A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 12, 2012.
1 Kings 19:4-8; Matthew 11:25-30
The preacher is never better than his last sermon. Forget the years and years of week-in, week-out study of the biblical texts, and the delivery of sermons that follow those hours of preparation. If the preacher laid an egg the previous Sunday, all the sermons in all the world don’t matter. The preacher has failed.
Or, at least, that’s the way the preacher feels. Maybe some of his parishioners feel that way too.
The pastor is never better than his last hospital visit. If someone manages to get into the hospital, and then out of the hospital, before the pastor comes by for a visit and a prayer, the pastor has failed. Forget all the previous hospital visits, some even in the middle of the night when an emergency arises. Forget all the times when he or she has held the hand of those who needed the kind of companionship the pastor represents. If the pastor fails to get by this last time, the pastor has failed.
Or, at least, that’s the way the pastor feels. Maybe that parishioner who had been in the hospital feels that way too.
You name it... whatever task the pastor faces, and does not respond favorably in the eyes of someone in the congregation, the pastor has failed. And no one feels that way more than the pastor himself.
Or maybe it’s just the way something is said that is taken the wrong way by the one who hears it. It may be this, it may be that. There are all manner of things the pastor can do or fail to do. And when it isn’t done to satisfaction, the pastor has failed. That has certainly happened to me, in every church I have led.
In one of my previous churches, for the last couple of years or so I was there, one of my deacons just gave me the hardest time. He never had a kind word to say to me or about me. He especially loved to pick on me during the church’s business meetings. On more than one occasion I overheard other church members go by him, call him by his name, and then say, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, the way you treat the pastor.” He never told me what it was that caused such a feeling on his part... until after I resigned.
My last Wednesday with the church was, appropriately, a business meeting. When it was concluded, I asked him a final time what it was that irritated him so about me, and he finally told me. I had seen him, he said, at the airport and walked by him without speaking.
Two years! Two years of grief and putting up with his hateful attitude all because he thought I had snubbed him. Two years! Of course I had not seen him at the airport. He just thought I did. I would never have spotted him at the airport without speaking. It isn’t in my nature to do something like that. Two years! But in his eyes, I had failed. And because he felt that way, so did I.
The prophet Elijah had done some pretty miraculous and amazing things in his day. Through the grace of God, and in response to her hospitality, he had provided food and sustenance out of practically nothing for the widow at Zarephath. But that was a minor miracle indeed compared to what Elijah did to Jezebel’s priests of Baal. In a competition far outweighing anything we’ve seen in the London Olympic games, Elijah fires up the water-soaked altars of Mount Carmel and then destroys those who preach in the name of this false god.
What a triumph! Because of his great courage in the face of such idolatry, the Lord rewards the people with rain after three years of drought, a drought said to have been caused by God due to his irritation with the people of Israel who have gone up to worship at the altars of Baal. Elijah is the most famous celebrity in all the land, known as the “troubler of Israel” to his enemies. He is Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas and Usain Bolt all rolled into one...
Until Jezebel, his arch enemy, voices a deep-throated but quite serious threat. When she hears that all her priests of Baal have been slain at the hand of Elijah, she says, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
And that is all it takes for Elijah to pack up his tote bag and run for his life. Forget the feeding miracle at Zarephath, forget what happened at Mount Carmel when Elijah presided over the slaying of the priests of Baal and caused the destruction of the altars to this foreign god, forget the last sermon, the hospital visit. Elijah runs away like a scared child in the face of Queen Jezebel and her threats. Elijah, the great prophet of God, has failed.
He flees to the outpost of Beersheba and leaves his servant there. Then he goes a day’s journey alone from there. Exhausted, and still afraid, he makes one last request of the Lord, that he be able to die. You see, dying in your sleep under a broom tree out in the middle of nowhere is preferable to being drawn and quartered by that vicious Jezebel. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah is having something of a pity-party, isn’t he? He thinks he’s the only faithful person left in all of Israel. And since he’s seriously thinking about ending it all, then the Lord won’t have anybody else to do his bidding, and everything the Lord has done up to this point will end. It will be all over for Israel. The God of Israel, the one true God, will have no one else upon which to depend. Elijah thinks he’s backed God into a corner.
Fred Craddock says, when he lived in Columbia, Tennessee, the pastor of the largest church in town was his friend (it was probably the Baptist church). In many ways, Craddock says, his friend was a very successful minister, except that his church was full of problems. Whatever happened in that church, whatever anybody said or did, there was always a big problem. At least, that’s the way his pastor-friend always reported it to him.
Craddock saw him downtown one day. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“Terrible,” said his friend. “I’m thinking of quitting.”
“Aw, you’re not going to quit.”
“Well, why not?”
“Because you don’t want to quit.”
“You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to buy a little piece of land over in Arkansas (Craddock didn’t say his friend was dumb, after all!)... I’m going to buy a little piece of land over in Arkansas in a rice field, and I’m going to build my own church. There’s going to be a study where I can do my work, and the church will have a beautiful tall spire, and that will be it. No sanctuary, no Sunday school rooms, no fellowship hall, no members. Just me and God.”1
You can call it the Elijah syndrome. Every preacher, prophet or priest in the land suffers from it some time or another. It’s when you feel as if you’re the only faithful person left and everybody else is just picking on you. The Elijah syndrome.
