Sermon from Sunday 12th August

1 Kings 19:1-15

Sermon

There is an old fable about a time when the devil thought that he’d had enough of doing all that work, and he decided to put the tools of his trade up for sale.  People came and looked, and there they all were – greed, pride, envy, lust, all of them laid out with prices attached.  Then someone noticed another box which remained locked. What is in there, someone asked.  Oh that is not for sale, the devil said, I realise that I might get fed up of retirement and want to get back to work some day, so I’m holding back my most important tool in there.  Naturally people wanted to know what it was that he was so keen to hold on to.  My most important tool, the one I couldn’t do without, he said, is discouragement.

I would guess that we all know why such a story might come to be told.  Discouragement can be a devastating feeling, draining us of energy and of hope and of any kind of enthusiasm.  It is at least possible to argue that a sense of discouragement is increasingly common these days.  One commentator suggests that “listlessness, despair and resignation are crippling people across the nation in a wave of chronic cynicism.”  I would guess that all of us have experienced some form of discouragement, whether it is a personal setback, or a sense that the challenges we face might be too much for us, or a more general sense of things getting worse rather than better.  It is hard to find the positive energy to try to do new things when voices within us and outside of us, tell us there is no point, that nothing will come of it, that it will only lead to more disappointment.

Perhaps we might have hoped that people of faith would have some sort of immunity to this sense of discouragement and negative thinking, but evidence suggests otherwise.  Indeed the bible suggests otherwise, as we see in the story of Elijah, a great prophet of God who seems to display all the signs of being a broken a man sinking into a dark pit of depression.  This might have seemed unlikely given that he has just triumphed, but discouragement is a powerful thing, and his strength seems to melt in the heat of the queen’s violent rage.   He’s so frightened that he races for his life into the desert, and when he finally becomes so exhausted that he can run no farther, he plops down under a tree - expressing his willingness to die right away  rather than waiting for it to happen at the hands of his enemies.

It turns out that neither of those outcomes are part of what God has in mind for his servant.  Instead God looks after him while he’s unwilling or unable to look after himself, and Elijah finds himself in a remote cave, a long way from where he began.  When he is there, God seems to come and speak to him.  He asks Elijah what he is doing there, which seems strange, given he had led him to that spot, but it is a deeper kind of question than one about location.  Not what are you doing here, but what are you doing here?

It is a question about what is really motivating him.  It is a question about what he is going to chose to do with his life now.  Will his future be shaped his fear of queen Jezebel, or by his faith in God and the work he has been called to?   Elijah hears the question but is still caught up with himself, he can still only see life through a veil of gloomy darkness.  “I am the only one left trying to do the right thing,” he mourns, which was not exactly true.  We have been told of at least another hundred prophets, and the whole nation has just turned back to serving his God.  However there is more accuracy in Elijah’s next assertion, as he moans that those who have already succeeded in murdering so many others are now trying to kill him.  In the face of so much opposition, he seems to say, what is the point of trying, what is the point of going on?

So we might expect God to reassure Elijah and promise to protect him.  You and I might expect God to immediately insist that the prophet isn’t, in fact, alone in his struggles, to tell him not to be discouraged and that he will be fine.  But those who know about depression and discouragement know that such words hardly scratch the surface.  God says something quite different?  First he stops talking altogether as a storm, an earthquake and a fire pass by.  God doesn’t speak through the storm, earthquake, fire or, later, silence.  The Lord isn’t “in” any of them.  Of course, Elijah might never have noticed God anyway.  He is still in the same emotional and physical place after them as he was before those phenomena.  Then, after all the fuss and drama has passed him by, Elijah again hears the word of God.

His heart and mind remain frozen by fear, so when God asks him again what he’s doing in the cave, Elijah answers in the exact same way he answered God earlier.  Clearly he feels just as sorry for himself as he did before those dramatic displays of God’s power.  So how does God encourage the discouraged prophet?  He does so by changing Elijah’s perspective.  Elijah sees himself as all alone, he sees himself as a victim of forces over which he has no control, as the only survivor of a vengeful and immoral king and queen.

That is one way of telling the story of what has happened and it is the story that Elijah has told himself so often that he can’t now see beyond it.  God tells the story in a different way.  The facts remain the same, but the way the story is told is different.  There are not great arguments against what Elijah has been saying, no grand attempts to contradict his arguments.  Just – go to Damascus and anoint a new king of Syria.  Elijah was trapped and always thinking about what had happened before, and now he is directed to move forward.  Elijah was discouraged by remembering the past, now his thoughts are directed to the future.  Elijah felt that there was nothing worthwhile that he could do, now he is reminded that he has a role to play in a new future.  Nothing had changed, God had not altered reality to keep Elijah happy, yet everything had changed, because Elijah was able to look his life in an altogether different way.

That is what faith is always able to offer us.  That is what communication with God is always able to do for us, not change our circumstances, but help us to see things in a new way, and that makes all the difference.  It is not about denying the real problems that there might be, nor simply about being optimistic and looking on the bright side.  This is about finding a way out of a place where we can only see things that discourage us, and discovering other ways of looking that are far more helpful.

It is a choice that we get to make.  Do we see ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control, or do we see ourselves as being valued, loved and cared for by forces beyond our control?  Are we products of the past, destined to carry with us all the hurt and regret and fears that we have picked up over the years, or are we new creatures in Christ Jesus, leaving the past behind and doing our best to run the race that lies before us?  Are we part of a church facing inevitable decline because society has turned its back on us, or part of a church being led through another process of reformation, one which is necessary but which would never have chosen for ourselves.  Do we see the changes in the relationships among the nations as a reason to throw up our hands in despair, or do we see it as a call to take more seriously than even the call of Christ to go the extra mile in building good relationships with those who might look like our enemies.

In every case we can easily come up with arguments for either option, we can easily find evidence for either outlook.  The key thing is to understand that we get to choose, we get to define what story we are going to be part of, and we get to decide which road we are going to follow.  Without faith we might not be able to see that we have those options, we might not be able to see anything good.  With faith, all things remain possible and we always have options and we always have something good to be getting on with.

In the story, God does not change the facts that Elijah is so worried about, but he creates a new reality for Elijah by enlisting him to create a new reality.  He essentially sends Elijah right back to his work as prophet in a way not unlike the way the resurrected Christ sent his disciples back to their work after Easter.  He raises the prophet above the mire that he has sunk into and commissions him for more important work.  In the end Elijah heard the word of the Lord which was spoken to him, and it made all the difference.  May we likewise hear the word of God that is spoken too us.