‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you..’ 1 Kings 19: 7b
At first glance it’s hard to think that any of us here have much in common with the prophet Elijah. He lived a long time gone, many centuries ago, even before Jesus. He’s considerably more BC than AD. He lived at a time when the issue wasn’t whether or not to believe in God, but which God or gods you believed in. He was famous for bringing on droughts and famines and then great rains. He was the one who had that spectacular competition with the prophets of Baal, when their sacrifices wouldn’t burn – while his sacrifice would burn even though it had been drenched with water. And he was a killer too. When he won the contest with the prophets of Baal he had them all seized and he killed them in the Wadi Kishon, by putting them to the sword. This is not a world we recognise, though there are hints of it in the darker stories of the news stories, and it’s not one we want to share in. Elijah seems a world away from Taunton in the season where flower festivals are as competitive as it gets and when not so many people think it matters what God you bow to, and perhaps better not to bother at all. So, how shall we hear good news from his story on this August Sunday in 2018?
Well, despite all those things that make this story hard to read, I have found something that echoes loud into my life and perhaps it will echo in yours. Let’s see if I can explain… and see if it helps..Of the many different stories about Elijah, in a set that doesn’t always seem to make sense, there are several stories of Elijah being fed in the desert. There’s that story of the ravens feeding him, of the Widow at Zarephath and the miraculous cruse of oil and there’s this story we’ve heard today of Elijah under the broom tree. Elijah seems perpetually to get to the edge of his endurance, to the edge of life, and to be rescued at the very brink by the intervention of God. In the story we heard today he is fleeing for his life – Jezebel is angry that he’s killed all the prophets she rather liked – and is now in fear for his life. Despite pulling off the most spectacular sacrifice of the Bible, he now looks to be on the losing side again. He’s fed up of the struggle, hungry, exhausted and ready to give up on the whole thing. ‘It’s enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…’ And he falls asleep. Some interpreters even think this means that he dies… but then an angel comes and brings him food and water, a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And when he falls asleep again after a little food, the angel makes him eat more. ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ So he eats and then has strength for a long journey in the wilderness. And next comes the story about finding God in the still, small voice.. in the sound of sheer silence…
It’s not that I’ve ever found myself in a literal desert without food. And it’s not that I’ve ever quite got to the point where I really want to give up on life. But, I imagine that all of us have known those extreme times in our lives when the walls seem to be coming down around us, when we are exhausted beyond measure, when we’ve had enough. Elijah seems all too prone to those kind of extreme moments – when he says things like ‘I, I alone am left’ or when he tells God he’s had ‘enough’. Elijah’s life is full of drama and event and spectacle, interspersed with emptiness and wilderness. It’s as though he lurches from great highs to terrible lows. He uses all of himself up until there’s nothing left and then wants to give up. He can’t seem to step gently in life or moderate his steps or find the kind of peace that would certainly pass his understanding. He looks for God in the big rush of a spectacle, but God comes to him, in the end, not in the earthquake or fire or the great wind that could split rocks, but in the quiet.. in the sound of sheer silence.
On a much, much smaller scale, I have come to see in my own life, that you can’t rely on getting to the desert places only when you are exhausted, that life can’t be lived at that kind of pace, that we all need a life that can be sustained day by day. I realised as I was preparing for the holiday I’ve just had, that I was limping towards it, counting the days, using up the last of my energy, and I was counting on finding myself and my strength again on holiday. I was saying ‘It is enough..’ And all I wanted to do was to fall asleep. So this story says to me that God reaches out to us to say, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ The getting up and eating has to happen not just at the last moment, not just when your tank is empty, but every day, so that you can sustain life when it’s not holiday, but when it’s an ordinary day. Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. I realise that I can’t be like Elijah, lurching from one last gasp to the next, but need to be more like, his successor prophet Jesus – who taught us to pray for ‘daily bread’ for bread for the journey. I know that I belong to the Jesus who says, ‘I am the bread’. Being with him, in daily life, in ordinary time, is what will sustain me, what will help me walk each day, not run and exhaust myself, but walk steadily with the God who comes like the gentle voice of sheer silence rather than the trauma of a mighty wind. It is this gentle daily sustenance that will help me and make sure that no journey will be too much for me, and that I can survive even the deepest traumas of life and death with good grace and courage. Perhaps this is stretching the story of Elijah too far, but as I read it alongside the passage from John about Jesus being bread from heaven, this is what I think I learned. People ask me ‘Has a holiday re-charged your batteries?’ and I can say that it has, but I also want to say that I know my need of a life that keeps the energy going, that means that I have the resources to walk in the town and the wilderness, in the valleys and the hills – every day. And that I believe is what walking with Jesus can mean for me, and for all of us – daily bread for life’s journey, cake in the desert, water in the drought – not high level religious experience perhaps, but a steady reassuring walk with God.
One of the books I read on holiday was reflecting on the way that we have become a ‘nervous planet’ (by Matt Haig), how too many of us have become addicted to the rush and anxiety and stress that are conveyed or even created by the communications revolution. Too many of us are addicted to our smart-phones, the news on our TVs deals less well with important detail and too readily with the latest spectacle, and too many of our young people, in particular, are buckling under pressures that those of us over 50 can only imagine. We are a nervous people now and too many of us come to the point where we ‘do an Elijah’ and sit under a metaphorical broom tree and say, ‘It is enough’. In such a time people are looking for solutions in all sorts of place; from yoga, mindfulness and physical exercise to alternative lives of all kinds. But, I know, and I want to let everyone know, that there is another place to find bread for the journey. It is why we come here, why we keep the regular rhythm of weekly, and perhaps even daily, prayer. It is why we say the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is why we are Christians. We have found in Jesus Christ, in the stories of his life and death and rising again, and among his people in the church, the bread that sustains us through the ordinary days and the dramatic days, through our living and our dying. I can testify to this. And I can confess that I am continuing to discover what blessing that can bring.
I know that there have been times in my life when the journey has been too much for me. And there will certainly be challenging times for all of us in one way or another. But I am inspired by those who can help us find a way to walk our lives more at Jesus’ pace, more at walking pace, more at 3 miles an hour than 70. I am inspired and encouraged by Jesus who fed many in miracles the desert, but who also gave us all a prayer to say that there might be just enough bread for today. And I am learning to accept that each day can begin and end with the simple kind of prayer that acknowledges it as a gift from God, to be lived in God’s service. I know my need of simple food, clean water and rest and I want to learn to be content with a life shaped by those simplicities and by the presence of God with me.
I recognise that not many of us here are much like a long ago prophet. But the God who reached out to him when he was on his uppers in the desert, reaches out to us too with the same kind of message. ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Taunton is no wilderness, but this church can nonetheless be like a broom tree, under which we can find bread and water for our journey, rest and recovery, and a challenge for the next step and a new direction. Thanks be to God for such a gift. Amen.