I Kings 19:4-8
And Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4while he himself traveled on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”
6And he looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again.
7A second time the angel of the LORD returned and touched him, saying, “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.”
8So he got up and ate and drank. And strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb,a the mountain of God.
This is my first Sunday as your minister, and I am so excited to be here with you all. But as excited as I am to finally be here with you, I am sad we can’t be together today in person.
From speaking to many of you and reading your answers to the worship survey that was emailed out a couple weeks ago, I know that I am not the only one feeling the tension and anxiety from our current situation.
We are feeling fear for our health and the health of those we love. We are feeling anxious about what months of quarantine may mean for our financial security and the financial security of local businesses and restaurants. We are feeling the weight of this shared trauma, without the comfort of gathering together in person to support each other.
All of this is just so hard. As a Christian minister, when I am faced with trauma, insecurity, fear, and pain I seek comfort in scripture. Over the past two months, the scripture I just read about Elijah in the wilderness has been on my mind.
If you are facebook friends with me already, you may have seen that I posted a homily about this scripture towards the beginning of our days of quarantine. When I began considering what to preach on for my first sermon here, I kept coming back to it. I think it’s a story that we can learn from and seek comfort in during these unprecedented times.
The Bible is full of stories of people being tested, confronted, and formed in the wilderness. Throughout the book of Genesis, Abram, Isaac, and Jacob all have wilderness excursions. The ancient Israelites escaped slavery to spend years in the wilderness searching for the Promised Land. John the Baptist was in the wilderness when he cried, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And after his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days and nights praying and being tested in that same wilderness.
In fact, some Biblical scholars believe that Yahweh was originally considered the God of the Wilderness because of how prominently the desert is featured throughout both the old and the new testaments. As my Hebrew Bible professor Rev. Dr. Wallace Hartsfield said repeatedly in our class together, “The Bible would be a very different collection of books if it didn’t include the many stories of people being formed, reformed, and transformed in the wilderness.”
Living or journeying through the wilderness is difficult. This is true of the metaphorical wildernesses that we face as well. Our wilderness days teach us how to be strong and how to persevere in the midst of intense obstacles. The lessons which can be learned in our wilderness times help to make us who we are. When we make it through them, they help us to learn and grow and come out the other side as more resilient people.
But first, we have to go through them. Which brings me back to Elijah. In the days before he fled into the wilderness, Elijah had been a champion for Yahweh. He had stood strong against a tyrannical king and queen, and had come out on the other side as the victor! But then, a messenger came to him saying that the evil queen Jezebel was coming to kill him. So he fled into the wilderness, alone and afraid for his life.
The text says, that he “…went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.”
Anyone who has spent time in the desert can imagine the exhaustion that comes from trying to walk in the heat for 24 hours. By the time he found that broom tree he was unbearably tired, and hungry, and thirsty. I’m sure he was dirty, and had felt the sting of dust in his eyes and his mouth. He had gone from God’s champion to a broken and depressed man, isolated in brutal conditions. Elijah was done, he had had enough. He gave up.
Elijah finds himself physically in the wilderness, but he also finds himself in the type of mental and emotional wilderness that many of us have found ourselves in at some point in our lives.
This wilderness may have been a situation which made us feel like we were all alone, that we had been abandoned by the people in our lives. It may have been a struggle which led us to question God or question ourselves. It may have been circumstances beyond our control which caused us to shut down or give up.
This past month, we all have been in the wilderness together. As I’ve talked with friends and family, I’ve seen the fear and the anxiety and the stress that has been brought on by the Corona virus.
I am pretty lucky. I have a safe place to be isolated in, and enough food and toilet paper and other essentials to get me by. But last month when I was still in Kansas City and our Mayor announced a city-wide mandatory isolation in our homes, my heart sank. So many of us have never lived through something like this before, and we are all feeling the weight of it.
Like Elijah, so many of us have been overwhelmed, exhausted, and defeated. Wandering through our own wilderness, unable to see a way out.
But the good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness and we will not be wandering through it forever–this is all temporary.
Elijah’s story does not end with him lying down and asking God to just let him die. Elijah may have felt at that moment that he could not go on, but God had other plans for Elijah. The story continues, “Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Elijah wasn’t automatically healed the moment the angel appeared. He sat up, and ate, and drank…but then he laid back down and continued to sleep. Because sometimes healing takes a while.
The angel had to return a second time and again tell Elijah that he had to get up and eat so he could continue on. And then Elijah did. He got up, and he ate a second time, and he had the strength and the resolve to continue on his journey.
Sometimes, like Elijah, we are alone in the wilderness, in desperate need of an angel. We need the helpers who will feed us, and encourage us, and help us to stand up and continue on. We need people who show up and do what they can to help ease a little bit of the hurt in the world.
So I hope you can take some comfort in the stories of helpers who are doing what they can for each other in the midst of this.
Have you heard of the first grader in Maryland who used the money he had saved up from 2 birthdays and 3 Christmases to make Covid-19 Care Packs to serve to senior citizens in his community?
How about the property owner in Arkansas that told the restaurants that were renting from him to pay their employees instead of their rent?
How about the libraries and celebrities and astronauts who are using their time to film themselves reading books, so that the kids who are at home can have story-time?
If we can learn anything from the story of Elijah, it is that sometimes the weight of what we are carrying is too much and we need to rest. And when the pain we are feeling is too much for us to bear, we need other people to be in solidarity with us, and feed us, and help us to get back up.
We are surrounded by angels, by helpers, by the goodness of humanity. So despite the fear that so many of us are feeling right now, I urge you to hold on to the good things that can sustain us.
Elijah took the time he needed to recover, and that’s what we are doing right now. So hold on. It may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, but just like Elijah, once we are through this we will stand back up and keep on moving.
Be safe out there, friends. Know that you are loved and even if you are in isolation right now, you are not alone.