“I wonder if God’s message for us, today, is not all that different from the message that the angel told Elijah. Get up and eat. In other words, you don’t have to solve all the world’s problems all at once. You don’t have to know when this journey will end. All you have to do is pause and connect with your needs in this moment. Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Get up and eat.“
Sermon Preached: Sunday, August 8, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green
Proper 12, Year B: 1 Kings 19:4-8 | Psalm 34:1-8 |Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51
May I speak in the name of God, who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Amen.
This week, I have been thinking about angels.
For those of you who have been following along in our stained glass preaching series, you might be wondering: wait, didn’t we already talk about that? And it’s true – two Sundays ago I talked about those cartoon images we have planted in our heads of miniature angels and demons, perched on our shoulders. But today I won’t be talking about cartoons. Today I’ll be talking about the real thing – those angels that show up in stories throughout Scripture; and perhaps in our own lives as well.
Let me start by saying that I didn’t plan to talk about angels today, at least not at first. I was slated to preach about a different stained glass window, but instead found myself drawn to the angels that appear in so much of our stained glass at Trinity. On this level alone, where we have the majority of our narrative windows, we see two depictions of angels – one in the annunciation window, where an angel visits Mary with the news of Jesus’ coming birth; and secondly in the window that shows Mary Magdalene and others encountering an angel outside the empty tomb, on the day of the resurrection. Beyond these narrative angels, if you go upstairs you will find four windows that feature angels as their main subject – like the picture that you see in your bulletin today. These designs are the top half of the narrative Tiffany windows that we see below – though these angel windows are also works of art unto themselves. Each of these windows features two angels – holding scrolls or other symbols, looking calm and strong as the light from outside shines through their wings.
While there are no angels in our Gospel passage this week, we do see an angel in the story of Elijah in the wilderness, as we read in today’s lesson from First Kings. I began to wonder: is this text that God is pointing us towards this week? Is God speaking to us this week through the angels?
Well, if the stained glass wasn’t sign enough, I began seeing angels everywhere, throughout this past week. I opened the Bible and found angels, not only in the Book of First Kings but also our reading from the Psalms. I got into my car, and songs about angels played on the radio. And then, the coup de grace, I visited Doris Manseau’s house earlier this week, for a small gathering of House Church, walked inside and found: dozens, if not hundreds of angels! A lifetime collection of figurines in all shapes and sizes. I walked out of Doris’ House that evening with an angel figurine of my own – a gift that Doris encouraged me to take. And I also left with the conviction that I did, indeed, need to think a bit more about angels this week.
After that evening, I began a new phase of sermon preparation: research. I looked for books on angels, articles about angels, a comprehensive list of scripture references about angels. I had to stop myself, and remember that a sermon is not a thesis. There is no way, in heaven or on earth, that I can summarize the breadth of tradition around angels, both in scripture and beyond, in just one sermon. But a little background can be helpful, so here we go:
First, there are different kinds of angels: cherubim and seraphim; good angels and fallen angels. There are famous angels, like Lucifer and Gabriel. Then there is the “angel of the Lord,” named in that specific way throughout the Old Testament in a way that some scholars suggest represents a pre-incarnation presence of Jesus. Sometimes angels are affiliated closely with heaven, as in poetry in the book of Psalms or in our liturgy during the Eucharist. Other times angels are down to earth, like the angels that visit Abraham in search of hospitality, or the angels that greet Mary Magdalene and others at the tomb. Sometimes angels appear in a human-like form, but there is rarely a mention of wings. Indeed, there is no single template in the Bible for what angels look like. An angel might appear as a burning bush, or a pillar of cloud and fire, or even as beings that defy description – made up of multiple faces and wheels and spokes (we can thank the prophet Ezekiel for that angelic description!). Ultimately we know angels, not so much by their appearance, as by their function: they appear to assist and protect humans, as messengers of the divine. In fact the word for ‘angel’ means messenger, both in the original Hebrew and the original Greek. In other words, we know angels by their function: angels are messengers of God.
Again, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive survey of angels here this morning. But we don’t need to be experts to encounter God through the words of scripture. And so I invite you to join me in taking a very specific look at a very specific story: our reading from the Book of First Kings today.
