Sunday service on July 19, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Kings 19:1-8
Living in God’s Strength When You Are Tired
How are you doing, everyone, as our coronavirus marathon goes on and on? When trouble arrived earlier this year, where I work we pretty quickly had to start cancelling activities, delaying plans, and making new ones, all in kind of a rush. It seemed like we were in a 100-meter race, with many quickly-called meetings and a steady stream of e-mails to read (mostly in Japanese), trying to arrange things before something really bad could happen. But those days have now turned into weeks and weeks into months, and there’s still no clear end in sight. I’ve come to get the feeling that the race I thought was a 100-meter sprint has turned into a marathon. To be honest with you, I’m starting to feel the fatigue quite a bit. I’m counting the days until classes finish on August 14 and a summer break arrives, hopefully not too long after that.
And that’s just my situation. How about those people with small children and single parents trying to take care of things at home while earning a living at work? Just thinking of what countless people like that are going through makes me tired! Let’s not forget to give a word of admiration and encouragement to the folks we know who are in especially tough situations now—and pray for them by name.
Have you ever heard this saying? “If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” Is that not true in your experience of the life of faith? And I want to add something: if the devil can make you busy long enough, he can make you tired. If he can make you tired enough, you can’t do anything. Things can grind to a complete stop.
That’s what happens to Elijah in today’s Bible story. When we pick it up in I Kings 19, he is burning out. Distance runners call it “hitting the wall.” He is going through some things unique to his situation and culture and period of history. But he is also experiencing something that we here in Japan in 2020 know very well from our journey through daily life. Fatigue. Exhaustion. The temptation to give up and leave, looking for some way to make life easier and more manageable.
Elijah’s story is a reminder that Bible stories are not there to give us great models, heroes of faith, to inspire us to be like them. He is a man with many weaknesses on display here. Bible narratives are not like Aesop’s fables. They are not written mainly to help us get “the moral of the story” and use it to build virtue into our lives. They may do that, but that is not the point. Instead, they are about God and how He interacts with people. He is the hero of the stories, and they are given to us to help us move into deeper relationship with Him. Learning to live in His strength when we are tired is an example of this.
As I mentioned, in I Kings 19, Elijah is about to quit, “at the end of his rope.” But up to this point, it has been just the opposite. In chapter 18 Elijah is a total overachiever. He confronts the prophets of Baal, challenges them, and wins a great contest. God brings fire from heaven and burns the sacrifice Elijah offers, accepting it, while the other prophets’ god is unable to do so. With his own hands, Elijah cuts up the bull for the sacrifice, calls down fire from heaven, and leads in outstanding fashion at great risk to himself in the big win for Elijah’s God, His people, and Elijah. Many people of Israel come to believe in the Lord and worship Him after resisting Him before. Then Elijah prays for rain to end a drought that has brought great suffering to the nation for many months. It ends, Elijah tells the king, Ahab, he can return to his capital, he does, and Elijah runs ahead of his chariot for 15 miles (I Kings 18:46). I think I would be tired, too, if I had done all that. Don’t you?
But then in chapter 19, King Ahab tells his wife, Jezebel, about Elijah’s great victories. She doesn’t like it one bit. She is so outraged that she threatens to make sure he is dead within the next day (I Kings 19:2).
Now things start to crumble in Elijah’s heart and mind. We may have trouble understanding this as readers. Elijah has overcome greater challenges than this one again and again already. Her threat is probably a bluff, anyway. If she really wanted to arrest and kill him, she would likely just do it. She instead seems to be trying to intimidate him, to get rid of him by scaring him. (“If you don’t stop this, you’ll hear from my lawyers.” Something like that.) We expect Elijah to stand up to Jezebel. He knows the power of God. He has demonstrated more than once his willingness to trust God in the face of great challenges.
Yet now what does he do? He runs. When he gets to the southern border of his country, he leaves his servant there and keeps going. He is terminating his staff, leaving his work as the nation’s prophet and the people he was called to serve. He goes into “no man’s land,” the wilderness, sits down under a tree, and starts talking like he’s ready to give up on everything. He says to God, “Take my life” (I Kings 19:4). Not “The Lord is my shepherd. He gives me everything I need” (Psalm 23:1). Not what Paul says in II Corinthians 4:16, “We don't give up. Our bodies are becoming weaker and weaker. But our spirits are being renewed day by day.” No, Elijah is ready to throw in the towel and give up.
How could the “superhero” Elijah of chapter 18 turn into the hopeless crybaby of chapter 19? One idea is that he has a bipolar mental disorder. Imagine Elijah going into a mental health clinic like we have today. What would likely happen? The staff would begin looking for signs of manic behavior. They would find a lot in chapter 18. Reduced sense of fear? Yes—he’s been hiding prophets in a cave to hide them from Queen Jezebel, who is killing prophets. Then he decides to go and meet the King Ahab directly, not knowing how the king or queen might react then. Risky behavior? Yes--challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest when the penalty for being a false prophet is death. Excess energy? Yes—outrunning a chariot for 24 kilometers. Confrontational? Yes—his very bold words to the prophets of Baal. That sounds a lot like manic behavior, doesn’t it.
But look at the Elijah in chapter 19. Do you see signs of depression here? Is he less active than before? Yes. Does he lose interest in things he cared deeply about before? Yes. Is he tired and less energetic? Yes. Has he lost his appetite and stopped eating regularly? Very likely that’s why the angel gives him food. Are there changes in his sleeping habits? Yes, he goes to sleep under a tree in the desert twice in this short story. Does he have feelings of worthlessness? Yes. Is he thinking about ending his life? He’s asking God to do it. Does he look depressed? It’s hard to imagine him in any other way, given the way the text describes him.
