Singing the Gospel Blues

Singing the Gospel  Blues”

Reverend Rick Kirchoff

October 24, 2010

1 Kings 19:1-18  NRSV  Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  Then 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.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But 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.”  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 forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  At 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?”  He 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.”

He 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When 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?”  He 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.”  Then 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.  Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah as prophet in your place.  Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill, and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.  Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Let us pray.  Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove, descend on us; reveal your love.  Word of God and inward light, wake our spirits; clear our sight.  Surround us now with all your glory.  Speak through me that sacred story.  Take my lips and make them bold.  Take hearts and minds and make them whole. Stir in us that sacred flame.  Then send us forth to spread your name.  Amen.

In any roll call of the spiritual giants of antiquity, Elijah is always there.  The Bible tells us that he had the power to withhold rain, or to make rain fall, the power to raise the dead, or to call down fire from heaven.  And when he came to the end of his life, we are told that he ascended into heaven in a whirlwind.  Elijah lived a dramatic, heroic life.

In the book of the Apocrypha, called Ben Sirach, we read the well-known words, “Let us now praise famous men.”  And the writer heaps praises upon Moses, Abraham, David, and Elijah, and the writer says Elijah “sent the kings of the earth to their destruction” and could “calm the wrath of God.”  But the interesting part is, in the midst of recounting all of the great heroics of Elijah, not one mention is made of some of the non-heroic parts of Elijah’s life. 

Edited out is the day that Elijah fled in terror from Jezebel.  And not a word is mentioned about the day he sat under the broom tree, singing the gospel blues, asking that he might die, and nothing is mentioned about the time that he hid in a cave, unable to shake off the most famous case of burn-out and depression in biblical history.   

A lot of folks like their heroes all polished and shiny, airbrushed to perfection, high up on a pedestal.  But, the Bible doesn’t much like hero-worship.  Scripture hardly ever gives us purified, sanitized heroes.  Such is the case with Elijah.  In today’s scripture, we meet Elijah at his lowest…cowering in a cave, burnt out and flat out of courage and faith.  

And ironically, this was just after his greatest triumph.

The story is that king Ahab and Queen Jezebel had forsaken the commandments of the Lord and were bowing down to the idols of Baal and were encouraging Israel to do likewise.  And so, Elijah, on the Lord’s command, had declared to the king that it wasn’t going to rain until the king and queen changed their ways and a three-year drought ensued, which was particularly embarrassing to Baal, who was believed to be the god of rain and fertility. 

To make the point indisputably clear, Elijah asked for a contest, with the Holy God of Israel on one side and the prophets of Baal on the other.  The King agreed and called together the people, plus 450 of Baal’s prophets and 450 of the prophets of the goddess Asherah. They all gathered together on Mt. Carmel.

Elijah stood alone representing the true God.  And Elijah shouted to all the assembly, “How long will you go limping around with two opinions? If the Lord is God, then follow the Lord.  If it’s Baal, then follow Baal.” 

It was commanded that two altars be built; and wood was laid upon each. Two oxen were slaughtered; and pieces of the oxen were laid on the wood.  Elijah said to the prophets, the priests of Baal, “Have at it!  Ask Baal to send down fire to ignite your sacrifice.”

So the Baal prophets prayed until their voices were weak and danced around the altar until their legs gave out.  Nothing happens!  They made themselves hoarse by shouting instructions to the sky.  Still, the sky was silent!  They jabbed themselves with knives thinking their blood might get things moving.  But there was no fire!  Elijah goaded them saying maybe Baal’s taking a nap or gone on a vacation. And even though the prophets of Baal whipped themselves into a frenzy, by mid-afternoon, there was no sign of fire from above, not even a tiny spark.

So, Elijah stepped forward.  Like a magician getting ready to pull off his grandest illusion, Elijah set the stage.  He dug a trench around the altar and filled it with water.  Then, he doused the wood and offering with water…when he was finished, he doused it twice more for good measure.  When everything was thoroughly soaked, Elijah said, “Lord, do your stuff!”  And Elijah jumped back just in time, for lightning flashed and the water in the trench sizzled.  And nothing was left of the offering but a pile of ash and a smell like after the 4th of July after the fireworks.  God and Elijah had won.  And everybody except the Baal prophets fell on the ground and worshiped the Lord.

