Sunday, 20 June 2010

3rd Sunday after Trinity : 1 Kings 19:1-15 When it all goes wrong


1 Kings 19:1-15
Elijah Flees from Jezebel

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

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 for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Today we’re going to think about events that took place in the life of one of the great prophet, Elijah; about how he was struck down with terrible depression and about how God responded to him. We pick up the story after Elijah has fought a huge battle against false prophets leading people astray in ancient Israel. Elijah had won the battle, but the evil queen Jezebel sent him a message that she was after him for revenge and he would be dead by the next day.

When things get really bad in our lives, and there are times when they do, we feel like doing exactly what Elijah did; we want to run away. It’s likely that everyone one here has felt like that sometimes. That desire to escape can slip deeper into real depression where energy is sapped and we don’t know how to continue. When we slide from being low to being truly depressed then even our desire for life can be stolen.

There have been several occasions when I have spoken with those in the depth of depression where the most logical thing for them is that life should cease, and then they won’t be a burden anymore. For others, and I count myself as having been in this group, it can be a slide brought on by circumstance into feeling totally disconnected from the world.

Elijah seems to have been somewhere within that kind of emotional arena. Now if you know the story you will know that in the lead up to this he has been utterly triumphant for God in a battle with the false prophets of Baal. He has made a public spectacle of them, and you might think, what on earth does he have to be depressed about?

I suggest that perhaps we sometimes forget just how much continuous hard work and stress can sap our emotional energy. Elijah had made himself very vulnerable and then received a strong threat on his life which was the last straw. He had no resources left and it basically led to an emotional breakdown.

What I love about the Bible is the way in which there is never any gloss applied to the characters. Here is Elijah, perhaps the greatest of Israel’s prophets, in utter despair, and I want to acknowledge this reality for all those believers who feel guilty about being depressed. We have this feeling that if we’re Christians then we shouldn’t ever be depressed.

And what really doesn’t help is when other Christians come and reinforce this message, thus adding guilt to depression. Fifteen years ago Ali and I played a concert at a festival in Cornwall. We had two independent record producers who had taken an interest in the band with its new Celtic influenced style, and were keen to come and see us, and so they came along to this festival.

Well, I tell you, I had never before seen something so badly organised, and we wondered whether we had done the right thing. But there was nothing for it but to play. We were meant to be the penultimate act on the main stage and there were about two thousand people in the audience, so we were a little nervous.

The stage manager had been absolutely appalling and the whole evening was running almost thirty minutes late by the time it got to us, so it was a case of throwing everything up on stage as quickly as we could.

At large venues like this one it’s really important to have what’s called a good foldback speaker system which sends the sound of the band to a number of monitor speakers around the stage so that everyone can hear themselves and everyone else in the band. Well it turned out that not only had they not got a decent stage manager, but the stage sound engineer also couldn’t do his job. When we started the concert, and indeed throughout the set, regardless of what I tried to gesticulate at the engineer, all I heard for the entire time was our bass guitarist.

I had the worst concert of my life, trying to guess where we were in songs and remember who played what and when. After all the emotional build-up, when we came off stage I was so upset; really, really down. I was sure I’d blown it for everyone else, through no fault of my own, and ruined the chance at a recording deal.

But what made it even worse was that the festival manager, who was also a Christian, saw how I was and came over, put his arm around me and told me off for being depressed. He forced me to say a prayer thanking God for the concert which added guilt to how I was feeling. You see many Christians think that it’s wrong to be depressed, and that because we’re Christians we all ought to be happy all the time.

What that means is that not only do we feel depressed, but we feel guilty about feeling depressed. It gets doubly bad. And then we feel depressed about feeling guilty about feeling depressed. The good news, the really good news, is that God doesn’t come up and put his arms around us and say, ‘Cheer up, you can’t be depressed because I love you.’

Let’s look back at what happened to Elijah. He was convinced he was the only person left who was still faithful to God. He was convinced he was going to be killed. God didn’t try and reason with him. What he did was much more special. He tucked Elijah away in a cleft of a rock and then, after a great wind, and a great earthquake, and terrible fire, it went very, very quiet, and God spoke in a whisper that was like the sound of silence.

It wasn’t so much the words that God said that were so important. The main thing was that God was showing Elijah that he was still there with him. In his terrible depression God didn’t tell him to buck his ideas up. God didn’t tell him everything was going to be ok. God simply reassured him quietly that he was not abandoned; that God was right there with him.

For those in the lowest of lows, here is reassurance that we are never abandoned by God. He meets us where we are and doesn’t make us feel guilty about being depressed. But there is also a lesson for everyone else. You see we all have the Holy Spirit within us. God is present inside all of us, and so God ministers to each of us, not just directly but also through each other.

We should each, by our words and our actions to each other, be quietly saying, ‘I am here for you’, while at the same time saying to God, ‘I will give of my time simply to be with those who need me to be there.’ We are all God’s children and he calls us to minister to those in pain, and to be his hands and his feet. And when we are at rock-bottom, may there be someone who is there for us, ministering the love of God.

Depression is not God’s judgement on us; nor is it a sign of failure. It simply happens when events overwhelm us. But here there is reassurance that God remains with us, and he commands us that we should remain with each other. Amen

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