Bread for the Journey

Text: 1 Kings 19:1-8
Date: Pentecost XI (Proper 14) + 8/12/12

“The angel of the Lord came…and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And (Elijah) arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

So is reported this little detail in the ministry of the great prophet and representative of all the prophets, Elijah. It happened after his great victory over the false prophets of the false god Baal. “Seize the prophets of Baal,” he said, “let not one of them escape.” We’re told there were 450 of them (1 Kings 18:19 and 22)! “And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon (kee-shone) and slaughtered them there” (18:40). Such was commanded to be the punishment for those who deceive God’s people to “go and serve other gods” (Dt. 13:6).

Yet as great and heroic and faithful and brave was the prophet, backed by the clear word and command of the one, true God, when the Queen, Jezebel, announced her plan to retaliate by killing him, our otherwise brave hero feared, turned tail and ran for his life. So much for our search for examples of greatness among God’s people. So writes St. James in the New Testament that, “Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves,” meaning that for all our bravery, commitment or resolve we too have moments of weakness when we let fears rule us. “Before this,” writes Martin Luther, “(the prophet) was not afraid of the king; now he runs away from a woman” (LW V:25)!

But this little detail was not recorded to “humanize” for us our otherwise brave hero, nor to demean him in any way, but to comfort us with the knowledge that God is merciful to His people. God wants to have patience with us even in our weakness. How did St. Paul say it? “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. …God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). He doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to get up enough courage or resolve, or pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. He doesn’t wait because He knows, as we should know, that there is nothing we can do on our own power to earn or deserve God’s mercy. What did Martin Luther always say? “We are all beggars.”

So even when Elijah wanted to give up, praying that the Lord take away his life, even when he lay down and slept under the stars out there in the wilderness under a broom tree, God sent food. And this food wasn’t just to sustain him while he retreated into his self-pity. This food was meant to sustain him for a journey, a journey the Lord had already planned for him. That journey was to reenact the history of God’s people wandering in the wilderness. As they were sustained by God for forty years and drawn to the mountain where God gave them His holy Ten Commands, so Elijah was sustained and drawn over forty days to rediscover God’s plan.

The application of this little text to our lives is, very simply, that, like Elijah, for all our best intentions, the vows of the confirmation of our baptismal faith when we promised “to suffer all, even death rather than ever to fall away” from faith in Christ, it has worked out that we have, in truth, suffered much less to make us waver, hesitate, even doubt both our faith and God’s promised care.

God gave Elijah food for the journey. What food? It was “a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.” Not much on the gourmet cook’s list of yummy appetizers except that this food was processed, baked and provided by God. It was heavenly cake, bread of heaven.

God gives us food for the journey. What journey?

It is the journey of faith. And as such it will be both the same journey and different for each of us; the same faith in God’s Word and yet differing in the myriad details of our lives, challenged by sin both outside of and within ourselves. The journey of faith is a struggle because it is a journey through a world and days where sin still so easily besets us. But the journey also has a blessed goal, none other than the deliverance from sin and death, and resurrection life in union with God in Christ.

God gives us food for this journey. What food?

The food is the forgiveness of sins. Not just a one time inoculation or dose for sin but daily bread, that is, the daily supply of forgiveness as we learn, daily, to live in the forgiveness of our sins. And what ingredient gives this food such power? In a word, it is Jesus. He says not only “I am bread,” but “I am THE bread,” “I am the bread of life.” Like Elijah’s miraculous bread from God, so is Jesus “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51).

Jesus is this bread not only symbolically, but the bread that He gives for the life of the world is His flesh. He gave His very flesh and blood to be sacrificed on the cross. There, bleeding, dying, with great pain and agony, the greatest pain however He intoned as He prayed, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” There, in His flesh, for the first … and the last time in His life He was completely and utterly separated from, abandoned by His Father in a strange mystery we cannot even now comprehend. Because He is God we can only confess at the cross, “O sorrow dread! Our God is dead.”

God gives us food for the journey. You may have wondered why I haven’t mentioned what is obvious to Christian ears, namely, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And, indeed, we could say that as Elijah’s simple food gave him strength for his journey, so in simple bread and wine God strengthens us with the supply of forgiveness, faith, hope and love that are in Christ Jesus our Lord, through His body and blood given and shed for us. But Jesus is not speaking of the sacrament in today’s Gospel from John chapter six, but rather, faith in Him as faith’s author and perfecter and provider of eternal life.

Fear not, Elijah. Do not fear Jezebel’s threats. God has determined a journey for you, a journey that leads through the mountain of God’s Holy Law. It is a journey where, then, one in your spirit and power will prepare the way for the Lord (Luke 1:17). It is a journey that brings you to a mountain where, with Moses, you will speak with the sojourning God Himself, the Son of God, transfigured in glory before His exodus and sacrifice on the cross. Finally, the journey will be to the mountain called Calvary where, you discover, God Himself dies for you. He dies for you so that your death will no longer be something to be feared. For as you eat this bread, this bread of life, death no longer has dominion. For His life is now in you, giving you strength to go on, not just for forty days or forty years, not just for “seventy years, or even by reason of strength eighty” (Ps 90:10), but for all your days and for endless days.

So is the same promise for you in the journey God has prepared for you; the journey of faith to endless life empowered by the food for your journey, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, our Lord.