Poor Elijah didn’t know if he wanted to live or die. Look at verse 3: “Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life.” Then look at verse 4: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…”
One verse he wants to live, for he’s running to save his life. And in the very next verse, he prays to God that he might die.
Can you relate? Have you had moments like that?
The good news comes in verse 5: “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.”
The good news is that when the journey is too much for us, when we don’t know whether we want to live or die, God comes to us, and gives us the strength we need to make it through.
On this Father’s Day, I am reminded of the words of Jesus when he said: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? …how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
It was Isaiah who prophesied: “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31).
The Apostle Paul confidently proclaimed: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
The good news is that when we have those moments when we don’t know if we are going to make it or even if we want to make it, God comes to us, nourishing us with the strength we need to do all things.
Now, before we say: “Amen, let’s sing a hymn, have some communion, and go home happy!” I believe we need to hear a little more.
When we read the Bible, study the Bible, interpret the Bible, context is everything. It is a bad practice, and it can be right down dangerous, to lift verses out of their contexts.
And people do it all the time, especially with the verses that I just read. I have seen these verses on coffee mugs or desk calendars, as if they were written as promises to help us have a good day at work.
These verses are all over the walls of the YMCA as if they were written to help us have a good work out. As a runner, I have seen them on written on the shirts of other runners during a marathon. “Run and not grow weary – Isaiah 40:31”; “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me – Philippians 4:13”
But when we put these verses in their contexts, we come to understand that when Isaiah was talking about running, he wasn’t talking about running a marathon. When Paul was talking about strength, he wasn’t referring to the bench press. And Elijah was not visited by an angel with hot fresh baked bread and a cold jar of water, because he had just finished a Tai Chi workout.
I believe our lectionary gospel lesson has something very valuable to teach us about our context. It is from Luke, chapter 8 beginning with verse 26.
It is the story about Jesus confronting a man living with demons who was chained and shackled in a cemetery.
Now, we don’t know why they put chains on that man and forced him to live among the dead. But I believe we could take some pretty good guesses. Perhaps he had a different skin color than most people in his town. Maybe he practiced some kind of minority religion. Could it be that he spoke a foreign language? Could it be that he was mentally ill? Might it be that he was gay?
Whatever the reason, it is obvious to me that the chaining of this man, the oppression of this man, the dehumanizing treatment of this man as if he did not even exist among the living, shackling him in a graveyard, is the true demonic evil in this story.
And notice what happens when Jesus liberates this man (verse 37). When they find the man is set free, do they all fall down and worship Jesus? Do they make a commitment to follow Jesus? No, all the people, “all the people in the surrounding country beg Jesus to leave their presence.”
It is very important to remember that when Paul proclaimed the gospel for not only the Jews, but also for the Gentiles; when he baptized a woman named Lydia and others discovered his friend Philip baptized an Ethiopian Eunuch; when Paul, like Jesus, met people where they were, ate what they ate, drank what they drank; when he said things as audacious as in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, the people did not vote him Citizen of the Year.
Thus, when Paul penned those words: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” he wasn’t talking about completing a “couch to 5k program.” He wasn’t talking about having a good day at work or even working out some personal problems. He was talking about keeping the faith in the midst of a persecution that we better believe is coming if we live like Jesus, work like Jesus, and love like Jesus. And he was talking from a prison cell.
For the truth is: whenever we love all people, and teach others to love all people, especially those people who have been degraded, dehumanized, and put away by society, there will always be people in society who will degrade, dehumanize, and try to put us away.
Whenever we oppose bad religion, fight injustice, speak out against hate, and preach the grace of a savior who loved all, died for all, and conquered evil for all, we can expect persecution.
There is a much talk about Christianity being the most persecuted religion in the world today like that is a bad thing. But that type of thinking seems to go against the very words of Jesus who said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:11).”
I believe the entire biblical witness points out that if we are not being persecuted in this world, then we better question whether or not we fulfilling our mission as people of faith.
The good news is, that the entire biblical witness also promises that when we are persecuted, God shows up. God feeds our bodies, nourishes our souls and gives us the strength we need to see this selfless, sacrificial journey through.
It was in the sermon on the mount that Jesus said that the Father will give his children good things to eat, not so they could live happy and satisfied lives, but after he commanded them: love your enemies, forgive seventy times seven, be light, be kind, don’t judge, turn the other cheek, don’t love money or possessions, go the extra mile and give the shirt off your back. Because Jesus knew that when we do those things, then we better be praying for some strength, because we’re certainly going to need it.
And notice that the angel came to Elijah with a cold jar of water and freshly baked hot bread, not to help him to deal with personal problems, but to climb up on a mountain to continue to stand against bad religion and false prophets.
And Isaiah said that God will renew the strength of God’s people not to deal with the heat and humidity of an Oklahoma summer, but to deal with the heat they will face after they “prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, and make straight in the desert a highway for our God;” after they “lift up every valley, and make every mountain and hill low;”
God will renew the strength of God’s people after they break the silence and cry out saying that “the word of our God will stand forever.”
God will renew the strength of God’s people after they get up and climb up to “a high mountain and lift up their voice to be the herald of good tidings to all people.”
Isaiah says that when we stand up, and speak up, it is then that the Lord will come and renew our strength. It is then we shall mount up with wings like eagles. We shall run and not be weary. We shall walk and not faint.
The truth is that when we are truly following Jesus, selflessly, and sacrificially carrying our crosses—when we are truly loving our neighbors as ourselves, all of our neighbors—when we unashamedly proclaim the word of God, the gospel of Christ, challenging injustice and speaking against hate—when we do these things, we can always expect some persecution. It can get so bad that we won’t know whether we want to live or die.
The good news is that it is then that we can always expect God to show up. We can expect a tiny sip of water and a bite of bread, or a little cup of juice, and a small cracker, to give us what we need to make it, to keep the faith, to do all things through Christ who gives us strength.