I have conversations with people at difficult times. I offer comfort. I offer words of encouragement. I offer prayer. And then I remind people to eat. It sounds like an odd thing for a chaplain to suggest. But it’s not.
As I often say at the end of funerals, “God built us to need food regularly. God built us to love stories. So we’re gathering for a meal to tell stories about the one we loved and lost.”
The trouble is, when we’re troubled, we forget to eat. And then we get in trouble.
With the lack of food and fluids, our bodies get weak. Our minds can’t handle the pressure well. In the fatigue and feeling of stress, we get angry, we get desperate. We say what we don’t really mean. We do what we don’t really want.
That’s what happened to Elijah. He was an Old Testament Prophet. Many of us have a picture on our heads when I say that. We see a haggard bearded man who looks angry, speaking words of woe and destruction. Which was sometimes true.
Not because prophets were angry by nature, but because they had to carry God’s words. And God’s words weren’t angry by nature. In fact, his deepest desire is to love and to bless.
But when the people he loved rejected his attempts to bless them time after time after time, and they chose to run the other direction, to flirt with other gods, to give their hearts to images of wood and stone,
Then God drew lines. He spoke out consequences. And prophets are the ones who carry that message: “If you keep running, you’ll find yourself wrecked. If you come back home, you’ll find yourself rest.”
But carrying God’s words can leave a prophet exhausted. And Elijah was running for his life, running from Jezebel. And he was wrecked.
He went alone into the desert, deeply desiring to die. We know that because he said it: “God, please let me die.” After all the work he’d seen God do, Elijah knew that this was one prayer that God had the power to answer, to take his life.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” he said in the desert under a tree. “I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Some of you know that feeling right now, I think. You’ve tried to do what God told you to do. You’ve tried to live the way God wanted you to live. And you are not sure at all that he remembers you. You want God to let you go.
Suddenly, Elijah feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Wake up,” a voice says.
It was an angel, with a message from God, an answer to Elijah’s prayer. And the answer to his prayer to die was, “No. I’m not going to let you die.” More accurately, the answer was breakfast. No argument. No lecture. No reminders of God’s power or judgment.
There was fresh flatbread baking on coals. There was a jar of water. And the command was “get up and eat.” Elijah ate. And he laid down and went back to sleep.
We have no idea how long the first nap was, no idea how long the second nap was. But the angel of the Lord woke him up again: “Get up and eat. For the journey is too much for you.” Elijah ate. And then he traveled forty days to Horeb, to Sinai, to the mountain where Moses met God.
Elijah was emotionally exhausted. He said extreme things. God gave him food and rest. Because that’s exactly what he needed.
And that’s why I tell people to eat. Because sometimes, the thing that we need most isn’t the thing we ask for most. It’s rest and food. And the presence of God, standing guard, fixing breakfast, speaking to the burden of our journey.