1 Kings 19:1-9a
February 12, 2012
Other than Valentine’s Day – which, if I need to remind you, is this coming Tuesday – other than Valentine’s Day, I am not a fan of the month of February. With all apologies to those who have birthdays or anniversaries, February has always seemed to me like this month that’s stuck in there only because we can’t go straight from January to March. It’s always cold in February – this weekend being the perfect example. And we’re left pining for sunny, warm summer days spent around the swimming pool or soaking in the sand and surf at the beach.
Of course, it’s inevitable that once those dog days of summer get here, and temperatures soar into the three digits, February starts looking pretty good! We forget how the other extreme isn’t much better. And it’s that “other extreme” I think of when I read today’s scripture. The wilderness of the desert; the blazing and unforgiving sun, no shelter or shade in sight.
Unless you consider a broom tree shade, and that’s be stretching it. Really stretching it. The broom tree is a large shrub that only grows in the desert. There’s a picture of one on the cover of the bulletin this morning. Suffice to say it’s nothing you’d want in your garden at home. It’s made up of coarse, rough branches that reach as high as ten feet. It’s not very attractive; all scraggly and unkempt. And it certainly isn’t as shady as a tall oak or maple tree.
And yet that’s precisely where he was, underneath that broom tree. For Elijah, the great prophet of God, that tree was all he had. And to be quite honest, it was a very strange place to find him, given recent events.
Just days before, Elijah found himself literally on top of the world at Mount Carmel. For years he had duked it out with the Canaanite queen Jezebel as to whose God was more powerful. So Elijah proposed a contest– one that would pit him against the prophets of Baal and Jezebel. The rules were simple – each would be given an altar and instructed to pray, dance, do whatever to invoke their god to light that altar with fire. The one whose altar lit would win the contest and prove their God to more powerful and worthy of devotion.
You know the story. The prophets of Baal danced for hours around their altar, yelling and chanting at the top of their lungs. But their altar remained unlit. When it was Elijah’s turn, he doused his altar with water and dug a deep moat around it, also filled with water. Then he prayed a simple prayer and instantly the altar burst into flames. It was a smack-down!
Now you’d think this would earn Elijah some respect; that the people would reclaim their devotion to Yahweh and Jezebel’s influence would diminish to nothing. You would think. Instead, Jezebel, more incensed than ever, issues a death sentence on the prophet’s head. And Elijah is forced to flee to Judah, running for his very life. And when he gets there, it is not within the comforts of the great palace where we find this victorious prophet. It is not in the presence of adoring Israelites who have unanimously renewed their commitment to God.
No, we find Elijah, of all places, in the middle of a desolate and unforgiving desert, huddled underneath a broom tree. Scared, frightened, disillusioned, depressed. Elijah was totally vulnerable and exposed – exposed to the murderous whims of a madwoman, exposed to the heartbreaking “let-down” that always follows a pointless victory. And perhaps most poignantly, as if to add insult to injury, exposed to the harsh elements of the desert – the wind, sun, heat and sand – because the broom tree in which he found himself under offered no protection from those sorts of things. None. That broom tree was more than a sorry excuse for shelter. It was a metaphor for the depths of his misery. Take me now, he calls out to God through chapped lips and parched throat. I’ve had enough. Just take me now.
You know, if we just brush over this image here, if we keep reading without taking pause, we really miss what I think is a key element of these first nine verses – and that is the utter humanity of the man. This is a broken man here. You and I love to take our Biblical characters and imagine them as larger-than-life figures, putting Elijah and others on a pedestal, elevating them to someone that is something more than you and me. And while it’s true that Elijah did some pretty powerful things in his time, here he now is – huddled in the fetal position under a broom tree, of all things, at the lowest point of his life.
And whenever this sort of thing happens in the Bible, whenever these larger-than-life figures are cast into the depths of the valley, it’s almost always a sign from the one telling us the story – the writer – that they want us to do more than just observe this poor soul from a distance. They want us to see ourselves in that person, in their plight, in their suffering. They want us to identify with them.
And so I wonder this morning, how many of you can identify with what Elijah is going through here? In what ways have you hit rock bottom and cried out, I’ve had enough! In what ways can you relate to that despondency and helplessness when life deals you one dose too many of bad luck, when the things you do don’t seems to make any lasting difference, when you just can’t seem to catch a break. Like Elijah, we know the roller-coaster nature of those intoxicating highs and the hard fall that follows when the good times don’t last. It’s a shared experience of our very humanity.
Here’s a single young woman who puts on a good face in public but can’t deny the fact that, at her core, she’s lonelier than she’d ever admit. Here’s an elderly couple who seem to take turns as to who’s next in the hospital, which body part needs fixing now; and they know the doctors and nursing staff on a first-name basis. Here’s a successful businessman who can’t explain why he struggles to get motivated each morning, why he hasn’t been sleeping well, and why little in life makes him happy anymore. Here’s a long-time church member who continues coming every Sunday but can’t deny the disillusion they feel and the difficulty of trying to justify their long-held beliefs with a world that is constantly changing around them.
