The God who understands us

Commemoration Service, St Michael’s, July 4th @ 6.30pm

Reading – 1 Kings 19:1-14

“I’ve had enough” “I can’t take any more” “It’s the last straw”. Have you, I wonder, ever said any of these things? Maybe you’ve been trying to do several jobs at once and your boss comes along, expecting you to do yet another assignment. Maybe you’ve been dealing with a fractious child all day long and something he does finally pushes you over the edge. Or maybe you’ve said this kind of thing as you have dealt with your loss over the past few months, and something has happened which has just become all too much to bear.

Well, if you can identify at all with this sentiment, isn’t it good to know that we find in the pages of Scripture someone who feels exactly the same way? So often folk think of the Bible as an old, dusty and irrelevant book that has very little say to the lives of real people in the real world, but when you stop and read it – at least in a modern translation – nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible is full of men and women who display the full range of emotions that we ourselves experience, who struggle with the big questions of life, who are in fact far from the plaster-cast saints we sometimes imagine them to be. And the reason why I’ve chosen this passage this evening is that it is about a person just like us who reached a point where he sat down in total, abject despair and said, “I’ve enough. It’s the last straw. I can’t take any more”.

And what was the name of that person? It was Elijah, someone who for many years had been a kind of spiritual super-hero leading the people of Israel back to the Lord, fearlessly and boldly confronting false worship, decisively dealing with the prophets who spoke lies in the name of foreign gods. Yet even Elijah, great and famous as he was, reached a point of all-time low ebb. And surely this story is a salutary reminder that no matter how strong we try to be or how hard we try to hide our weaknesses there comes a time when all of us have to be real and admit our need.

Because actually it’s OK to do that before God. God would rather that we came before Him with the fullness of our hearts than adopt a religious pretence and offer Him false and insincere praise. After all, He made us and He knows far better than we know ourselves. And as our Heavenly Father He longs that we come before Him just as we are, even and especially when like Elijah we are weak and vulnerable and hurting. For when we are real with God, it’s then He can be real with us, and deal effectively with whatever it may be that ails us.

So how then does the Lord deal with Elijah in our story?

First of all, the Lord provides. Grief and despair are curiously tiring emotions, and not so it’s not surprising that after his heartfelt prayer Elijah falls fast asleep under the tree where he has taken refuge. Elijah is exhausted – physically, mentally, spiritually. And so desperate is he for rest, he has left all his provisions behind with his no doubt anxious servant back in a place called Beersheba. Because at this lowest point Elijah cannot in fact see a future. No doubt when he looked back later on these events, he would have realised just how foolish it was to go into the desert without food and water. But at the point where there is no hope, there is very little else which seems to matter. Elijah here simply wants to sleep, to rest and not to wake. He is in that emotional danger-state we now call burn-out, and his capacity for rational action is gone.

So what is the Lord’s response? I love those words we read just now. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” What a wonderful, gracious response to Elijah’s words! So often people think of God as a severe, unforgiving kind of god who punishes our weakness, and deals harshly with our weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth. The angel doesn’t strike Elijah, or shout at him. He touches him, with a gentle, reassuring touch of compassion and understanding. And, just as importantly, he also makes sure Elijah has something to eat and drink. Because God, you see, is interested in and concerned about the nitty-gritty, practical side of everyday life. And He knows that if Elijah is going to journey out of the slough of despondency he now finds himself in, the first step is to have a proper meal.

But Elijah clearly needs some encouragement do so. So tired is he at this point that after a few mouthfuls he lies down again to sleep. Yet the angel does not give up. Again there is the gentle touch, again there is the loving word. And at this point the secondary purpose of the angel’s mission becomes clear. Elijah is quite literally in a bad place. He cannot stay where he is if he is going to survive – he needs to move on.

So where is Elijah to go to next? Well, this mountain called Horeb to which Elijah travels occupies a very special place within the life of ancient Israel. We better know it as Mount Sinai, as the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was the place where God had already provided for His people with words of grace and mercy, and Elijah knew it was a place of safety and refuge where he too could go. If nothing else, on a very practical level, there was a cave where he could safely shelter, a far more suitable and secure place than a broom tree in the desert. But there was far more to the mountain than that. It was also a place where he could do business with God, which would be an essential next step if he was to be healed and restored to fullness of life.

I wonder, is there a place where you can go when the going gets tough? Over the years I have had the privilege of visiting a retreat house near Oxford and at times it has in the fullest sense of the word been a real God-send. A place to stop, to draw aside from the cares of the world, to think, to pray, to meet with God. I believe all of us need places like that.

God provides for Elijah food and water, and He takes him to a special place of refuge and safety. You might well wonder, then, why He then asks him the question, What are you doing here, Elijah? After all, it’s hardly as if He is unaware of the prophet’s movements, as if what Elijah is about will surprise in any kind of way. But then this question leads on to the second great lesson of the story, namely that we have a Lord who listens.

Questions, you see, are often more than simple requests for information. They give the person who is being questioned time and space to express their real emotions, to show what’s going on inside. Maybe – to give a completely fatuous example – that’s why whenever there’s a major tragedy the first thing a reporter asks a victim is, “How do you feel?” Of course, it’s completely the wrong thing to ask, and we already know what the answer will be, but at least the question gives us insight into what it’s really like being caught up in those events. Here the question is by contrast far more sensitive, far more loving. It is designed so that Elijah can do some real business with the Lord and come to terms with all the hurt and pain He is feeling inside.

Because God actually really wants to hear all that stuff. In my experience as a minister I find so often people aren’t able to overcome a particular situation or address an important issue because they simply find it hard to admit what’s going on inside, or even cannot find the words to do so. They are not helped by the common perception that prayer somehow has to be formal, or dressed up in the right kind of language to make it acceptable to God. In the point of fact the Bible elsewhere tells us that even an inward groan can be heard and acted on by God. In the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it wasn’t the long, eloquent prayer of the Pharisee God listened to. It was the heartfelt cry of the tax collector God, have mercy on me a sinner (Luke 18:13). And maybe if you haven’t thought of prayers in those terms, if you haven’t realised God wants to listen to your heartfelt cries, maybe tonight would be a good opportunity to start to learn to pray as God really wants you to pray.

Of course, you might well ask, how do I know that He really is there to listen? This leads on to the third and possibly most important part of the story, that we have a God who reveals Himself. The Lord said (to Elijah), “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” I wonder what Elijah expected when he heard those words? Maybe the following events were designed once more to reveal to Elijah what God is really like. I think so many people have this view of God behaving like a pagan Greek god throwing thunderbolts and sending all kinds of disasters, and indeed we should never doubt that as the God of all power and might and majesty He certainly has the right to act in this way. But the supreme lesson of this story is that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. Because God’s preferred way of dealing with us is by a gentle whisper, by personal communication direct to our heart. For God not only made us, but He loves us, and His greatest longing is that we come into a direct relationship with Him of love and trust and peace. For ultimately it is at those times when we say, “I’ve had enough” “I can’t take any more” “It’s the last straw” that God wants to draw closest to us and sustain us with the knowledge of His love.

But in saying all this I realise that none of us will probably have the experience that Elijah had, of angels bringing food and water, of spending the night on a holy mountain, of seeing all kinds of natural phenomena happening before our eyes. So how does this story really translate to us today? Well, the good news of the New Testament is that God has revealed Himself not simply in a special place to only a few persons or a particular group of people, but through a special person who can be known who all believe and trust in Him. Not only that, but we can know what this person is like because He has provided for His living words to be contained in this book we know call the Bible. And because this person is alive and with us By His Spirit we know that He is able and willing to listen and hear our deepest prayers. That, in essence, and very briefly is the good news of Jesus Christ.

And so quite simply Jesus’ message to us, gathered here for this service of commemoration, is Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Not the sort of rest Elijah craved in the desert, but the peaceful rest of being surrounded by Jesus’ presence and love. Jesus, you see, can handle whatever may be wearing you down and burdening you. In Jesus there is relief for troubled hearts and broken spirits. There is hope for the desperate and the lonely. There is peace for those who have no peace. All that He asks of us is that like Elijah we come, honestly and openly, and respond to Him in faith and trust and love. Because in the end that is all we can do. And the wonderful message of Jesus is that is enough. Enough for you, for me, for all those broken souls around us to receive grace and mercy and new life. And so my prayer for each and every one of you tonight is that quite simply you heed his call to come.

Let us pray…

Rev Tim

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