meeting God in the wilderness

We’re continuing with the Season of Creation at Bethany.  This week we spent some time in the wilderness.  Our text was 1 Kings 19:1-18.  It’s definitely worth a read.  With all the talk of wilderness, I kept thinking about the road trip my husband and I took this summer as we moved out west.  This was what I kept picturing:

My husband took this close to dawn in the Badlands.  More thoughts about wilderness after the jump:

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So our story starts like an action movie.  Elijah’s on the run, heading for the border.  Did you catch why he was on the lam?

Here’s the backstory: Elijah’s the good guy.  Ahab’s the king—not such a good guy.  Ahab married Jezebel, and they start worshiping another god.  We all know God doesn’t like it when folks start worshipping other gods.  It’s a divine pet peeve.

Elijah gets the unfortunate job of telling the king that God’s really angry, and this other god’s not even a real god anyway.  In the process of proving that their god’s just so much mumbo jumbo Elijah executed hundreds of their prophets.  Ahab and Jezebel are mad.  Jezebel tells Elijah, in essence, so help me, you’re going to be as dead as they are by tomorrow morning, buddy.

That’s when Elijah hops town.  He hightails it out of the country, walks a day into the desert, and then collapses under a tree and says, I’ve had enough, Lord, I want to die.

In a few verses God asks him what’s going on.  And in verse 10 Elijah says, I’m out here because I’ve done the best I possibly could; I’ve been as faithful as I know how; and it’s all for nothing.  I’m completely alone in this struggle.  I’m useless, and I might as well die.

This part of the story feels so contemporary to me.  Elijah is not just worn out.  He’s exhausted, hopeless, feels alone, takes no pleasure in his work, has virtually no appetite, and can think of nothing but death.  In other words, he’s depressed.

There can be an undercurrent in Christianity that says we should be happy all the time so we can show how joyful we are about Jesus.  Some are even suspicious of professional psychological care.  The church has done a disservice to countless folks by not speaking honestly about mental illness.

Some of us have lives that are only briefly or lightly touched by depression.  For others it’s a recurring battle, sometimes seasonal, sometimes triggered by stress or anxiety or PTSD or grief or major life changes.  For still others depression is a crippling disease, whispering lies and sucking the light out of day after day.  And then, sometimes correlated with depression, often not, is the impulse to end it all, the terrifying, seductive lure of suicide.  There’s stigma about all of this, and we are often hesitant to discuss it, maybe particularly in church.

If this rings true for you today, and you have not already shared that burden with someone—a spouse, a friend, a therapist—please tell someone.  These are burdens that need to be shared.

Know that you’re not alone.  You’re not alone in this room, and not in the Bible either.  Our story today wrestles with depression, and may even offer some solace.

Elijah’s depression appears to have been triggered by the events of his life.  He felt like he was all alone and failing.  Who among us has not at some point felt like we’re the only ones left fighting the good fight? Depressed, overwhelmed, ready to give up, Elijah goes to the wilderness.

Thinking about wilderness, two recent movies came to mind: 127 Hours, the story of Aron Ralston, trapped for five days in a canyon in Utah, and Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless a young man who died in the backcountry of Alaska.

Both dramatize the risks of the wild.  Whether it’s the dry Sinai desert or the greener wildernesses we find here, in the wild survival quickly becomes the only thing that matters.

But they also show the gifts which wilderness can bestow.  These places where life and death dance so closely together, and all the extra stuff in life is stripped away, these are sacred places.  That’s why the Israelites wandered for forty years, why Jesus went off to pray for forty days in the wilderness.

Wilderness is not only literal.  It can be spiritual as well.  In the desert, Elijah’s  surroundings matched the internal wasteland his heart had become.  Grief, long illness, unremitting drudgery in work, unemployment—all are wild places.  The markers of normal life disappear, and we’re lost.

At the beginning of our story, Elijah is in the wilderness, both literally and spiritually.

Elijah goes to sleep, and he’s awoken by an angel, who feeds him, gives him a drink of cool water, tells him to rest some more, and then feeds him again.

When we were talking about it in bible study this week, someone said they wished they could find that kind of food, food that would sustain you for a forty day journey.  Me too.  It would mean that figuring out what’s for dinner wasn’t a nightly emergency.  Truth be told, we do know what food like this is.

When we receive communion, it’s just a bit of bread and a taste of grape juice.  And yet, time and again, by God’s unending grace, we come to this table empty and leave strangely filled.

The word we sometimes translate as angel means messenger, a messenger from God.  We meet God’s messengers bearing food and drink in all sorts of places.

