Elijah and Hotcakes – Sermon 2015
Well heaven has finally come to earth – at least for an hour on Wednesday evenings. The Great British Bake Off is back! Mary Berry in her stylish jackets and Paul Hollywood with his unfathomable blue eyes, Mel and Sue armed with comradary and innuendo. And the first episode this week didn’t disappoint. Madeira cakes and Black Forest gateau’s were made with love and style.
But even in the summery world of the BBC, bunting and baking, it seems that life can get too much. Last year we had the bincident, where an unset icecream caused front page news. This year, in the first episode, a sloppy mousse meant one cake turned out to be more black swamp than black forest – and led to tears.
Sometimes, despite our efforts, things don’t always go our way.
I wanted this morning to concentrate on our Old Testament reading – because it is a curious and rich story, but not one that I think is so well known.
In it we have the prophet Elijah. In the bit before our story he has been involved in a cooking competition of sorts – against the prophets of the god Baal. Queen Jezebel is trying to turn the country away from the God of Israel to a nation of Baal worshippers. God tells Elijah to set up a contest. Whose God will light the fire to cook the bull? The prophets of Baal, dance and chant in a frenzy, but nothing happens. Elijah pours water over his altar, bull and wood – and his God makes it burst into flame.
But after the glory of this moment, comes the death threat. Jezebel wants Elijah dead. So he runs and runs, leaving everyone behind. And two days later he is worn out – physically and emotionally. And that’s when we get to the story for today – because here we see Elijah slumped under a broom tree. He’s had enough. He is tired. He is so low. He wants to die.
But in that lonely place, in his despair, he is not alone. And God sends angels to minister to him. And this is the bit I particularly like. When he awakes he finds cakes cooked by angels on hot stones and water.
Now we are not told exactly what these cakes are like. Some bibles translate the word as ‘bread’, so may be they are a savoury every day sustenance – but I think our imaginations can do better than that. I think I’d like to picture it as some wonderful bake-off affair. May be a large Victoria sponge with fresh strawberries and cream. Or perhaps we may imagine those angels wearing pinnies deep in concentration as they place frosted roses on a four tier red velvet cake as Elijah sleeps, or perhaps it was just one small but perfectly formed delicate French fancy with a cream filling and lemon icing and a slice of glace peel on the top.
The thing is it doesn’t say. But what it does speak of, is God’s tender care, his kindness, his provision, when we need to rest.
And another thing I love about this story is, that Elijah doesn’t immediately bounce back into life. He lifts his head, bleary eyed. He sees the cake and eats. He has a drink. And then he lies back down. For when we are exhausted, sometimes it takes time to recover. And God doesn’t shake him, and say pull yourself together. Rather he sends those baker-angels again. And they make him yet another cake, cooked on hot stones. Maybe if we take the word to mean bread this time, perhaps we can still imagine a buttery brioche with warm chocolate centre or morrocan plaited loaf with harrissa dip.
But the food is waiting, as Elijah stirs once more. And the kindness of God feeds him. And this time he is rested. And he is no longer hungry. And those two small meals pick up a man who felt near to death and lead him back into life.
We all get worn out. It may be because of a physical and busy life. Work, families, household chores, the hours given to church, or particular organisations, or helping neighbours. Sometimes we can be just plain tired. But also there may be other things that wear us out. Problems we have been living with for a while. Failing health. Efforts to make relationships better. Those things that worry us, wake us in the night.
And we all need chances to rest. Although for some of us that is easier than others, I know. But what I wanted to draw out of the reading today is that when we are weary rest is OK. God knows our needs, how there are times we need to put things down, how our efforts can sometimes make us worn out. How tired we can get on occasion even of life itself.
And if that is you, then maybe keep that image of Elijah giving up, and the gentle care of the angels, baking while he is resting, feeding him and then allowing him to slumber once more. For in that picture I think we see the kindness of God. Sometimes we may picture God as a taskmaster, who wants more than we can give. Who is only satisfied with utter self-sacrifice.
It is true that God calls us to particular tasks and people at particular times of our life. It is true also that in living for others we can discover a deeper way of living. That in dying to self, we find life. And for some of us, for example if we care for another, then we have little choice in the matter also.
But, within that, God is desiring to give us life. He is there with watchful gaze wanting to sustain us, to feed us, to give us strength for when that is needed – and allow rest for when we simply need to stop.
Come to me all you who labour and are weary, says Jesus, and I will give you rest.
There’s another lovely story from the desert fathers, those 3rd century Orthodox brothers who lived a life of prayer in the Egyptian desert.
One day one asked the abbot accusingly – what do you do about the monks that fall asleep during prayer? And the abbot replied, to the brothers surprise – why I take their heads and gently rest them in my lap. Rest is not sinful, rest is restorative.
So for those of us who may feel worn out, physically, emotionally or even spiritually drained. God invites us to rest. To rest in him. And today, we also have the gift of heavenly food. Food lovingly and painfully produced. Less, victoria sponge (although there’s some of that after the service for Mary) – but divine all the same. As we share bread and wine at the altar rail – we are being given that food which is restorative, whatever our longings and needs, food which is life giving, food which will tend to us patiently while we are low – and food which will sustain us for all that lies ahead.
And so we come, drop to our knees, if we can, hold out our hands as we ask to be fed – and God welcomes and responds, and feeds. And frail as we are we find the strength to stand, to walk and to return. Because through his kindly presence – he gives us the strength to go on.
I am the bread of life, says Jesus, those who come to me will never be hungry.
Come to me all you who are heavy burdened, he says, and I will give you rest.