Proper 14 – 1 Kings 19:4-8
When you hear somebody say, “I am at the end of my rope,” we usually raise the questions of “What’s wrong” or “How can I help?” This phrase is one that is all too familiar to many Americans. It is an indication that every perceived option has been investigated, that all potential remedies have been pursued and that any possible hope of reconciling the problem, no matter what the course, has diminished. It is a tell-tale sign that depression has or could be setting in for a particular person. This is the state in which we meet the prophet Elijah in today’s text.
Elijah has declared to the Lord, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” We are then told that, “he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.” This is the description that confronts us about this depressed and broken prophet. Elijah has ventured into the wilderness to escape the fury of Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Shortly after Jezebel married Ahab, Jezebel convinced Ahab and the nation of Israel to worship the god Baal. In the process, Jezebel also ordered the execution of the prophets of the LORD God. Surely, this did not sit well with the LORD.
Despite Jezebel’s efforts, Elijah escaped the sword and anger of Jezebel. Ultimately, this background confrontation leads to a showdown of biblical proportions. Following the instructions of the LORD, Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest. The contest to see which god would light the fire of an offering. From morning till evening, the prophets of Baal tried to encourage their God to light the offering but to no avail. Elijah encouraged them to shout louder and prayer louder knowing inwardly that the fire would never take.
After an extended period of time and at the time of the evening sacrifice, the prophet Elijah begins to pray to the LORD. He even orders water to be poured onto the offering and the wood three times. You can imagine the shocked look on everyone’s face when the offering fire was lit. It was lit with such ferocity that all of the excess water on the wood, the offering and water in the surrounding trench was burned up in the powerful heat of the fire. With this victory Elijah struck a blow to Jezebel’s evil worship. More profoundly, Elijah then had the prophets of Baal executed. You could imagine the ferocity of Jezebel’s animosity and her exasperation when she discovered the news of her defeat at the hands of a solitary prophet. She immediately ordered for Elijah’s death.
So here we meet Elijah, on the run being pursued at the command of Jezebel. Elijah is exhausted, in the wilderness, looking for a place to hide from Jezebel’s wrath. And what does he encounter? A solitary broom tree. A broom tree in the wilderness is probably the last thing Elijah wanted to see. You see, the wilderness is a reminder to the prophet of a place of trial and tribulation. Elijah would have been keenly aware of the Israelites in the wilderness during their Exodus from slavery. But this broom tree is adding insult to injury. The broom tree is one which has a few branches and may provide little shade as it survives in very harsh and dry conditions. To make matters worse, the roots of the tree were also considered to be poisonous. So Elijah is stuck in the middle of nowhere, fearful of being hunted down with no food or drink under a tree that provides very little shade, and he can’t even use its raw materials to get a quick drink or something to eat. You might think that Elijah would be in a place of exultation after his groundbreaking victory over Baal’s prophets but this is so far from the truth.
Understanding the nature of a prophet in biblical times is important for understanding the emotional and psychological disposition of Elijah. The vocation and calling of a prophet is to understand that this individual will be thrust in the midst of the tension that exists between the holiness of their God-given message and their own sense of unworthiness. We need to understand how difficult this role is. While John the Baptist did not declare himself to be a prophet he definitely identified himself as being unworthy. In chapter 1 of John’s Gospel, we are told that John says, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Elijah surely identifies with John’s train of thought.
Also, Elijah is exhibiting the ancient equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Violence on the battlefield wreaks havoc on the human body and psyche, even with the so-called winners. While Jacob physically wrestled with God, in this passage, we feel Elijah psychologically wrestling with God. This is a man at the end of his rope.
The news today is filled with stories of people who are at the end of their ropes. Whether it is mass murders, kidnappings or suicides, depression finds its way into our society through so many unmitigated paths. Depression bores its way into our own lives. Whether it is through the loss of work, the inability to meet financial commitments, the difficulties in our relationships or the exposure to those who have fought on foreign soil, we also know what it is like to be at the end of our rope. Elijah’s feelings of depression and suicide, remember, he said to God, “Take my life,” are a very real component of our lives today.
While sleeping, Elijah awakes at the touch of an angel who tells Elijah, “Get up and eat.” Baked bread and a jar of water greeted Elijah’s awakening. This happens not once but twice. Why? Because God was at the end of Elijah’s rope. God has compassion on Elijah and he sends the angel to minister to him. Elijah is not left alone, nor did the Lord God take his life. Rather, he is fed and given rest. This makes me think of the book of Matthew when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” God did not leave Elijah alone. The bible is replete with stories of when God is at the side of those HE loves; especially in the most dire of times. Elijah demonstrates his own strength and faith as he cries out for help to the Lord who always listens. He allows himself to be cared for, he refuses to live a life of quiet desperation.
Today, God’s ministry of angels takes a variety of contemporary forms, from loving friends and family to specially trained therapists. Our lives are often marred by the “I can do it all by myself attitude.” Americans, in particular, are surrounded by a culture that scorns the thought of being identified as part of a community. We individualize our successes AND our failures. However, as we are sinful creatures, we are constantly reminded that we are not good enough, we didn’t do it the right way or we could have done it better. Such a constant barrage of expectations and ultimately, disappointments, can quickly drag us into the depths of depression just like Elijah. However, if we name ourselves as to who we truly are, Christians, the followers of Christ, the adopted children of God who loves us all, we can recognize the fact that we are not alone. We are never alone.
There is a picture on the wall of my office, given to me by my family for the most recent Father’s day which quotes Psalm 139 verses 9 and 10 which say, “If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me.” There is no distance too far for God the creator of us all. As we come to this table today, we are reminded of God’s nearness to us all. In the breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup, we ask for God, through Christ’s sacrifice, to continue to be with us and in us.
Brothers and sisters, hear the good news. You are not alone. If you need help – ask. If you are freely able to give help – give. If you willingly know of someone in need – assist. No matter how far down the rope we or others are, know that God is always at the end of the rope. Share that good news! Amen.