1 Kings 19:1-15a
“In the Strength of that Food”
This is the season in the Church Year that is called “Ordinary Time.” If I were dressed more formally in my alb and stole, I’d be wearing the dark green stole and I’d be sticking with that colour all the way through from now until Advent at the end of November.
Now, it’s not called “ordinary time” because it’s nothing special or just a regular Sunday. Ordinary Time actually refers to the ordinal numbering of the Sundays after Pentecost. Today is the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, and we’ll keep counting the Sundays like that all through the summer and fall.
But some commentaries suggest that paying attention to the more common meaning of the word “ordinary” may actually help us think about what comes after big events for a community. We celebrated Holy Week and Easter with great planning, and many people involved, and special music and liturgies. We marked Pentecost too – the birthday of the church – and rejoiced in the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out to give us courage, and confidence, and wisdom in sharing the good news with all people.
Now that the high holy days are past, and the big events (including General Assembly for me) are over, we move into a quieter time… ordinary time. Of course, there are people who find their way back to church only for those special days of celebration. They join their grandmas for Easter Sunday or keep up a family tradition of going to church on Christmas Eve.
But for those of you who keep on showing up for worship on days like the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, you have probably come to know that you need God not only on the big days of celebration too.
The author of Psalm 42 expresses his longing for God’s help and strength on one of those ordinary days when he’s feeling quite sad and mournful. He remembers going up to worship in the temple on a great festival day. He was part of the crowd that went up in procession with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving. But now, his soul is cast down. He feels forgotten and alone. He’s been crying and crying, and he doesn’t even know why.
In the midst of all that, he clings to God. He hopes in God, and trusts that he will one day feel the joy and gladness once again.
Today’s Gospel story affirms that when we experience difficult times, God’s desire is to help and heal us. In the person of Jesus, God demonstrates his power even over legions of demons. Now, the first century world view was quite different from ours today, and this story about Jesus helping a demon-possessed man may seem strange and hard to relate to.
We may not literally believe in demons, but any number of death-dealing forces today are often experienced as “possession” or being “caught up” in dynamics that exceed our intentions or control.
Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism shape-shifts over time between explicit and implicit forms; how anger consumes; how envy devours; how depression beats us down; or how sexism creates pervasive cultures of degradation. We may or may not call addiction or depression “demons,” but they are most certainly demonic. And the Gospel proclaims that Jesus has the desire and the power to overcome even the legions of demons that infect our lives.
But today I want to focus on the story of Elijah – the prophet who has had great success! But in today’s text, he has hit rock bottom.
Elijah was a prophet of God who lived and worked in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab from 874-853 BC. Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, who worshipped another god called Baal. Although Ahab was an Israelite king who would have worshipped the one God of Israel, after marrying Jezebel, he built a temple to Baal and consecrated priests to serve Baal.
In an encounter between Elijah and King Ahab, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal. The challenge is to see which god – Baal or the God of Israel – will answer his prophets. Ahab takes the challenge, gathers 450 Baal prophets, and meets Elijah on Mount Carmel.
To make a long story short, God answers Elijah’s prayers, while the prophets of Baal get no response from their supposed god. Large numbers of Israelites witness what happens and are convinced about which God is real and true. They seize the Baal prophets, take them away, and kill them all.
When King Ahab reports what happened to Queen Jezebel, she sends a messenger to Elijah that she will have him killed by that time tomorrow. Instead of a day of triumph for Elijah, it becomes a day of terror. He flees Samaria and runs over a hundred miles to an area south of Beersheba in Judah.
Malnourished, exhausted, and isolated, Elijah recedes into suicidal depression. Under the shadow of a broom tree, he asks God to take his life: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah is completely disheartened, but finally he falls asleep.
Although Elijah calls on God to take his life, instead, God feeds him. He sleeps for a while, but then an angel touches him, and directs him to get up and eat. Looking around, he sees a cake of bread baked over embers and a jar of water. He eats and drinks, and then goes back to sleep.
The angel comes back a second time, touches Elijah and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Elijah rises and eats, and in the strength of that food he travels for 40 days and 40 nights until he reaches Mount Horeb.
Of course, it’s amazing that he went so far and so long on the strength of that food, but that only underscores the importance of his pausing under the broom tree to rest and to eat. Whether we are suffering from a very real depression, or whether we are simply overworked, stressed out, or exhausted from the heavy demands of ministry, work, or family life, we need to give ourselves permission to rest and to eat.
