1 Kings 19:4-8
Life can do that in an instant, can’t it? We can go from sitting on the top of the world, to scraping the sides of the barrel as we try to crawl out of it in the blink of an eye. Things can go from the best of times to the worst of times before we even know it. The doctor walks into the room with a worried look on her face and grim news to deliver. A friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent who has always been there could suddenly be gone. The simple dreams of children who grow up, find jobs, find spouses, and have children fly away when things happen in a different order. Friendships crack under pressure, relationships fracture under betrayal, the person we thought would always be by our side suddenly isn’t and on top of that we begin to doubt if what we thought was true ever really was.
Or maybe the plummet from mountaintop to the lowest point on the earth is harder to see on the outside. Maybe the relationship we are losing isn’t that of a friend or family member, maybe it’s our relationship with Christ. Faith in God who is mighty, who is strong, who has done miracles for the world and before our very eyes for others, suddenly doesn’t seem to matter, doesn’t seem to stand up in the face of the danger that is before us. Faith in Jesus who promises his yoke is easy and his burden is light, feels like a heavy weight on our shoulders when we struggle to understand his love for us, his call to us, his presence with us. Faith in the Holy Spirit that others seem to recognize as active and moving in their lives is absent in our own.
Maybe the faith in God that we see in other people, faith that looks strong and unwavering, faith that sees God’s presence at every turn, faith they can talk about, sing about, pray for hours and hours about, just seems out of reach, mind-boggling, unreal. Maybe it all just seems too preposterous to fake anymore. Maybe it all seems way too important to be entrusted to our untrustworthy hands. Maybe holding onto the mystery of faith seems more trouble than it’s worth, and we just want to walk away from it all, walk day’s journey or more away, and just lay down and sleep.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever just wanted to sleep, to stop thinking, to stop wondering, to stop worrying about whether you’re doing all of this right, or praying often enough or strong enough? Have you ever gotten tired to listening to voice coming from someone you can’t see? Have you ever wanted to just lie down under the broom tree and sleep to get away from everything that is plaguing you, your worries, your grief, your brokenness, even your struggles with your faith in God?
I have. And not just once long ago after which I had this amazing youth group camp conversion experience which solved all my faith problems forever. I have, as a teen. I have as a 20-something graduate student - - a 20-something SEMINARY student no less. I have as a 30-something wife and mother of three kids, a pastor of a church. I have, and I do go through times like this when like Elijah I just want to go to sleep instead of face my fears, my doubts, my crises of faith, my empty relationship with God.
A day’s journey away from anyone he knows, Elijah has successfully withdrawn into the wilderness. A lone tree dots the desert, a lone place of shade and shelter in the stark landscape of his faith. Satisfied that he has withdrawn far enough, he surrenders to the sleep he craves… even if just for a moment.
“Suddenly,” it says in 1 Kings, suddenly an angel appears, not letting him sleep for even an instant, not letting him disengage from the divine presence. “Get up!” the angel commands. “Get up and eat!” At his head Elijah finds a cake baked on the hot stones of the desert, and a jar of water, not much different than the jars he used to intensify the miracle God performed at the sacrifice just days before. Elijah ate and drank, his physical needs satisfied, and lay down to sleep again.
But again, the angel, this time also touching him, urges, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” God’s persistence in the relationship is relentless. God’s desire for even this one prophet to continue on the faith journey is so strong, even the heavenly beings are employed to bring him back into the call. God’s trust in Elijah’s potential as one who will point to truth in the midst of a world that follows too easily what is false, is so high that Elijah can’t be left to just sleep. God’s desire to remain in relationship with Elijah is so deep that Elijah can’t be lost to fear and loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy. His call, his journey onward is a given; it’s assumed that there is more to his tale, more to his walk with God. That Elijah has farther to go is not in question for the angel, for the agent of Yahweh, so strengthening Elijah for what comes next is her purpose, reminding Elijah of the persistence of God’s grace and providence her mission.
