The Ups and Downs of Life
1 Kings 19:4-8
Introduction to the text: this passage is one of the stories about Elijah, the great prophet of Israel. He is on the run after Queen Jezebel has promised to kill him following his sacrifice to the Lord in front of the prophets of Baal.
In this previous story, Elijah had challenged these prophets to a contest to prove whose god was real. Each prepared a sacrifice and were then to call on their god to send fire and consume the sacrifice. The prophets of Baal called on their god to no avail. Elijah then prepared his sacrifice, doused it in water, and prayed. Immediately God sent fire and consumed everything.
As a result, the Israelites worshiped God and the prophets of Baal were seized. Since these prophets were strong supporters of the Queen, this event could not go unnoticed. Elijah was deemed a criminal, so he ran for his life ending up in Beersheba.
New Revised Standard Version
19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 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.” 3 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.
4 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.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 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.
“Life is like a box of chocolates,” Forrest Gump says in the iconic film. “You never know what you’re gonna get.” With these words, loosely quoted from his Mama, he explains the reality of life to the stranger sitting next to him on the bench.
One minute you’re flying high enjoying the view, and the next you are pushed out the door of the plane praying your parachute opens on time. Or you are climbing up a hill on a sunny day with a light breeze in your face, and the next you moment you are looking down the steep tracks wishing you had never chosen this ride in the first place.
Life often takes us on different paths than expected. Different ones than we have planned for and prepared for on our life journey. A child rarely grows up to be what they thought they would be when they were little. Career paths change and detours pop up.
I know this from my own life experience. When I was finishing high school, I decided I was going to be an engineer. My Dad was an engineer, so it seemed like a good choice for a career. A month before college started, I changed my mind and decided I didn’t want to be an engineer after all. I decided to rebel and become an accountant (my rebellion was pretty tame for the most part).
After taking a couple of accounting classes, I decided this wasn’t going to cut it either. I like numbers, but not those kinds of numbers. So, I thought I would go back to school and take math and science courses because that was what I had always been told I was good at. I ended up choosing geology. I got a couple of degrees in geology and thought I would be able to do something in this field. There weren’t many jobs available so I decided I would teach geology. I did that for awhile and then God led me in a different direction.
I became a church business administrator, a far cry from anything I had prepared for. Along the way, God said, “I have other plans for you.” Next thing I knew I was in seminary studying to become a pastor.
None of those things were what I thought I was going to do. In fact, if you had asked me early on, I would have said I was going to major in American history. That was the subject I really liked even though I had no clue what you would do with a degree in that field. But it didn’t work out that way.
That’s what life does, isn’t it? Takes us different places than we expected. On a macroscale, we may observe looking back that we have taken the long way around to get where we are rather than the shortest route. A GPS usually gives you a choice of routes to take. The one that takes the long way around may take an hour and a half while the short one takes 30 minutes.
When we look back on our life, we might find that not only did we take the long way around, but our route may also have taken us to a different map altogether. We might see the disappointments, the challenges, the adventures, the pain, the hurt, and the unexpected blessings that life has brought our way. We see the way our life has developed from a little seed with certain interests to a sapling, and then to a tree. All the while the roots of who we are have stayed the same while allowing what was above the ground to grow and expand.
The fact is we live on a microscale. We deal with what is happening day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year. Rarely do we reflect on our life path when making choices for today or for the tomorrows within our view or when we are facing the obstacles life puts in our way. Those detours or unexpected challenges that we didn’t plan for at all.
Sometimes those circumstances stop us in our tracks. Seemingly like our car running out of gas and us standing on the side of the road wondering, “Now what?” Or, in the midst of another crisis, we sit with our head in our hands on the step of a porch wondering what to do next. Other times we physically or figuratively run away and hide.
People deal with hiding in different ways. Some, those extreme ones, go to a desert island or another place that seems deserted. Others find things readily at hand that they use to dull the pain – alcohol, drugs, shopping, or eating – that help them cope.
This is where we find Elijah – trying to find a way to cope with his life. He is frustrated, angry, and afraid, wondering what’s next. Trying to figure out what he is supposed to do now. He is sitting under a tree, hiding, after Queen Jezebel threatened to have him killed.
The tree he was under, a broom tree, was really a desert shrub. Elijah was surrounded by sand and desolation. It was also pretty dry. The tree might have been four or five feet tall, maybe six, but it was a very dense shrub, so it provided shade. Elijah just sat there, moaned and groaned, and lay down to sleep.
Here he was, Elijah the great prophet. The hero of faith who was almost larger than life. People knew him far and wide. He was known as confident, faithful, and authoritative. People went to him because they knew he could do something to help. Elijah was one who trusted God implicitly. He brought about miracles through prayer, believing that God would do what needed to be done. He confronted a powerful King in Ahab. He challenged a large crowd of pagan worshipers. He even outran a chariot in a 17-mile race. Elijah was like Superman and the amazing Spiderman all rolled into one. He was seemingly invincible. He was known to all as God’s man.
Possibly, pride was Elijah’s downfall. The success that God had given him may have gone to his head a little bit. After all, he was coming off that wonderful miracle on Mt. Carmel where he had prayed and seen his sacrifice consumed by flames. There was nothing left, not even a bit of ash. He had shown those prophets of Baal who was who. Whose god was really God.