I spent several days in Toronto doing just that after moderating the General Assembly a few weeks ago. The first evening, we ate at an Indian restaurant, and after the high stress and responsibility of the Assembly, I just sat there looking at the menu feeling overwhelmed by the choices.
In order for me to get fed, Nick had to select some items from the menu that I would enjoy, and then I spent several days mostly napping, walking, and eating. I didn’t have a broom tree and an angel, but I had a comfortable hotel and a husband to take care of me, and it was just what I needed.
Do you know anything about broom trees? I didn’t know what a broom tree was, so I looked it up this week. I learned that in biblical Israel, the white broom tree was used for kindling in cooking stoves, and coals were made from its roots, trunks, and branches. The unique thing about broom embers is that they retain their heat for long periods after they appear to be dead ashes.
If an ancient Israelite read that on awakening Elijah saw bread baked on embers, she would have assumed the embers retained fire from an earlier traveler and were blown into heat to bake the bread.
Apparently, desert travelers would prepare for a night outdoors by forming a layer of broom embers to suit their size. They would cover the embers with a 2-4 inch layer of sand or fine soil, and the sand-covered embers would provide a warm mattress during the cold desert night. Perhaps Elijah had such a mattress as he slept under the broom tree.
I also learned that the broom tree is not actually a tree. It’s more of a shrub with a broad canopy. In Israel the white broom tree is most beautiful between January and April when it is covered with a myriad of white flowers that emit a honey fragrance.
At times, the seeds of a broom tree remain viable in the soil for several years until the seed coats wear down. Mass germination can also occur after a fire that destroys the seed coats. Other times, rabbits consume the seed pods, and they’ve been known to disperse the seeds up to six miles from the parent plants.
So, the symbolism of the broom tree is renewal. When Elijah arrived at the broom tree, he was exhausted, depressed, and ready to die. But while he rested there, eating and drinking and sleeping, the broom tree provided for his renewal.
If the shrub was blooming, Elijah would have seen thousands of tiny white blooms and smelled their soothing scent. Sinking below the tree’s canopy, Elijah likely fell asleep on a soft bed of broom leaves. Warm embers under the sand may have helped maintain his warmth in the cool desert night. The broom tree’s embers were used to bake a cake of bread for Elijah; and God provided Elijah with water in the desert.
Just as God renewed Elijah using the attributes of the broom tree, God desires to renew and strengthen us when we are tired, discouraged, or even depressed. We should not feel guilty or self-indulgent for taking the time we need for renewal. And we can be like angels for each other too – providing caring gifts of hospitality and service when someone else really needs that personal time of rest.
But Elijah’s story of renewal is not completed under the broom tree, and I don’t think our needs will be completely fulfilled by soft beds, warm baths, and comfort foods either. In the strength of that food that the angel gave to him, Elijah got up and travelled for 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb (which is another name for Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses met God and received the ten commandments).
Somehow Elijah knew that he did not only need physical sustenance, but he needed the spiritual help that only God could give him. So he got up and went to look for God.
When he got to the mountain, he talked to God about how he was feeling – about his frustrations and fears, and his complaints about how life wasn’t being fair to him. And then he waited to see what God would say.
There was plenty of noise that followed… a great wind so strong that is was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
I don’t know if Elijah expected God to speak to him in a dramatic way like that. After all, he knew that Moses had encountered God on the mountain in fire and storm and cloud. Perhaps he was hoping for a loud-and-clear message from God – a commandment or two, or a demonstration of God’s power that would be on Elijah’s side for the rest of his mission.
But when Elijah did hear God, it was in the sound of sheer silence. He wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave, and he talked with God some more.
It would be nice to say that God heard Elijah’s complaints, solved his problems, and gave him sure and certain assurances of safety and success for the days ahead. But that’s not really what happened.
Elijah talked and God listened, and then God sent him back to keep on working on his prophet’s mission. And I think that’s usually what it’s like for us also.
On these ordinary days, and on the difficult days when we are exhausted, discouraged, or even depressed, Elijah’s story encourages us that it is good for us to rest, to eat, and to take care of ourselves. And it is good for us to care for each other too, when people in our families, our churches, or others in our circles especially need to be renewed in their energy and strength.
And in the strength of that food, we also must go and look for God. Look for him in Scripture, in worship, and in quiet places where we can talk to him about our struggles and complaints and needs. We must trust that our faithful God will come to us, that God has the both the desire and the power to help us, that God can deliver us from even a legion of demons and equip us to continue our mission.
As the psalmist said: Let us hope in God; for we shall again praise him, our help and our God.