Sunday, March 23, 2014

Elijah: Forty Days of Pilgrimage

(A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:1-9 & John 6:47-58 for Sunday, March 23, 2014)

[Third in a Lenten series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days"]

Elijah the prophet had just won a great victory for the Lord over the prophets of Baal and Asherah; in the contest on Mt. Carmel, God had, in response to Elijah’s simple request, rained down fire from heaven while the Canaanite God Baal, in response to the fervent entreaties of his prophets, had done nothing. In a contest of God and Elijah against 850 false prophets, it had been no contest: the 850 didn’t stand a chance against those two.

But when Jezebel, the Baal-worshiping queen of Israel, sent word to Elijah that she would have him killed by high noon the next day, he high-tailed it out of town as quickly as he could. He fled to Beer-sheba, which would be like one of us fleeing to Key West—it was about as far as he could go and still be in the country. And then he went a little farther.

Exhausted and depressed, Elijah sat down under a broom tree in the middle of the wilderness and asked God to take his life. He fell asleep and was awakened by an angel; by God’s grace there was food and water for him, so he ate, drank, and went back to sleep. The angel awakened him again, this time telling him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So he ate, and then “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God,” which was where God had established the covenant with Israel through Moses.

Elijah’s walk with God to that point had been challenging, exhilarating, and dangerous, as all walks with God are; now he had a long way to go to get to the place where God needed him to be and where he needed to be. He needed nourishment that would power his journey and he got it from food that was specially provided for him by God. Actually, though, the strength came from God himself; God worked through the food to give Elijah what he needed for his forty-day pilgrimage through the wilderness.

We marvel at Elijah going forty days in the strength gained from one meal; we also marvel at Jesus feeding 5000 people with what amounted to a $4.99 fish dinner from Captain D’s and having twelve baskets full of leftovers. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 got people’s attention (naturally) which led them to pursue him all the way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When they found him, Jesus instigated a discussion with them about bread from heaven. He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27) and “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35) and “I am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

Jesus then went on to say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-55).

This sounds very much like Lord’s Supper language, doesn’t it? Carlo Carretto, writing about Elijah’s meal and subsequent long journey, said, “This food given to Elijah on the edge of the desert may be seen as the symbol of a food which is to nourish man: The Blessed Sacrament” (The God Who Comes, p. 36). When we eat the Lord’s Supper today, let’s let it remind us that we are fed by God what we need for eternal life. But with what does God feed us? As Carretto also said, “This bread from heaven is God himself” (p. 34). Partaking of the Lord’s Supper reminds us that the nourishment that gives us real life is God himself.

Now, what does it mean to “eat the flesh” and to “drink the blood” of Jesus? What does it mean to consume the life of God? It’s not Christmastime but perhaps you will forgive me an illustration drawn from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As you will recall, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), has had a terrible day that plunges him into great despair which leads him into conflict with his own wife and children and finally to ponder the possibility of suicide. The angel Clarence, upon hearing George say that he wishes he’d never been born, lets him see what the world would have been like without him. When the vision is over and George goes home, he bounds to the top of the stairs where his children await him and he covers them with kisses saying, “I could eat you up!”

This is personal and intimate relationship language. To say that we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ means that we join our life to his life; it is to say that we enter into the closest and most intimate relationship we can imagine.

We have a long way to go. How long? Well, our journey goes all the way through this life and then, in the resurrection, into the life beyond.

For such a journey, only the nourishment offered by God will suffice …

“O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

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