In these COVID-weary times, this has become a signature scripture for lots of worn-out pastors. Meeting up with Elijah after his big showdown with the prophets of Baal, we find him exhausted. Discouraged. Unable to see that his work is making any difference. Anyone feeling that way about now?
Nurses, doctors, teachers, parents, mental health workers and funeral home staff can all claim this story, too.
Read the scripture.
Read the Working Preacher commentary.
Elijah’s encounter with God makes the most sense as a counterpart to the previous chapter, where Elijah battles the prophets of Baal on behalf of God. There, in that battle, he is loud and bold, and he every challenge harder, so God’s power is all the more evident. He’s persuasive and energetic.
Now, he afraid, fleeing in fear of being killed. He’s too exhausted to even care. Now, the God who came in fire and rain in the last chapter comes with lunch, water, and rest, enough to carry him for forty days (forty days!) to Mr. Horeb. The place of revelation to Moses now becomes a place of revelation for Elijah, too. Once again, God makes the divine Self known. The God who brings lunch and water shows up for Elijah in the stillness, and Elijah recognizes God in the quiet. He goes out to meet God, and they have a poignant exchange.
Delightfully, God takes the time to ask, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” A question we’re all asking right now. God knows what Elijah is doing there, and yet God is willing to listen to his lament before moving ahead.
Like so many of us might, Elijah answers God and says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.” We would add that we have live streamed and Zoomed for God, managed technology and done online funerals, visited people outside nursing home windows and done drive-in communion. God asks Elijah to do something different now. The sermon might explore what different thing God is asking of us, and of the church, as COVID leaves the world in a different place.
Can it be this simple? God tends to Elijah with food, water and rest, and Elijah is renewed. The sermon could look at how we renew ourselves in this emotionally and physically draining time. Are we eating and sleeping enough? How do we tend to our deep sorrow over the losses we’ve had? The sermon might look at how, following God’s example, we care for ourselves and the people around us.
Or the sermon might look at the work of feeding prophets in a wider sense. God’s angel comes twice to feed Elijah, and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” What prophetic work should we be feeding, in God’s name? Are there prophets and truth-tellers we should be nurturing with money, by amplifying their voices and by making space for them to speak? Or, are there people we should literally be feeding by supporting them through Venmo and PayPal so they can do their work?
God has another chapter in mind for Elijah, and no doubt for us. Even in Elijah’s exhaustion, God is already making plans. The sermon might explore where God is looking ahead for us and our congregations. What is God planning to end, and what is God planning to leave in place?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries.
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