We meet today another troubling Old Testament figure – this time Elijah. Elijah was called to minister in a very difficult time in Israel’s history. After Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two – the southern Kingdom of Judah and the, larger, northern kingdom of Israel. The northern King, Ahab continued the policies of his father in encouraging a religious focus away from Jerusalem – which was in the southern kingdom. He supported offering sacrifices at local temples instead of the Temple in Jerusalem, he appointed priests from outside the Levite tribe and encouraged the building of pagan temples. All these things were contrary to Jewish Law – the last the most serious. Ahab was married to a pagan priestess, Jezebel, a princess of Sidon. The marriage was to bring political stability and increased trade between Sidon and Israel and the country prospered as it was more secure and had a thriving economy. However, the priests were opposed to such a marriage and to the revival of pagan cults in Israel. Ahab accused Elijah of troubling Israel but Elijah informed the king that it was the king himself who troubled Israel, and God, as he danced between the worship of God and the worship of Baal. Elijah said that the king couldn’t have it both ways.
Elijah proposed a test of the powers of Baal and God. The people of Israel and 450 prophets of Baal were summoned to Mount Carmel. Two altars were built, one for Baal and one for God. Wood was laid on the altars. Two oxen are slaughtered and cut into pieces; the pieces are laid on the wood. Elijah invited the priests of Baal to pray for fire to light the sacrifice. They pray from morning to noon without success. Elijah ridicules their efforts.
“At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” They continued praying until evening without success.
Ever the showman, Elijah ordered that the altar of God be drenched with water. He asked God to accept the sacrifice. Fire fell from the sky, consuming the water, the sacrifice and the stones of the altar itself as well.
Not content with this Elijah then ordered the deaths of the priests of Baal. Jezebel, furious that her priests had been murdered then seeks revenge which is where today’s reading starts – Elijah is on the run.
Elijah’s Depression and God’s Gentle Response
He’s not only on the run, though, he’s having a pity party. He moans to God about all that is wrong. He asks to die, he thinks he’s the only prophet left, that everyone else has fallen into sin and followed Baal, the pagan god. God’s response is interesting and we can learn from it.
First, God recognised the state Elijah was in – fearful, exhausted and depressed. So first, God lets Elijah sleep. Then an angel is sent to bring Elijah food and drink. Sleep is allowed again and then more food is given. God asks again what’s wrong but Elijah’s mood hasn’t changed and after a religious experience God corrects Elijah gently. He’s not the only one left. Names are given of who to anoint as kings, a successor prophet is named and God says 7,000 in Israel haven’t worshipped Baal. Elijah is far from alone.
When We Get Depressed…
When we are depressed we don’t see things as they really are. We’re prone to dwell on the negative – like Elijah in the story. We think we’re the only one in this situation, that no one understands and we have ourselves a little pity party. It’s a common response. When we’re depressed we may not sleep or we may find that sleep doesn’t bring rest. When we’re depressed we may not eat and drink properly – some of us eat little some of us over eat when depressed. Lack of rest and changed eating patterns can distort how we see the world.
When we get down we need to rest, to eat properly and to check out what’s really going on as our perception may be off kilter. A gentle friend who, like God, can ask the right questions can be very helpful – God doesn’t ever say to Elijah “you’re wrong” but He does give information which showed that Elijah had misunderstood the situation.
When We think All is Doom for the Church
Like Elijah many contemporary Christians can have a pity party about the state of the Church. We can often feel like we’re the only ones left. Only 7.2% of the Scottish population attend church regularly. This is a huge drop over the last 30 years – and lots of things contribute to this – Sundays are a day of work for many, for others it’s the only day where the family or friends can get together; friend of mine says the rot started when the Forsyth Saga was broadcast on Sunday evenings and a whole generation of church goers stayed in to watch the TV! The abuse scandals in the Church have left people reeling, society is more secular and fewer people believe. We have memories, possibly erroneous ones, of the churches being full and think we’re the only ones left.
This means we can get glum, focused on ourselves and just want the Church to be an institution that will “see us out” instead of thinking about what we pass on to the next generations.
If we were to think about how God dealt with Elijah and transpose that onto the Church we might think of three things.
First, rest. God allowed Elijah to sleep. The modern Church is very busy. Denominations have programmes, we’re encouraged to be messy, dementia friendly, missional churches with have alpha groups, worship which blends many traditions with lots of lay involvement and still play a full part in the life of our denominations. None of these things, of course, are wrong, but we can’t do them all. We’re better thinking of fewer things and doing them well.
Second, food. God fed Elijah as he was hungry. The modern church needs to eat more – eat together and socialise, eat at the Lord’s table, eat as it is nourished by the Word as well as the sacraments. When we eat together we grow stronger, we get to know each other better and we remind ourselves of those who are hungry that we might feed them too. When we gather at the Lord’s table we allow him to feed us with his very self. When we listen to the readings and sermons, and when we read the Bible ourselves, we allow our souls to be fed that we can feed others.
Finally, God made Elijah see reality. He wasn’t the only one left – there were kings-in-waiting, a prophet to be trained up and 7,000 people who hadn’t worshipped Baal. Church attendance is lower than it’s ever been in Scotland but we’re still respected, people still want their funerals with the church – and often their weddings. People are fascinated by spirituality – after all we’re created in God’s own image and we cry out for a connection with God. They may not see church as the place to get spirituality but we all have people who know, love and respect us and who would be intrigued by an invitation to explore God more – where better than with his people in Church.
Like Elijah of old we can be tempted to have a pity party, to neglect our health, to fail to see things as they really are – of course sometimes this is due to illness and we need to see a doctor. Ensuring we’re rested, well fed and seeing things as they really are helps. As a church we need to make sure we don’t take too much on, that we’re continually allowing ourselves to be fed and that we see the possibilities God gives us so we see our communities as God sees them.
Will you pray with me?
as of old when you tended to Elijah,
help us to rest,
help us to be fed by your loving hands
and enable us to see the world as it really is,
that we may be your people
and point to your coming kingdom. Amen.