A Broom Tree in the Negev: Let God Feed You
1 Kings 19:1-9
I was totally exhausted that day in October, 1985, when I got in the car with my two-year old son to drive my just-completed dissertation to the university in New Jersey. I was in the middle of my first semester of teaching here at Messiah, strapped with five classes and over 210 students, still adjusting with my wife to the new surroundings, and I hadn’t slept for two nights. Every ounce of energy I could muster went into finishing my degree, and I had nothing leftnothing.
As I made my way east on Rt. 78, I did something that I normally never do. I dozed off at the wheel and drifted onto the shoulder of the road. I quickly caught myself, moved back into the driving lane, and continued on, only to drift off again just a few miles further down the road. Finally, after going through this cycle two or three more times, I came to my senses, pulled into the parking lot of a nearby service station, and called my mother, who lived in the next town over. “Mom,” I said, “I’m not going to make it, and I’m putting both of our lives at risk. Is there anyway that you can take Tim to the house and drive me the rest of the way before the deadline passes?” Thank God, that’s exactly what she did. That day, what was typically a short, two-and-a-half hour trip turned into an almost impossibly long journey.
Life is like that, isn’t it, full of short and long journeys? Some days, weeks, months and even years just seem to fly by with hardly a bump in the road. Then others bring with them one issue or problemone pot holeafter another. I felt that way, quite frankly, just the past few weeks. After sailing through our four months away with hardly a care, our first two weeks back have stretched us nearly to the limit. The sale of our house hit another snag this weekthere is a mold problem in the basement. My son was hospitalized. We are adjusting as a family to the five of us living under the same roof again. The new school year is beginning. The staff here at the church is undergoing transition. And on and on. Suddenly, a short journey seemed like a long one.
You’ve been there, too, I know. You’ve enjoyed short trips, but you’ve also felt overwhelmed at times when the journey seemed long and even endless. Perhaps after completing an assignment or accomplishing a noteworthy feat that taxed you to the limit and left you drained and wondering how you might recover. Perhaps after taking on some new responsibility that turned out to be far more than you ever bargained for. Perhaps after receiving news that was more than you thought you could bear at the timeyour job was being phased out, the cancer had reappeared, the car was totaled, the kids were in trouble, the bills were much higher than you anticipated, mom and dad were separating. Or perhaps your journey seems overwhelming most of the time. While others around you struggle mightily when the grocery store runs out of their favorite cereal or soda, you live with nagging depression, wonder how in the world you will ever make ends meet, feel hopeless in the face of some addiction, or carry with you the scars of emotional or physical abuse. You know the difference between short journeys and long ones, don’t you? There is a broom tree in the desert in southern Israel that assures us of this remarkable truth: God knows the difference between a short journey and a long one, too!
The prophet Elijah came to understand this truth about God during a traumatic episode in his life that is preserved for us here in 1 Kings 19:1-9. In the previous chapter, Elijah experienced what was surely the climactic moment of his entire prophetic career. Serving at a time when many of his fellow Israelites were abandoning Yahweh in favor of the local weather god, Baal, Elijah found himself in a showdown of sorts on top of Mount Carmel. He and an entire company of Baal’s prophets faced each other head on, hoping to prove once and for all which of their gods really was god. At the close of the contest, Elijah stood alone, victorious and confident. Yahweh was God and Elijah was his prophet.
But look at him now just a few, short verses later. Instead of ranting and raving on center stage, challenging these opposing prophets to cry louder just in case Baal was on vacation or relieving himself in the men’s room, Elijah instead runs for his life. And when the dust finally settles, where do we find him? More than 100 miles further south, lying under a broom tree in the middle of the desert, begging God to end his life. What happened to Elijah that he ended up in such a pitiful condition? How did his journey become so long?
