“A Melancholy Moment"

1 Kings 19:9-18

 

Aug 13, 2017

 

 Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

 

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Down in the dumps. In the pits. Melancholy. Feeling blue. A little down. Downhearted.

            Those are all interchangeable terms for the word “depressed” and all apply to our prophet this morning. Of course, it’s one of the last things we would expect of someone of Elijah’s stature, being one of the two superstars of the Old Testament, the other being Moses.

            But then, the bible is pretty honest about it’s heroes. The biblical authors did not hesitate to tell the sordid truth about them. Abraham was a liar. Jacob was a thief. Moses had a murderous temper. King David was an adulterer. Peter engaged his mouth before his mind. Heroes of the faith, everyone of them, but the Bible refuses to gloss over their shortcomings. It shows them "warts and all." We find another "wart" in our lectionary reading for today. We see it on the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, a prophet named Elijah.

            Let me briefly summarize what led up to all this. To do so we need to go three years back in time. Three years earlier Elijah had announced a drought as punishment on the nation of Israel for its idolatry, specifically the worship of Baal which had been instigated by the wicked Queen Jezebel. At the end of those three drought-filled years, God arranged a contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal to determine once and for all just who was the “real” God of Israel and which God was a fake. Each would build an altar for their god and then a sacrifice would be made. The god who answered by fire, consuming the sacrifice, without using a fire accelerant or a match, would be the winner. All day long Elijah did a little trash talking as the prophets of Baal danced and prayed, sang and prayed, whined and prayed, all without result. Finally, at the end of the day, Elijah prayed a relatively short prayer and God answered! A big blaze ensued and the God of Elijah, and of course Israel, won the contest.

            The people then detained the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and put them to the sword. This got under Jezebel’s skin and she put a price on Elijah’s head. In her eyes he became public enemy number one. We would have thought Elijah would have sloughed it off. After all, he had won the contest, God was clearly on his side, but he didn’t. Instead, he snuck out of Dodge, headed into the wilderness, slipped into a blue funk, slumped under a tree and asked if he might die. Look at his exact words at the end of verse four …

 

            It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.

           

            Quite a request. Take my life. End it for me, and one might expect that the Lord would respond with something like, “There, there, boy. Chill out. It’s all right. You are doing a fine job. Don’t be so discouraged. It will all work out in the end.” We might expect that, but that’s not what comes. In fact, the Lord doesn’t say anything at all, just gives Elijah the silent treatment. God did, however, send an angel to him twice that night to minister to Elijah’s physical needs. The angel made sure Elijah had something to eat and drink. Then when the sun came up Elijah decided to put more space between himself and Jezebel. He walked for forty days and forty nights and came to Mount Horeb. When he arrived at the mount, he went into a cave to spend the night.

            So for forty days, and forty nights, God had not spoken a word to Elijah and Elijah’s spirits had not improved one bit. Then God finally spoke to Elijah in that cave. God asked him a question. God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

            It was a fair question. God had given him a victory over the 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah was God's person, God's champion, God's ambassador, yet, he was hiding in a cave. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God could have asked, "Why are you not at the palace confronting Jezebel?" Or, "Why are you not in the marketplace telling all the people about the great victory that I gave you?" Or, "Why are you not in the sanctuary offering up your praise?” Instead, God asked him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

            Are there days when you are depressed, discouraged, or disgusted with life? Are there days when you seem to put on a pair of negative glasses so that everything appears dark and gloomy?

            The National Institute of Mental Health cites depression as the number one mental health problem in the United States today. Furthermore, depression strikes the best and the strongest. Martin Luther suffered from severe bouts of depression, as did Abraham Lincoln and Michelangelo. Today Wayne “The Rock” Johnson and Terry Bradshaw and Harrison Ford and Lady Gaga battle it. And most of us were shocked to hear that depression took the life of the man who made us laugh all those years, Robin Williams.

            And here we have Elijah, the Old Testament superstar, and at this point God faces a challenge. How can God lift Elijah’s spirit? God may have that problem with us from time to time as well. Can God lift us from our blahs? If so, how might God do it? Well, here’s how he did it with Elijah. It may or not work with us.

            First, God asks Elijah to analyze his depression. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In other words, “Why have you run away from your work and your people? What are you doing in this barren place?”

            The first step out of our depression is to understand what has us singing the blues. It took me years to figure that out. It took me the first half of my ministry to figure out why some nights I would go to bed and hoped not to wake up in the morning. What was wrong with me? Why was I in such a barren place? Finally, through the help of a pastoral colleague, an associate pastor of mine, named Bruce, I began to put it together. For me, it was a chemical imbalance. Many people have it, and thankfully, for me for the past twenty years, it has been managed. Sure, I still have some blue days, but I know it won’t last forever. As I often say to Trudy now, “I don’t know why I’m down today, but I will be better tomorrow.” And I am.