There was a time a few years ago when I was struggling to figure out how everything was going to work, how the bills would get paid, how the work would get done, how I was going to have enough emotional resources for the demands on my heart.  I was running on empty with miles left to go.  In the middle of that time, I got an email from someone saying she’d like to bring Joseph and me a meal.  She didn’t know I was in the wilderness.  It was early December, and she’d decided that year she’d give meals as gifts.  I wept when I got that email.  She brought lentil soup, a simple casserole, a salad, and a couple of oranges.  I tell you true: it was the bread of angels.  I made it for days and days on that food.

In the wilderness we have the chance to meet angels like this.  Maybe you already have, in food left on the doorstep, in unexpected money that turns out to cover groceries, help given on a long hiking trip, in the skilled listening of a therapist.  There are messengers bearing the love and life of God all around us.  When we’re in the wilderness, we’re on their prime stomping grounds.  If you’re in the wilderness today, beware, these messengers are lurking.  They come without our bidding.

We’re almost to the end of our story, but not quite.  Elijah goes even farther into the desert.  Sometimes it’s like that.  We have to make our way into the heart of things, before we find our way out.

Elijah comes to Horeb, and there he meets God.  That’s often behind our desire to go to natural wildernesses—a desire to meet God.  We may describe it as needing space to think, or clean air to breathe, but underlying I suspect it’s a desire to be met by God.

In our spiritual wildernesses, of depression or grief or illness or burnout, we don’t as often expect to meet God.  We usually experience those as places where God is absent.  But maybe we should reconsider.  These too are places where we might be met by God Almighty.

Elijah doesn’t meet God the way he expected to, in mighty displays of power, but in the sound of sheer silence, or in the old King James English, in a still small voice.

How do you expect to meet God?  Maybe for us post-modern Presbyterians a still small voice is exactly what we expect.  Elijah’s story asks us to reconsider meeting God in acts of power, and in all sorts of other ways we might not expect—in the face of a stranger, in the frustration of traffic, in the power of a storm.  God meets us in a thousand ways, and speaks whatever language need be to catch our attention.

Now the end of our story.  God asks Elijah again what’s going on.  And Elijah, after all of this, repeats his first complaints.  I am all alone.  This is all useless.

We might have expected that forty days in the wilderness, and food provided by angels, and meeting God would have solved things.  Really, what more does Elijah want?  But truth is, we’re not always able to choose when things get better, when we’re going to get to leave the wilderness we’re in.  Here’s good news: God doesn’t quit on us.

God was with Elijah back in the city when he was giving Ahab a hard time.  God was with Elijah as he fled, feeling completely alone.  God was with Elijah as he collapsed under that tree and slept, as he ate the bread of heaven, as he trekked doggedly forty more days.  God was with Elijah through the storm and the earthquake and the wind.  God was with Elijah in the silence.  And even now, as Elijah still struggles with despair, God is with him.

And God has a word for Elijah, and a word for us too.  He says, go on back the way you came.  Go back to the work to which I called you.  I’m in that work, I promise.  And you aren’t alone.  I’m working with you behind the scenes, through the systems of the day—that’s what that business about kings is at the end of the story.  I’m going to give you a colleague, Elisha, to share your load.  And look, there are at least seven thousand other folks who are on your side.  Do not fear, God says.  I am with you.

And God says those same things to us.

Maybe you’re feeling like our society’s in the wilderness.  Poverty is up over 15% and 1 family in 7 in Pierce county wrestles with hunger.  Where is God in that?  It’s tempting to throw our hands up and assume we are alone and powerless.  But even in this wilderness God points us back to work, saying I will be with you in advocacy, in political work, in food banks and soup kitchens, in all the ways you stand with the poor.  And, you’re not alone.  It may feel like it, but I promise you’re not.

Maybe your wilderness is more personal right now—that demon depression, the tough work of aging, the struggle to stay sober—our wildernesses wear a thousand masks.  But no matter where we are, Elijah’s story is ours too.

God is with us.  No matter where we might go.  No matter what demons we face.  No matter what wilderness we find ourselves in.  God goes ahead of us.  God goes with us.

In the desert, God sets a table for us, prepares a feast.  In the wilderness we meet angels who come bearing food and drink.

Even as we trek farther into the darkness, God goes with us.  There is no darkness too dark for the light of the world.  In acts of power and in quietness and stillness, God meets us and tends to us. Do not fear, says God, I am with you.  You are not alone.  Not now, not ever.  Why just look, on your left and your right, right now, here are my messengers to share the load and walk with you.

No matter what, says our God, no matter how wild the wilderness, how dark the path, how far from life we seem to have gone, no matter what, the God of light and life and love goes with us.  We are met, along the way, through no righteousness of our own but by the very grace of God.  And we are saved, redeemed, healed, sustained, and set free by that grace.  This is the good news of the gospel.  Thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
September 28, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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