Four Pages: The Journey Is Too Much
When I go to different parts of the U.S. or Canada to speak or to preach, I often travel alone. When I do, I sometimes enjoy going out to eat by myself at a restaurant. It can be very interesting just to watch people and observe what is going on in ways you would not likely do if you were with other people and so were busy talking and listening. Sometimes, though, what I see makes me sad.
Recently, for instance, I observed a married couple who looked to be in their late-60s or 70s. For all I knew, they had perhaps been married for 40 or 50 years already. But what made me sad was this: they sat together at a table in the restaurant for nearly an hour yet without ever speaking to each other. Neither talked to the other. They told no stories. They shared no memories. They did not smile at each other. Sometimes one or both would look down at the table; at other times one or both looked off in the distance or watched other people in the restaurant. But the only word I heard them exchange the whole evening was after the man had paid the bill and then said to his wife, “Ready?” In silence, they left.
Of course, I have no idea how happy or sad this husband and wife are in their marriage. But what I saw looked like the absence of joy. For all I know, this was maybe their weekly big night out on the town and yet it passed in silence. They seemed nearly strangers to each other. And sometimes we see this, don’t we? We see couples who drift apart, who will tell you if you ask about their marriage, “At some point it just stopped being fun. At some point we kind of fell out of love with each other. At some point the joy of our relationship left us.”
In all of life it can happen that something that used to be enjoyable and full of meaning somehow changes into something dull and empty. That’s certainly how it went for Elijah. In the book of First Kings we have not known Elijah very long yet as readers by the time we get to chapter 19. But so far everything we’ve seen Elijah do has been touched by the very power of God. He predicted a drought and a drought came just as Elijah said. God provided for Elijah in the drought and then brought him to a widow and her son in a place called Zarephath, where Elijah did more wonders, even raising the dead! And as if all of that and more were not enough, in chapter 18 Elijah engaged in a high-stakes, high-drama contest with the biggest false god of his day and by the mighty power of God, Elijah won that contest with ease.
Elijah’s ministry has been blessed. Elijah is the most famous prophet in Israel. It was as though all the power of God was getting channeled right through this one man. If Elijah were a minister today, he’d have a growing and thriving congregation. People would be flocking to his worship services on Sundays. The church budget would be healthy and flush with money. They’d start a building program to add on to the church building to make room for all the people attending worship and Sunday school and the youth programs.
Pastor Elijah’s picture would be on the cover of Christianity Today and maybe he’d even go on television to debate famous atheists. And when Pastor Elijah did debate the atheists of the day, he’d win every time. Elijah would be scoring points for God and for the faith left and right, forward and backward, up and down. In religious circles he’d be as famous as Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela, as Billy Graham or Mother Theresa.
Elijah, in other words, would be the envy of all the other pastors. If Elijah were a pastor today, most pastors would want to be him. If Elijah wrote a book on leadership, it would sell like crazy. If Elijah produced a video series on how to run a highly successful church program, our congregations would snap those up and show them in Adult Education classes. If Elijah had ideas on how to make more memorable sermons, pastors everywhere would listen closely and then try to preach like brother Elijah. And if any of us pastors sensed we’d just never be as good as he was, we’d fall into the habit of saying, “Well, I know I’m no Elijah but I’ll do my best!”
Elijah was by all rights on the top of the world when 1 Kings 19 begins. And yet . . . and yet the moment a wicked queen named Jezebel issues a death threat against Elijah, Elijah falls off the top of the world and all the way down into a very deep pit of despair. In an instant he becomes desperately afraid. Elijah, we are told, quite literally ran for his life (“Run, Forrest, run!”). He shrieks like a little girl who has just seen a big hairy spider land next to her chair and he takes off running to who knows where. He runs as far as he can before collapsing under a solitary tree and just before he passes out from sheer exhaustion, he tells God “Go ahead and kill me, Lord. I have had enough working for you. I’ve had enough of ministry. I’m a nobody going nowhere and so go ahead: kill me.”
How in the world can this happen? How does a man go from Mount Carmel and one of the most spectacular victories in the whole Bible to being so depressed he’d rather die than ever wake up again? What happened? In some ways I guess it’s hard to say what happened but I will tell you this much: we all know that it does happen, don’t we? I’ve seen it in my colleagues in ministry. We’ve seen it in the lives of people we know. We’ve seen it in our own lives. So much good that has happened recently in life can get dislodged—can disappear altogether for us—the moment someone steps up with some big criticism.
