Despair and the believer: report on Jamie’s sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-18

Jamie

A great sermon on Sunday morning about the subject of ‘dealing with despair,’ based on the experiences of the prophet Elijah described in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

The big picture

This passage was the one assigned for today in the Narrative Lectionary, which we use at Hilton. Jonathan gave a brief overview of the material we’ve been looking at over the last few Sundays, and detected a theme in these passages – God’s work, and people either listening, or not listening to God.

Here’s Jamie’s summary of these previous passages:

Creation/Sabbath – God’s work
Abraham – Listening to God
Jacob and Esau – God’s work
Moses – Listening to God
Provision in the desert – God’s work
Samuel and Eli – Listening to God
Anointing David  – (Samuel) Listening to God
Solomon building the Temple – Not listening to God
Elijah’s despair – todays story – Listening to God

Elijah longs to see Israel restored and transformed, but if such restoration and transformation is to take please, there must be a listening to God.

The immediate context

We tend to think about the positive aspects of Solomon’s life – the king who sought wisdom, but in fact Solomon was an ambiguous character.

The warning signs were there in the passages about the building of the temple which we looked at last week. Solomon virtually enslaved work-gangs of Jewish people to labour on the project; he accumulated weapons and personal wealth; he married many wives, each marriage representing a treaty with the foreign power from which the woman came; he spent longer building his palace than he did God’s Temple.   In short, he contravened the instructions given to kings of Israel in Deuteronomy 17:14-29

Ultimately, Solomon’s carelessness over these issues led to religious idolatry (as Solomon was influenced by the beliefs of his wives), social injustice and spiritual decay.  It was into this situation that the prophet Elijah brought his challenge, seeking to draw Israel back to God.

The main theme

Despair and the believer (1 Kings 19:1-8)

Some commentators, Jamie see in Elijah’s reaction a great failure of faith, but that arises Jamie feels from over-reading the text, where Elijah’s despair is described not as a failure, but as a fact. Elijah was where he was, and God met him there, and dealt with the situation

ElijahElijah’s despair

The triumph Elijah experienced, as described in chapter 18, was followed by the despair of chapter 19.  Jamie described 19:4 as ‘an emblem of human frailty’ – ‘I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.’  We see similar despair in the book of Job, and in many of the Psalms.

And Jamie pointed out that for Elijah as for us the mental threat of anguish and despair is often worse than the physical threats we face. The psychological issues Elijah faced were worse than the physical confrontation in the previous chapter. This is very human – the way we view the world will affect our reaction to events.

The message for us is that anguish and spiritual malaise can hit anyone of us, regardless of how weak or strong we feel ourselves to be.

But the good news is that, though despair may hit us, as it hit Elijah, God is in control. We will all, at some time experience darkness. And further good news is that Elijah’s weakness did not make him useless to God. God had things God wanted to do with Elijah in and through his weakness.

Jamie quoted August Konkel who wrote:

The despair of Elijah demonstrates the frailty of human strength and the power of God that is liberated within human weakness.

God’s power is seen in weak people!

How did God deal with Elijah in this situation?

God’s response to Elijah’s despair

God proved for Elijah:

Rest (sleep – verses 5, 6)
Protection (an angel, the agent of divine protection – verses 5, 7)
Provision (food – verses 5-6, 7)
Purpose (experience on Horeb/Sinai verse 8)

These are four key elements in restoration from despair. God doesn’t immediately give Elijah a sense of God’s presence, or of assurance – God simply ensures that the prophet’s tortured mind, nerves, and muscles have time to heal.

MaslowJamie mentioned Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, a psychological description of the fact that only when basic, immediate needs are met can we move on to satisfy more fundamental needs. If we are in in despair, we need to ensure that our needs in practical matters such as rest, shelter and provision are addressed.

The fourth need is crucial – if we are to move on from despair and darkness we need purpose in our lives. Jamie described Victor Frankl’s observations about survival in a WW2 concentration camp. Some of those who were interned decided in the autumn of 1944 that the war would surely be over by Christmas, and that they could and would survive to them.  But Christmas passed; the camp was not liberated; and many of those who were so determined to live to Christmas lost their sense of purpose and passed away. (See Frankl, Man’s search for meaning.)

We need a sense of purpose. This may be a sense of our place and role in the great story of God’s unfolding plan, but our purpose need not arise from some big vision.

FranklJamie suggested we ask ‘What can I do today that no-one else can do as well as I can?’ Every day, each one of us have opportunities to do things that we are uniquely positioned and gifted to do. We should seek these things, and do them to the best of our ability and to the glory of God, seeking to take God with is into all we do.

Elijah’s experience has massive implications for us as we reflect on how we care for one another when those close to us are in darkness, in despair.

Meeting God in the mundane (1 Kings 19:9-18)

Back to the mountain

God took Elijah back to the mountain called variously Sinai, or Horeb. This was deeply symbolic – for that was where God had spoken, given the 10 commandments and the design for the tabernacle to Moses. God has spoken – and God does speak.

In times of darkness and despair, we benefit hugely if we go back to basics, reminding ourselves that God loves as, and will communicate with us.

As he neared the mountain, Elijah would also have remembered that there, while Moses was up on the mountain hearing from God, the Jews in the foothills had built an idol, a Golden Calf, a substitute God. But God had responded with patience and abundant love, a reminder to Elijah that God would not give up on God’s people.

God speaks differently

In the case of Moses, Jamie said, God had self-revealed on the summit of Sinai in a terrifying display of fire, storm and earthquake. This time, God speaks to Elijah in a ‘thin silence’ (as the words literally translate)  And often God speaks to us through the word of God in ‘thin silence.’

Often we look for the spectacular – the big, clear, unmistakable message, but God often speaks in mundane, everyday ways, when we still our hearts in silenced.

God allows Elijah to voice his despair

‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ God asked (v9, v13) Why did an all-knowing God ask that question? God was, surely, simply giving Elijah the opportunity to speak, to voice his despair.

We all need to be listened to, to be heard, especially in our times of despair.

Elijah hears God’s plan and purpose

God has a unique task for Elijah to undertake (verses 15-18) Similarly, Jamie said, God has plans for us all. Our challenge is to seek, and to be open to, that plan, that purpose.

The dangers of isolation (1 Kings 9:3-14, 18)

We need to seek the solitude, the ‘thin silence’ in which we hear God speak. But there is a difference between solitude and isolation. Part of Elijah’s problem was that he thought that he was the only person left who was faithful to God (v10) – he felt isolated.

Jamie showed us the results of some browser searches:

Isolation and despair – 13,700,000 hits
Isolation and depression – 112,000,000
Isolation and mental health – 68,200,000

The damaging effects of isolation, both on a social and spiritual level, are well-documented.

We all have busy lives. The crucial question is ‘do we have enough time for one another?’

Jamie encouraged us by quoting Hebrews 10:23-25:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds,  not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Fellowship is key to spiritual health, key to coping with hard times.

Conclusions

None of us is isolated from despair.
Don’t forget the importance of the practical (rest, food, company)
Seek your unique purpose – there is something I can do which no-one else on earth is equipped to do
Bring all your frailty and weakness honestly to God through God’s Son, just as God listened to Elijah’

Jesus knew despair, crying out in anguish ‘My God, my God, Why?’ (Mark 15:34)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,  by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,  and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.  (Hebrews 10:19-22)

Jesus Christ has gone before us. He knows what it’s like. He takes our prayers and presents them before our father in heaven.

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