In order to understand that scripture passage, we have to consider briefly what comes before it. Elijah has been called by God to be a prophet in northern Israel in roughly the 8th century BCE. Elijah is sent in a time of political turmoil with a purpose: to remind the Israelites to follow God above all else. The ruler of northern Israel at the time, King Ahab, was one of those leaders who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 16:30), as that refrain from the Old Testament goes. Ahab married a woman named Jezebel and aligned his power and his heart with foreign gods, setting up altars to worship the prophet Baal. Elijah confronts Ahab for turning away from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and this leads to a massive confrontation between the priests of Baal and Elijah. At a sort of tournament of sacrifice, Elijah prevails – he is able to call down fire from God on high while the priests of Baal fail, and are driven away. This is an incredible triumph! And yet it is followed quickly by despair, as Jezebel vows revenge on Elijah.
It is at this precise moment of triumph and discouragement that we find Elijah, taking refuge in the wilderness under a solitary broom tree. He asks God that he might die, saying: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” In this moment, God does not send down a river of fire, as during the trials with the prophets of Baal. Instead, God sends an angel. Our scripture says that the angel simply touched Elijah, saying “get up and eat.” There appeared a cake of bread, and a jar of water, so Elijah ate. Once again, the angel of the Lord appeared, touching Elijah gently to say, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” And so Elijah got up, and ate.
I am struck by the gentleness of this passage after the fire and fury of the previous chapter. Elijah has just gone through extremes of emotion: extreme triumph, and extreme discouragement. God does not respond in extreme measures, but rather sends a messenger to speak softly, gently. Get up and eat. Take it one day at a time. One step in front of the other. Get up and eat.
At first I was surprised by just how dejected Elijah is, at the beginning of this passage. Can’t he celebrate his victory over the priests of Baal? Can’t he find confidence that God will see him through? And then, I realized that I can relate all too well to Elijah’s emotions of extreme triumph, and extreme discouragement, in light of this particular moment in the pandemic. July, for me, was a month of triumph and hope: I got to visit my home state of California, seeing family who I had not seen in over two years. And now, news of the Delta variant comes on the heels of this triumph. Anxiety about the fall lingers at the edge of my thoughts.
I wonder if God’s message for us, today, is not all that different from the message that the angel told Elijah. Get up and eat. In other words, you don’t have to solve all the world’s problems all at once. You don’t have to know when this journey will end. All you have to do is pause and connect with your needs in this moment. Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Get up and eat.
The most pressing need for Elijah, in this story, is food. And for us, sometimes that might be the case as well. How many times during this pandemic have I reached for a bar of chocolate, or made myself a cup of tea, because I needed to hear these words: Get up and eat. But sometimes, the need might be different. Sometimes the angel of God might be telling us to take a nap. Sometimes, the angel of God might be telling us to call a friend, or a therapist, or a priest; someone who can listen to the feelings of your heart with patience and gentleness. Sometimes the angel of God might be telling you to get take-out, instead of cooking dinner tonight. Sometimes, the angel of God might be telling you to stop everything and watch Netflix. Sometimes the angel of God might be telling you to stop watching Netflix, and go on a walk! Look outside the window! Get some perspective!
The message you need to hear right now might be different from the message that I need to hear. And it might not be at all related to the pandemic – Lord knows we have enough concerns to occupy our minds and hearts, even without all of that! In whatever corner of your life you seek wisdom and direction today, I invite you to pause and listen: consider what basic need is getting in the way of you addressing those deeper needs and hungers that lie beneath the surface. Sometimes, in order to enjoy the bread of life that Jesus promises us in our Gospel passage for today, we need to fill our more basic needs and hungers, first. Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Get up and eat, otherwise you might not even notice the greater blessings that God has in store for you.
Going back to our stained glass, and the angels that surround us every Sunday, I noticed a small detail in the design of those angels up in the gallery. In three of those windows (like the one printed in your bulletin today), there are two angels in either panel, each standing in a sort of architectural niche. And in each one of these pairs of angels, one has robes that appear to be perfectly still, weighted to the ground; and the other has robes that appear to be flowing – caught up in some kind of wind, some movement of the spirit.
Take this image with you, as you move through the week ahead. On the one hand we have an angel of stillness. And on the other hand we have an angel of motion. Which angel is calling to you today? Are you being called to be still; to pause and reassess how you are feeling or what you need in this moment? Or, are you being called to move; to take the next step on the journey that God has laid out for you? Are you being called to pause? Or are you being called to go – to get up and eat, get up and walk, get up and move in a new direction?
Elijah had no idea how long the journey ahead would be – and neither do we. In fact, it would be good for us to stop living for whatever destination you’ve identified, out there on the horizon – whether that destination is the end of the pandemic, or some personal goal, or whatever it may be. Eternal life isn’t about destinations. Rather, it’s about living in the present. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other. It’s about the living bread that nourishes us every step of the journey. Eat this bread – and you will live forever.
And so, I offer this encouragement today, in the words of the angels:
Get up, and eat.