Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 8 August 2021.
• First Reading: 1 Kings 19: 4-8 (Elijah’s despair: ‘Take my life’. ‘Get up and eat’)
• Psalm 34: 1-8
• Epistle: Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2 (Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths)
• Gospel: John 6: 35, 41-51 (I am the bread of life. Whoever eats this bread will live forever)
When preparing my sermons, I look for a connection between the three lessons for the day and I generally find that there is something there to help me.
Today, I could find nothing to make a direct connection except the very humanity of the central characters.
In the Old Testament, we find that the greatest hero of the prophets was having a nervous breakdown, and after that incredible climax of Mount Carmel where he had confronted and overcome the prophets of Baal, and after his victory resulting in the slaying of them all, Elijah had then taken to his heels and fled.
He had run from Carmel, overlooking the modern port of Haifa, to Beersheba in the south, getting on for 100 miles. And then he collapsed – and all the fight had gone out of him. The adrenalin had run out and Elijah was bereft.
Now all he saw was a dark despair of futility, and later on in the chapter, the dam would break and all his misery and dereliction would pour out before God. Everything now seemed so bleak that even life was a burden which he no longer wished to carry and here was the greatest prophet of Israel wanting to let it all go.
Even the greatest of the servants of the Lord was still human and had those places where weakness would seep in, and in this passage we see Elijah utterly defeated.
It probably does not happen now but there was a time – in the living memory of the older members of the congregation, when the response to such a pit of despair would be something on the lines of:
“Stop whining and feeling sorry for yourself. Pull yourself together and snap out of it.” Not exactly an illustration of any kind of duty of care but rather the response of those who had been through WW2 and thought that compared with bombs and bullets, a slight touch of melancholia was nothing.
But God met Elijah in the midst of his misery, and did two things, while avoiding a third. First, He let Elijah rest and allowed his body to regenerate itself in sleep. Second, He gave him food and water. Simple provisions to give him the heart and strength to continue his journey to the appointed place. Third: He kept quiet and said nothing. There would be a time and a place for speaking but this was not it.
And so the Lord God almighty met Elijah in the deepest abjection of his heart, and in the fulness of his humanity and started the process of healing.
In the Epistle, Paul deals with the issues of everyday life in the church. Nothing grand or imposing, just simple advice on godly living. Speak the truth, but do it lovingly and thoughtfully. Do not dwell on any anger, and certainly do not let it define who you are. Keep your minds and your mouths clean.
Live with kindness and compassion for one another, forgiveness, and live a life of love.
Jesus never said anything about liking your neighbour or liking one another. The command is to love, and that means to will the best for the other person, regardless of your own feelings or cost to yourself.
This is simple, homely advice. Yet it is bought dearly in the blood of Jesus Christ who has the power to strip anger and bitterness and resentment of their power over a person who is just trying to get on with life.
After the heights of Paul’s prayer in last week’s lesson, this is very basic but still necessary.
And then there is Jesus. The people had been fed but were resisting His explanation of what was going on. The bread and the fishes were one thing but this religious bit was too much.
Now Jesus was getting into theology and was condensing the whole of the created order into bread and fishes.
Now He was pointing to Himself very directly, and was talking about the heavy stuff – things like personal faith and eternal life.
For those who were happy enough with an institutional religion where the borders were clear and where there were limits to its scope, this was demanding and upsetting.
How was it that the village carpenter was demanding an unlimited personal faith and commitment? How was He speaking of Himself and of God in the same breath, and as if there were no real distinction? How dare He use the terms of God – I AM – which were blasphemous in the mouth of any one but God?
There are plenty today who would like a religion that promises heaven but does not demand too much. A weekly church service and a contribution to church finances, fine. But to demand a personal faith and commitment that overrides all else?
But Jesus was saying far more than that, for He was placing Himself where none other could or would. He was placing His life, His breath, His body and His blood on the cross, long before the actual event.
To ask the people for faith in Him was to ask them to let Him meet them in the deepest needs and questions of their lives. He would never barge into a person’s life: He would only come in by invitation.
If invited in, He was not going to spend His time in the porch, or even the entrance hall. He would need to be there in all aspects, in all corners especially those which were the most difficult.
To receive Jesus was to become the honoured guest at His banquet, where only the best would be provided. But equally, to receive Him was also to let Him into the deepest places of anger and rejection, the memories of being humiliated and exposed, the places of shame and profound embarrassment.
To receive Him was far more than an intellectual assent to a set of propositions: it is to receive the breath of His life and the bread of His banquet.
But then this is where the business of eternal life becomes personal and intimate, and this is why He gave Himself so totally for each of us and for all of us. So let us indeed join the feast.