Wilderness Experiences

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August 12, 2018. We all have wilderness experiences, times when we feel troubled, scared, and depressed. The Prophet Elijah was no stranger to these feelings. Pastor Stephanie talks about Elijah’s journey, the origin of the word “companion,” and Jesus the living bread, in today’s sermon.


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I’m sure many of you have heard of wilderness adventures that have been advertised as being exotic and one-of-a-kind experiences. They get people to shell out serious dollars to get away from it all and to experience time and space, to reconnect with nature and one’s selves. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They come in many forms. Maybe you’ve even gone off on one and had the time of your life. Having spent some time in the beautiful Rocky Mountains a month ago and hiking back into some less traveled paths, I can relate to refreshing experiences of enjoying wilderness beauty, and many of you can as well. Hardly anything beats slowing down enough to be refreshed by hanging out in beautiful locations.


I assure you there was nothing too exotic on our itinerary. Just some good hiking, photography, and breathing in the lovely alpine air with our family. But judging from the coming and going of so many of you — some whom I’ve met briefly and then you’ve been gone for a Sunday, or I’ve been gone for a Sunday — I know that there have been times in our spaces together in which you have traveled as well as I have traveled, and I hope that you’ve had some wilderness type experiences that have refreshed your soul and your spirit. Because there is tremendous value in getting away to places that are full of natural beauty and near solitude. It helps our mental health, doesn’t it? It refreshes our bodies, and our spirits as well.


But sometimes being in the wilderness takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is not so pleasant, and even one that we would love to avoid at all costs. It can be described metaphorically as times when we feel somewhat lost, or at least less anchored. We might be experiencing challenging circumstances and we are feeling deeply discouraged, or we may be coming off a time period where the demands on our physical and emotional health have been such, but now we feel nearly depleted. It’s even possible that we cannot put a finger on what it is that makes us feel out of sorts, but we are troubled, sometimes depressed and scared.


We might call these our wilderness experiences.


Now, parenthetically, depression is a tricky thing. Some of what I’ll say today could cause more discouragement if you, or someone you know, is going through serious clinical depression. If that’s the case, medical treatment should be sought. I would in no way want to be considered suggesting that a person is not spiritual enough when depressive thoughts are present. That is certainly not the case. There are many complicating factors, and it’s best to have it fully examined and treated. Right now, we’re going to be talking about things that make us mad or sad, like I was talking about with the children. Feeling depleted and discourage is certainly not an uncommon human condition.


I’m sure many of us could relate a bit to Elijah. Even the likes of Elijah, one of the most well-known and respected of the Old Testament prophets, was engulfed in discouragement during the time of our reading. This reading recounts his discouragement following an extraordinarily high high for him, which indicates that success and feel-good moments can actually be rather short-lived, can’t they? We can be high and feeling great one day, and the next day something happens and our feelings plummet.


But Elijah has just challenged the Prophets of Baal to a showdown. And to sum it up, God showed up in a very big way to vindicate what Elijah was claiming that God had the power to do. So here in the next scene, we may be quite surprised that Elijah has run out into the wilderness after threats on his life were made by the wicked Queen Jezebel. After all he, had just faced off bigger odds, but now he is deeply shaken to his core.


Elijah is so upset, he sends his servant away. That may mean he thinks he’s done with his work that God had sent him to do. He seems to be quitting. He’s had enough. Even more telling regarding his state of mind, he said to God that he would prefer that God take his life now. This is serious discouragement. Elijah is at the lowest point of low.


But then he falls asleep, and we are told of this interesting sequence of events: an angel touches him and says, “Get up and eat.” Looking around, Elijah sees a cake baking on the hot stones around him, as well as a jar of water. He eats the cake, kind of a bread-like item, and drinks the water, and decides to lie down again. A second time, the angel of the Lord touches him and says, “Get up and eat. Otherwise, the journey will be too much for you.” Again, Elijah gets up and eats and drinks. But this time he gets up from his place of dejection and moves on. Apparently this interaction with the messenger from God, and the food and drink provided, have strengthened him enough, because the text says he sets off on a journey for 40 days and 40 nights. That is a pretty significant turn around.


Incidentally, you may know that 40 days and 40 nights is Biblical talk for a Very Long Time. He’s setting off on a very long hike. Some rabbinic traditions say that 40 days and 40 nights is the time period it takes to receive refreshment from impurities. In other words, it may take 40 days and 40 nights, or a very long time, for a complete renewal and full vigor to return. So probably, Elijah was in the process of being renewed through that time period as he reflected on God’s caring presence in coming to share food with him. How thoughtful it was, he might have reminded himself, for God to come to him and tenderly feed him and encourage him. The more he dwelled on that thought, perhaps the better he felt. We can handle our toughest situations, can’t we, when we know that God is with us.


I learned something interesting this week. Something I’m kind of surprised that I’d never heard before. You’re going to think I’m changing the subject or that I have lost my train of thought, which could also happen, but I’m going to ask you what the origin of the word “companion” means. Because really it does relate here. So I ask, does anyone seem to know what the origin of the word “companion” means? Who wants to venture a guess? [Someone answers.] Yes, absolutely. He’s got it. It means “to have bread with.” The Latin root of the word “com” (you probably know, it shows up in a lot of English words) means “with.” But “panion” (or “panis” in Latin) means “one with whom we share bread.” So it means it “bread.” But when you put it with the “com” it becomes “one with whom we share bread.” That is what a true companion is.


I guess we all know that eating with others is something we enjoy, but I wonder if we’ve ever thought of eating bread as being foundational to strengthening us for life’s challenges. Of course, when we think about it, it’s what happens at every special event we want to commemorate. We have food. And what do we need daily for health and nourishment and nutrition? Food again. So, mix our food, our need for food, our awareness of food, with an awareness of the presence of God, and you have a winning combination.


Both stories in our readings today have two things in common. First, Elijah and the people in the crowd with Jesus are given food to nourish them. And secondly they are aware, to some degree, of the presence of God caring for them as they eat. Essentially they are nourished by the companionship of God with them. We can all handle a lot, can’t we, when we sense that God Is with us in whatever we’re facing. And sometimes God makes that presence noticeable through sending friends and sending people who encourage us by the spirit of God.


But it’s a real difference maker when we know that God is with us despite the circumstances. That’s why when Jesus tells us that he is the living bread, he is letting us know that he is with us, always. His presence with us, his companionship with us, is everlasting. His presence as living bread is continuous, making it very different from the manna that God provided for the people in the wilderness after they had fled Egypt. Manna, if you’ll recall, had a very short shelf life. It had to be collected every morning and it would spoil if they kept it too long.


But Jesus as the living bread is with us unendingly. Eternally. He never leaves us, nor forsakes us. He is with us in the joyful times, in our wilderness times, and at all times in between. Life wears us down with its demands, responsibilities, and challenges. But the good news, friends, is this: Jesus, the living bread, endlessly refreshes us as our companion on this journey that we call life, giving us strength for our own journeys.


We will be fed once again today as we commune. As we approach the table of grace and provision today, let us be mindful that we are celebrating the companionship that our Lord offers. We are nourished at the table because of the Lord’s presence with us. And as we receive these gifts of God, we receive the strength we need for the journey of life.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, podcast, sermon, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot