The Depressed Prophet
Scriptures: I Kings 19:1-10, 11-18
I must admit that I still enjoy reruns of the Peanuts comic
strip. I had forgotten how theological it was. Like this one that appeared several years ago in the Sunday paper. [Slide 1: Linus with Prophet sign] The first panel alerts you to a theological message. In the next panel Linus heaves a big sigh. [Slide 2: Linus sighs] His sensitive, compassionate sister says to him, "Stop that stupid sighing." Linus says, "There's nothing wrong with sighing; It's scriptural." [Slide 3: Linus says scriptural] Lucy says, "It's what?" "It's scriptural," Linus says, then he proceeds to quote verbatim from Romans 8:26: [Slide 4: Quote] "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Lucy just looks at him, then in the last frame [Slide 5: Lucy] she says, "I don't know. I'm either going to have to slug him or start going back to Sunday School."
Linus could have been carrying a sign that said, "Elijah."
[Slide 6: Linus with Elijah sign] Elijah is depressed. He is also running for his life from Queen Jezebel who has vowed to kill him. But more than being afraid he is depressed. He says to God, "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." He depressed because he has spent years now as a prophet of the Lord, speaking God's word to people, and nothing has changed. [Slide 7: Blank]
I once saw a cartoon in which a pastor was standing in the
pulpit looking out over his congregation. He says, "This is my fourth sermon on the transforming power of the gospel. Why do you still look like the same old bunch?"
Elijah is discouraged. He's depressed. So he lies down
under a broom tree wishing to die and eventually falls asleep.
Then an angel shows up-a messenger from the Lord. The angel
doesn't slap Elijah on the side of the head and tell him to stop that stupid sighing. The angel doesn't tell him to quit feeling sorry for himself and get back to work. The angel brings a meal to him. Sometimes the best sermons are preached by the deacons or someone who just brings a meal. The angel brings him a meals and says, "Come on, Elijah, have something to eat." And Elijah does, then he goes back to sleep. He is still not recovered. But the angel lets him sleep and after a while comes back with another meal. Elijah eats the second meal, and then he is starting to feel better. After a second night's sleep and a second meal, he continues his journey for 40 days and 40 nights to a mountain called Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai.
At this point the story should remind you of someone we have
read about earlier in our 365 Bible stories. The reference to Mt. Horeb or Mt. Sinai, plus the reference to 40 days and 40 nights-these details are intended to remind us of Moses. There is in fact a striking parallel between the story of Elijah and the story of Moses [Slide 8: Moses and Elijah]
Flees for his life Exodus 2:15 I Kings 19:3
Wishes to die Numbers 11:15 I Kings 19:4
Ends up at Mt. Horeb (Sinai) Exodus 3:1 I Kings 19:8
Spends 40 days and 40 nights Exodus 24:18 I Kings 19:8
Given a vision of God Exodus 33:19-23 I Kings 19:11-13
Given a mission Exodus 3:10 I Kings 19:11-13
Almost every detail in this story of Elijah from I Kings 19 reminds us of Moses. Being anxious or depressed is not a sign of being a bad person. It's scriptural. [Slide 9: Linus with Prophet sigh] It happened to Moses. It happened to Elijah. It happened to Jonah and Jeremiah and many other prophets in the Bible. It happened even to Jesus. [Slide 10: Linus with Jesus sign] On the cross Jesus said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What is that if not a cry of discouragement and depression? In fact Jesus is quoting here from a psalm of David, who apparently felt the same way about his situation. Depression, discouragement, sighing-none of this is new to God's chosen people. [Slide 11: Blank]
By the way, this is another reason we are spending all this time reading the Old Testament this year. I know that for some of you these Old Testament stories have been a downer. Sometimes it feels like we are getting worn down by the Old Testament-all the violence and retaliation, the intrigues and subterfuge, the dysfunctional relationships in families and the injustices rampant in the very people who are supposed to bring God's blessing to the world. It is depressing. It's even depressing to me. It makes me anxious to get to the New Testament. I have heard some of you say the same thing. When will we get to the story of grace and hope and new life made possible by the coming of the Messiah?
Well, if you feel that way about reading the Old Testament this year, that is exactly how you are supposed to feel. Really. That is exactly how the people in the Old Testament felt. Why do you think they yearned for a Messiah? Why do you think they hoped and dreamed that one day God would send a Savior? Because they knew they needed one. We all need one.
The stories we are reading this year from the Old Testament are not just someone else's story; they are our story. The violence and retaliation, the intrigues and injustices, the dysfunctional relationships aggravated by a broken relationship with God-that's us. If the Old Testament seems depressing, it's because life is sometimes depressing. In the world we live in, sighing is normal, it's scriptural.
But it is not the end of the story. Notice how our scripture reading for today ends. God comes to Elijah, not in a great wind, not in an earthquake, not in a roaring fire, but in a quiet voice. The old King James calls it "a still small voice." The voice says, "Elijah, what are you doing here?"
When we are depressed, I think that is the first question God asks us: "What are you doing here?" Think about that question. Why are you here? Isn't it because the Creator of the entire universe wanted you here? Isn't it because the Creator of the entire universe put you here for a purpose that is still not finished?
That's what God tells Elijah. God says to Elijah, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus and do three things: [Slide 12: God's Mission for Elijah] 1) you shall anoint Hazael as king of Aram, 2) you shall anoint Jehu as king of Israel, and 3) you shall anoint Elisha as a prophet to take your place."
Interestingly, Elijah does not accomplish the first two. [Slide 13: Mission not accomplished] He never does anoint Hazael, and he never does anoint Jehu. But he does call Elisha as a prophet to take his place, and it is Elisha who eventually anoints Hazael and Jehu.
The most important thing Elijah did in his life-mentoring Elisha-happened after Elijah told God he wanted to die. Please don't miss that detail. The most important thing Elijah did in his life he did after he wanted to die. If you are depressed or discouraged, as Elijah was, consider this: that the most important thing you do in your life may still be ahead. [Slide 14: Blank]
One of my all-time favorite stories is of the father who came a little late to his son's Little League baseball game. When he got there, his son's team was behind 14-0. He said to his son, "Aren't you a little discouraged?" His son said, "Why should I be discouraged? We haven't gotten up yet."
That's God's answer to a depressed prophet or a depressed parent or a depressed Sunday School teacher or anyone else who gets depressed trying to serve God in this world. God still has another at bat, and the work that God still intends to do in this world includes you.