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Dead Man Walking
How a Burned-Out Prophet Came Back to Life
I Kings 19

Introduction to Series

[Notes: We use a projection system during worship. Throughout these sermons you'll see the notes we used to communicate with the media team. Also, a worship outline for this series can be found at the end of the series.]

Several months ago I ate lunch with one of my pastor friends. After a few minutes of small talk, things quickly got serious. In a rare moment of vulnerability, he said to me, "I'm so tired of ministry." [slide: church facility in background with caption, "I'm so tired of ministry."] I've been in this business long enough to know what he meant. Pastoring a church can be an extremely stressful job, just as many of you have stressful jobs. Supervising staff, constantly dealing with people in crisis, worrying about church finances, preparing yet another sermon week after week, dealing with constant criticism, navigating the inevitable conflicts that arise in churches—it all takes a toll. So I was not surprised to hear him say, "I'm so tired of ministry." In short he was saying: "I'm burned out. I've had all I can take. I'm ready to throw in the towel." [end slide] Sadly, large numbers of clergy in America are burned out. In fact, it's almost an epidemic. I know all about clergy burnout. Many years ago, when I was much younger, I had my own burnout experience, which I'll share later in this series.

But I want to be clear: clergy don't have a monopoly on burnout. Lots of people are burned out—from all professions and all walks of life, including doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, salespeople, waitresses, stay-at-home moms, students, and even retirees. Huge numbers of people in America are struggling with burnout, especially in these recessionary times. The past few years have been tough in America. In fact, the past decade has been tough. Not long ago, the front cover of Time Magazine called the past ten years in America [slide of Time Magazine cover: "The Decade from Hell."] It started with 9-11, ended with the Great Recession, and had plenty of struggles in between. A lot of people today feel stressed out and burned out. [end slide]

All this talk of stress and burnout reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons. It's been years since I saw it so I don't know the exact words. But in the cartoon a man said something like: "At age eighteen I was married. As my bride walked down the aisle, I remember crying out to myself, "But I'm not ready!" When I was twenty the government drafted me into the army. I remember screaming out, "But I'm not ready!" At age twenty-four I had my first child, and I remember saying, "But I'm not ready!" At age twenty-six and age twenty-nine two more children came along, and I screamed out, "But I'm not ready!" At age thirty-five I became vice president of my company. I was not ready. At age forty-five I became president, and I said, "But I'm not ready." Finally, in the last frame of the cartoon, you see this man hiding in an underground cave. His children, his wife, and his business associates are looking for him and calling out his name. He said, "At age fifty I ran away from home and work and came to this cave, and I'm not coming out until I'm ready!"

This fellow reminds me a lot of a prophet named Elijah. Like the cartoon character, Elijah was stressed out and burned out. Like the cartoon character, Elijah ran away to a cave. And like the cartoon character, Elijah didn't come out until he was ready.

Elijah didn't start out stressed out and burned out. If you look just one chapter earlier in 1 Kings, you see Elijah at his peak. Elijah had just come off a major victory over the false prophets of Baal at a place called Mount Carmel. It was the greatest moment of Elijah's life. On Mount Carmel we see an Elijah who is strong and gifted and articulate and powerful and successful. If Elijah lived in the twenty-first century, he would have been elected "Man of the Year" by the Rotary Club. He was at the top of his game. But then things dramatically changed. Elijah's victory over the prophets of Baal angered wicked Queen Jezebel, and she vowed to do him in. In fact, she promised to kill him within twenty-four hours. Listen again to a few verses from the story: [slide: background image of Elijah under the tree: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life." (1 Kings 19:3-4)]

So here we find Elijah—in the wilderness—sitting under a tree—tired and depressed and ready to throw in the towel. A man who, just days before, had been so strong, so healthy, and so vibrant, is now a stressed-out, burned-out shell of a man. [end slide]

I wonder. Is anybody here sitting under a tree of your own? Tired. Stressed. Burned out. Ready to call it quits? Some of you are sitting right there under the tree with Elijah. And if you aren't sitting there today, sooner or later you will be. That's just life. But the good news is that Elijah's despair and burn out are not the end of story. The fact is, Elijah eventually recovered. Over the next several weeks we are going to travel Elijah's journey from burnout to recovery. We will explore, in depth, the six steps that God led Elijah to follow in his journey toward wholeness. Steps that can help all of us either to overcome burnout, or else to prevent burnout. Today I want to give you an overview of where we are headed in the weeks to come. We'll look at the big picture of Elijah's journey toward renewal, and then we will come back and look at each step individually. So let's quickly walk through the six steps God led Elijah to take in his journey from burnout to revitalization. (Note: a detailed listening guide with Scripture references is provided at the end of the series along with a series worship outline.)

[slide: same Elijah image in background, minus the verses above. Please add these 6 points as I get to them, all on one screen]

[1. Elijah took some time off.] Human beings cannot push full-court press all of the time. Every person needs to take time off, to withdraw from the battle, and to recoup. It may not sound very spiritual to you, but Elijah's first step toward renewal was simply to stop for awhile, to take some time off.

[2. Elijah took care of his body.] If you look carefully at this text, you will see that Elijah slept, ate, and exercised. Stewardship of the body is critical to becoming whole, and we will explore this in depth in a couple of weeks.

[3. Elijah found strength from God.] Regardless of how strong we think we are, none of us are self-sufficient; we all need spiritual resources to live our lives. We need God's help to grow toward wholeness.

[4. Elijah got help from others.] Elijah realized that he could not do the job alone. He needed help from other people so he enlisted the support of another prophet named Elisha. To be whole, all of us need strength from our relationships with others.

[5. Elijah adjusted his attitude.] In this story Elijah was far too negative. He said, "Lord, I'm the only faithful person in Israel." God said, "Elijah, your math is off by 6,999. Quit being so negative, see the positives, and adjust your attitude."

[6. Elijah returned to service.] After being renewed physically, spiritually, relationally, mentally, and emotionally, Elijah went back to service. And in his service he found further healing.

As I said, this is just an overview, a skeleton, of where we are headed in the weeks head. We'll spend time looking at each step in depth. But I thought it would be good to begin the series by getting a glimpse of the big picture first. [end slide]

I once read about a monastery in Portugal that is perched on a three-thousand-foot-high cliff. To get to the monastery, visitors climb aboard a swaying basket that is pulled up the mountainside by several strong monks. One American tourist became quite nervous halfway up the cliff when he noticed the rope was old and frayed. [slide: image of old fraying rope] Trying to find comfort for his fears, he asked the attending monk, "How often do you replace the rope?" The monk replied, "Whenever it breaks."

For some here today the rope has broken. If so, Elijah's journey will help you move from brokenness to wholeness. For others here today the rope is only frayed, or perhaps the rope is in good shape. If so, Elijah's journey will help you prevent the rope from breaking. Either way, Elijah's journey toward renewal can teach all of us some important lessons. May it be so in my life and in yours.


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