That’s what life is like under the broom tree. On the mountain, as Elijah discovered, life is good. Everything is according to plan. There’s a clear line between right and wrong, good and evil; and good always win. Life on the mountain is the world of the thirty-minute sitcom and the feel-good movie that suggest our problems and difficulties can always be solved and that the “right people” always come out on top.
But things are quite different under the broom tree. Here, things don’t always go according to plan. Things are rarely as “black and white” as we might like them to be. Instead, we’re mired in this unfulfilling “gray” that leaves us confused and unsure. And there’s this lingering uncertainty when it comes to ourselves and our place in this world, and perhaps even our God. In fact, as we cower under the useless shelter of the broom tree, we may even wonder where God is.
So perhaps, perhaps we’d be as surprised as the prophet was when he discovered that God was actually right there with him. In the form of an angel – an angel who brought him food and water; sustenance for the journey and for life under the broom tree. God-with-him, under that tree. This kind of flies in the face of conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? Because the world tends to view God as residing somewhere “up there;” apart and separate from what goes on “down here.” Salvation is seen as God coming down out of the heavens and kind of yanking us up out of our troubles, out of our broom tree lives, and pulling us to safety. God is kind of relegated to the role of lifeguard – always watching us, but only really coming to be with us when we need God the most.
But what Elijah discovered that day, in a very dramatic way, is that God does not come from somewhere else to us. We don’t have to wait for God to whisk us out from underneath the broom tree – because the truth of the matter is that God is right there underneath it with us. And there’s something terribly profound about a God who is already in the midst of our difficulties; already in the messiness of life, in the brokenness and incompleteness and complexity. God is with us, very much with us, in our time in the wilderness, when the sun is the hottest and beating down on us. We don’t have to go searching for God. God is already right there.
But that’s not all, is it? God isn’t just there. God acts, as well. God acts and God gives us what we need to make it through. Nothing fancy or outlandish – just ask Elijah. No multi-course dinner and large beverage reserves in the comfy confines of a two-story with four bedrooms and two and a half baths. Just a broom tree, some bread and a little water. Just what he needed to get by, to take him from one mountain-top experience to the next.
This, too, isn’t what we always expect from God. We're conditioned to think that a big and bold God always paints with big and bold strokes. Waters parting, manna from heaven falling, Jericho walls crumbling, soaking wet altars consumed in a raging file. I mean, given his own experience days before on Mount Carmel, is it any wonder that Elijah might have seen the broom tree as a major letdown? The bread and water as a little on the lame side?
I know I’ve told this story before, but bear with me. Imagine a man and a huge flood that ravages his town. Everyone’s in a panic, except this man – he sits comfortably on the porch of his house, convinced that whatever happens, God will take care of him.
The water starts to back up in the streets and a large pickup truck sloshes by. The driver stops and offers a lift. But the man responds, “No thanks, God will save me!” The rain continues to fall in buckets, and soon the water rises to the top of his porch. A neighbor paddles by in a boat and pleads with him to come. But the man is adamant. “Everything’s okay – God will save me!”
The storm gets worse, and soon the waters cover the entire house with only the peak of the roof visible. And there the man sits. Suddenly a FEMA helicopter appears overhead and drops down a rope ladder. Through the loudspeaker the pilot cries out, “Sir, you must come with us. If you don’t, you will die!” But the man just waves and smiles, “I don’t need your helicopter; I don’t need your ladder. I’ll be fine because God will save me!”
The waters keep rising, and rising, and rising; and sadly the man drowns. And so it is a very perplexed soul who walks through the gates of heaven that same day. There is only one question on his mind as he meets the Almighty: why in the world did God let him die? Why didn’t God help him? To which God replies, “What are you talking about? “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter – what more did you want?!”
You and I expect God to do big things. And that is a reasonable expectation, because God certainly can and God certainly does. But sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. There's a certain "turning point" that takes place in our walk of faith where we begin to see not God’s absence but God's presence. Not that God does so little, but that God does just enough.
And that's life under the broom tree. It is, as members of our Bob Chilton Bible study this past week surmised, about God being with us. About gratitude and grace. About focusing not on what God isn’t providing, but what God is. About getting over ourselves.
It’s about a scraggly overgrown bush in the hot harsh desert sun, and some bread and some water, when we are at our lowest, when we feel God is far away, when we don’t think it’s enough – and suddenly realizing that God is there, has always been there, and always will be there. And that is all we need. It’s all we’ll ever need. Thanks be to God. AMEN.