1 Kings 19: 4-8
But he himself 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. 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.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
Sometimes we reach a point in life where it seems best just to give up. Life can throw trouble after trouble towards us till we just cannot take it. Sometimes it’s a lot of small trouble, a bill deposits later than it should on the same day we need to make a car payment on the same day we forgot to eat breakfast because we were running late for work. Other times just a few things happen alongside a larger one – we snap at someone who bumped into us because the phone call we got that morning was only bad news. Then, of course, comes the terrible potential that we are not facing any combination of bad news, and we have instead suffered world shattering news and tragedy time and time again.
The perspective we take in our life is never static, especially when something goes wrong. Sometimes trouble bolsters us in some way, strengthening our resolve and making us better than we were before. Sometimes it breaks us down and remove any sense of comfort or peace we otherwise could depend upon. We respond to trouble differently at different points in our life and it is only when we begin to scale the mountains that we face that we begin to realize how we might do it.
Our scripture captures a moment in the life of the prophet Elijah in which he, fresh off his triumph over the prophets of Ba’al has landed at the lowest point he has ever been. The triumphant rain of fire that consumed the altars and offerings was initially enough to bring awe and certainty to those who saw it, but this quickly faded in their memory. When trouble began to brew, nothing could be certain. After the fire had burned to cinders, the anger of those in power raged against Elijah and he was forced to flee from them southward. We are not given a timeframe for this journey, but it would have been several days of walking, across over one hundred miles of hills and valleys.
Elijah stops briefly in Beersheba, the southernmost tip of Judah, to allow his servant to stay there. He then walks out several miles into the Negeb desert and this is where our scripture for today picks up. Having tried to end the idolatry that was rampant in Israel, having prophesied and seen the end of a drought, the threat of death was still real enough for him to throw all that aside. Elijah had done nothing wrong by fleeing South, he had work to do that he could only continue if he lived. Yet, after a week or so of travel and a plenty of time to think over the journey, Elijah was running out of energy and hope.
It is unclear if Elijah had any intention when he went out into the desert other than to die. The wilderness was not impassable, several nomadic tribes seemed to permanently inhabit the area, yet it was not the sort of place an individual could easily traverse. Wild animals, poisonous snakes, blistering heat, and overwhelming cold all threatened those who entered the Negeb. To me it seems that, having run away from death, Elijah could not imagine a future that did not end in his execution. Choosing between being killed by Ahab and Jezebel in Israel or dying to the elements out in the desert, Elijah looks up to Heaven and asks that God be quick in bringing about the end of his life.
This sort of thinking is what Elsa Tamez, a scholar of the Old Testament, describes as thinking “when the horizons close.” This is a sort of resignation to the way things are that can be generative, pushing us to do what we can within the limited scope of opportunities we have. It can also bring us to become stagnant, paralyzing us and leading us to wallow in the desperation that sets in. The former, clearly better, is not always our first instinct. We can, however, find ourselves moving toward generative responses to trouble, but only if we are willing to take care of ourselves and accept offered help.
As a culture, we have gotten much better at acknowledging the fact that we are not always capable of acting at 100% capacity. Over the course of, even just this past decade, we have become more willing to discuss our problems openly and allow others to do the same. The concept of “mental health days,” is a testament to our willingness to give space for people to recover from the mundane and exceptional sources of stress in their life. While there is a lot of work to be done, we are much more willing to acknowledge the toll that trauma has upon our life.
The detail that stands out in this text we have looked at this morning is how honest God and Elijah’s interaction is. Elijah is willing to say he does not see a way out of his current situation, God responds by sending an angel to feed the prophet and to command him to rest. The long walk from Israel, through Judah, and into the desert, was enough to exhaust Elijah and to make him hungry, but a deeper purpose was behind this gift which God gave in this moment. God showed Elijah that there was a future, not by pushing him to abandon his worry or his pain, but simply by rejecting his plan for death by offering him life.
