God cares for our whole being
A sermon by Revd Peter Coley Sunday before Lent Sunday 15 February 2015 Elijah and burn out
Readings 1 Kings 19, 2 Peter 1:16-end, Mark 9:9-13
Last week we were trying to connect up our old TV with the laptop for our house-group meeting. I was staggered when I learnt that the laptop was not compatible since it was out of date! Last week Apple the computer company announced the world’s biggest ever profit with £75 billion in the last quarter of last year. Apparently the world wants iphone 5 and the piles of previous models pile up in the recycling bins!
Almost every week we are presented with some new life-changing technology, and it seems that many of these devices are actually changing the structure of our brains!
The pace of change is overwhelming and relentless! And it brings with it a legacy of stress and strain in the workplace and in the home – and with it, for some people, depression! The number of working hours lost due to stress related symptoms grows by the year, and it seems to be affecting people at a younger age. Well over 10% of young people at school are suffering from some form of depression! Self harm has significantly increased as have severe behavioural problems.
In the past in Christian circles depression was thought of as a gross failure, must be something wrong with your relationship with God if you get depressed, and this only added to the problem. The fact of the matter is that some of the great saints of old suffered with depression and there is hardly a greater one than Elijah – and that was Jesus’ opinion, not mine!
And here in 1 Kings 19 we find the poor man utterly dejected and under the shade of a broom tree in the middle of the desert and praying that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’
What had led this great man of God to such a low point?
Israel was ruled by Ahab, who is described in the bible as doing more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any king before him! Probably, because he followed in his father Omri’s footsteps who had also received the dubious title of being a king who sinned more than any king before him.
Not only was Ahab bad news but he married a Sidonian woman called Jezebel who was even worse. She introduced Ahab and the rest of the nation to the delights of Baal worship! Suddenly it was very dangerous to be a worshipper of the true God as they sort to silence His followers. It would take a very courageous man to speak out against such evil in high places.
Elijah was such a man. Whilst most of the followers of God went into hiding Elijah boldly speaks out for God. He tells Ahab that there would be no rain for a number of years as God’s judgement falls on the nation. As you can imagine Ahab doesn’t like what he hears and promptly carries out a systematic slaughter of God’s followers and at the same time sends his henchman all around the country grabbing the little water and animals he could find.
In the mean time Elijah hides up in a desert place and God miraculously provides him with food and water. After about three years he’s told by God to tell Ahab that he would soon be sending rain. But before that God wants a confrontation with the so called God of Ahab on Mount Carmel. They set up their altars complete with wood and animal sacrifice which the true God would consume by fire.
Of course it was no contest and as Elijah prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob his water drenched sacrifice is consumed whilst the sacrifice of the prophets of Baal remains decidedly undercooked! The false prophets are immediately slaughtered and Elijah tells Ahab that he had better get home quick to Jezreel on his chariot because God was about to send rain and his wheels would get bogged down. Elijah was on such a high after the thrill of all that God had done that he runs all the way back to Jezreel ahead of Ahab’s chariot. When Ahab gets back and tells Jezebel all that had taken place on Carmel and how all her prophets had been killed she is enraged. She sends a messenger to Elijah that he was as good as dead, and suddenly he’s full of fear and runs off into the desert leaving his servant behind.
And that is where we find him at his all-time low. ‘I have had enough Lord, Take my life, I’m no better than my ancestors!’
And now we see the same God who was in the fire of Carmel, coming alongside this loved man of God and gently dealing with him.
God’s first response is his physical condition: He had just gone through the emotional strain of confrontation with the evil powers of the whole nation, he had faced them on his own, he had just run a near marathon to get to Jezreel, he was physically exhausted. His need? Simply sleep and food. So after a long sleep an angel wakes him up provides him with food and then more sleep.
We are wonderfully made, body mind and spirit. The state of our bodies effects the state of our mind and spirit, and God’s first response was to his body. We can so often be brought very low because we don’t get proper sleep, because we don’t eat properly. We don’t take proper physical care.
Now God is going to respond to his emotional state: God is taking him out of the immediate situation – that only serves to remind him of his failure. God gets him to do something, always important to men and sends him on a 40 day packpacking journey. To where? To mount Horeb the mountain of God almost certainly Mt Sinai, where Moses had spent 40 days. He’s having a retreat. He finds a cave and spends the night there.
I think we should all have a place of retreat, somewhere where we go when we need recharging, a chair, a room, a garden, somewhere, where you and God can meet.
And now the Lord speaks to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ God the counsellor, doing what all Counsellors do, getting people to talk about their emotions and their problems, and listening! ‘Lord I’ve given this job 110%, but still your people are rejecting you, they’ve pulled down your altars and killed all your prophets and I’m all that’s left, and now that woman’s after me.’
And now God is going to teach him: The Lord did not comment on Elijah’s self justification, but offers instruction. He was to come out of the cave and the Lord would soon pass by. Suddenly a rock shattering tempest hits the mountain, surely this would announce the divine presence. But the Lord was not in the wind. Then a fearful earthquake, but still God was not there. A sudden fire follows; yet God had not come. All these phenomena were known to be signs of God’s presence.
Then there followed a faint whisper, the small still voice. Elijah knew it instantly, it was God!!! What a lesson for Elijah, God did not always operate in the spectacular.
Pulling his prophets cloak over his face he emerges reverently from the cave. Again God calls ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’ ‘Lord I have been so zealous for you, but still your people reject you, they’ve pulled down your altars and killed your prophets and now I’m the only one left and they’re trying to kill me.’
He still hadn’t let it go! God still had some work to do in him. How often we are slow to understand, slow to let God be God, thinking that God’s work can’t go on without us. ‘Am I the only one pulling my weight around here?’ And who can blame him. He had been faithful to the last, he had stood up alone, and truly persecution was rampant in Israel. No wonder he felt so alone, no wonder he was edging on self pity.
Now we see the gracious hand of God, gently moving things on for Elijah. God is now coming to the heart of Elijah’s condition. For it was not only Elijah’s physical and emotional state that was leading to his depression. It was not just that he could only see God’s hands in the big things that had been going on.
At the heart of his condition was discouragement and disillusionment. People that are low have often lost their purpose in living. As he went to Mt Sinai he would have thought of the work begun by Moses on this mountain in the giving of the commands and the covenant made with his people and thought that it had all been utterly wasted. His ministry had failed. His life’s work as God’s servant failed. The people of God had failed. It really seemed to him that Baal had won.
So what does God do? How will he give this desperate man fresh courage and vision?
Firstly he tells Elijah to go and anoint a new king Hazael over Aram, and a new king Jehu over Israel. Secondly he tells him to go and anoint a successor – Elisha the Tishbite. And thirdly, God reveals to him that he is not alone, in fact there are 7,000 in Israel who have been faithful to the Lord.
And how did that help? The anointing of the kings would show him that God intended to use them to rid the nation of Baal worship and its followers. The anointing of Elisha was a confirmation that God’s word would continue to be spoken in the land. And thirdly, there was a sizeable remnant that was still in covenant with God.
There was a future for God’s people, nothing in Elijah’s struggle had been wasted, though he would have to face up to the fact that he was not indispensable!
In fact Elijah does get back on track. His struggle with Ahab would continue – for a while – but God was preparing a great send off for this man he so loved.
Do you think he loves you any less?