READ – 1 Kings 19:1-18
Lent is a season for self-reflection and examination. We go (or should go) to the doctor for regular checkups on our physical health. Lent is a tool to examine our spiritual health. It’s a season to let God ask us some questions about who we are and what we’re doing.
This week we’re hearing God ask Elijah (and us) about our times of depression, despair, and burn out – which we all deal with in some shape or form, if not now then sometime in our life. It’s important to see that 1 Kings 19 follows 1 Kings 18 – chapter 18 is the highest point in Elijah’s career (his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel). 1 Kings 19 is a description of the lowest point in Elijah’s career. He’s on the run, a hunted man, completely disillusioned from his expectations for success and revival in Israel.
1. THE EXPERIENCE OF DESPAIR
1 Kings 19:3-4 describe Elijah’s journey into the wilderness. What’s going on? He’s not going on a sabbatical – he is literally quitting, giving up, throwing in the towel – even suicidal. Elijah is at rock bottom. That shows us that the experience of depression and despair is part of the spiritual journey – no one is immune or exempt from this experience. Elijah is one of the most important prophets in the history of Israel. He’s an exemplar of righteousness and faith, and yet he experiences hopelessness and burn out. That should be encouraging. Seasons of depression are not a sign that you are a weak person, a faithless Christian, a spiritual loser. The wisdom of the Scripture and the Christian tradition says that these dark nights of the soul are to be expected.
2. THE GOD WHO MEETS US IN OUR DESPAIR
How does God meet Elijah in depression? First, we see that God meets Elijah in Elijah’s full humanity. Notice God doesn’t come to Elijah with a pep talk or moral advice. Instead God gives him food and lets him nap! Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is order takeout and take a nap. The Angel of the LORD also meets Elijah with a touch. In despair we often need the physical presence of another – God created us with bodies and meets us in all our physicality. The Bible doesn’t reduce our problems to the spiritual, psychological, social, or physical – rather it acknowledges that we are complex, embodied beings. And God is concerned with every part of us.
Second, God meets Elijah with gracious persistence. God asks Elijah the same question twice, “What are you doing here?” That repetition is important. God is communicating to Elijah that what Elijah is doing here is not the same thing as what God is doing here. Elijah was where he was because he was done, at a dead end, exhausted, and burned out. But God is there doing something else. He was where Elijah was allowing him rest, showing him who he was and who God is, preparing him for what He would do next in Elijah’s life. When we are in the dark night of the soul, it’s important to ask, ‘What is God doing here?’
Third, God meets Elijah with His glorious comprehensiveness. God meets Elijah in a low whisper. That doesn’t mean God never works in hurricane winds, earthquakes, and fire – but God is showing Elijah (and us) that we shouldn't reduce our conception of God. He doesn’t work with us in a one-size-fits-all approach. God can’t be predicted or controlled. He does the unexpected and meets us with what we need, not what we think we need.
3. HOW GOD LEADS US THROUGH TIMES OF DESPAIR
God leads us through despair by giving us (1) a word of rebuke, and (2) a word of grace. God’s rebuke comes to Elijah was that his own plan and timetable led to his despair, not God. God shows Elijah that His plans are beyond and bigger than Elijah – they’re global and cosmic in their scope. God wanted to release from Elijah the burden and pressure of living like Elijah’s plan was ultimate. When we see that what God has done, is doing, and will do is far greater than us it frees us in unimaginable ways from the burden of living like it’s all up to us. God renews Elijah through a low, quiet whisper. What’s going on? First, don’t miss that as the winds, earthquake, and fire pass over the mountain, Elijah is hiding in a cave. Many scholars think this may be the same cleft or cave of the rock that God hid Moses in when He passed by Moses to show him His glory. In the New Testament, stones and rocks like the one Elijah is hiding in are described by the New Testament writers as pictures of Jesus. Jesus is the cave, the rock that shields us from the blast furnace of God’s holy presence, absorbing our sin and God’s justice, so that we can receive the low, quiet whisper of God’s mercy and grace. God is showing us that in times of despair, we need to hide ourselves in Jesus. The still, small voice is also the quiet ordinary way that God comes to us – not usually through the miraculous, spectacular, and extraordinary, but the powerful, ordinary word of the gospel. See Elijah was high when he was successful, and depressed when he failed. We all need a word that humbles us in our success and lifts us up in our failure. The gospel says that we are such big failures that the Son of God had to die for us, but at the same time we are so loved that Jesus chose to die for us.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
Is it encouraging that a spiritual giant like Elijah went through seasons of depression and despair? How does that challenge your notions of spiritual health?
Have you experienced seasons of burn out and despair? What was it (or is it) like? How do you feel like God used that in your life – what do you think He was doing there?
God gives Elijah dinner and a nap. Christianity is not about escaping our bodies, but glorifying God through them. How does this story of Elijah help us see the deep connection between our soul and body? What role does your physical well-being play in our spiritual health?
We’re often looking for God in the wind, earthquake, and fire – but often His ways are much more ordinary. How does God meeting Elijah in a low, quiet whisper go against a lot of our Christian cultural expectations that God will always work in extraordinary ways? Are you challenged by that? How important are Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and church in your life?
How did you grow in your awe and appreciation of the gospel through this sermon? How is that changing you?