Life Between the Mountains

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>A Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

I Kings 19

I love the mountains. On some days, my wife and I allow our imaginations to skip ahead a few years and contemplate where we might want to retire in our old age. Have you ever allowed yourself to do a little day dreaming? I have discovered it can be fairly therapeutic on those days that things aren’t going so well in the present. Just hit the fast-forward button a couple decades, and in my minds eye, I see snow-capped peaks on the horizon, trout-filled streams within walking distance, rolling landscape surrounding me, and North Carolina pine, oak, and maple blanketing slopes like an elevated carpet for as far as the eye can see.

I love the mountains … did I mention that? Something about the serenity, the beauty, the panoramic views, and the sense of scope and scale of such natural landmarks; it makes all our human-made buildings, cities, and towns seem small in comparison. It is there on the mountaintop that I am often infused with inspiration, awe, and a deep, loving respect for the earth and the beauty of God’s created order.

Of course, I am not the only person in history to have such an affinity for mountains. It seems God is partial to mountains as well. Don’t get me wrong … a quick journey through Scripture reveals that God is present everywhere: in valleys, along rivers, amidst bustling city life, in the slower-paced rhythms of life found among shepherds and farmers, and in the nooks and crannies of communities of all types and in all places. But there is something about the mountain in Scripture – something that stands out, stands up, and commands our attention. Mountains are big – and in Scripture, big things happen on them.

It was on Ararat that Noah landed after the great flood, a mountain where God made a covenant with humankind and sealed it with a rainbow in the sky; it was on Moriah that Abraham ascended with his son to make sacrifice to the Lord; it was on Mount Sinai (Horeb) that God made covenant with Israel and gave them the Torah; it was on Nebo that Moses looked out over the promised land for the first time in his life; it was atop another mount that Satan tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world; it was on yet another mountain that Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all time, contained in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7; it was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus went to pray before he his imminent suffering and death.

But what captures my attention from our lesson from I Kings is not the mountains, of which there are two. Rather, it is the valley, the wilderness, the barren stretch of land a day’s journey into the desert where Elijah collapses under a solitary broom tree. Elijah is in between two mountains. He has just left Mt. Carmel, where one of the greatest prophetic confrontations of all Scripture took place. Elijah took on all 450 of Jezebel’s false prophets as they called on Baal to send fire from heaven and consume their offering. From early morning until late in the afternoon, Scripture tells us those prophets limped around the altar begging their god to do something, to come down, to demonstrate power. When it was Elijah’s turn, he had the altar doused with water, not once, not twice, but three times – and God descended and consumed the entire sacrifice before all those gathered. If that was not a high moment in Elijah’s life, I can’t imagine what would be.

But by verse 4 of I Kings 19, it is not the bull offering on the altar that is doused with water, but Elijah’s spirit. He has come down off of the mountain – literally and spiritually. He has come crashing down from great elation and a confirmation of God’s might and power, to a depression so deep and so dark that he can’t see a way out. As soon as Jezebel hears about what happened on Mount Carmel, she signs his death warrant and sends out her cronies to take him out once and for all.

Despair. Defeat. Failure. Depression. Suicidal ideation. Did you think such thoughts and feelings only happened to you? To people you know? Think again. Elijah experiences all of it. He has come crashing down the mountain of triumph into the pits of a hellish hole of despair in the matter of a few days. By the time we find the prophet a day’s journey into the wilderness, he already needs to be put under suicide watch. He literally asks that he might die: It is enough; now (he says), O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors. Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Sounds like depression to me. He wanted to sleep all the time. Didn’t feel like doing anything. Is convinced that his life is worthless, his vocation is meaningless, and his future is hopeless. So what was his answer? Give up. Roll over. Go to sleep. Ignore, run away, hide – wallow in self pity, complaint, and cynicism.

How many of you have been there? In Elijah’s wilderness? Oh, I know we have all had our moment on the mountain. My daughter just graduated from high school. That was quite a mountain. Some of you are expecting new babies, another peak experience. All of us have moments when we are on top of the world, we things are going well, when evidence of God’s grace and provision are readily evident and abundant. But I want to speak to some of you who may not be on the mountain right now. Some of you who have come crashing down the mountain and now find yourself in the wilderness – do any of you find yourselves there this morning? There under the broom tree with Elijah? There wishing you were dead? There experiencing despair, defeat, failure, and depression? There under the broom tree, convinced that your life is worthless, your vocation is meaningless, and your future is hopeless? If so, I need to you do sit up and lean forward a bit for this next part.

What happens to Elijah when he is under the broom tree? What takes place in this hellish wilderness of despair?

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.”

Elijah then journeys to another mountain, Mt. Horeb, where he hears Yahweh speak – not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the sheer silence. And the Lord asks him: What are you doing here Elijah? Not once, but twice Elijah is asked that question. Then the Lord tells him to get up and return on his way to the wilderness of Damascus.

Now notice what happens here. All of us who have experienced failure. All of us who have been paralyzed by fear. All of us who have found ourselves in the wilderness … Elijah emerges from this place a changed person.

First, because of God’s food; God’s food restores Elijah’s strength and vitality. Many of you know that I used to work psych units before becoming a pastor; specifically, affective disorders, which includes things like depression. One of the first things we were trained to help patients do was eat, even when they didn’t want to – even when all they wanted to do was sleep. But this passage is about more than just physical food. It is also about spiritual food.

The Eucharist is God’s food for God’s people. Just as God set a table under a broom tree in the wilderness, God’s sets a table here in our midst this morning. It is here, as we feed on the Bread of Life and as we drink the cup of salvation that we are given spiritual strength and spiritual vitality to continue on our way. I am not sure where you are this morning. Perhaps you are on the mountain. Perhaps things are going well. If so, come and eat of Christ’s Body. Come and drink of Christ’s blood – come sup with Jesus and be thankful. But I know there may be others who may be somewhere else. Who are laying under that broom tree with Elijah. If so, come and eat God’s food – come and partake of Jesus’ Body and Blood – come and let the Holy Spirit restore your strength and spiritual vitality in broken bread and shared cup.

Second, God’s presence renews his spiritual life – he rediscovers his prayer life – he begins to pray again, to dialogue with God, to listen and to speak with his Maker. No matter what life may bring, God promises that God will never leave us or forsake us. Sure, we all know that God came down in awesome power and glory to consume the bull sacrifice with fire before the watching crowd. But let us never forget that God also sets a table in the wilderness, that God continues to send angels to tap us on the shoulder and get our attention; that God walks with us on the journey between the mountains, when all our thoughts and feelings seem to indicate otherwise. God’s presence renews Elijah’s prayer life and his spirit.

Thirdly, God’s calling re-energizes Elijah’s vocation. He has been called to be a prophet for the Lord, but somewhere along the way he had lost the fire in his belly, the burning in his spirit, the passion in his gut. But in this passage, God calls Elijah back into action – and by doing so, Elijah is reequipped to do the Lord’s work, he is re-motivated to put his shoulder back to the grindstone, he is re-energized for the God’s future that is opening up before him. Gone is the paralyzing fear of Jezebel and her ilk. Gone is the despair and defeatist attitude that left him curled up in a fetal position under the tree. Gone is the impulse to run from God, run from home, and run from his vocation, his calling, and his first love.

God’s food, God’s presence, God’s calling.

For some, it may seem RUMC is in the wilderness …

  • But God is renewing our worship around word, table, and font (Calvin grant and leadership team to plan and lead worship renewal in our congregation)
  • Renewing our prayer life (new prayer cells and emphasis on prayer and fasting)
  • Renewing our calling (big, God-sized dreams for the coming year)

For myself, I have sensed God renewing me, your pastor

  • To give myself fully to worship, to God’s Word, and to the nourishment in the Lord’s Supper
  • To renew my commitment to pray for and with you, for RUMC, for Durham, and the world
  • To renew my calling – to reconciling ministry – to break my heart again for Durham, for our children our youth and our struggling community.

What about you?

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