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Good News for the Dark Side of Life

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 12, 2012.

1 Kings 19:1-15

19Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “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.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

John 6:35, 41-51

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came 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.”

We do not like to think about it or talk about it.  And we certainly don’t like to experience it.  But there is a “dark side” to life. 

There are factors and forces that act on us, in us, and around us that cause pain. 

People can be brutal, cruel, and dishonest.

We disappoint ourselves.  Sometimes even our best efforts fall short and we are left with the pain and emptiness that comes from having tried our best and failed.  On the other hand, sometimes we disappoint ourselves by not living up to the values we believe. 

We prefer to think that power is sought, gained, and used to advance loving and just purposes.  But there is a “dark side” to power-holding, power-seeking, and power-wielding.  Some people seek, hold, and wield power for purposes that are unloving and unjust.

This sermon is about the “dark side” realities of life that we don’t like to think about, talk about, and definitely don’t like to experience.

In 1 Kings 19 the prophet Elijah takes center stage.  Elijah was the prophet who denounced the idolatry and injustice of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel.  Elijah stood up for justice and truth when Jezebel had a man murdered so Ahab could take his property.  Elijah predicted a national drought that lasted for three years.  Elijah challenged the royal regime and its priests to a public test on Mount Carmel where God sent fire from the sky and convinced a wayward people they were following a governmentally-sponsored and religiously- inspired lie.  Afterwards, Elijah led the assembled multitude in killing Jezebel’s prophets.  Elijah prayed and God sent a heavy rain to end the drought.  Elijah was faithful, courageous, and prayerful. 

But in today’s lesson the darkness had overtaken and threatened to overwhelm Elijah.  After Jezebel learned of his powerful victory on Mount Carmel and the death of her prophets she swore to find Elijah and kill him. The man whose prayer led to the end of a three-year drought and whose God had been affirmed by the Israelites after the great victory over Jezebel’s prophets at Mount Carmel was now an enemy of the state, a criminal with a royal death warrant on his head, and a fugitive. 

Fearing Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah and his servant left Israel and went south into the kingdom of Judah.  Elijah left his servant in Beersheba and then traveled alone for a day into the wilderness.  There he stopped and prayed to die.

Elijah prayed to die.  He had stood against a corrupt and wicked empire.  He won a mighty victory for God against the empire and its priests at Mount Carmel.  But in a short time, Elijah went from victorious prophet to being a prophet under a royal death threat and with a personal death wish.

Faithfulness has a dark side.  No matter how painful it may be to accept, faithfulness does not always or even often result in popularity.  Elijah had shown fidelity to God. He had shown personal courage in the face of political power.  He had sacrificed much for a long time, only to find himself a wanted and hunted man. 

Faithfulness in the face of entrenched opposition is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining.  Elijah was worn out, depressed, and alone.  Those are “dark side” realities to faithful living.

Elijah also appears to have been overcome with a sense of defeat and despair.  Perhaps he wondered about the benefit in defeating and killing Jezebel’s idolatrous prophets.  Jezebel and Ahab remained in power.  Jezebel had put him at the top of her most wanted list.  His feat on Mount Carmel hadn’t put her out of business.  Instead, he was on the run.  That may have felt like defeat, not victory.

Faithfulness always demands our sacrificial efforts, and those efforts sometimes expose us to painful risks.  The weight of sacrificial efforts, the mental, moral, and spiritual strain from those efforts, and the physical drain and bruises we experience in those efforts take a toll on us. We become vulnerable to depression where we lose interest in life and the things that ordinarily inspire us.  We can lose hope.

This appears to be what happened to Elijah.  He was worn out, burned out, despised, condemned, hunted, alone, depressed, and thought he had failed.  Elijah didn’t consider himself a champion for God, despite all he had done, but a failure!  Feelings of depression, failure, worthlessness, and pain can be dark side realities for faithful people.

We cannot wish dark side realities away.  We can’t wish corrupt and wicked people away.  We can’t pretend they don’t influence what happens around us and to us. 

And the lesson from 1 Kings 19 shows that God doesn’t try to hide the fact and force of dark side realities from us.  People who pretend that life doesn’t have dark side realities are trying to fool themselves or others. 

But is there some good news?  Or do we, like Elijah, reach the point where we throw up our hands, find ourselves a corner, and pray for an end to it all?

God knows our situation and cares about us.  Whenever the darkness of life presses on us we’re tempted to believe, like Elijah, that we’re alone.  At verses 10 and 14 we read his words, I alone am left.  The dark side of life can leave us feeling alone and abandoned with our bills, our illness, our troubles, our struggle against oppression, power, and injustice, and simply alone and abandoned with our dark side realities.

But Elijah wasn’t alone.  He awakened from what he thought would be his final sleep to find an angel and food.  Angels are divine messengers to us.  Angels come to affirm us, call us, assure us, guide us, provide for us, and renew us.  Angels don’t come on their own notions, but come because God knows our situation and cares about us. 