It was a spectacular triumph against unbelievable odds!

But Elijah hardly had time to celebrate.  For when Queen Jezebel heard what Elijah had done, she issued a death warrant for him.  And the victorious prophet was so terrified that he ran all day into the wilderness looking for a place to hide.  Finally, in the shade of a broom tree, he fell exhausted.  In deep distress, Elijah sang the blues: “Lord, take away my life.  Cause I’m ready to die.” 

Depressed, in the pits, and circling the drain, Elijah sang the blues!  

I did what you asked me.  Worked my fingers to the bone.  Now Jezebel has a contract on me.  So Lord, just take me home.”

Elijah sang the blues. Elijah was worn out, burnt out, and deeply depressed!

We all know about depression.  Depression has plagued humanity since the beginning of history and probably before. The Ancient Greeks blamed depression on an excess of black bile (melan chole), thus giving us the word “melancholy.”  Martin Luther was plagued by severe bouts of depression.  Abe Lincoln suffered from it and had to be protected from himself.  Winston Churchill called it his “black dog.”

And I use the word “depression” to include the spectrum of human emotions all the way from transient moods of sadness and unhappiness (which all of us feel from time to time) up to the kind of depression that’s chronic, profound and incapacitating

Whatever its form, whenever depression hits, it colors life gray, robs us of joy, erodes our confidence and distorts our perceptions.  It steals our sleep and leaves us feeling restless, helpless and hopeless, worrying much and accomplishing little.  When it has you in its grip you end up feeling that life is no good, that you’re no good, or that God’s not good.  It feels like your feet are mired in quicksand and your brain is stuck in sawdust. 

Let me say that if depression moves into the front room of your soul and hangs out for longer than a few days, for God’s sake, get help.  See somebody.  Seek God.  Learn the lessons from Elijah.  Depression can be treated.  And I want you to know that medication can help, it’s no shame, but a gift of God…once you give yourself permission to take an anti-depressant in the same manner as you give yourself permission to take an antibiotic for an infection or blood pressure medication for elevated blood pressure.  So if you, or someone you know, is currently in a deep, incapacitating state, seek spiritual and medical care.

But I’m neither a diagnostician nor a clinician.  I’m a theologian and as such, I want you to know that if you suffer, you have a friend in Elijah and we can all learn from him.  His story is also your story!

In the story of Elijah, we read: “All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  Elijah looked around and there…was warm bread and a jar of cool water. He ate, drank and then lay down again.”

One thing God did for Elijah was to minister to his physical needs.  God fed him fresh bread and cool water and told him to sleep…and after he awoke, God fed him again.  Unity of body, mind, and spirit!  So, it hardly comes as a surprise that proper nutrition and rest are critical to our mental health.  Take good care of the body God has given you.  Quit abusing it.  Quit driving it.   Eat right…sleep right…get appropriate exercise.  The abuse of our bodies is a profound spiritual issue.  When our bodies become stressed, our Spirit can be next. 

So, the first thing is: take good care of yourself physically.   You body and your mind are one. 

Then, second, learn to meet God in regular, honest prayer.  

We talked about this last week in the cave of David and we see it again this week when Elijah set up camp in a cave.  As scripture says it, the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And once again, Elijah unloads his soul: “Lord, I have done my part.  I did everything I was supposed to, but it’s not made a dime’s worth of difference.  For all my trouble, what do I get?  Jezebel wants to carve me like a Thanksgiving turkey.  Lord, I am so tired!” That was his prayer!

Have you ever prayed like that? There’s nothing wrong with it.  After all, it’s not like God doesn’t already know how you feel. But letting it all hang out can be therapeutic.  As someone has said, “A trouble shared is a trouble cut in half.” That may overstate the case, but the words of the hymn writer surely do not: Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything, everything, to God in prayer.

One of the greatest gifts my friend Maxie Dunnam gave the church is the workbook, Coping as Christians. I keep copies in my office.  If you’re wondering how to meet God in prayer…come see me…let me give you a copy.  I’ve seen scores of lives changed for better by it!

Third, watch for where you look for God.

