What sort of time is this - when it's Lockdown in some places and not in others; when it had felt like things were getting better and now rules are tightening up again; when we can't quite see the end of this and many of us are struggling? Is it time like Isaiah 40.1-2 in the Old Testament, where God wants to say to people, 'Comfort, comfort' - 'There, there, it's alright'? Or is it a Luke 9.23-24, 'Never mind all of that - deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me' moment?
Maybe it's both. God is complex and holds these things together. He's wholly 'comfort, comfort' and he's wholly 'take up your cross and follow me.' And he's both of these things at the same time. Maybe he's a bit like this in 1 Kings 19.1-18. Have a read of it if you're not familiar with it.
One of the great things about the Old Testament is that we can see how God works with people who are often very like us.
Elijah, a prophet of God, is in trouble, with Queen Jezebel wanting to kill him, so he does what most of us would do - he runs away. Alone, he says to God, 'I have had enough'. (1 Kings 19.4). Maybe we're feeling the same - tired and sick, disillusioned and disappointed. If we've restarted church or youth groups, we may have found we've lost people. So we say to God, 'I have had enough.'
What does God want to do with us now? Maybe what he did with Elijah:
1. God met Elijah's need. And he met it abundantly. He fed him and gave him water. Then he fed him again to prepare him for the journey ahead. What are our practical needs that God wants to satisfy today?
2. God met Elijah in a gentle whisper. He let Elijah tell him how he was feeling. He was present with Elijah in a very intimate way. This wasn't a bellowing and blustering god, just a gentle voice. Elijah had taken time away from the action and God met him there. Are we taking time to allow God to meet with and minister to us? Are we calling out to God, asking him to speak to us in a gentle whisper?
3. God clarified Elijah's situation. This voice, didn't pander to Elijah's self-absorption. It wasn't as bad as Elijah thought. Yes, Jezebel was still trying to kill him, but Elijah wasn't on his own, like a lonely superhero, there were another 7000 people on God's side. God showed Elijah what the real position was. What's the real situation with Covid? What is God doing behind the scenes?
4. God gave Elijah a job to do. God didn't let Elijah sit there any longer, feeling sorry for himself. Instead, God called him to continue the work God had for him. 'Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.' (v.15-16). What is the work that God is calling us to now?
Yes, there was comfort for Elijah in the food and drink and in the gentle words, but there was also an illumination of reality and a command to continue the work. 'Comfort, comfort' but also, 'take up your cross and follow me'. Maybe God is speaking to me in the same way, whenever I'm tempted towards self-pity because of Covid and social-distancing, He says, 'Here I am. What do you need? I'm with you. Now, here's where we're going next.'
Dave Thornton is author of 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry'. Buy the book here.