The Word This Weekend – August 12, 2018
“The Gift of Anguish”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
[The Prophet Elijah] 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 forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:4-8)
Our texts this coming weekend continue the theme of miracle bread, whether relating Jesus’ feeding of the multitude, or other traditional bread miracles from the scriptures. The episode from the Hebrew Bible’s First Book of Kings is such a bread story, and an invitation to consider not only the gifts of providence or abundance, but the unexpected gift of anguish.
First, some background on this difficult story of Elijah’s anguish. In 1 Kings 18 we hear of one of Elijah’s greatest triumphs – the defeat of the prophets of Baal, those favorite seers and speakers of Queen Jezebel, the intransigent enemy of Elijah and his God. In this colorful telling, Elijah constructs a sort of “Prophet’s Tournament,” challenging whether the god of his adversaries can bring fire from heaven. To cut to the chase, Elijah wins and the Baal prophets lose, and are put to the sword by the triumphant Prophet of Israel.
Trouble is that Queen Jezebel, patron and backer of the failed prophets, is so enraged by Elijah’s contest and victory that she makes the following solemn threat:
King Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then 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.’ 3Then 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.
So, from the heights of victory to the terror of assassination, Elijah flees for his life, and pours out his anguished heart to his God. He pleads with God that he might die, rather than face the rage and spite of the Queen. Sodden under the weight of his fear, dejection and misery, he falls into a troubled sleep beneath the broom tree – certain that all is now lost.
It’s tempting, you know, to diagnose others based on their experiences, and to come to easy conclusions on the lives and emotions of those found in ancient texts. I could well be wrong, but I sense in Elijah’s moment of grief and anguish something that is familiar in my own life – and perhaps in yours as well: the symptoms of profound and depressive loss. All the elements are there: the exhilaration of triumph that crashes into a morass of persecution and failure, the despairing sense that life is no longer worth living, the conviction that nonbeing may actually be better than being. And, under all that weight of sorrow, the respite of sleep seems a better course than the racing of the mind and the frantic beating of the heart.
So Elijah collapses into a fitful sleep, as any of us might, in the grip of an anguished soul. And what awakes him is not the sword or spite of Jezebel, but instead a heavenly messenger, with bread and water to sustain the Prophet on a journey of 40 days, a sojourn that would lead him back to the mountain’s summit, to fresh hope and new possibilities. The Angel meets him in his anguish, embraces him in his woe, and refreshes his body and his soul for the long walk ahead.
So, I have a question for you, and for anyone who lives with the scourge of failure, opposition, intractable troubles or elusive aspirations. And the question is this – is the gift of God only to be found in the rescue, in the hot cakes and water pitcher? Or, just maybe, is there also a gift to be discerned in the anguish itself? Is it just possible that the brokenness we can feel in frail and feeble circumstances has its role in our lives as well?
In the Christian community, reflecting on the gift and promise of Jesus, there’s a phrase that roots deep in many hearts, and has for 2000 years –
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35)
For it’s on the long and winding road we call daily life, in the midst of the bread and the breaking, that we may perceive the truth of all that we call human existence – whether our own “Elijah” basks in triumph and accomplishments, or lies crushed by disappointments, obstacles or grief. In fact, during those times when mortality presses hard, when beset by the crushing weight of loss or failure, or when we may feel unable to see any good road ahead – that may be the best time to sense the gift of God’s nearness, the angelic hand of bread for the journey, the promise that all is not lost, all is not woe, all is not beyond mercy or new life.
So, dear companions, I hope to rest and renew with you at the Feast of Living Bread this weekend – whether here in Torrance, or wherever holy hands and hearts come near to the gift both of anguish and of relief – the profound and available gift that is God’s unerring and unconquerable grace to us, and through us to all the “Elijahs” we may be across the pathways of our life.
With You in God’s Good Work,