Elijah had come to expect God’s spectacular show of power and the amazing deeds that everyone knew came from God. Maybe he thought Queen Jezebel would capitulate and pagan worship in Israel would end all because of the incredible miracle on Mt. Carmel, and because of the work he had done and the influence he had on people – of course on God’s behalf.
Elijah couldn’t understand why things didn’t work out as he expected. God doesn’t always work in the realm of the extraordinary, someone once said. Something Elijah didn’t understand. He couldn’t see what God was doing unless it was spectacular.
The Elijah we encounter here in chapter 19 is unexpected. He seems nothing like that great prophet describe in 1 Kings up to this point. Elijah is ready to quit. He is worn out. He is depressed. He is easily intimidated, suicidal, and self-doubting. He complains that he has too much to bear on his own, telling God that he just can’t do this work anymore. Even a great prophet who has experienced God’s providence and power has moments of darkness. Moments of wilderness like the one he was in as he sat under that broom tree. He was expecting and hoping for the worst. Maybe hoping just a tiny bit that something would change his circumstances.
Of course, he was hoping that God would change, not himself. That God would see what was going on here and would step in. God would pick Elijah up, dust him off, and say, “Okay. I got it Elijah. You have been doing a lot. You’ve been overworked, so I’ll lighten up on what I am asking you to do. Give you more strength, too.”
God knew that Elijah needed a break. He needed that time in the wilderness. He needed a place of refuge. He needed time to break down and be cared for.
If we had been there or used the Forrest Gump metaphor, we might have said that Elijah couldn’t keep choosing another chocolate from the box hoping he would like the next one better.
Let’s look at the application for us so far (I don’t want you to think I am almost done!). We have learned that:
· we’re not Elijah – thank goodness! None of us want to be a great prophet that God puts that much burden on. A person that is be known around the world that God uses and works through
· we’ve learned that God can do amazing and spectacular things like he did for and with Elijah. But he doesn’t always do that – usually our experience. God often does things that we don’t notice. God’s work is rarely as grand or spectacular as we would like it to be. If we don’t see what God is doing, see God in front of us, God must not be there at all.
· we’ve learned that frustration, anger, depression, and fear happen to the best. They can happen to us as well.
· and, that chocolate doesn’t always make you feel better!
Let’s continue with Elijah’s story. As we read, God doesn’t leave him alone in the desert to die. God doesn’t tell Elijah that he screwed up and God is done with him. That if Elijah wants to lay out there in the desert under a tree and die, go for it.
God doesn’t do that to Elijah. Rather, God uses the wilderness to become a refuge for Elijah. A place to meet God. A place where God provides care. A place God challenges Elijah’s perspective. Where Elijah can learn a lesson – that he is accepted. A place where God provides sustenance and renewal. God then called Elijah back into ministry when his time in the wilderness, his experience in that place of refuge had provided renewal and given him strength to continue on with God’s work with a new perspective and a stronger relationship with God.
We all need a time, a place, a way to find refuge. Sometimes even a wilderness experience. A time we get away, chosen or not chosen, from what is going on in our lives. Maybe it’s a vacation to a beach getaway, sitting under a palm tree with a book while watching the waves come in and go out. Sitting quietly with a sense of peace and calm.
For some of us, time alone anywhere. “Just let me be where I am. Let me be by myself.” Sometimes all we can get is small getaways or a short time of refuge. For some it could be a few hours in the library to sit with the books in a place where everyone must be quiet. Maybe it’s finding a quiet spot to eat ice cream out of the carton and asking everyone to leave us alone for.
We know that life throws us curve balls. We fail and know that we will fail again. We feel less than, that we can’t get things right. We find ourselves on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge when we wanted to be on the upper level. Stuff happens.
Stuff that feels more like an annoyance can often be brushed off. Stuff happens that is bigger than we can brush off. Stuff that weighs us down and makes us feel like we are carrying a burden too big to manage. Stuff happens that makes us want to run away like Elijah did when he hid in the wilderness under the broom tree. We hope no one will ever find us.
Even in the midst of all the stuff, God is still there. We don’t always recognize or realize it. We need those times away, the wilderness experiences, the times we can be by ourselves for a bit so God can reach out and touch our weariness. Those times and places when we are reminded that God hasn’t forgotten us. God can give us sustenance and strength, preparing us to go back out and do God’s work in the world.
It may seem very simple – go away, take a break. God comes, speaks to us, and gives us what we need. Then we pop right up and head out on our way. We all know that it is not that simple. God isn’t like Mr. Clean with a magic eraser who wipes away our mistakes, poor choices, and our burdens. God doesn’t always pluck us up from one path to put us on the right path – whatever right might be.
God does give us sustenance and strength. God is with us whether we realize it or not. The apostle Paul says that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. Christ gives us the strength to go on. As we go on, we go forward step by step, at times thinking that being alive is all there is and all that is important.
I think God wants more for us, calls us to something more than just being alive and going through the paces. God says I want you to live. Live with joy. Live knowing that you aren’t alone. Live knowing that even in the darkest times God is there and will never leave you under a tree to die.
God loves you and will never leave you alone.