Elijah feeds on the cakes provided. Elijah eats what is given to him by God. It’s some pretty impressive cake because apparently it is enough to sustain him for the forty days and forty nights ahead has he continues his journey, his destination finally clear to him, to the mount of God at Horeb.
Cakes that strengthen him for forty days…
Cakes that strengthen him for forty days…
I want some of that. I want some of that sustenance, some of that proof, some of that taste of God’s grace, God’s promise, God’s presence. When I am lying listlessly in the deserts of my faith, a cake baked on the hot stones that will fill me for as long as I can imagine sounds absolutely perfect, so perfect in fact that nothing else will do.
But have you tried to eat such rich and heavy food on an empty stomach? Have you ever indulged too much when you’re coming out of a time of fasting, either forced or by choice? Have you ever experienced the discomfort, the dissatisfaction that comes when your eyes have been too big for your stomach? How about when your spiritual eyes have been too big for your spiritual stomach?
Or the problem I more commonly face is wanting all or nothing. Sometimes the cakes that fill for forty days aren’t just lying there when I wake up. For me, anyway, they are RARELY sitting there waiting for me to feast, be filled, then continue on my journey. Rarely, OK never, have I been able to move from the lowest desert of spiritual loneliness to the tip of the mountain in the presence of God on just one serving of cake. And sometimes that frustrates me so much that I just want to give in. Where can I find this cake that will sustain me for FORTY DAYS?!?!?! And when I can’t, with exhaustion and defeat, I ask “If I can’t have it all back at once, if my emptiness can’t be filled in an instant why should I even try to fill it at all?”
But once as I sat under the broom tree in the desert, a friend, an angel of Yahweh sent to point out the food in front of me, reminded me of something different. We don’t have to worry about the days. We don’t have to worry about how long the cake will last, how long the food will sustain us, how long it will reinvigorate our bodies and spirit, how long it will strengthen us for the journey. We don’t have to wait for the biggest cake of faith on which to feed, because the Bread of Life is with us all the time. Our bread is provided not forty days at a time, but daily, our daily bread is set before us. “May don’t worry about how many days,” my friend wrote to me once. “Can you be fed by the bread of life at all?”
Like manna in the wilderness that rained down from heaven for the Hebrews to gather as they left Egypt and made their way toward the Promised Land, the bread of life is available in perfect serving sizes for us to eat and be filled every day. The bread of life doesn’t need to be stockpiled or rationed; it doesn’t need to be shoveled hand over fist into our famished bodies in order to last for forty days, forty nights, for as long as we can imagine, for eternity, because the bread of life will never leave us. The bread of life is God’s gift the endures forever, that can fill our bodies and spirits, that gives life to the world.
The goal is not to consume it once and for all. The goal is not to feast on it in one sitting, in one stage of our life, in one moment of baptism or confirmation or conversion so that it will last forever. The bread of life is what we chew when we devour the Word of God with the people of God, like in the Story small groups that are forming for the fall. The bread of life feeds our faith, again and again, not just when we are children, but when we come back to the Scriptures with new eyes, new experiences, new challenges in our lives. The bread of life, eaten little by little, day by day, gives us strength to live again, to trust again, to believe again tomorrow.
The bread of life is what we feed our children when we talk with them about the lessons they learn in Sunday School, when we read Scripture together as families, wondering aloud about what it means, not being fearful of not having all the answers. The bread of life is what we ingest when we gather as the body for worship, for reading and hearing the word, for celebrating with simple gifts of water, bread, and juice, for praying and hearing the good news of God’s grace. The bread of life is what break and share with the world when we speak words of peace, when we touch others with compassion, when we work with love for justice for all.
The bread of life is meant to be eaten and enjoyed day after day, sitting at the table in companionship with God, giving energy for our walk, giving strength for our life. The bread of life is a meal for the road. The bread of life is bread for the journey. “Get up and eat.”