Although the text itself supplies no specific answer, I suspect the bottom fell out of Elijah’s life for any number of reasons. For one thing, Elijah carried a sizeable burden for his people and a high level of responsibility going into his showdown with the prophets of Baal. He knew full well the extent of Israel’s spiritual decline, and he wanted more than anything else to defend Yahweh’s name and bring about lasting change. As he mulled this over and over again in his mind, the magnitude of his people’s needs and the implications of his perceived calling no doubt intensified even further. Elijah, so it seems, had the weight of the world resting on his prophetic shoulders, and it felt heavy.
I remember well that feeling from my days as a collegiate wrestler. In spite of the fact that I weighed only 215 pounds during my senior year, I wrestled in the unlimited weight class. On three occasions that year, the match was tied when it came time for the final boutmine! As a result, the welfare of the entire team was in my hands. If I won, the team won. If I lost, the team lost. Never mind the fact that nine other guys on my team wrestled before me and contributed to the final score in the same way that I did! It all came down to me.
Sometimes, life feels heavy to many of us today for similar reasons. Our needs and the needs of those around us are sometimes considerable, aren’t they? And unlike Elijah, I do not grieve only over the sins and sicknesses of those in my own family, church and community, but over those clear around the world. I hear stories of broken families, poverty, genocide and “unreached” people-groups everywhere, and when I do, the weight of the world somehow ends up on my shoulders. Before long, I can easily slip into assuming that I must somehow right every wrong and address every need. After all, the welfare of my spouse, children, church, and the world is at stake! It all comes down to me.
In truth, neither you nor I are called to build God’s Kingdom in the world without his help or the help of others. There are others on the team, and God himself is involved in ways that we will never fully recognize, let alone understand. I’ve seen God work in the lives of my children through a great number of people other than me. There are certain people in my own congregation who respond more positively to other pastors on our staff than they do to me. And I’ve noticed over the years a growing concern in my heart to work for peace in Israel/Palestine and to help train church leaders in central Africa, a concern that I do not feel in the same way for other areas of the world. Does this suggest that certain people in my church or pressing needs elsewhere around the globe are unimportant to me? Not at all. It simply says that we cannotand are not called to!!direct our ministerial energies everywhere. God places certain burdens and responsibilities on each of our hearts, and mine are often not the same as yours. While we are not afforded the luxury of remaining on the sidelines or doing theology in an experiential vacuum, neither are we called to bear the burdens of the world single-handedly. Elijah tried, and his efforts left him thoroughly depleted. No modern-day Elijah will fare any better.
Beyond this sense of extreme weightiness, Elijah had also fallen victim to a rather natural cycle or chain of events. Anyone who pays attention to “ups” and “downs” knows full well that significant “downs” often follow on the heels of major “ups.” This is particularly true for people who invest themselves emotionally to the same degree that Elijah did. Just listen to all of the trash talking that he engaged in at the expense of Baal’s prophets. Elijah’s adrenalin was flowing freely! I grow weary just reading the story. From all indications, a significant let-down for Elijah was virtually inevitable.
And the same is true for us. There is a cyclea rhythmto life that we must pay attention to, and one of the most important principles to that rhythm is simply this: “downs” follow “ups.” What pastor, for example, has not felt limp and even unappreciated on Monday morning after preaching an especially invigorating sermon the day before? What host has not gone into hibernation when a long-awaited and much-prepared for feast is over and the dishes put away? Or think of any number of other scenarios in which a let-down often occurs following a particularly noteworthy accomplishment or contest. The days following a championship game, building campaign, college-board exams, high school musical, book publication, wedding and honeymoon, public speech, or tense negotiating session. And why is it that people struggling with sexual and other addictions often say that the most difficult times for them occur when they complete a hard week’s worth of work? Again and again, major accomplishments and emotion-packed events give way to feelings of emptiness, despair and insignificance. It certainly happened to Elijah following his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, and it happens again and again today. “Downs” tend to follow soon after “ups.” One can only imagine how Elijah might have responded differently to Jezebel’s threats had he paid more attention to this rather predictable cycle and compensated in one way or another. At the very least, he would not have been so thoroughly caught off guard and overwhelmed by the near total depletion of his own resources.
