Scripture 1 Kings 19:1-15; Luke 8:26-39
1 Kings 19:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version)
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;[a] 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, “It is enough; now, 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, or 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. 9 At that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
Luke 8:26-39 - First Nations Version
When they finished crossing, they came to the territory of the people of Honored in the End (Gadarenes), across the Lake of Circle of Nations (Sea of Galilee). As soon as he stepped from the canoe, a man from the village was there. This man had been tormented with evil spirits for a long time. His clothes had worn off him, and he was homeless, so he lived in the local burial grounds.
When the man saw Creator Sets Free (Jesus), he fell to the ground in front of him. The evil spirit cried out through the man, “Creator Sets Free (Jesus), Son of the One Above Us All, what do you want with me? I beg you not to torment me!” He said this because Creator Sets Free (Jesus) had ordered the evil spirit to leave the man. In the past this evil spirit had often taken hold of the man, so the villagers had kept the man bound with chains and under close watch. But the man had broken the chains, and the evil spirit had forced him out into the desert. Creator Sets Free (Jesus) asked, “What is your name?” “Many Soldiers,” he answered, because thousands of spirits had entered into him. They begged him not to send them into the deep dark pit of the world below. There was a large herd of pigs feeding on a nearby mountainside, so the spirits begged him to permit them to enter the pigs. When he gave them permission, the evil spirits left the man and entered into the herd of pigs. Then the whole herd stampeded down the mountainside headlong into the lake and drowned. The ones who were watching over the pigs were scared to death and ran away. They went to the nearby village and told them everything that had happened. As word spread, people came from the villages and the countryside to see for themselves. There they found the man whom the evil spirits had come out of, sitting quietly at the feet of Creator Sets Free (Jesus). He was clothed and in his right mind. This filled the hearts of the people there with awe and fear. The ones who had seen what happened told the people how the man with evil spirits had been set free. Then the people from the territory of Honored in the End (Gadarenes) begged Creator Sets Free (Jesus) to go away from their land. As Creator Sets Free (Jesus) entered the canoe to return to the other side, the man who had been set free from the evil spirits begged him to take him along. Creator Sets Free (Jesus) would not permit it and said to the man, “Return home to your family and friends.” He told the man, “Tell them all the powerful things the Great Spirit has done for you.” The man went his way and told his story in the villages, telling everyone the great things Creator Sets Free (Jesus) had done for him.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
We’ve heard about the Great Resignation - how since 2021 over 47 million American workers have voluntarily left their jobs and how there seem to be a shortage of workers across industries, everything from childcare to fast food joints to gas stations to construction to healthcare. Many are quick to point to the impact of the pandemic - and while COVID-19 has been an important factor, an article from the Harvard Business Review suggests in addition, what we’re seeing is consistent with a trend that started over a decade ago - that if we were to look at a graph mapping the percentage of the workforce that voluntarily leaves their job, the recent numbers don’t seem quite so out of line.
They suggest this: [quote from the article]
In our view, five factors, exacerbated by the pandemic, have combined to yield the changes that we’re living through in today’s labor market. We call these factors the Five Rs: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance. Workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.
The first and the third - retirement and reconsideration - get at the heart of what the pandemic has caused for many people. According to the article, folks are retiring earlier because they want to spend more time with loved ones and focus on things beyond work and felt that they could do so because of property values and the stock market, and older folks retired because of COVID risks. For those in the reconsideration category - burnout was a major factor, particularly among women, who still disproportionately carry the burden of family care. Women have been affected more than men, and younger age groups more than older ones.
Many have been forced to reconsider the role that work plays in their lives because of burnout, low support, and workers deciding that low pay or scrambling to make ends meet was not good for their overall mental health and well-being.
We’re living in a society where so many people are at the end of their rope. Burnout and exhaustion and overwhelm are a way of life for so many people - and I can’t help but think of mental health and wholeness as I read these two stories from scripture - one from the Hebrew scriptures about a prophet running for his life and one from the Gospels about a man in mental torment.
We may not be fleeing the vengeance of a wrathful and powerful queen - and we may not be plagued by actual demons, but many of us surely feel like we are at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves, forces that we may feel are trapping us, pursuing us, waiting for us to stop so they can overwhelm us. It can be easy to feel like there’s Legion - Many Soldiers - within us, as, in the words of Dan Clendenin at Journey with Jesus, “we’re all a mysterious mixture of powerful influences that we did not choose — nature, nurture, geography, and culture.”
And maybe, in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, God can feel like one of those mysterious forces too, as God also pursues and seeks after us.
Elijah is a man on the run. He’s just won an epic throwdown with Queen Jezebel’s prophets of Baal after a display of God’s power and might that ended with the people of Israel rounding up all those other prophets and slaughtering them and that brought about a heavy rain that ended the severe famine in the land. Jezebel was none too pleased about what Elijah’s words and actions had instigated, and so he fled to the wilderness, fearing for his life. He finds a bush and exhausted, worn out, burnt out, he collapses there, begs for God to take his life because he’s had enough, and falls asleep.
