10th Sunday after Pentecost July 29, 2018
1 Kings 19:1-9a
2 Corinthians 5:14-21
11, 327, 428, 531
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and howhe had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He cameo a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had eough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.
Have you ever felt like giving up; like saying “that’s it, I’m done, I’ve had enough”? If so, you are not alone. At one point in his life, a very low point, the prophet Elijah felt exactly the same way. Fleeing into the desert, he slumped beneath a juniper tree and begged God to end his life. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).
How could Elijah sink into such despair? He was a prophet of God. His very name expressed confidence in the Almighty. Elijah, or EL-I-YAH in Hebrew, means “My God is Jehovah.” In the name and power of Jehovah Elijah fiercely opposed the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. At God’s command he prayed for drought, and drought came. He prayed for rain, and rain fell in torrents. During the drought, Elijah was fed by ravens at the Brook of Cherith, and later, by a widow in Zarephath, Phoenicia. As long as he remained in the widow’s home—a period of at least two years—her handful of flour and few drops of olive oil never ran out. Elijah even raised the widow’s son from the dead.
Elijah is mentioned sixty-nine times in the Old Testament and thirty times in the New. In the New Testament he is described as a ‘foreshadowing’ of John the Baptist. He was present with Moses and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and was an example of the power and efficacy of prayer. Some confused Jesus with Elijah. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” some thought he was calling for Elijah. To this very day, religious Jews set a place for Elijah at their Passover tables. He was indeed a great prophet.
Yet, this is the same prophet who ran for his life and prayed for death at a juniper tree in the desert. More remarkable still, Elijah’s fear and depression came shortly after one of his greatest victories—his triumph over the eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel. You remember the details and outcome; how Elijah told the idolatrous Israelites, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
And to prove who was the true and only God, Elijah proposed a contest. He and the prophets of Baal were to prepare a sacrificial bull, place it on wood, then call upon their deity to consume the sacrifice with fire. From morning until evening, the false prophets pleaded with Baal—cried, shouted, danced, and cut themselves. And when there was no response, Elijah began to mock them. ‘Surely Baal is a god,’ he said. ‘Perhaps Baal is deep in thought or traveling or busy or sleeping. Try shouting louder.’ They did, but nothing happened. No response. No Baal.
Then Elijah placed his sacrificial bull on an altar. Three times he ordered the bull, wood, and altar to be drenched with water. Afterwards, he prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and have done all these things at Your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that You, O Lord, are God, and that You are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36-37). And immediately, the fire of the Lord fell from heaven, incinerating the bull, the altar, the wood, and even the water. And all the people shouted, “The Lord—He is God! The Lord—He is God” (1 Kings 18:39).
With such a demonstration of God’s power and presence, surely Elijah would have no fears and no doubts amid future problems. Only, that is not what happened. Suddenly, almost inexplicably, after one threat from Queen Jezebel, Elijah fled from Mount Carmel to Beersheba, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles. He fled into the desert, to a juniper tree, where he begged God to end his life. And afterwards, fled to a cave on Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai.
Why? What changed? How could Elijah defiantly proclaim the word of the Lord, then fear the word of one wicked queen? How could he taunt, then fear: stand boldly, then run; call down fire from heaven, then call upon heaven to end his miserable existence? Let me suggest two reasons.
First, Elijah was not only a mighty prophet, he was also a human being with human frailties and weaknesses and moments of doubt. James wrote of Elijah, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17). Frankly, I find this very comforting—not Elijah’s weakness, but his humanity. Elijah needed God as much as we do. Scripture not only shows Elijah taken to heaven by a whirlwind and chariot of fire, but also shows Elijah sitting dejectedly beneath a juniper tree.
And there are many other such examples in Scripture. Moses proclaimed God’s Law but may have stuttered. David defeated Goliath but surrendered to lust. Solomon had great wisdom but foolishly pursued idolatry. Abraham was a man of great faith but also tried to help God fulfill His promises—and the result was Ishmael, not Isaac. Peter confessed Jesus as “the Christ,” but then rebuked Jesus for speaking about the cross. The Bible repeatedly shows us human weakness in order to demonstrate the human need for God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s strength.
Second, Elijah’s depression was also due to a common human complaint. Namely, that things had not worked out as he had expected. Therefore, any future effort was not worth the time, expense, or energy. Yes, he had defeated eight hundred and fifty false prophets on Mount Carmel. Yes, he had called down fire from heaven but what had really changed? Wicked Ahab was still king—Ahab of whom it is written, “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30). Jezebel was still queen. Though the Israelites had proclaimed, “The LORD—He is God,” Baal worship was still rampant in Israel. So, what had changed? Why bother? Why continue ministering? Why not slump beneath a juniper tree and give up?
This “what’s-the-use” attitude of Elijah was apparent throughout his period of despair. It was apparent in the dismal prayer he offered while sitting beneath the juniper tree, “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). It was apparent in the words he spoke while hiding in the cave on Mount Horeb. Twice he complained: “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, broken down Your altars, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10,14). Suddenly, God had become too small for Elijah’s big problems.
This same “what’s-the-use” attitude, same depression, and same view of a too-small-God can happen to us—and often, as was true of Elijah, after an uplifting, God-pleasing experience. Consider marriage. What may begin as a beautiful day of love, commitment, vows, and music, may end as utter disappointment as two disillusioned spouses sitting beneath the same juniper tree, thinking, “I have had enough.”
