I couldn’t help, scrolling through this morning’s lessons, but circle back to that Atlantic article of a week ago, the one that begins with the vivid description of a man slumped over in an airplane,
“It’s not true that no one needs you anymore.”
These words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The plane was dark and quiet. A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response, something to the effect of “I wish I was dead.”
Again, the woman: “Oh, stop saying that.”
Arthur Brooks goes on from there to consider his own looming irrelevance, the inevitable intellectual decline faced by everyone as they go forward to the grave, step by step. You see it coming and ought to responsibly consider what to do. Do you dig in your heals and refuse to acknowledge it? Do you run? Do you make some kind of grand statement? Do you write a self-justifying book? Do you make sensible decisions about what’s coming next? Do you give way to other people? Do you despair?
If you’re wandering around in the Bible, Sunday lectionary in hand, looking for answers or something, you are welcome to despair. Elijah, ascending to the heights with signs of power, zealous for the Lord, nevertheless, when another round of trouble rises to great him, just can’t take it anymore. Crushed to earth, exhausted in the wilderness, as far away from the center of action as he can get, his plaintive, “I, even I only, am left” is me every morning, trying to face the bright dawn, not having the wherewithal to even begin to cope with another onslaught of evil, trouble, sin, inconvenience, personal misery, and occasional peril.
So the angel of the Lord feeds him, which, if you flip back over to Luke, so does the Lord feed all those exhausted wanderers in the wilderness, 5000 of them at least, a little earlier in that chapter.
The binding is Psalm 16—surely what Elijah meant to say if he hadn’t been so disappointed and tired. “I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Except that he is, utterly shaken. As indeed are the three nameless seekers Jesus encounters on his flinty way south, to Jerusalem.
‘I’ll follow you,’ says the first, ‘no matter where you go.’
‘Probably not though,’ discourages Jesus, ‘you won’t be comfortable. There will be nowhere to sleep. Wild animals will be more settled than you if you come with me.’
‘I’ll come,’ says the second, ‘only let me go bury my parents,’ who, we might speculate, even if they had just died, would still need a year, at least, of burial attention. In other words, I’ll come, but not just now, because I have some important stuff to do.
‘I’ll come,’ says the third, ‘only let me first go say goodbye to my family.’ And you’d think Jesus would consider the offer, because it’s not like there are tons of people lining up to follow him—of his meager inner circle, one of those is a devil.
Maybe the Psalmist is deluded to be so cheerful, carrying on about lines falling in pleasant places, about being secure, about having the deep abiding inclination to rejoice. You could read it that way—the annoying optimist—or you could notice that this is the Psalm that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost. It’s not about Elijah, or you, or me, it’s a Psalm about Jesus. Which makes it even stranger.
…Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge…he says on the way to the cross.
…The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips…he says to the world as he drinks down the foaming cup of God’s wrath down to its very dregs.
…The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup…he says as he dies.
The bit that Peter mentions is verse 10. And so does Paul somewhere…for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor let your holy one see corruption.
Because that’s the true anxiety. However tired and disappointed you are by this life, there is always looming the complete disappointment of death and the dark, opaque unknowing of the next. Counting over your portion and your cup now, however great it is, you won’t be able to hold onto it. It will slip away from you and be left for other people to sort out.
Whereas, if you find that Jesus is your portion and your cup, the One who is always at your right hand no matter how far you run away, no matter the fire, the wind, or the thin unnerving silence, then you will never be abandoned to the corruption and darkness of Sheol. That is not the inheritance, the legacy, the hope you have to look forward to.
I’ll follow you, you might say to Jesus, hoping that he will make it easier now, better now, more bearable now. And so, as you are constantly confronted by the valley of the shadow of death you feel yourself longing to look back over your shoulder at the soft bed, the soothing meals, the pleasant company of this life. Don’t look back, says Jesus, it’s not worth it.
Only he can show you—in devastating and disagreeable trials—the path of life. Which is him. His presence, his person. That’s what you can look forward to, but that’s also what you have now.