Running on Empty
By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Kings 19
This morning’s sermon title is inspired by the 1977 album by Jackson Browne entitled “Running on Empty.” It was about life on the road; in fact every track on the album was recorded on the road. Nothing was recorded in a studio. Life on the road, moving constantly from one town to the next, can feel as if you’re running on empty. Apparently, a lot of Americans are running on empty right now. Amid the surging fuel prices, Americans are trying to squeeze out that last drop of gas and finding themselves, in increasing numbers, stranded by the side of the road.
But, running on empty isn’t just a literal thing. Like Jackson Brown, some of us may be running on empty. This seems to be the summer of travel. No matter what the cost, many of us are trying to get in all of those visits and trips we’ve been missing out on over the past two years… although we usually feel like we need another vacation when we return from vacation and open our inbox.
But we may also find ourselves running on empty as our resilience is tested by one gut-wrenching tragedy after another: floods, tornados and forest fires, war and refugees, mass shootings, brutal partisan politics in Washington and in our denomination. Americans are struggling financially amidst inflation; yet businesses can’t seem to attract workers. Many are running on empty.
The ancient Israelite prophet Elijah knew what it felt like to be running on empty as this morning’s Bible story reveals. Allow me to set the stage for this morning’s story:
It was the prophet Samuel who first warned the ancient Israelites that having a king, like all the other nations around them, would not be as glamorous as they imagined. And it wasn’t. But, bad kings did mean job security for prophets because they were the ones God called to confront kings with their sins. Although I guess “job security” might not be the best way of putting it since kings frequently threatened the lives of prophets.
Now, the prophet Elijah debuts on the pages of our bible quite abruptly in 1 Kings, chapter 17. At least it feels abrupt if we don’t read the conclusion of chapter 16. Those verses are a summary evaluation of the reign of King Ahab. The heading of that section in the New Revised Standard Bible tells us all we need to know: Ahab Marries Jezebel and Worships Ba’al. Jezebel was, apparently, a strong personality who exercised considerable control over her husband and not in very positive ways.
The word “ba’al” translated simply means “master, lord or husband.” (By the way, remember that our God’s name in the Hebrew scripture is Yahweh. That’s the name by which God self-identified to Moses at the burning bush.) Now, any god can be called a ba’al; the master, lord or husband of the people who worship that particular ba’al. But the word Ba’al was also a proper noun, the name for the Syrian storm god, Rider of the Clouds.
So, when Queen Jezebel exercises this influence over her husband, King Ahab, she convinces the king and the Israelite people to worship the Storm God, Ba’al. This doesn’t sit well with Yahweh, who responds by turning off the heavenly spigot; Yahweh imposed a drought across the land… because everyone thought that Ba’al controlled the rain. Because Elijah was God’s prophet, the one who spoke on God’s behalf, he was sent to deliver the news of the impending drought… which wasn’t much appreciated by Ahab or Jezebel. God then guides and directs Elijah to take refuge in another country so that he is able to escape the effects of the drought and Ahab’s and Jezebel’s wrath. Elijah becomes a refugee… forced to flee his homeland because of drought, famine and political corruption.
But, after three years, God calls Elijah to return to his homeland because it’s time for the drought to end. Upon his return to Israel, Elijah engages in a contest with the prophets of Ba’al. All gods appreciated sacrifices. So, this contest consisted of building an altar of wood and sacrificing a bull upon the altar. However, the fire source for consuming this sacrifice would not come from any of the worshipers. It was to be supplied directly by God. I’ll skip over the play by play and let you know that God, our God Yahweh, was the winner hands-down. The prayers, gyrations and generalized hysteria on the part of the prophets of Ba’al elicited no fire from the heavens; in fact, it drew no response at all. But our God blew it out of the water… literally. Elijah had them cut a trench and pour water on and around the wood. But only God reigned down a flame of fire so powerful it not only burned up the bull on the altar. It even licked up the water in the trench.
