Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 15)

Text: Psalm 34:19
The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope.


A name was created by French doctors for a disease which made its appearance in prison camps during World War 2. They called it "barbed-wire sickness". One of its symptoms was an appalling sense of futility and meaningless. What was the point of going on when there was no future? No matter what kind of camp activities were organised nothing could quite banish from the mind the awareness of the barbed-wire enclosure, the feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. Those behind the barbed wire lost hope. They couldnít see anything beautiful and good in their lives any more.

Following the announcement of the death of John Lennon, one of The Beatles, fans around the world sent his widow, Yoko Ono, thousands of sympathy messages each day. Lennonís widow said some of the mail worried her because it was written in such despair. And within hours of Lennonís death newspapers reported that two fans committed suicide. His death caused people to lose all hope and they were unable to see past their depression. They lost sight of the bigger picture.

Everyone gets depressed at some time. Itís interesting to observe how people become depressed over some things while another person facing the same set of circumstances is able to cope and rise above what could easily get them down. Itís also interesting to see how being depressed and discouraged distorts our view of reality.

At the time you are discouraged and depressed it may seem that you are the only one who has these problems and burdens and that no one has ever felt the way we do. For example, there are those times when you lie awake at night worried and upset about something that happened during the day, or how someone had upset you. Everything goes out of focus, you lose perspective as this problem looms so large in your life and it becomes all consuming.

God's prophet Elijah is a man who became discouraged to the point that he wanted to die rather than keep going on. He had been an extremely active man and could look back on some pretty big moments in his life.
He prophesied that a drought was coming and the land dried up.
He prayed for rain and it came to revive the land.
He protected a widow during a famine.
He restored life to a young boy.
His brightest moment was when he stood up to the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. Baal was a god of the Canaanites that was worshipped even by the people of God. Elijah had challenged them to set up a sacrificial altar and to call on Baal to set it alight. Nothing happened. Elijah likewise set up an altar, doused his sacrifice with water filling a trench around the altar. He called on God to light his sacrifice and we are told, "The Lord sent down fire, and it burned up the sacrifice, the wood and the stones, scorched the earth and dried up the water in the trench (I Kings 18:38). He put to shame the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel.

Elijah had seen God's hand at work in his life so many times that it comes as a bit of a surprise to see how quickly Elijah sank into discouragement. Queen Jezebel wasnít one for being humiliated. She was the one who had introduced Baal worship in Israel. Jezebel sent Elijah this warning: "May the gods strike me dead if by this time tomorrow I don't do the same thing to you that you did to the prophets." She was a woman who was used to getting her own way and vowed to get rid of Elijah.

This warning blew the wind out of Elijahís sails. He went into hiding and the waves of depression started to crash over him. He became so upset that his whole view of life became distorted. He was blinded to the great things that happened to him. He ran away into the wilderness and finally collapsed under a juniper tree. It seemed clear to Elijah that no one was loyal to God anymore. He was the only one who trusted God. All that he had said and done in God's name had fallen on hard hearts. Whatís the point of going on. He exclaimed, "It's too much, Lord. Ö I might as well as be dead."

There are several things worth noting about Elijah and his discouragement and depression and they are also factors when we become discouraged.

Firstly, he was physically and mentally exhausted. He had been walking a whole day and in country that was very unfriendly Ė the wilderness. And he wasnít dawdling he was running for his life. This exhaustion is evident after Elijah had uttered his words of despair. Immediately he fell asleep. The strain of the previous events on Mt Carmel and the threats of Queen Jezebel added to his weariness. When our bodies and minds are tired, over-worked, itís easy to get a distorted view of the facts and become discouraged and to despair.

Secondly, Elijah was alone, or so he thought. Here in the wilderness we see a lonely man, sitting under the shade of a tree by himself. He felt as if he was the only one left to speak up for God. Loneliness can lead to despair. Things like this might have been going around in Elijahís mind. "Here I am loyal to God and Iím a fugitive. Why am I suffering like this? No one likes me. No one understands me. It seems that even God has left me in the lurch". Feeling as if no one cares and no one understands contributes to feelings of discouragement.

Thirdly, Elijah was disappointed with God. He felt as if God had let him down. God had allowed Jezebel to chase him out of the country. Elijah would have expected some kind of deliverance from such a wicked person.
Why did God allow this to happen?
Where is God when I need him the most? He would have asked the question "why?" just as we question in times of discouragement.

Fourthly, he was disappointed in himself. Here he is sitting under the shade of a bush out in the wilderness. What a sorry sight. Couldnít he be a bit stronger and fight off these feelings of discouragement? Why did he feel so useless and such a failure?

Elijah was exhausted, lonely, disappointed and he sums up how he feels. ĎItís too much, Lordí, he prayed. ĎTake away my life; I might as well be dead!í

We may stand in judgment of ourselves and reckon that we are worthless and useless.
We may think that everything we touch turns out all wrong.
We feel as if no one understands and so feel completely alone.
We may want to curl up in a ball, hide from everyone.
We may be so depressed about ourselves and the way life is going, even believe that God has given up on us.

We feel this way because our coping mechanism is weak and we have a distorted view of reality. It is our feelings that have gone on a down hill slide, the bigger picture, what is real is out of proportion to what we believe is real.

And thatís what happened to Elijah. He felt as if there was only one thing left to do, and that was to lie down and die.

God sent an angel with a loaf of bread and a jar of water. Elijah sat up and ate and drank, and immediately went back to sleep. Again the angel woke him and told him to get up and eat. Elijah thought that God had abandoned him. He thought that there was nothing left for him to do. But God had other ideas.

I know itís easy to say, but when we are in the middle of some discouraging events and we feel miserable, we should remember that we are only looking a small part of the picture. Often it is when we look back that we see that we had a false view of reality. Things werenít that bad at all. They just seemed that way.

Just as God intervened and didnít leave Elijah to wallow in his discouragement neither does he leave us high and dry even though we may think that way. He is there when everything else may be taken away. He has promised to stand by us through days of plenty and the days when we lose everything - when friends leave, when money is lost, when families fall apart. Jesus is not a fair-weather friend who is by your side only during the happy times. He has promised to stand with you through the good and bad, even when your moods lead you to say and do things you would not normally do.

Your moods and feelings make no difference to his love. Trust God to help you when you are discouraged and depressed. The psalmist got it right when he said, "The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope." Talk it over with him. Tell him your problems, tell him your mistakes, your hurts, your disappointments, your loneliness, your frustration, your disappointments that have caused you to feel so low. And even if you feel so low that you feel you can't even do that, remember he will always be there with his help and ready to listen when you are ready to go to him. "The Lord is near to those who are discouraged".

God came to Elijah and gave him food to replenish his strength for the mission God was about to give him. We have something even better Ė the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. He says, "Stop grumbling among yourselves. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever" (John 6:43,51). The love and presence of God revealed to us in such a clear way through Jesus. There can be no doubt about Godís concern for our well being. We see that concern demonstrated by the figure on the cross. Jesus gave himself to us and for us to sustain us and nourish us so that we can continue on our journey through life serving God in whatever way we can. Just as God nourished Elijah with bread, we too are nourished and strengthened with the living bread, Jesus.

Just as God cared for Elijah, God cares for you too.
Just as God helped and encouraged Elijah so too he will help you in your time of discouragement.
Just as God helped Elijah get a grip on reality, so too he helps us and the most real thing to us is that God will never be far away when we need him the most.

Join with the psalmist who he says, "Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again I will praise him, my saviour and my God (Psalm 42.11).

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th August, 2006

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
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