Bruised Reeds

Last Sunday I preached at The Chapel in the Pines in Camp Sherman, Oregon. Envision a delightful congregation gathered in a quaint chapel surrounded by magnificent old growth ponderosa pine. Two refurbished railroad cars—once part of a logging camp—make up the chapel, with a large deck for outdoor seating. This was the third in a short series of messages about Elijah, a man the apostle James claimed was “just like us” (James 5:16).

Just like us? Just like me? Really, James? Most of the time, I don’t feel like Elijah at all. I’m not like the bold divine spokesman who stared down King Ahab, making bold prophecies about the weather. I don’t see any resemblance between myself and the Elijah who single-handedly challenged 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal to a throw down on top of Mt. Carmel.

But then again, I do somewhat identify with the wimpy prophet who ran like a scared rabbit from Queen Jezebel’s death threat. Remember the scene in 1 Kings 19? Elijah sprinted deep into the wilderness and cowered under a broom tree, praying for a quick death.

The bold man was now a broken man. The man of faith was hiding in fear. Now, that’s a bit more like me. Been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt. Groveling with guilt and failure tends to come naturally.

But let’s not focus on Elijah’s stunning collapse. Let’s consider God’s stunning response.

If I had been writing the story, I would have thought that a severe divine rebuke was in order here. “Hiding under a tree? Really, Elijah? What in the world has come over you? Where is your faith? What happened to the bold prophet? Suck it up, man. And get out from under that scrawny tree!”

But that’s not what happened here. Not at all.

Picking up the story in 1 Kings 19, I discover that God sent an angel into the boonies to care for His AWOL prophet. Note that Elijah was sleeping—bone-tired from the massive spiritual battle on Carmel and physically exhausted from sleep deprivation, lack of nourishment, and from running a fast 10k into the Negev. The angel “touched” Elijah— no brutal shaking—just a gentle nudge. When the angel spoke, there was no scolding. He simply said, “Arise and eat.” Freshly baked bread and cool water were on the menu that day. The angel let the prophet drop back into deep slumber, before awakening him later for another nourishing meal. I like to imagine the heavenly visitor sitting under the broom tree with Elijah, protecting him while he slept and dined.

Refreshed and renewed, the prophet was ready for a journey to Mount Horeb—and a close encounter with God Himself.

Secluded in a mountain cave and probably replaying the tapes of his failure, Elijah ignored the earthquake and the violent wind. But then a gentle whisper drew him out of his self-imposed prison. The conversation between the Lord and Elijah went like this:

“Elijah, what are you doing here?”

“…I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:9, 10, emphasis mine).

The conversation replayed a second time almost word for word—the words of a depleted man running for his life and struggling with his sense of failure. In the words of Isaiah 42:1-4 and of Matthew 12:15-21, Elijah would qualify as a “bruised reed” or a “smoldering wick.”

In those passages, both Isaiah and Matthew were applying them to the earthly ministry of Jesus. In other words, Jesus would show compassion for rejected, discouraged men and women.

Most people would ignore or simply trample a broken reed. What good is it? It’s worthless for weaving a basket, crafting a boat, or making a walking stick or parchment. And a flickering, smoldering lamp? There is no beauty or utility in that! You might say the same about broken and destitute people like Elijah. They tend to get overlooked—or worse—trampled by the strong in their rush to make it to the top of the heap.

Not so with Jesus. Our Lord took notice of the outcasts, devalued or scorned by the religious elites. I love Matthew’s description of our Lord: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). That’s our God, isn’t it? This is the God who restored a broken prophet—and sent along a friend and companion named Elisha to walk with him. To the day of his passing, Elijah would never again have to face his foes alone. Never again would Elijah say, “I alone am left.”

We serve the God of the second half and the second chance. He heals broken reeds and trims smoldering lamps so they shine brightly again.

Listen again to His invitation to people like you and me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

When the moment came for Elijah to exit the world, beamed up to heaven in a whirlwind, the prophet’s younger friend Elisha cried out, “My father! My father!” In God’s grace and kindness, they had become that close.

Could it be that you feel a little like an exhausted servant of God hiding under a bush today? A broken reed…a lamp that barely stays lit. Just remember we serve the same God who sought out Elijah in his lowest moment, gently restoring his strength and giving him back his will to run the race.

The God of the second chance. Hallelujah.