I typed the wrong number in our lectionary for today. Instead of the end of 1 Kings 19, about Elisha being Elijah’s disciple, we got the whole of 1 Kings 19 – Elijah on Horeb, ‘only I am left’ and so on. I was preaching, and found myself comparing Elijah’s ‘deflation’ and Jesus’s purposeful journey though Luke.
I said to our congregation that I might well have made the mistake for a purpose. A good number of people thanked me afterwards for the bits about being depressed and ‘deflated’. So I thought I’d offer it more widely. Hope it helps.
Political dramas on the television are very fond of the ‘walk and talk’ sequence, where the Prime Minster or President is on the move, barking out orders and giving instant answers to questions from aides who come and go, usually with a clipboard or a mobile phone. The central figure is completely in control, directing the action, never pauses for breath and never has to reflect on the right answer. They are, to use some overused phrases, ‘in the moment’, ‘in the zone’. So popular is this device that it is frequently spoofed in comedy shows.
A slightly irreverent part of me imagines the Jesus of Luke chapters 5 to 19 as being like this. He hardly draws breath. His words pour out like a torrent. People come and are healed, miracles happen, and he uses each event to say further profound and challenging things. There’s story after story, parable after parable. Just look at Chapter 9. He sends the 12 to preach. They return, full of it. He feeds the 5000. Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus predicts his death. He goes up a mountain and is transfigured. He heals a boy with a demon. The disciples arg
ue about who is top dog. And at the end, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus prevents his disciples from nuking a village, and people who try to combine their old life with following Christ are sent away with a flea in their ear. It carries on for another 9 chapters like this. It’s like one of those compilations of highlights with all the boring bits taken out. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps the key phrase in today’s reading comes in explaining the Samaritan villagers’ rejection of Jesus. His ‘face is set’ towards Jerusalem. All of this busy-ness, all of these words, all of these events have a purpose. Luke shows a whirl of activity around Jesus, with some reflective moments too. But it all leads towards a goal. Jesus isn’t hanging around to see what will happen. He is making it happen. And, as with any Rabbi worth following, his disciples had to do the same. If you’re going to follow me, he says, be prepared to have no house or home. Forget about the past, don’t look back. Complete focus, complete dedication.
What’s interesting to me is that this doesn’t make Jesus like some megastar on a walkabout, not really engaging with the people they meet. In fact Jesus seems to be ready to stop, ready to listen, to hear the next word from God, to speak the next word of God, to receive or offer service at any moment. I can imagine him not looking over people’s shoulders, trying to see if anyone more important is coming. He would look straight at people and give them all the attention the situation demanded. He responds to unexpected events and challenges with balance and insight, precisely because he is focussed on his goal, his reason for being there. He’s focussed, and purposeful, but not blinkered or blind to the needs around him.
Today’s readings offer us a superb contrast with another great leader who is full of the works and power and mission of God. Elijah the Prophet, in 1 Kings 19, is fresh from a whole series of miraculous events. He has predicted drought, he has multiplied food, he has raised a boy from death, he has challenged a king, he has wiped out the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He is the epitome of success, completely led by God and with a clear goal of standing for the true worship of God in a land where they have become distracted and unjust. He can even outrun a chariot.
But you wouldn’t think that if you started Elijah’s story only at chapter 19 of 1 Kings. Far from being the ‘super-prophet’ of chapter 18, he is completely miserable, and wants to die. One setback – a threat from the King he challenged – and all his power and purpose and focus just melt away. I’ll confess to being deflated on occasions in much the same way. It’s as if you’ve been floored. One minute all is powering on, the next you’ve been unplugged – and you deflate like a bouncy castle. Some of you may recognise the symptoms of a reactive depression in Elijah: he turns everything inward and it’s all about himself. There is no hope, no reason to do anything, exhaustion, gloom, despair.
It takes a retreat, physical care and activity, good food and a change of perspective to get Elijah back on track. He has mistaken a unique call from God for a requirement to do everything by himself, and has taken a temporary setback for a clear proof that he’s made a mess of it and that all is going to fail. God helps him put all this in perspective. His purpose remains, but he’s in good company, not on his own. It’s not all about him: there are 7000 with him, and Elisha is given to him as a close companion. His blinkers come off, and he’s able to put his life and his ministry and mission into context, ready for whatever comes next. Again I’ll confess to the way this works: admitting your deflation to someone else and being open to the encouragement of others leads to restoration, and the recognition that it’s not that bad, that it’s not up to you, it’s up to God.
When a potential disciple says to Jesus that he must put his affairs in order first, Jesus seems harsh: ‘let the dead bury their dead’. But this is for a positive purpose: ‘as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’. Jesus calls us to live with our ultimate end in view, with the declared purpose of everything we do being for the kingdom.
Distractions to our Christian life can come in many forms: the voices from the past telling us this is not for us, that we’re not good enough; the demands of family, work and friendship; the need for security. Jesus’s focus is on what is to come, not what’s behind us. Other distractions can come from within: Elijah’s self accusation, exhaustion, over concentration on himself. We can be too focussed on the task and forget to look after ourselves and see the bigger picture.
What Jesus shows us is that we can ‘set’ ourselves towards God, and look out for what’s happening around us – we can gaze well ahead and look closely at what God is doing here and now. I’m trying to learn how not to be deflated. When you commit to something it’s hard when it doesn’t go right the first time. Jesus invites us to follow him without distraction, but also to take the long view, and in all things to proclaim the kingdom of God. If we follow him in doing this, we too will be fit for the kingdom.