I’m not really interested in trying to make a judgment on this man’s mental health after thousands of years have passed and based only on the amount of information in the text. But this story does tell us something about people with high levels of fatigue, who struggle to keep ourselves in good physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health. That’s all of us, of course. It speaks in particular ways to people with mental illnesses. Maybe you or someone you love lives with one. People who have high levels of anxiety or depression may see in Elijah something they know from their own experience.
Elijah’s story gives us a powerful message to people who may feel that they could never be used in God’s work because they have obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism or an addiction or some other illness. Elijah is a striking example of how God comes to work in the lives of people with great inner struggles. He finds a way to help this man and continue to use him in great ways that still are helping people even thousands of years later. It would be a horrible mistake for Elijah to believe that he has no place in God’s work and has nothing valuable to give because of his inner, personal struggles. God thinks nothing like that and teaches nothing like that. He is fully able to help—and use in His work of saving people—each one of us, no matter what weaknesses, illness, or painful situations we might have in our lives.
Again, the Bible is not a book about great people who give us wonderful examples of mental health or strong character or moral living. It is a book about God and the ways He works in the lives of all kinds of people with all kinds of troubles in all kinds of situations. People like Elijah and people like you and me.
If you are feeling exhausted, burned out, at the end of your strength, even having thoughts about dying, you can know that you are not alone. Some of God’s greatest servants, including Elijah and many others since his time, have hit their limits, too. What they have learned is what we can learn today: God does not want you to live in despair. You can meet God in the middle of your exhaustion and burnout and feelings of hopelessness. He is with you there, too. He knows what you need and how to help you in ways that no one else can. You can find God’s saving presence, even if you are in the desert of your life.
When Elijah pours out all his bitter feeling and complaint in his prayer in v. 4 (“Lord, I’ve had enough. Take my life.”), how does God’s angel respond? With nothing. He doesn’t even give an answer. He lets Elijah go to sleep. Apparently he knows that’s what Elijah needs the most at this point. But pretty soon, when the time is right, apparently after cooking Elijah some angel food cake (maybe this story is where the name angel food cake comes from?) and preparing some water, he wakes him up. “Get up and eat,” he says (v. 5). Then he lets Elijah take another nap and gives him another snack. When he wakes up, Elijah has started to feel that maybe things weren’t so bad after all. The food gives him new strength. His problems aren’t all solved, but he is ready to take the next steps and move ahead.
This may not sound very spiritual. Naps? Snacks? Is that it? That’s what God’s therapy session looks like? It may sound too simple, but God seems to be reminding Elijah in these simple ways—and us through this story—that He is with us. His presence is what we really need more than anything. And when we have that, there are no problems that are too difficult to face. Also, Elijah’s story shows that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is go home and catch up on your sleep. Even his prophet, the great man of God, has to have his physical needs for rest and nutrition met in order to serve God and people well.
Many people across the world are experiencing something now called Zoom fatigue. Going through month after month of this pandemic, sitting for hour after hour every day looking at faces, often the same ones constantly, is wearing many people out. You may like to think of yourself as someone who can work endless numbers of hours and go without normal sleep and still have enough energy to watch countless movies and programs on Netflix or Amazon Prime or whatever. But Elijah’s story challenges us to face the reality that even a great character of faith had his limits. If this man, who changed history by bringing the word of God and demonstrating the Lord’s mighty power and influencing national leaders and building a great nation, needed sleep and nutrition, maybe we should think again before deciding we don’t.
God’s word shows us here that you will never be able to experience consistent spiritual renewal if you are continually exhausted physically. Growing spiritually mature enough to live day by day in the life-sustaining power of God’s Spirit will not happen if we allow ourselves to stay physically worn down. We may feel a strong pull from our cultures today, even when teleworking our way through a pandemic, to stay in constant motion. We can easily end up going through our days always short on sleep and routinely short on energy. Have you experienced that? Maybe you are in a condition like that now. But that is not the way God designed human beings to live. Again, the story of Elijah points us to the truth that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is unplug and take a nap. (I don’t mean right here and now, though if that’s what God leads you to do, by all means, go right ahead!)
I guess the message I have brought you today is really the same as all the others God gives in His word. He loves you. You are important to Him now, just as every person is, and He is with you, no matter what is happening around you. In knowing that, you have a wonderful opportunity to see all your real needs met and to learn, under the Spirit’s guidance, to live in His power and blessing. That’s the Good News I have for today. I hope it gives you new strength, enough to go 40 days and 40 nights across the wilderness or through whatever the days ahead hold for you. Let’s pray that that will happen.
Loving and wise Father, when our lives force us to see how weak, fragile, and limited in so many ways we are, thank you that you choose not to leave us alone. You come to us, through your word and so many ways, just as you did to Elijah. You teach us to rest in you, then get back on our feet and continue once again the journey of our lives. Thank you for being that kind of God. Help us to receive the gift of your unchanging kindness in all the forms it takes. May we be strengthened and refreshed and renewed by it, and move ahead together in the power of your love through each day before us. This is our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Ortberg, J. (May 3, 2020). Hope Killers. Hope Has a Name. Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Retrieved July 12, 2020 from https://menlo. church/series/hope-has-a-name#/modal/message/6503/mlo