Updated: Oct 22, 2021
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: one God.
Throughout most of my life, I have had a difficult and complicated relationship with sleep. I have spent years in the throes of nightly insomnia—going to sleep late and waking up early. There were periods where I would only get two or three hours of sleep multiple times a week. Gradually, I have developed better habits around sleeping—what we might call “sleep hygiene”—and, with the help of modern medicine, I have averaged at least eight hours of sleep each night for close to four years now…
Despite this, I have a little bit of a reputation for being a napper. This is a newer thing in my life—it certainly wasn’t the case when in those rough patches of insomnia. I still get a reasonable eight hours of sleep each night, but around three or four days a week, I also treat myself to an afternoon nap. Sometimes I even turn it into a little bit of a game—I’ll say to myself, “If God wills it, I’ll fall asleep…” Most of the time, God agrees with me! But to my point: Each and every nap I take is restorative. Whether I’ve had a tiring morning or I’m stressed about some deadline, the chance to rest is always like hitting a big ‘reset’ button—my mood is improved, my energy restored, and my desire to be useful to others is reinvigorated.
Because of my affection for naps, this Sunday’s reading from 1st Kings really speaks to me. There’s a little background to this story that we need first, though. Preceding these few verses from chapter nineteen, we find Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal. He summons all the people, to Mount Carmel to sacrifice an ox, a supposed cure for a crippling famine. They build two altars—one for the God of Elijah, one for Baal—and slaughter two oxen, one placed as an offering upon each altar. Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to call upon their god for fire to burn the sacrifice. They pray all morning and evening, and no fire comes! Elijah orders that the sacrifice upon his altar be drenched with water. He prays to God, and fire immediately falls from the sky and consumes the entire scene. The Israelites are impressed with the fire and as rain falls upon the land, they realize Elijah’s God to be the true God. Elijah orders Baal’s priests to be killed. Subsequently, the killing of the priests enrages Jezebel, wife of the king of Israel, Ahab. She threatens Elijah with death as retribution.
Elijah knows her threat to be genuine, and he high-tails it out of there! He wanders south toward Beersheba but he is overcome with all of the drama of the days before. He says to the Lord, “I have had enough! Take my life!” I think we can hear in his words how completely overwhelmed he must have felt! I sense that he would have been filled with fear, overcome with despair, and just vibrating with an inescapable sense that he had failed. He must have thought about how worthless he was; not only had he failed himself, but he failed Israel and failed the Lord. These feelings tormented him, and yet he fell asleep under the only tree he had seen for hours.
Elijah is woken up by an Angel, tapping him on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah comes to and finds bread baking next to him on the hot coals under the broom tree as well as a large jar of water. Elijah eats some of the bread, takes a big long drink of water, and goes back to sleep.
Do you remember those Snickers commercials from a few years ago, with the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry”? There was one where a group of guys was driving down a highway, and Aretha Franklin is in the back complaining about the air conditioning. The guy next to Aretha says, “Jeff, eat a Snickers. Every time you get hungry, you turn into a diva. Just eat it so we can all coexist.” Aretha bites into the Snickers bar and the real Jeff magically appears.
I think we all have a friend who gets hangry sometimes. We just want to say to them, “Calm down and eat something. You’re being a diva. Drink some water and you’ll feel better.” Maybe we can put ourselves in the angel’s shoes, then. The angel lets him rest a while and then pokes him again, saying, “You have a long journey ahead of you; you must eat more.” Elijah gets up from his nap, eats again, and returns to his journey, feeling newly restored and capable.
For me, this story teaches two important things. First, that both naps and snacks are very important. I suspect we’ve all been in Elijah’s place. We get so run down, so burnt out, we just want to crawl under a tree and escape it all. Sometimes, when we are just so overwhelmed by everything around us, all we can possibly say is “I have had enough!”—maybe we just need to get some rest. We work and work and work and never take time to rest, to switch our phones off, to enjoy some quiet time. I think that every single day, there’s an angel somewhere, poking me, telling me that I need to find some carbohydrates, chocolate, and a bottle of water and go lie down in the shade. And some days, I even listen! But the point is that we’re too busy checking our email to spend time resting, especially resting in God’s embrace. I want us to remember that it is always our right to rest, a responsibility to relax a little. This passage teaches us that often, we need to take two steps backward, reevaluate what’s going on around us and within us, and restore our energy so we can keep doing the work that God needs us to do in the world. And it is entirely permissible—even demanded by God—that we sometimes say ‘no’ to something that distracts us and take the rest we need!
Second, the story teaches us that even when the road ahead looks rocky and impassable, there will always be an angel of some kind there to look out for us. Someone to hand us that Snickers bar and send us to bed. Someone who will nurture us, giving us the bread of heaven that we so crave, quenching our thirst with the living water that we are promised. The angel’s words remind us of something so critical to our vocations as baptized Christians: Even though the road ahead is difficult, even though there will be so many moments that we’re overwhelmed and exhausted, there will always be more than enough to sustain us—to nurture, support, and feed everyone. In God’s Beloved Community, all of this hard work will pay off, as long as we take time to rest and relax, to prepare for the next leg of our journey, and then the cakes at that great heavenly banquet will taste so sweet.