            I know that is not the case with everyone. Some folk have a more severe chemical imbalance and they have tried all sorts of drugs and therapy, to no avail. I have two people in my life, like that, and I pray for them regularly.

            Did Elijah have a chemical imbalance? Maybe, but I doubt it. John Brokhoff, a pastor, believes Elijah’s depression and discouragement were caused by expecting too much of himself. Brokhoff says that after disposing of the prophets of Baal, that Elijah thought, once and for all time the people of Israel would know there was only one God and would worship and serve this God only. His dream was to cleanse the country of idolatry, but that didn’t happen … Jezebel was still in place … and in his own eyes he had failed! In his own eyes he saw himself as no better than his ancestors.

            Maybe that’s what caused his depression … too high expectations, but who knows? But we do know that the first thing God asked Elijah to do was to ponder why he was depressed. What triggered it?

            Second, God asked Elijah to talk about it. “What are you doing here, Elijah? Tell me about it,” and Elijah opens up and spills the beans. He tells God things are terrible. For one thing, Elijah tells God all we did on Mt Carmel did not put a dent in idol worship. Our people continue to worship idols breaking the first and second commandments. For another, these people so hate You that they have killed your prophets. Finally, he says, “I’m the only one left on your side, and Queen Jezebel has taken a contract out on my life!”

            Like Elijah, sometimes we have days like that. A young boy came to the study of his pastor and said, "You know, I’m having a bad day. I was late for school, and then when I got there, I forgot my homework. For that I got a zero. Then I got into a fight with a boy at school and had to stay in during recess. When I got home, my Mom was so mad at me for not cleaning my room, that she spanked me. Then she got a call from Dad who must have said something terrible, for she put me in a chair and told me to stay there. Later, we started to church and had a wreck. When we got to church for choir practice, it was the wrong night for choir." The pastor looked at the boy and asked, "Son, where is your mother now?" "Mother’s in the chapel," he explained. "She is praying and crying.”

            Sometimes we have days like that and it’s natural to feel a little discouraged and depressed. Sometimes, though, it’s not our actions or the people in our lives that get us down. Instead, it’s the crazy world in which we live.

            A shipwrecked sailor was alone on a deserted island for several years. To his great relief, he spied a ship on the horizon. He built a great bonfire to catch the crew's attention. Soon the ship was dropping anchor off the little island and a small rescue boat was lowered into the water. One solitary crewman was in the rescue boat. He was carrying an armful of newspapers. "Read these," he said to the sailor, "and decide whether you want to be rescued.”

            What ever has us down, other people, our own expectations, low reserves, the world in which we live, a chemical imbalance, it’s important to talk to someone about it.

             Third, he told Elijah to get busy. God put Elijah to work. He gave him something to do. God ordered him to leave Mt. Horeb, and go on an important mission. He was to anoint a couple of kings who will fight on God’s and Elijah’s side, and he was anoint and train a prophet who will eventually step into your shoes. Elijah, by the way, would spend many years grooming Elisha for the task ahead.

            The same works for us. When we are down in the dumps, we often are our worst enemy. We mull over the bad situation. We go over and over how we have failed or how bad and worthless we are. We cut ourselves off from other people. And the more we think, the worse it gets. The thing to do, however, is just the opposite. We need to do something.

             A pastor of Louisiana tells about a man who could really fish. Every time he went fishing, he came home with his boat filled with fish. People wondered what his secret was. One day a stranger asked him if he could go with him. They went out early in the morning and went to a lake behind some cypress trees with Spanish moss hanging down. The stranger noticed that the fisherman did not have a fishing pole, just a rusty old tackle box. When they arrived, the fisherman opened the box and took out a stick of dynamite, lit it, and tossed it into the water. An explosion followed and dead fish came to the surface. Then the man put them in the boat. The stranger reached into his hip pocket and showed his credentials as a game warden. Calmly the fisherman again opened his tackle box, got another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and handed it to the game warden. Then he asked, "Are you going to fish or are you just going to sit there?"

            God said to Elijah "Are you going to sit there mulling over your troubles or are you going to do what I tell you?"

            Let me close with this. There is a legend about a sparrow lying on its back in the middle of the road. A horseman dismounted and asked the sparrow what in the world it was doing lying in that position. The sparrow explained, "I heard that the heavens are going to fall today." "Oh," said the horseman, "And I suppose your puny little legs can hold up the heavens?" "One does what one can," answered the sparrow.

            "One does what one can." We may not keep the world from falling apart, but each of us can do something. Get busy. Amen.