Regrettably, almost any difficult circumstance can rob us of our confidence and fill us with fear, worry, and depression. One comment from Queen Jezebel sent Elijah to his juniper tree. One comment from an employer, “You’re fired;” or a spouse, “I want a divorce;” or a doctor, “It’s cancer;” or a friend, “I never want to see you again;” or a financial advisor, “You’ve lost thousands;” or a President of the United States, “We’ve launched a nuclear attack on North Korea”—just one comment can send us to a juniper tree of our own. The question is what should we do once we get there? What should we do when circumstances turn against us, when things don’t go our way, when God suddenly seems too small for our big problems? Scripture answers these questions in many ways and in many places. Today, however, I offer three brief answers based on the life and experiences of Elijah.
First, when sitting hopelessly beneath your own juniper tree, remember what God has done for you in the past. Did Elijah do remember what God had done when he was fearful and depressed? Honestly, I don’t know. At times, I think he either temporarily forgot God’s past dealings with him or brushed those dealings aside as if they were irrelevant to his personal circumstances. In either case, perhaps this is why he stayed so depressed, why he fled from Jezebel and sat down beneath that juniper tree and begged God to end his life.
And so we readily remind Elijah, and not always kindly, “Elijah, when you prayed for drought, God sent drought. When you prayed for rain, God sent rain. When you had no food, God fed you using ravens. Later, God provided that widow from Zarephath to feed you, miraculously ensuring that her meager supplies never diminished. You always had enough. And by the way, Elijah, when you faced incredible, ridiculous odds on Mount Carmel—I mean, one prophet of the true God verses eight hundred and fifty false prophets of false gods—even then God gave you the victory. At your request, God sent fire from heaven. Did you forget these acts of God, Elijah? Is that why you ran from Jezebel and fled into the desert, praying for death beneath the juniper tree and hiding in a cave? Frankly, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Perhaps we should be more understanding of Elijah. Have we not all done the same? In the middle of some crisis, some need, have we not all forgotten God’s past dealings with us or considered His past dealings irrelevant to our personal circumstances? And so we run and hide and slump down beneath a juniper tree, wondering who will help us, insisting that nothing can be done to remedy our depressing condition. Nonsense.
When we sit beneath our own juniper trees, we should not be complaining but asking ourselves, “Has God ever failed me in the past? Has there ever been a day when God has not fed me, clothed me, protected me, provided an income for me, kept by heart beating the 115,200 times it beats each day? And if things have not always worked as I anticipated, hasn’t God always had a purpose in this too, whether saving me from my own foolishness or giving me a far greater resolution that I could have requested or imagined? So, am I going to stay here beneath this juniper tree, feeling sorry for myself or am I going to get up, brush myself off, and in the name and power of Almighty God live in the confidence and hope He wants me to have? Because my Bible tells me: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
If today you find yourself beneath a juniper tree, hopeless, depressed, worried, and afraid, remember how God has acted in your past. And more than anything else, remember how God in grace acted to save you from your sins by sacrificing His only Son, Jesus Christ. For if God refused to withhold even the life of His Son, will He withhold anything else from your life: a loaf of bread, a change of clothes, a means of income, a blessed marriage? No. Focusing on God’s blessings to you in the past will enable you to confidently face the future.
Second, when sitting hopelessly beneath your own juniper tree, remember to feed on God’s Word. As Elijah lay beneath his juniper tree, an angel of the LORD told him, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you” (1 Kings 19:7). So, Elijah ate the food God provided, was strengthened by it, and enabled to complete his journey.
By journey, the angel likely meant the forty-day journey from the juniper tree to Mount Horeb. But there is another, deeper lesson here for us. Whether our journey is through the next problem or through life itself, we need to feed on God’s Word. Ironically, when depressed, many people stay away from church. They say, “I just don’t feel like moving, singing, praying, listening, being around other people.” This may be understandable, but it is not advisable. When we stay away from church we feed our depression, not our faith. We stay away from that which Jesus described as “the one thing needed” and what Paul described as “the power of God for salvation.”
If, then, you feel hopeless, worthless, purposeless, and unloved, leave your juniper tree and go to church. And if you can’t leave the juniper tree, bring it with you. If you want the strength to complete the journey, feed on the food God has prepared, as Elijah did—with this promise of Jesus, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Third and finally, when sitting hopelessly beneath your own juniper tree, remember that God is in fact working in your life, your world, and your church. Let’s return briefly to Elijah’s premise, “Lord, I did my part; You did not do Yours.” Or in Elijah’s own words, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, broken down Your altars, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10,14).
What was wrong with Elijah’s assessment? Part of it was simply not true. Elijah was not the only prophet of God remaining in Israel. In fact, according to 1 Kings 18, Obadiah, a “devout believer in the LORD” and in charge of King Ahab’s palace, had informed Elijah that he had personally hidden one hundred prophets of God in caves. Elijah knew this, though in his distress perhaps he viewed himself as the only one in the world experiencing this particular dilemma—as we often do.
But Elijah was also wrong about something else. “The Israelites,” he said, “have rejected Your covenant.” That’s a pretty blanket statement. It may have appeared so to Elijah, yet, as always, appearances can be deceiving. Unknown to Elijah, even when everything and everyone seemed out of control, God was quietly working with that “still, small voice of the Gospel,” still accomplishing His great purposes.
And so God told a surprised Elijah, “Yet, I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). In other words, there is never a time when we have a valid reason for sitting beneath a juniper tree, thinking, “sharing God’s Word is not worth the effort.” It is worth the effort because God is always working through that Word, always building His Church, always in control of the world, always accomplishing His purposes.
So, take the double-edged sword of Scripture and chop down that juniper tree. And beginning today, confidently undertake the life and ministry to which God has called you.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.