If you had written the story of Elijah, how would you have scripted it? Would you have had an angel of the Lord appear to Elijah, out where he’s camping a day’s journey from Beersheba, and say to him, “Get up you panty-waisted coward! I still have work for you to do. You think I’m going to let you off that easily? Of course not. Man up, gird up your loins, show the same courage in the face of that evil woman that you showed at Mount Carmel”? Would have been like a football coach whose star runner has tweaked his ankle? Just tape him up and get him back in the game!? Is that how you would have written the story?
That’s not how the story goes, is it? No, instead, the angel of the Lord kindly and most benevolently feeds the prophet, gives him a cake that’s been baked on hot stones, along with a jar of water. Elijah has his meal, as far as he knows his last meal, and goes back to sleep, probably still wishing that when he awakes he will no longer be on this earth but in the presence of the Lord. But, when he wakes up from his sleep, he is still out in the middle of nowhere a day’s journey out of Beersheba, he is still under that broom tree, and he is hungry once again. So, the angel comes to him a second time, touches him on the shoulder, and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Journey, what journey? You’ll see, Elijah, you’ll see. So the prophet does what the angel of the Lord tells him to do. He eats, and in the strength of this food he journeys another forty days and forty nights, this time to Horeb, the mount of God, It is there that Elijah hears the voice of God, not in the strong wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still, small voice.
You don’t have to be a preacher or a prophet or a priest to feel like Elijah. My guess is you already knew that, but I thought I’d reinforce it for you anyway. Sometimes, we simply feel like, when it comes to such things, that we are all alone. There’s no one who understands how we feel, there’s not a soul who cares, and we begin to wonder if maybe even God has turned his back on us.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever thought of yourself as a failure? If so, may I offer a couple of things for your consideration, borne out of my own personal experience of failure?
One is that this is a perfect time to do just what the prophet did. Get away from it all for awhile. It may appear that Elijah ran away from Jezebel simply and strictly out of fear... and he may have. But it could also be that he knew how to read the signs of his life.
Do you know how to do that, read the signs of your life? Life has a rhythm to it, you see, and you can generally sense when it is time to change or redirect it. The pressure builds and builds until you simply have to release it, and very often the best way to do that is to get away.
When we travel, Janet and I have gotten to the point in our lives where we fly only when it is absolutely necessary. We don’t mind spending time in our car because it can serve as a decompression chamber. When we hit the road, it generally takes me a day or two to get the pressures of my work out of my system, and putting the rubber to the road helps me do that. You ever feel that way?
But you don’t have to jump in the car and take off to do the same thing. It is not always a geographical journey. Find time, and a place, to be alone with your thoughts and your prayers and simply be with God. It is amazing how clarity can come to your life when you do just that. Jesus did it all the time, and he encourages us to do the same.
Are you familiar with the Claritin commercials where they wipe the film off the screen to illustrate what happens when sinus and allergy sufferers use their product? You can do that when it comes to the pressures of life, and it doesn’t require a pill. It simply takes getting away from the daily grind.
Another way to overcome feelings of failure is to look at each day as a new beginning to the remainder of your spiritual journey. I am told that in the Lowcountry of South Carolina there is an old Gullah term for early morning: dayclean, they call it, as in, “Child, you’ve got to go to bed because dayclean’s coming.”
“The point is that every new day is ‘clean’ – a blank slate upon which the story of new mercies yet undiscovered might be written. If we are not preoccupied by the past or troubled by the future, we will see the day for the miraculous thing that it is – in the face of a child sitting at the breakfast table, or in the gift of work to do and the opportunity to do it well, or in friends who shoulder our pleasures and burdens with us and help make them meaningful. Nothing special – just ordinary gifts around us that enable us to get from today to tomorrow.”2
I think that’s at the heart of what Jesus said to the people who have come to him. Seeing their burdens, he offers them – not a formula for dealing with their troubles, not a word of advice – but himself. “Come to me,” he says to them, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It may just be the most-ignored passage in all of scripture. Instead, this is what we generally do when life becomes such a burden that we aren’t sure we can handle it any more, or we simply do not like what life has done with us... if we do not run away, like the prophet Elijah did, we plead with God, we bargain with God, we assure God that this time, without doubt, we’ve gotten the message. We’re going to slow down and stop acting like everything in the world depends on us.3 By the way, just in case you didn’t already know, that may just be in the number one sin of all preachers everywhere, thinking that everything depends on us.
But guess what... God doesn’t play that game. God isn’t in the business of bargaining. God is in the business of offering... food for the wilderness, wine for the journey. What we find, when we ask for what we think we want, is a grace that provides us what we really and truly need.
So the next time you wake up to a “dayclean,” there beside your head you will find warm bread and some fresh, clear water, courtesy of Christ Jesus. It is sustenance for the journey, because you still have a way to go. Why? Well, in the eyes of God, and in the grace that only God can provide us, there is no such thing as failure.
Lord, we ask for the sustenance we need, even and especially when we fail. By your divine grace, may our journey always find us in your presence. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 27.
2Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, September 6, 2011, p. 19.
3Idea borrowed from Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) p. 20.