The impulse which many of us have when someone we know or love is hurting is to fix their problem. We want to flip a switch and make them better. While sometimes this is easy, removing something that hurts them or adding something that helps, it gets more complicated the larger the problem is. I have known people with chronic pain and chronic depression who have had countless people try to fix them with well-intended, but ill planned words. “At least its not… It could be worse… Be thankful that…” With more acute problems the impulse to fix becomes even worse. When a loved one dies or a friendship ends, “Chin up,” is not good enough.
God, being the perfect companion, does not offer this sort of comfort. God takes the long way round toward our well-being because God knows we must sort out our recovery as we go. When we cry out, God is not always quick to speak, because God is listening to us. God is not always quick to act because sometimes we need to cross a threshold on our own, to really see the other side of it.
This willingness to take time and to give us space to recover is not an excuse for inactivity. God is at work even in silence and in waiting for us to move. To return to our scripture, God sent Elijah an angel to care of him long before Elijah began his journey and longer still before God would speak to him at Sinai. God was preparing Elijah, God was caring for Elijah, God was active in loving Elijah through his grief, through his pain, through all his fear and doubt.
The care Elijah received in the wilderness was by no means extravagant. The food he ate was called “עֻגַת” (ugat) and seems to have been a simple bread that was cooked on top of hot coals. If you were lucky, that meant stones heated by coals, as the NRSV assumes. If not, then it meant the cake was more or less cooked directly upon the wood ash. These were not yeasted rolls, nor a flatbread. These were simple, and they were washed down with just a little bit of water. While last week we saw God lavishing good gifts upon the Israelites, this week our scripture acknowledges that sometimes we see just the simplest means by which to get by.
When I was in seminary, there was a day when a good friend and I were having particularly bad days. This friend, who goes by “Tater,” for reasons I don’t care to explain, had just left the cafeteria where we had picked over some food, but not really found anything satisfying either to taste or to restore our energy. When exactly in the evening this next part happened, I cannot remember, but it saw us going to a lounge on campus to study.
At some point, another friend of ours, named Grace (yes, that one,) brought pepperoni rolls into the lounge. Now, even in the Eastern Panhandle, we there was a reverence for pepperoni rolls. Likewise, Tater came from Big Stone Gap, a little town in Western Virginia that had adopted this tradition just as we had. Tater and I had eaten a meal in the refectory that did nothing to settle our minds or revive our spirits. Yet, in this simple packet of bread, cheese, and meat we found something greater than the sum of its parts. The blend of nostalgia and simple enjoyment these gave was mingled with another sensation. In receiving these rolls, we were reminded that we had a network of support, we had people who loved us.
When something goes wrong in life, it can take time to truly recover from it. The longer a problem persists, the harder it can be to reach that point. Yet, when we are willing to take time to get back to where we need to be, we might just find an all-around better outcome. God could have pushed Elijah back to Israel or chastised him for running, but God saw Elijah as a part of the divine family, not just as a servant to be ordered here or there. God took time to set his prophet back in good health before taking him to Sinai to meet him face to face.
Life is sometimes meant to be a celebration, but other times it is just a matter of getting by. We need rest, we need recouperation, we need to take time to become well. Thanks be to God that we have an advocate in that process. A God who hears us, who cares for us, a God that feeds and empowers us. The way to make it through life is not always triumphant, sometimes it is in asking God for just enough strength for today. Sometimes, it is enough simply to be sustained.
Yet, there is always a future on the horizon. Even when we cannot see it, we can make it past our own present troubles. For Elijah, that meant looking ahead to God’s Mountain and the literal presence of God in a still small voice at its summit. For us, it means trusting that the sun will rise, our sorrow will end, and joy can come back even when every last ounce of it seems beyond us. Let us trust God and give thanks for the strength we are given to make it through, even just to tomorrow. – Amen.
 Elsa Tamez. When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes.” (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock) 2006