  • Sometimes they are family members with a divine sense of our pain and God’s concern for us.   
  • Sometimes they are professional counselors and therapists who help us look past the darkness and minister to our wounded spirits, tired bodies, and feelings of defeat and unworthiness. 
  • Sometimes they show up with a covered dish, or a potted plant, or simply a listening ear and a friendly face. 

The point is that angels show up because God knows our “dark side” realities and cares about us. We matter to God.  Our struggles matter.  Our sense of worth matters.  Our sacrifices matter.  Angels show up because God is with us even as we wrestle on the dark side of life.  Angels show up because the darkness cannot hide us from God and cannot keep God from us.

Angels show up to be useful to God with us.  Elijah went to sleep tired, defeated, and ready to die.  He awakened twice to find free food prepared and a jar of water for new strength.  Angels enter into our darkness bringing strength from God for us, and abide with us in the darkness while we gain new strength to press onward.  All this happens by God’s grace, not because we earned it, nor because we will it. 

 

Have you had dark side moments or seasons when somehow strength came that you didn’t call?  Have you been alone and found yourself encouraged by an uninvited visitor?  Have you been inspired to enter into the darkness someone else may have experienced to comfort, encourage, and nurture them? 

These experiences are like the angelic visitation Elijah received in the wilderness.  They remind us we are not alone.   God is our refuge and strength.  God knows our plight and our place.  Angels find us because God sees us.  Angels help us because God loves us.  Angelic forces and people are good news for the dark side of life to remind us that God knows about our situation and cares for us.

God’s bread of life is stronger than our darkness. Let me shift our focus from a wilderness cave somewhere in Judah to the seaside village called Capernaum where Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  In that statement, Jesus declared himself to be for the world what the bread in that wilderness cave represented for Elijah.  Jesus is God-sent strength for life that is stronger than our darkness.

The big issue is not whether there is darkness but whether there is a force and source of strength in our lives that is stronger than our darkness.

  • When life presses in and bears down on us, is there a force stronger than darkness that can and will sustain us?
  • When shadows of guilt, grief, or sorrow cloud our lives is there a stronger source of joy and hope that can burn through our despair?
  • When the forces of oppression and injustice seem to control everything we see is there a greater power that strengthens us to rise up anyway, look up anyway, carry on anyway, and overcome anyway?

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus appears in John’s Gospel as God’s bread (food, strength, sustenance) for our living despite the darkness.   Despite every dark reality and the powers behind them, Jesus declares himself to be strength from God that will not be vanquished.  Jesus affirms himself to be God’s food for hope that will not leave us empty.  Jesus proclaims himself as God’s refreshing water of joy that the sorrows and wounds and worries of darkness cannot evaporate. 

That claim has inspired countless people across the ages.  Time after time they have faced dark realities, gone the extra mile, stood up again after having been knocked down, and refused to blink or bow in the face of oppression because they had a relationship with God that fed their spirits and renewed their faith despite the darkness. 

This is mystical talk, but that does not make it less real. 

In his 2007 book Living Faith:  How Faith Inspires Social Justice, Curtiss Paul DeYoung highlights the power of faith in the lives of people he calls “visionary activists.”  Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Mohandas Gandhi, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Allan Boesak, and Aung San Suu Kyi (a Buddhist woman whose leadership of the freedom movement in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in her receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 but which she was unable to accept until 2012 because she was under house arrest) prove that faith can strengthen us to endure anything and everything the darkness throws our way. 

  • The darkness is real, but the bread of life is more real.
  • The darkness is powerful, but it cannot overpower the bread of life.
  • The darkness is oppressive, but it cannot hold the bread of life hostage or captive.
  • The darkness is draining, but the bread of life renews our strength nevertheless.

In Jesus Christ, God has “super-sized” what Elijah experienced by showing up with food for the world, not just for one person.  In Jesus, God inserted God-self into our darkness, faced it with us, and has taken it on for us.  In Jesus Christ, God met our darkness in all the places it lurks and whipped it. 

In Jesus, God met our darkness at Gethsemane, before crooked religious people and politicians, and even before the tyranny of imperial power at Calvary.  And in Jesus, the bread of life, God has met and overcome the dark reality of death.  That is what we affirm and celebrate by his resurrection.  The dark realities of life can’t overwhelm people who are living in the strength of the Bread of Life. 

When the angel awakened Elijah and offered fresh bread and water Elijah had to decide whether to partake of it or keep laying around.  The same is true for our world and for each of us.  God has provided the Bread of Life to strengthen us to overcome our dark realities.  Each person must choose whether to accept its strength for life that is darkness and death-proof, or keep lying around. 

As followers of Jesus, you and I are messengers of this good news to people who face the dark side of life.   Pass the Bread! 

You and I are angels of this good news to one another and to our world.  Pass the Bread!

We are the current evidence that the Bread of Life still gives strength to press onward and overcome the darkness.  Pass the Bread!

Thank God for the Bread of Life and the strength we have in Jesus!  Amen.