The book club meeting was going great until so-and-so laughed at your insight on the novel’s main character and so made you feel about this big. Things at work were going great and you were feeling really proud of a particular assignment you had accomplished. Then your manager kind of rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, well, anybody could have gotten that done.” And suddenly in your ears you seem to hear the sound that the Pac-Man game makes when Pac-Man gets eaten.
It can happen anywhere. At Seminary, after each course, students fill out an evaluation form. And I am here to tell you that sometimes it happens that twenty-seven of my twenty-eight students write lovely and nice and affirming things but one student will write that he hated the course and couldn’t stand the professor because, this one student will write, the professor seemed arrogant and aloof. So I’ve got twenty-seven good evaluations and one bad one. And now see if you can guess which evaluation form I will think about for the next month? Guess what will be the first thing I will tell my wife on the day I get those evaluations back?
How does it happen that with so much goodness going on in our lives and in our congregations that we can be knocked into despair so easily? Well, I am now sure HOW it happens but we all know THAT it happens and I think I know the reason why: life, even inside the community of the church, is hard. As the writer Eugene Peterson once noted, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations. Every church has gossips who won’t be quiet, proud people who keep making critical remarks. In every church there are sermons and worship services that go wrong, choirs that sing badly and whose members don’t get along. “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners” Peterson writes, “and as if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors, too!” It doesn’t matter what we do in the church: serve on the nursery committee, be an elder, volunteer for the food pantry: all of this happens in contexts where we get tired, where we sometimes hurt each other, where we feel under-appreciated, where often is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not sunny all day.
The reason folks like Elijah and all of us can get knocked down so easily is because the work is hard. As the angel says to Elijah upon waking him up so he can get some food and drink into him, “The journey is too much for you.”
The journey is too much for you. Indeed, that’s true. Without the food and drink provided by our God, none of us can make it. Given the odds against us in a sinful world of persecution and violence, of brokenness and sin, we would eventually all quit, we’d all lay down and hope to die. Even in 1 Kings 19, Elijah cannot move forward one more foot until the angel comes to him not once but twice. Out there in the wilderness of Elijah’s depression and despair, God graciously revives him in a double-feeding that allows him finally to move on from the desert of despair all the way to the mountain of God.
But notice: even once Elijah makes it by God’s grace all the way to the holy mountain, he still goes into a dark cave. His mood still has not brightened. He’s still hiding away, still feeling lost, still wishing to die. So God tells him to get up and stand before God’s presence.
And you know what? Elijah doesn’t move. He stays right in his cave. A wind roars by and splits the very rocks on the mountainside. And Elijah stays put. An earthquake comes and rattles the roots of the mountain. And Elijah stays put. A fire sweeps through and singes the rocky mountain face. And Elijah stays put. We’re told that none of those powerful things were the fullness of God in any event but the point is Elijah is so depressed that none of them even gets his attention.
He’s in a place spiritually where power is not going to cut it. Power alone is not enough to help him. If you’ve ever known someone who is really and truly depressed, then you know that very little reaches into their darkness. “Let’s drive to Lake Michigan and see the waves and watch a beautiful sunset—it might cheer you up!” No. “Do you want to go out for a really nice dinner—you can order your favorite food, get something to drink, splurge on a really rich chocolate dessert—it might cheer you up!” No.
In our story it is only when God enters the silence of Elijah’s broken heart and fractured soul that Elijah gets up. It’s when God enters the heavy silence that Elijah feels—it is only when God himself becomes the silence—only then does Elijah begin to believe that God understands him and wants to help him. Elijah doesn’t need the fire and the wind, the rattling and the roaring. He needs to know he’s loved. He needs to know he’s held by hands tender and sensitive enough to hold the broken pieces of his life and then gently put them back together with the glue of grace.