Now the fickle crowd of Israelites has just observed a stunning miracle so they’re ready to return to worshiping Yahweh. Elijah orders the execution of all the prophets of Ba’al. (A disturbing detail of the story, but that’s the way it goes.) When word that her prophets have been killed reaches Jezebel, she erupts in a furious rage. Hear now the story of the prophet Elijah; on the lam and running on empty... and don’t forget to eat your corn cake when the time comes.
1 Kings 19:1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 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." 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 4 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: "Too much, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." 6 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. 7 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." 8 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.
The circumstances of Elijah’s life have just gotten to be too much for him. He confesses to God: “Too much, O Lord.” Too much. The impact of Elijah’s confession is not lost on God because his words are repeated by the angel when the angel tells Elijah to eat. If Elijah doesn’t consume the nourishment that God has provided, he’s right; what lies ahead will, in fact, be too much for him. The impact of this verbal thread is lost on us because most of our English Bibles fail to translate consistently the same Hebrew word in verses 4 and 7. It is rab, it is too much.
Has it ever been too much for you? If not right now, I’m betting you can remember a time in your life when it had gotten to be too much for you; when you were running on empty. When you, like Elijah, cried out: “Too much, O Lord. Too much.” It happens to the best of us. It’s a part of life.
But here’s the beautiful, amazing part of this story. God responds to Elijah’s exhaustion. When it has become too much and Elijah is running on empty, God provides the nourishment Elijah needs to get through. And God does that for us, as well. Now, for us, we’re probably not going to be camping under a broom tree in the wilderness and be awakened for breakfast by an angel. But we can all trust that God provides what is needed for our renewal… although sometimes we fail to see it and fail to receive it. Elijah was encouraged to “get up and eat.” But he wasn’t force fed.
In your program this morning, there’s a little text box. At the top of the box it says, “My soul is nourished by…” In just a couple minutes, I’m going to invite you to fill in that box; to take your time and consider what God has set before you, what is it God has placed within your life, what does God invite you to receive for your nourishment; to fill your spiritual tank when you’re running on empty. Of course, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation are something God invites us to engage in for the renewal of our souls. But there are other things, as well, that God invites us to receive in order to nourish our souls. Perhaps it is hobby that you don’t make time for as you should. Perhaps it is a simple walk in the woods or stopping what you are doing to sit down and just listen to a favorite piece of music or play the piano or paint or bake. Perhaps it is time with family and friends. You know, this congregation is nourishment God invites us to receive. I mean; it’s true. You don’t need to go to church to pray or believe in Jesus. But church is also about being in fellowship with one another. You all are some of the best people I’ve ever met. You are loving and compassionate and accepting and supportive. The love and support of your siblings in Christ here at Trinity is one of the ways God offers nourishment for your soul. Do you receive it? Or do you consistently come and go and keep to yourself? I know most of us are introverts, but we still need one another.
Let me tell you one of the things God has given me to nourish my soul when I’m running on empty. Britt’s dad passed away in 2008 when the real estate market was bust. Britt inherited his dad’s condo in Cincinnati. Initially, we thought the smartest thing to do would be to sell it. But with such a bad market, we decided to wait. And I’m so glad we did. It has become space that Britt and I can get away to when we need to be renewed. 20 minutes from the condo is the Cincinnati Nature Center; miles of hiking trails that look so much like the woods I used to hike in with my dad when I was a kid. Rigorous exercise helps me release my anxiety. I hike there with Mr. Wiggles and when we reach the top of a steep hill, when my legs are tired and I’m a bit winded, I can look back down that hill and feel as if life is manageable. It’s kind of a spiritual “You can do it” moment. It renews my soul. God’s Spirit reminds me often that place is a resource for my nourishment and renewal.
So, what about you? Is it a person, a place, a hobby? When your spirit is weary, when it has gotten to be too much, when you are running on empty, what has God set before you to strengthen you? And, do you receive it as Elijah did so that you, too, will be strengthened for the journey of life?
Are you running on empty? Are you weary and in need of rest? Take a moment now to reflect and to fill in that text box identifying what God provides to you to nourish your soul and to commit yourself to receiving it.
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