11th Sunday after Pentecost; August 9, 2015; Year B
1 Kings 19.4-8; Psalm 34.1-8; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who comes down from heaven to be with us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
He was on the run. He was alone. He was in an unfamiliar place with no food or water. Powerful people were after him and wanted him dead. He had a strong faith, even chosen by God to be a prophet, and yet he asked that he might die: “It is enough, O Lord, take away my life…”
In our Old Testament reading we meet a tired, exhausted, despairing Elijah. We wonder: What happened that he came to the point of asking that God might take his life?
In a nutshell: Elijah just took on all of the prophets of a false god named Baal, a god that Queen Jezebel worshipped. Elijah had all of the prophets killed. When Queen Jezebel learned of this she became quite angry with Elijah and wanted him dead, so Elijah went on the run into the wilderness.
The wilderness is an interesting place for Elijah to run. There is little food and water, and very few, if any, people to encounter. However, God’s people always encounter God in the wilderness, in the places that are abandoned, where people are most vulnerable and have no one else to turn to.
Elijah was so desperate to escape he ran to a desolate place with no provisions. He found a solitary broom tree in the wilderness, sat down after only one day and had the conversation with God about wanting to die.
Elijah is a very powerful person in the Old Testament, a person of faith that is lifted up again and again in Scripture, and yet even he has rough days, days in which we find him today when he is afraid and despairing, days he’s not even wanting to live.
In both our Old Testament, as well as our Gospel reading, we come face to face with a stark reality: the reality of death and even the reality of when we (or others we love) feel life is no longer worth living.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about suicide here, Elijah didn’t want to kill himself…he was despairing enough that he simply asked God that he might die.
This is a scary place to be and it can and does happen to many people for all kinds of reasons. For Elijah it was his situation…he was on the run, he was scared, and the demands of his life became too much for him at that time.
For some it is because of abuse that one might long for death. For another it can be a lack of purpose, or chronic pain that one must live with day in and day out, or suffering from mental illness, or homelessness, or feeling alone, or money troubles, or betrayal, or fear.
Personally, I had periods in my life that I felt I wanted to die because of the pain and loss I felt when someone I loved died. It was hard for me to imagine what life without my loved one would be like and it hurt a lot.
Over time I came to realize that I didn’t actually want to die, I just didn’t want to feel the depth of loss any longer. I don’t think Elijah really wanted to die either…he didn’t want to be afraid and alone.
Those of us who have maybe felt like Elijah at one point or another maybe don’t really want death, but rather want life. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute.
First, it is important for us to recognize what happens in the story after Elijah asks God that he might die. The angel of the Lord visits him and gives him what he needs…not just once but twice! Whenever “angel of the Lord” shows up in Scripture it means God.
So God shows up, provides for, and ministers to Elijah. Scripture makes it clear that God is present in the wilderness, in the desolate and abandoned places of life, the times in our lives in which we just don’t know if life is worth living.
Our story of Elijah is not the only place God shows up to someone who is in need: we have Hagar, the Widow at Zarephath, Joseph, Moses, David, Hannah, Jacob, Sarah, Isaac, etc. etc.
Ultimately, we have the same God who shows up and provides for Elijah, as the very same one who comes to us in and through Jesus. The Gospel of John is the most clear Gospel in trying to communicate to us that God shows up in this world in flesh and bone in the person of Jesus.
It’s also important to note that God doesn’t show up in the world in order to condemn the world and the people in it, but in order that the world and the people may be saved through him.
Right in the very first chapter in John we hear that the Word was with God, and was God, and that the Word became flesh and lived among us in the one we call, Jesus.
As Jesus walks, he walks into the lives of so many people who had been despairing, maybe even asking God that their life might end because of whatever pain or loss they may have experienced.
I think of the lepers who had skin diseases and had been banished from community. I think of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, living with a medical condition no one could heal. I think of the widow who lost her son, Jairus who lost his daughter, Lazarus who was dead in the grave, the woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, the paralytic.
These are only a few of the stories (just in Scripture!) of the people who encountered God in Jesus, in the wilderness of what life can be. Sometimes Jesus just shows up in people’s lives and other times people seek out and search for him as if their life depended on it.
This is what I mean by “maybe people don’t really want death, but rather want life.”
It’s quite rare that people actually want to die…most of the time people simply want their pain to end, the feeling of despair, depression, or loneliness to go away, they want to be physically healed, they don’t want to be oppressed any longer, they don’t want to face their shame if they’ve made some mistakes, they no longer want to starve or continue to wonder if there will be enough money and food for another day.
People want good, abundant life. People also want to know that if their pain or suffering does not end in this world, that on the other side of death they will be given rest, and the fullness of healing and life eternal.
Good, abundant life full of forgiveness, purpose, and relationship with God, as well as eternal life, is precisely what Jesus offers the people who come to him.
Hungry, hurting people, we, come to Jesus and hear, “I am the bread of life…I will raise them up on the last day…whoever believes has eternal life…whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The people see life, they see hope in Jesus, and we can too. You and I can come to him because he says that anyone who seeks him out, he will never turn away. He offers abundant and eternal life to you and to me and promises to raise us up on the last day. We are to find hope in him even in our most despairing moments of life.
Even after knowing what it feels like to despair, I am so thankful to be alive and to know the love of God and the life God offers here and now and in the life to come.
We have an incarnational God who comes down to earth from heaven to be with us, to minister to us, to help us to know and understand that we are never alone. Even, and especially in our despairing moments, this is awfully good news.