I once read a story about Tommy, a little six-year-old boy in Kindergarten. For a couple of weeks before Christmas all the children in the class worked on a very special present for their parents and on the final day of school before the Christmas holiday vacation, each child, including Tommy, took the special present home, all wrapped up in pretty paper. Tommy’s father and mother waited for him outside the school, and when Tommy saw them, he eagerly began to run to them, carrying the special present in front of him. But in his excitement he tripped and he fell and the special present went flying through the air and landed with a sickening ceramic crash. Tommy began to weep and to cry so hard. His father tried to be strong. “It doesn’t matter, son” the father said, “it just doesn’t matter.” But Tommy’s mother was wiser. She knelt down next to her brokenhearted child and said, “Oh but it does matter—it matters very much” and she began to weep with her son.
Our God, our heavenly Father, is great and strong but he also knows that what we all sometimes need is the grace of the still, small voice, the grace of the silence, because that tells us that God understands, that God weeps with us. That is what got Elijah’s attention and brought him out of the cave in a way nothing else did. Of course, once he did that, God was not finished. There was more to say.
Elijah didn’t belong there, hiding out in despair. God had his plans. God still had his people. Elijah was not alone—he never had been. And because of that God’s final piece of advice to Elijah was pretty simple: “Get back to work.” It was God’s way of saying, “Look, it’s never going to be easy. Ministry and the life of discipleship will rarely be simple. The journey IS too much for you. But I’ve always got more going on, more resources, more people, than you can imagine. So go back to work, Elijah. Go back to your ministry, discouraging though it may look at times. But remember I am with you. Always. Go back to work. And I will be with you. Some days I may be no more than a whisper in your ear, a tickle on the back of your neck, but I will be with you.”
And that is exactly what Elijah did. He went back to work. He anointed the people God told him to anoint. And when wicked old King Ahab and his scheming wife, Jezebel, cheated a good man named Naboth out of his family inheritance by killing him, it was Elijah who showed up to confront Ahab to his face. He also predicted that the day would come when he and old Jezebel would die like the evil dogs that they were, with actual dogs coming by to lick up Jezebel’s blood. And soon a helper named Elisha would show up, too, and would carry on Elijah’s legacy of ministry after the Lord took Elijah to himself in a chariot of fire.
From the looks of the biblical text, more ministry happened after God came to Elijah in the still, small voice of silence than took place before. I don’t doubt Elijah had difficult days again, times when he wondered all over again if he was on his own. But maybe, just maybe, the Spirit of God kept bringing Elijah back to this moment in 1 Kings 19 when God entered the silence and brokenness of Elijah’s soul to give a quiet, yet still amazingly, powerful word.
For all of us who try to live as Christ’s disciples in this rough world, there is more than a little hope in that. We are not alone. That’s Good News because this world can often be pretty hard on us. Dear people we love die suddenly. Deeply cherished jobs get taken away from us, we get downsized into unemployment and are left feeling empty and futile. Our fondest dreams turn to dust in our very hands. And sometimes we look to the church for comfort but find only cold shoulders.
This is a rough world in which to live like Jesus and to live for Jesus. If we try to make it on our own, then I suppose that we, too, could end up running for our lives as soon as we encounter the criticisms and hard knocks of life that inevitably come. But Elijah in this story from 1 Kings 19 stands as a reminder that it’s never about us. For us, discipleship will always be a journey that is too much for us. The journey is too much for us. If we rely on our own strength or talent or intelligence, we will fall into despair. The journey is too much for us.
But Elijah reminds us of something else—God is always there with food and drink, which for us today is not cakes over open coals or a jar of water but the very body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. God’s Spirit comes to us, too, and tells us to take eat, take drink remember and believe that Jesus was sacrificed to forgive our every sin and now to energize our every act of service in Jesus’ name. On our own, the journey is too much for us. But it will never be too much for God and for God’s Christ and for God’s Holy Spirit.
Because, you see, Elijah was given a sneak preview of what we now call the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. To save us, to launch God’s whole project of salvation that now continues through the ministry of the Church, God did not stay far away from us. He did not save us through sending down powerful lightning bolts from heaven or confronting the world through raw power. God knew the journey is too much for us and so God undertook a long journey of his own.
At the same moment in history when the whole world was focused on the mighty Roman Empire, on the military power of Caesar and on the violent threats of King Herod—when the whole world was obsessed with wind and earthquake and fire–God quietly drew near to us to enter into our hurt. On a starry night in the neighborhood of a place called Bethlehem, those with ears to hear could detect in the distance what sounded like a still, small voice—a still, small voice that sounded very much like the cry of a newborn baby who was getting laid into a manger. Thanks be to God and Amen.
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