Mental Health and the Gospel

Mental Health and the Gospel 23rd June ’19 Madingley

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a Gal. 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39

We often hear from those beyond the church that Christians are taking the easy way out of dealing with the problems of life. Somehow we are supposed to be abrogating our responsibilities by believing in God, whereas those who are non-believers have the courage to face life as it is without relying on external crutches. Supposedly. Yet our first lesson showed us a mighty and courageous prophet from Old Testament times, who suddenly found himself unable to carry on. The demands of life had become too much, and he simply could not face the powerful avenging force which was Queen Jezebel.

Just prior to the reading we heard today, Elijah had revealed the power of God as he inflicted an ignominious defeat of the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. When that happened, King Ahab said nothing to Elijah. But like a spoilt little boy, he complains vociferously to his wife Jezebel; she was the one who had encouraged the worship of Baal by the people of Israel. Jezebel does not exhort her husband to deal with it himself, even though, after all, he isthe king; she takes matters into her own hands and sends a messenger to Elijah threatening to kill him within the next 24 hours. Elijah, who had taken on the 450 prophets of Baal single-handedly without a second thought, flees for his life from the wrath of one avenging woman. He travels to the far south of the southern kingdom of Judah, until he is utterly exhausted, a broken man. 

Why had Elijah hit such a low point? Surely after the triumph on Mt Carmel, he should have been so aware of the power of God that nothing and no-one would deter him from the continuation of his work? God has everything under control; who then, what then, should he fear? A question which may occur to all of us from time to time.

After rest and nourishment, the word of the Lord comes to Elijah the next day, asking, very simply, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In other words, “Why have you deserted your post? Account for yourself and your actions!” But Elijah doesn’t answer the question directly. Rather, in a self-pitying and slightly petulant tone, he complains against the people of Israel, and says that he is the only person who has remained faithful to God: “I, even I only am left, and they seek my life to take it away.” 

God does not remonstrate with him, and convince him that he has made a wrong assumption. Instead, he commands him to stand on the mountain, because he is about to pass by. The familiar story unfolds, as first a strong wind, then an earthquake, and finally a fire occur. These occur repeatedly in the OT as the signs of God’s presence.But God was in none of them. Unlike the demonstration of his power on Mt Carmel, on this occasion he will not be experienced in the spectacular. God is Lord of nature; after all he created it. But he is nota pagan nature god who inhabits these elements. So instead, in the lull that follows, there is, [and the Hebrew is almost untranslatable into English,] literally, “a voice of gentle stillness.” “The sound of sheer silence,” as the NRSV translates it. 

Having reassured him about his mysterious and overwhelming power, God then commissions Elijah to carry out even more daring exploits, which includes anointing a new king for a foreign nation, an unprecedented event. But he does also receive the promise of someone else to inherit his mantle and continue his prophetic ministry. And interestingly, after all his protestations about, “I even I only am left”, God gently points out that there are still 7,000 people in the nation of Israel who have not bowed the knee to other gods. 

Where we may have felt sympathetic towards Elijah, and even empathised with his predicament, the Gospel reading presented us with something more of a challenge to our 21st century understanding. Elijah appeared to be having a breakdown; an experience which is unfortunately all too common today. And we hear constantly in the news, stories of famous men and women speaking of their battles with addiction, and problems caused by stress, and reports of our young people struggling with mental health issues. We may have more specific names for mental illnesses, but the symptoms have been known throughout history, as the Gospel reading showed us today.

The healing of the possessed man comes immediately after Jesus has revealed his power over nature, and therefore indicating his divine nature, by quelling the storm which blew up as he and the disciples sailed across Lake Galilee, and that is relevant to today’s reading. They had travelled away from their immediate home territory, into an area whose inhabitants were Gentiles. The small town of Gergesa was on the eastern side of the lake, and there is indeed a steep place close to it. Even the apparent fate of the so-called demons, as the herd of pigs stampeded down the precipice into the lake, shows up the fact that Jesus was away from his religious roots, because no Jew would keep, or have anything to do with such animals, which were considered to be unclean.

The scene is set for a battle between the powers of darkness of the man’s deranged mind, and the calming power of God in the figure of his Son. Most unusually, Jesus asks the man for his name. That in itself is a sign of the magnitude of the problem; from earliest times it was believed that if you knew the name of a person, it gave you some power over him. Interestingly, this poor man had already recognized the truth of who Jesus is, and named him.

In answer to Jesus’ question, the man tells him that his name is Legion. In the Roman army, a legion was a body of 6,000 infantrymen together with the auxiliary troops. This poor man clearly felt that he was occupied by thousands of different voices clamouring for his attention. All his symptoms have a note of authenticity; his abnormal strength, insensitivity to pain, refusal to wear clothes, and the multiple and fluctuating personalities. Those working in mental health today would recognize those symptoms.

At the beginning of the account, he was alone, out of control, and naked. At the end, he is sitting clothed, in his right mind, and asks Jesus if he can accompany him on his travels. However, Jesus

commissionshim to go to his own people, to act as a missionary to the terrified and hostile inhabitants of his home town. As in the first reading, when Elijah had been reassured of God’s power and mystery, and he was commissioned by God to carry out even more interventions in the history of the nation, while at the same time being reassured that there will be others to assist him and carry on his work, so in the Gospel reading, Jesus first heals the man, and then gives him important work to do.

In both cases, God has been revealed as lord of creation — and much more besides. The revelation that Elijah receives not only restores his shattered confidence, but actually reveals a deeper and more mysterious aspect of the nature of God than had been recognized before. The powers of our internal darkness and the external evils of the world are not equal and opposite to the power of God. He is much greater, and isin control. 

But that is not to avoid the fact that mental health issues are immensely difficult to deal with, and cause us all much suffering. There must be very few families who have not experienced some form of it. But maybe what the church can offer today is a place of comfort, support, and direction towards the power of God to reassure, bring healing through all available means, and encourage the sufferers and their families into newly restored life. The church does not offer simplistic solutions, but it should be able to point to the mercy and compassion of God, who himself knows what it is to suffer as a human being, and can lead us into the restorative peace of his presence.