Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.
Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s always a real task when you’re writing a sermon to try and search for the perfect story or the perfect joke or the perfect image that introduces and illustrates precisely what you would like to say. That way, when everyone goes away, they remember your point. The story lodges in their memory, rather than some incidental detail of the service (like a problem with the sound equipment). Preachers spend a lot of time on this. But as I was preparing for this week, our third of five weeks looking at the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6, as I pondered what I could say that would freshly address this wonderful passage of Scripture, I really couldn’t think of something — at least, I couldn’t think of anything better than the story we heard in our OT lesson. And so that’s where I’ll start.
In 1 Kings 19, we come upon Elijah in the middle of his ministry as a prophet, and in some ways he’s really made a success of himself. Think of his story. This is a prophet who began his public ministry by closing the heavens and bringing a drought through his fervent prayers, as an expression of the judgment of God against Israel’s wickedness. And then he ends the same drought through his prayers. This is a prophet who successfully faced down all the false prophets of Baal, and the idolatrous king of Israel, Ahab, not least by calling down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice. Along the way, he mocks the prophets of Baal with some well-crafted jokes and jibes.
Elijah’s God, the Lord, answers prayer. Baal does not. So, as Elijah says to the prophets of Baal, after they’ve prayed for many hours to no avail:
Cry aloud! Surely Baal is a god; perhaps he is daydreaming, or relieving himself; or he is on a journey; or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)
Cutting rhetoric, in less than 140 characters, by the way. One gets the sense that Elijah, were he alive today, would have a great Twitter following, daily laying down hot take after hot take.
Shortly after this episode of prayerful and satirical triumph, however, Elijah experienced a little setback. Everyone looked ready to return to the Lord, except for the queen, Jezebel. And it seems everyone was afraid of him but her. She responded to this episode by threatening to kill Elijah. So he wandered into the desert, and decided he was ready to die.
My point in recounting this little tale is how wonderfully it illustrates the instability of even the great heroes of Scripture. Our forebears in faith were human beings, and just like us, they were not self-sufficient. They were weak at times; they grew tired and discouraged. They threw little tantrums.
As the letter of James says, “Elijah was a man subject to passions like ours” (James 5:17).
This is a simple, metaphorical, and story-based way of saying something complicated and theological – which is that we are all contingent beings. We’re not “necessary.” We need all sorts of things to survive and flourish and accomplish our goals.
And one of the things we need is food. We have to eat. In the story of Elijah, this truth is demonstrated through a miracle.
He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat’. He 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. The 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.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
God here overcomes Elijah’s weakness and depression and hopelessness by giving him food and purpose. ‘Get up and eat; otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ To use the language Anna mentioned to us last week, Elijah receives a viaticum, wayfarer’s bread, and he receives a goal.
This story so beautifully sums up the truth of human life. Everyday we’ve got to wake up and consume – eat something – otherwise we cannot continue.
And we need a purpose for life; otherwise it becomes very hard to endure. The journey of life becomes too much so easily. We have needs –- physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
Some of these needs are fairly straightforwardly addressed: a regular diet, good relationships, work we either love or can bear in order to do the things we love. While it can certainly be a struggle to obtain these things (a struggle I would not deny) we sort of see in most cases what must be done to attain them.
But there are problems even here. We are never wholly satisfied. We always hunger and thirst for more. We don’t simply find food and that’s it; we have to keep finding it. And the same is true of many of our other mental and emotional needs. We’re hungry beings: we always need and want more.
We also will find that many of the things that nourish for a time cannot do so forever; they fade away and are weak, just as we are. And they cannot grant life unending. We will come to death.
And finally, we can have the problem of struggling to find a purpose for our lives. What is our life for? That is a question calling out for a spiritual and existential answer that may not be easy to find, and many do not find an answer to it.
They lie down like Elijah under that broom tree and say “It is enough … take away my life.”
Jesus Christ speaks to all of these needs today. He speaks to them when he says, “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).
How can this be so? How can one person offer all this? How can he offer life, eternal life, an end to all our hunger and thirst?
Because Jesus Christ is not just any person, not just any human being, not even just a prophet making promises on behalf of God. He is not simply “Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know,” as the people in our Gospel reading said. He is not another being like us, a contingent being with his own needs and desires – no, he is God in the flesh, the source of all goodness and grace, the one who needs nothing, but always gives.
We are weak creatures, but God is strong. We weary so easily, even youths grow faint, but God never tires. We consume and take in and use things up to sustain our own lives, but God – God ever pours himself out generously on our behalf, for his life does not depend on anything.
And so Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly human, can give his flesh for the life of the world, for our life, because he is like an inexhaustible font, pouring forth fresh springs day by day.
“O taste and see that the Lord is gracious,” says the Psalmist. “Blessed is the one who trust in him.”
That is the life, the full life, offered to us today at this Eucharist. God the Father calls out to us, draws us to his Son; that we might eat and be satisfied; that we might eat and live forever.
‘Get up and eat; otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Life is too much. It’s too much to bear alone, without strength, without the food we need to live. ‘Get up and eat’. There’s a journey ahead for each one of us, individually and together. ‘Get up and eat; otherwise [that] journey will be too much for you.’
Come to the table; eat the bread of life offered to you; and you will never again hunger and never again thirst.