9 August 2015
New Haven, CT
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” In the opening lines of the Inferno Dante finds himself in an unknown place, unsure of how he got there or where he is going. As he wanders through the woods, he encounters the Roman poet Virgil who will be his guide into the hell’s depths. As they approach the gates, Dante looks up and reads the inscription: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
For most of us, I imagine, if it hasn’t already happened, we will lose hope along life’s journey. We are familiar with the mid-life crisis, as people enter middle age and begin to take stock of what they have done, and often what the have not done. The fear of having done nothing with our lives is paralyzing. The picture of a man trying to relive the glory days of youth by buying a sports car is stereotypical of the ways we try to fill the sense of ennui creeping into life.
Crisis is not limited to the mid-life. Many of us in our twenties and thirties are experiencing a “quarter life crisis.” Chronic unemployment or underemployment makes it difficult to feel like our lives are moving in a positive direction. Add to that the quickly changing expectations of the American workplace and that many young adults are not staying in their hometowns, it can feel like you are all alone in a great big world.
Then there are other crises that come up in the course of life: loss of a job, the end of a relationship, mental or physical illness, and so many more. There’s no way any of us get through life without some bruises.
In our reading from 1 Kings, Elijah is having a major crisis, which is striking since he has just come out of a major victory. Chapter 18 of 1 Kings is the famous confrontation at Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah challenged Baal’s prophets to show the power of their god, and they certainly tried. They danced around, chanted, and hurt themselves, but Baal never showed up. When it was Elijah’s turn, he set up the altar with the sacrifice and doused it with water. Then he prayed and immediately fire from heaven consumed everything. Elijah had the prophets of Baal killed, a move that infuriated Queen Jezebel who vowed to have him killed. With such a powerful enemy, Elijah had no choice but to flee.
Today we meet up with Elijah on the lam. He’s obviously shaken by the whole ordeal. He can’t seem to figure out why, after such a display of God’s power, he is on the run in the wilderness. Like many of us in our deepest moments of despair, he blames himself. He says, “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
This is the dirtiest trick of sin: we often don’t acknowledge our own, but we will take responsibility for sin inflicted upon us. This is unhealthy for all of us, and can be deadly for those of us who experience depression. Elijah’s desire to die is indicative of the loss of hope and sense of loneliness that accompanies depression.
Today we have the benefit of dedicated mental health care providers. None of us needs to be ashamed of where we are. If you are experiencing depression, there is hope. Asking for help is not always easy, but help is there.
There is hope in Christ. God did not abandon Elijah in the wilderness, but was there with him. In Elijah’s darkest moment, God sends an angel to provide for his needs. The angel says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” The food gave him strength for forty days and forty nights.
When we see the number forty in the Bible we can probably assume that there will be a difficult road ahead. Elijah’s sojourn in the wilderness is likely a parallel with Moses, who led the Hebrews through forty years in the wilderness. You may also remember that the floodwaters fell for forty days and forty nights, and that Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted. The wilderness is where God’s people often feel abandoned. But, the wilderness is also where God shows his faithfulness and provision.
Christ is our provision. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life. Whoever eats of me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Whatever wilderness you may be in today, Christ is there with you. Christ is with us in the bread and wine, his body and blood, the bread he gave “for the life of the world.”
Dante didn’t end his Divine Comedy with the Inferno. Dante travels through hell, goes up through the refining fires of purgatory, and finishes his journey in the heights of Paradise, where he writes: “My high imagination failed me, but already my desire and will were turned, like a wheel being moved evenly, by the Love that moves the sun and stars.” God was drawing Dante closer in, even when Dante was furthest away.
Our own life’s journey will turn and wind, this way and that. Sometimes we will lose our way, unsure of the path ahead. All hope may seem lost. For some of us the darkest or hardest days will be ahead. But we are not abandoned; we are not alone. God is drawing us close.
As the psalmist sings:
"I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me out of all my terror.
Look upon him and be radiant,
and let not your faces be ashamed."