To Elijah’s credit, however, he at least had the where-with-all to withdraw from the turmoil of his situation and get alone with God. Many people deny their brokenness and push on relentlessly, drowning their inner emptiness in a vat of incessant busyness. Others vent their frustrations in hurtful ways on family members, colleagues and friends. Still others do run away, but they escape to various destructive behaviors that squelch life rather than renew it. In retreating to the desert, Elijah did not simply run from Jezebel and her threats, but to God and his provisions. Whether knowingly or not, he put himself in a position where God could meet with him without disturbance or interruption. And that, as it turns out, is precisely what God did. God, Elijah, discovered, knows the difference between a short journey and a long one.
Without scorn or condemnation, God meets the prophet precisely where he isunder a broom tree in the middle of nowhere. Elijah, after all, is not a rebellious prophet in need of rebuke. He is not even a complacent prophet who needs to be stirred. Elijah, we must remember, was just days before on the front lines defending Yahweh in the face of intense opposition. Elijah cared deeply about God and sought to serve him with his whole heart. Thankfully, God, like a discerning parent, realizes this.
Then, God, through his messenger, invites Elijah in a Eucharistic-type way to “eat and drink.” Importantly, Elijah is not left to find or produce the bread and wine by himself, anymore than we are left to feed ourselves once our own resources have run outor even before! God, Elijah quickly discovers, feeds those who are committed to him and faithful to his calling. He has what we need, even when we find ourselves in the most isolated of places.
What happens after Elijah eats and drinks, however, is particularly memorable. Rather than flexing his muscles after cleaning his plate and emptying his glass, Elijah immediately lies down and goes back to sleep again! Apparently, this first course was insufficient to fully rejuvenate the prophet after such a long and tiresome ordeal. So, without any snide remarks, the messenger invites Elijah to sit down again and eat and drink. Why? Because he knows that the as yet unannounced journey ahead of the prophet will simply be too grueling for Elijah to complete otherwise. Not only does God feed his people, but he feeds them as often as is necessary to enable them to complete whatever journeys they are required to take. I suspect that if Elijah had fallen back to sleep after eating and drinking the second time, the messenger would have repeated the invitation yet againover and over again until the prophet was rejuvenated and ready to go. God, we see here, knows the difference between a short journey and a long one. And thankfully, he makes allowances for both.
One final thought refuses to leave me when I sit with this text. In spite of his sensitivity and obvious generosity, God remains consistently resolute in his dealings with Elijah here. For one thing, he never lets Elijah off of the prophetic hook, so to speak. Caught in the middle of despair, Elijah longs to dieor at least enter a new and more rewarding line of work! God wants nothing to do with such a career change, particularly when the idea is broached during moments of desolation. Elijah was and remains God’s prophet, and God opted to rejuvenate his prophet rather than allowing him to throw in the towel.
God’s sense of resolve also appears in the very nature of his invitation to Elijah. The messenger never force-feeds the prophet or stuffs tubes down his throat. Instead, he provides precisely what Elijah needs and invites him to partake. Elijah must decide what to do next. That, at least in my experience, is God’s standard way of working in our lives during times of despair. He calls us to himself and offers us life-giving nourishment, but we must decide whether to receive it or not. So often when the journey seems long, I hear God’s call to the dinner table, so to speak. A call to prayer, silence, a walk by the stream, leisure reading, time with close friends, or even rigorous exercise, depending upon the nature of my need. God, I’ve discovered, knows the difference between short journeys and long ones, and he has plenty of food and drink to go around. We, however, must decide whether to eat and drink or not.
How might we begin to do thateat and drinkin the coming week? I want to ask each of you to do these three specific things:
1. Pay attention to your rhythm and where you are in this “up/down” cycle.
2. Remind yourself periodically that God knows the difference between short journeys
and long ones.
3. Take time to eat and drink.
Imagine how better off we would be, how much healthier we would be, how much closer to God we would be, if we sat down under a solitary broom tree and ate and drank. God knows the difference between a short journey and a long one, and he has plenty of food to go around.