God told Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain…, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great…wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  After the fire came a still small voice…a gentle whisper.  And God was in that whisper!  

One of the most significant things in the story is that Elijah was given a fresh vision of who God is and just how God is revealed. 

Elijah expected God in some big, grand revelation — earthquake, wind or fire.  After all, that’s what had happened at Mt. Carmel.  Elijah was looking for a dramatic, overpowering revelation.  But God didn’t come that way.  God seldom does!  Oh, yes, we can be thankful for mountaintop moments when they come…but they’re not the norm.  Most often, God comes in a still small voice. 

My experience is that God comes to us in the simplest of ways. 

  • in the encouraging word of a friend

  • in a song that awakens some deep spiritual memory

  • in a piece of Scripture that speaks directly to my need or a sermon spoken…as if it was just for me

  • in an inner nudging calling me to be more compassionate, more true to what I know to be right

  • and even in a person with a need that I can meet or a hurt that I can help heal 

God’s still small voice can be heard, but only if we’re willing to be quiet – and listen. 

Many years ago, before refrigeration, people used blocks of ice to preserve their food.  Ice was made and kept in icehouses — big rooms with thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door.  Ice placed there during the winter would last well into the summer.

In his book, Directions, James Hamilton tells about a man who lost a valuable watch while working in an icehouse.  He and his fellow workers searched but could not find it.  A small boy who heard about the missing watch slipped into the icehouse during the lunch hour and soon emerged with the missing watch.  The amazed workers asked how he had found it.  He said, “I closed the door, lay down in the sawdust and kept very still and quiet.  Soon I heard the watch ticking.”

Quietness. Time alone.  Time to listen!  We need that!  God met Elijah at the mouth of an isolated cave and spoke to him in a still, small voice. 

Finally, we know that depression has a way of exaggerating life’s negatives. Remember Elijah’s claim that “I am the only one left,” the last faithful person on earth?  Well, the Lord lets him know that’s not true.  There are thousands more who are on God’s team. 

That was personified when God sent Elijah a co-worker named Elisha.  Not only did Elijah train Elisha to be his successor, Elisha was a comforting companion to Elijah in times of crisis. 

When depression or anxiety hit, talk it out with a trusted friend. 

One spring morning, a farmer was out plowing his field.  But in one particularly wet place, his tractor got bogged down.  And try as he might, he could not get out.  Finally, he walked to his neighbor’s house to ask for help.  The neighbor came and surveyed the situation. He said, “It doesn’t look good, but I’ll give it a try.  But if we don’t get it out, I’ll come sit in the mud with you.”

Sometimes when we are bogged down in some difficult place, it makes a world of difference if some caring soul is willing to sit with us in the mud.

One day Elijah sang the gospel blues and in the process he became a teacher.  Whenever the blues strike, remember this story. 

  1. Recognize that you are most vulnerable right after your greatest victories….

  2. Do a better job taking care of yourself physically (eat right, rest well, exercise, take a day off, and if you need medication, take it…. 

  3. Set some time aside for things that are ultimately important…such as quiet time for prayer, study and meditation. 

  4. Stop looking for God just in the big stuff…learn to listen for His still small voice…. 

  5. And realize that things are not as bleak as we’re inclined to think. There are caring and supportive friends…you are not alone! 

And especially hold fast to the one scripture that calls “the friend who sticks closer than a brother,” our Lord Jesus.  He had been to the darkest of places, a cave of despair and death and he came out on the other side, reminding us that no pit is so deep, but that God’s love is deeper still!  And he invites us, in our darkest moments, to “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” 

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Endnotes: This sermon is based, in part, upon material from the following sources:

  1. Joanna Adams, “The Pout”

  2. M. Craig Barnes, “Walking through Burnout”

  3. Bill Bouknight, “A Prophet in a Panic”

  4. Maxie Dunnam, “Out of the Miry Bog”

  5. David E. Lininger, “Dealing with Depression”

  6. William A. Ritter, “On Feeling Low in a High Flying World” and “When All the Colors in the Crayon Box are Gray”

  7. Eric Ritz, “Depression: When the Spirit is Faint”

  8. Leonard Sweet, “Thunder in the Mountains, Silence in the Soul”