In that place, God doesn’t speak divine words of wisdom. God doesn’t encourage or compliment or try to cheer him up. God meets Elijah with food. With water. With rest. Sustenance for the long journey ahead that for 40 days and 40 nights takes Elijah to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. God again meets Elijah here with a question - “What are you doing here?” Elijah answers, God passes by, God asks the question again, and again Elijah answers - and in response this time, God gives Elijah instructions for what to do next.
I’m struck by the provision and nurture God gifts Elijah while he’s in the wilderness. God doesn’t try to steer Elijah back on track, but companions him out into the wilderness, giving him strength to get to where he needs to be until Elijah is able to hear what God has for him next. God helps restore Elijah to a place, walking with him in his fear, holding space for him when he had had enough of it all, providing the well of silence and a gentle whisper that allowed for clarity and restoration to bring Elijah back to his prophetic role. God says, “Yeah, you’ve had enough. Eat something. Take some naps. Take some time in the wilderness. The world will still be on fire when you get back - but after you hear my voice you’ll know you’re not alone.”
Contrast this story a bit with that of the demoniac that Jesus encounters. This man was so far from himself - filthy, naked, violent, exiled to live homeless in the burial grounds. Jesus wasn’t looking for this man; he was there when he arrived on the other side of the lake. The man, however, speaks words that were from the evil spirit within him “Creator Sets Free (Jesus), Son of the One Above Us All, what do you want with me? I beg you not to torment me!” He pushes Jesus away. But Jesus, undeterred, asks the name of the spirit - and receives the name “Many Soldiers” - “Legions” and acquiesces to the request to be sent into the pigs. It’s the stampeding pigs that drown themselves in the lake that scare the herders, who go tell the villagers what happened. When the villagers come to see, the man is now clothed and sitting by Jesus. They are filled with awe and fear but it wasn’t until the villagers get the full scoop from the eye-witness pig herders that they beg Jesus to leave. The healed man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to return to his friends and family - his community - and share what has happened to him. And so a shunned outsider becomes an insider at the feet of Jesus, disclosing the mysteries and workings of God’s message of hope and healing.
In this case, Jesus sees the man as whole, separate from the demons that plague him. He engages with those spirits, understanding that what ailed the man was not who he truly was. He sees beyond the surface - beyond the nakedness, beyond the dirt and the scars, the violence and aggression, and restores the man to himself. Restores the man to community and relationship.
Also - and there’s a whole alternate reading of this text as political satire that I just read about last night and that made me seriously consider ditching everything I had prepared and read straight from what Diana Butler Bass wrote on this piece - but one piece that stood out to me was the whole name of the demons being “Legion” - a reference, of course, to the Roman empire - and as we think about human beings in relationship to empire and what expectations get placed on us, our bodies, our dreams as a result of oppressive forces demanding our allegiance and claims laid on our identities that cause us to place our sense of self-worth and source of meaning in what the empire can provide and that can be a source of deterioration and destruction as we become occupied by being a good productive citizen as opposed to the truth of ourselves as beloved children of God -- a powerful tool of empire is to undermine mental health and well-being. As I said, there’s a whole sermon in there as well.
In both our texts today, we see the divine encounter in the midst of the noise. In the swirl of natural forces, God isn’t there, but in the gentle whisper. With the varied voices of Legion, Jesus’s voice shines through. God meets us in the midst of overwhelm, in the places where we’ve had enough and want to throw up our hands and toss it all to the wind, in the cacophony of demands that have their hold over us - God meets us, God strengthens and nurtures us, God feeds us - and lets us rest, and God accompanies us on the next part of our journey. We find sustenance - body and spirit - in what God provides.
Our mental health and well being is just as important as our physical health and just as important as our spiritual health. To be sure, Christ is not a substitute for a therapist or a counselor or medication - but God’s healing spirit moves and meets us in those spaces just as powerfully, offering resurrection life in the barren places in our spirits. In the midst of the mess and chaos, we are reminded, too, of God’s ever loving, steadfast presence, the companionship of the one who will never leave nor forsake us, who will always seek after our hearts to bring us back to life, who, in the words of Isaiah 43, says to us, "Do not fear, I am with you. You are mine. I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." Those are powerful words as we navigate through the sheer volume that life throws at us.
In simpler terms, “you are not alone, and this will not last forever.”
As you navigate this coming week - as you look at priorities and to-do lists, as you consider the weight of the news, as you wonder how you’re going to make it through all the demands that summer on Chebeague can bring, as you sit with life sometimes at full-on screech mode, remember to breathe. To stop and find the gentle whisper of God to renew your spirit. To let Jesus speak through the legion of things that lay claim to you and banish them for a time to restore and ground you. Stop to rest. Eat, sleep, nap, take a break from your phone or the news; everything will still be there when you are ready to re-engage. But maybe find a different path forward. Reevaluate and find a more life-giving rhythm. Resist being what is expected of you this summer…this season… Let Jesus meet you in the chaos of the world…let him restore your sense of clarity and purpose…and be released to witness the healing and resurrection power of Christ - who breaks all that is death-dealing in this world, and who restores us to life. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.