volume III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 140.