This is the sermon I preached this morning at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.
1 Kings 19:4-8
4But 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.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He 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. 7The 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.” 8He 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.
John 6:35, 41-51
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Elijah is having a really rough time. He’s just had this epic face-off with 450 prophets of the god Baal. He alone stood up for and served the LORD, while everyone else was worshiping Baal. In his face-off with the prophets of Baal, they had dueling sacrifices to see who was the real God – Baal or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. The God of Israel shows God’s power and the hearts of the people return to God once more. Then, in a difficult to swallow maneuver, Elijah rounds up the prophets of Baal and kills them by the sword according to the law in Deuteronomy saying that false prophets should be killed. That should be the end of the story, right? Well, it’s not. Jezebel, the king’s wife, is none too pleased with this and threatens to kill Elijah just like he killed the prophets of Baal. It’s not looking good for our hero! This is where we find ourselves with today’s reading from 1 Kings.
Fearing for his life, Elijah journeys out into the wilderness, just out of Jezebel’s reach, plops down under a solitary shrub, and laments his situation. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah is burnt out. He’s overwhelmed by everything that’s occurred in his life. He’s wondering if he can take any more of this prophetic calling. He just wants to throw in the towel. He wants it to be over.
Well, as the saying goes, “things always look better in the morning,” so Elijah lays down under the tree in exhaustion and falls asleep. While he’s sleeping, an angel appears and touches him, telling him to “get up and eat.” Now, initially, I thought this seemed like an odd response to someone who is feeling utterly wiped out. However, this spring I learned a word that might help us to understand a bit of what Elijah was feeling. The word is “hangry.” Hangry is when you are angry because you’re hungry. It’s when you start to get a bit cranky and snippy and on edge because you haven’t eaten in a while. It’s when the world starts to get a bit overwhelming because you haven’t been fed recently. Has anyone experienced this? So maybe being a bit hungry contributed to Elijah’s feelings of being severely overwhelmed.
In any case, Elijah was definitely dealing with some big problems. Interestingly enough, it seems that God’s recipe for turning things around is taking care of the prophet’s basic needs first: a nap and a snack. So Elijah eats the bread-cake and drinks the water the angel provides, then he falls back asleep. But then the angel wakes him again, this time saying, “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Now, if I were Elijah, I would appreciate this heavenly snack, but I’d probably be thinking “ummmm, journey, what journey?! I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, ok?”
But there must have been something about that food that gave Elijah the energy to continue on with his calling. Something that renewed his strength, turned his attitude around, and gave him hope.
In 1954, as Europe was continuing to rebuild after World War II, J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of what would become his most famous work: The Lord of the Rings. In the three volumes of this fantasy book, the seemingly weak and insignificant forces of good battle the utterly overwhelming forces of evil. Part of this battle includes taking the one ring into the heart of where evil resides in order to destroy it once and for all. Those who will carry this burden are the most unlikely of all – simple creatures called hobbits who love good food and drink, pleasant company and the outdoors. Taking the ring to be destroyed seems like an impossible task, but they are helped along their journey by others and by the gifts that their companions give them.
One gift is the gift of lembas bread or waybread made by elves. In the book, Tolkien describes this bread as “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.” When they run out of everything else, it is this simple bread that sustains the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, on their dangerous, lonely and nearly insurmountable journey. As the author describes it later in the book: “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”
Just like Elijah, the hobbits would have lain down to die without this food. But just like Elijah, they were fed with bread that was far more than it looked to be at first sight. The fact that this bread made by elves sounds like Communion is no accident. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of this wonderful book, was a devout Catholic, weaving Christian elements and symbolism into his fantasy story. And as the book The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth explains, “…the elven-food called lembas [is]clearly reminiscent of the Eucharistic wafer: its airy lightness gives strength in direct disproportion to its weight.”
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Life is hard. Life is journey full of twists, turns, bumps in the road, mountains and valleys, surprises, joys, sorrows, laughter, tears, pains and comforts. That’s a lot to handle. And sometimes, we feel like Elijah, like we’re the only ones on the perilous journey. We have those days where we’re wiped out and we just want to find our own solitary broom tree that we can curl up underneath. Some days, we just want to pull the covers up over our heads.
And God gets that. Rather than telling Elijah he has to carry on or that he’s failing at being a prophet since he’s overwhelmed, God lets Elijah rest. Then the angel of God wakes him and gives him food that sustains him for forty days and forty nights. This food he is given is enough to get him to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. The simple bread and water is enough to sustain him on the journey until he reaches the place where he will once again encounter God.
And just as God fed and sustained Elijah for his journey and calling, God feeds and sustains us so that the journey of life will not be too much for us. As we hear from Jesus in the Gospel, “”I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus feeds us with himself, being fully present in the bread and wine we have every week. Jesus presents himself to us, promising to be with us on our journeys through this meal – through plain food and drink shared with the promises of God.
Holy Communion became really important to me while I was studying abroad in Germany – while I was on a journey of my own. While there, a large part of my diet consisted of bread and cheese, both of which Europeans do fabulously! However, it wasn’t this bread alone that kept me going. It was the bread I received at a tiny Lutheran church on Sunday mornings. Coming up to the altar rail, receiving that bread in my folded hands, and hearing “the body of Christ given for you” was so incredibly powerful. You see, I had only received Communion like that once before, so to hear those words and to know that this was a meal and promise given for me – and for everyone – was incredible.
When I returned home after living in Germany, I did not attend church because I had previously had a painful experience with a church here in the States. But as time went on and work became more frustrating and overwhelming, I realized how much I missed Holy Communion. I realized just how much I needed that little piece of bread and that sip of wine. I needed the promise of God and the mysterious food that would sustain me in my everyday life. I wanted and needed to be fed by simple bread and wine. I wanted and needed to be fed by the promises and the word of God. I wanted and needed to be fed and nourished in my faith. I wanted and needed that bread of life that nourishes us to have abundant life with Christ in the here and now.
So I found a church, risking another bad experience in order that I might hear the promise: “the body of Christ given for you” and “the blood of Christ shed for you.” I went back so that I might be fed. And I was.
And like Elijah, I was fed so that I might continue on my journey – a journey that has led me here, to this place, to share in Holy Communion with all of you.
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” God feeds us. God gives us what we need to sustain us on our journeys through life. God gives us food for our souls so that we can, like Elijah, carry out what God is calling us to do in life. When we are in that place of feeling overwhelmed, of being stressed out, of feeling worn out to the point of giving up, God welcomes us to the table. God tells us to eat so that we are satisfied. We are welcomed over and over again to the feast so that we can “taste and see that the LORD is good!” Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.