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Broom Trees and Still Voices

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1 Kings 19:1-15a

Our text for today from 1 Kings needs a little back story in order to understand what is going on.  The prophet Elijah had been getting himself into trouble with Ahab, the king of Israel, and his wife Jezebel.  Jezebel was a worshiper of the god Baal, and had encouraged her husband to convert from Yahweh-worship to Baal-worship.  They had set up places to worship Baal throughout Israel, which didn’t go over too well with Elijah.  Then Jezebel killed off all the prophets of Yahweh, except for 100 of them whom Elijah hid in a cave.  So Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a god-duel.  He said, “You set up an altar over there, and I’ll set up an altar over here.  We’ll each cut a bull in half and place it on our altar, and then whichever god lights the offering on fire will be deemed the victor.”  Well, the prophets of Baal took the challenge, but in spite of all their best efforts, their god did not set their offering on fire.  Elijah enjoyed a little bit of heckling as they prayed, asking them    “Did your god fall asleep?” and suggesting “Maybe your god is on vacation!”  Of course, when it was Elijah’s turn, he couldn’t resist a little extra showmanship.  He had his altar drenched in water three times, to make his victory even more dramatic.  And it was.  God sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice AND all the water.

It was a tremendous victory, the highlight of any prophet’s career.  But after the victory, Elijah responded to God’s actions by taking all 450 prophets of Baal and killing them.  This is one of those texts that is hard to stomach.  Surely God didn’t intend for Elijah to kill people just because of their religion.  There should be some punishment from God, or at least a divine rebuke for these senseless murders.  But there isn’t, and I don’t like it.  I want to pretend that the sacred text of millions of Christian and Jewish people is full of love and compassion and forgiveness and mercy . . .and it is!  That’s just not all there is.  There is a pretty good explanation, though.  Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan, in his book The Kings and Their Gods (2008), “interprets 1–2 Kings as self-serving imperial records that portray Israel’s kings as they saw themselves and wanted others to see them — God favors my regime and hates my enemies.”[1]  So if this story of slaughter on behalf of God is little more than an effort to portray Israel’s kings as they wanted others to see them, then we can say, “This story is a reflection of the people who wrote the story, not a reflection of the God they proclaim to write the story about.”

Now, with that background, let’s read the next part of the story from 1 Kings 19:1-13.

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  Then Elijah was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree . He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank, and lay down again.  The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  He got up, and ate and drank.

I want to pause there in the reading for a moment.  It had been just a few days since his tremendous victory, the pinnacle of his prophetic career.  One threat from a queen and he had fled for his life.  Surely the God who had sent down fire from heaven could also protect Elijah from the queen’s wrath.  But in addition to fleeing, his spirits sank into what we might today call depression.  And for the first time I can relate to Elijah.  I can’t relate to miraculous demonstrations of God’s power.  I can’t relate to killing my enemies.  But I can relate to depression.  So can a colleague of mine.  She tells the story of how she came to be called to pastor the church of her dreams.  She had long identified this church as one she would love to pastor.  So when the well-known pastor there moved to another church, my colleague submitted her profile.  She went through the process.  She was called.  She was ecstatic.  Until she wasn’t.  Until she ran herself ragged trying to wrap up the job she was leaving, performed speaking engagements around the country taking no break between one high-pressure job and the next.  She tried to ask for help.  She tried to tell people in her life that she was slipping, but they didn’t see.  “You’ll be fine once you get started,” they said.  “You’ll be fine.  You’ll be fine.”  She wasn’t fine.  She said her first sermon there was horrible.  It was under ten minutes long and emotionally flat, and this from a Black woman who knows how to preach the gospel!  She went into a depression and had to take a leave of absence from the church she had just started.  She tells of standing in her apartment, staring out the window at the cityscape, and she said, “All I saw was death.”  She had the pinnacle experience of being called to a big pulpit and a prophetic ministry, and then she wanted to die.

There is so much stigma around mental health in our society.  The brain is an organ, and when it malfunctions in one way, we consider it a medical problem, and when it malfunctions in a different way, we start placing blame.  They didn’t work hard enough; they didn’t pray hard enough; they should shake it off; mind over matter; just stop thinking crazy thoughts!

Elijah lay under a broom tree and prayed to die.

What is called here a broom tree is actually a low-lying shrub.  It’s not a big tree that provides luxurious shade.  There is no room for a hammock.  There is no room for standing up.  The only way to get shade from a broom tree or shrub is to lie flat on the ground.  “In the Bible, desert shrubs such as the broom tree appear in moments of despair as well as times of divine encounter.  Job describes the broom tree as a place of desolation, ruin, and abandonment.  The Psalmist connects the broom tree with mourning, distress, and punishment.  The book of Genesis describes a young mother who was sent away into the wilderness.  With little to sustain her, she wandered until her water supply completely ran out.  Placing her son under a broom tree to die, she then sat down and wept.”[2]  Like them, Elijah laid down under a broom tree and prayed to die.  And then an angel provided bread and water so he could renew his strength.  First, this is a sign of the great spiritual benefits to a nap and a snack!  More importantly, it is a resting spot.

“The lesson of the broom tree is that sometimes when God meets us in the desert times of our lives, God gives us relief like a broom tree.  The shade is [small and] not enough to last us forever, but enough to help us take the next steps.  It is enough for us to sit under for a few minutes to draw strength for the next step and then the next.”[3]  Sometimes we need a broom tree.  And sometimes we are the broom tree for others.  Here, rest a while.  Then you’ll be ready for the next part of the journey.

Elijah’s story continues.

Then he went on the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“Mount Horeb, where Elijah found himself after his long journey through the desert, was the very mountain where Moses had encountered God in the fire of a burning bush (Exodus 3:1f).  It was at that mountain, also called Mount Sinai, that God had given the law to Moses amid fire, smoke, and thunder (Exodus 19:16f).  The very name Horeb or Sinai evoked images of a powerful and awesome God who strode boldly into history overthrowing kingdoms and working fantastic miracles before the people’s eyes.  Elijah was on that very mountain of God where it all started.  We would expect a new overwhelming revelation to Elijah that would convince him of God’s power.”[4]  That’s what Elijah would have expected. God came in dramatic events.  But that’s not how God came this time.  Instead, the story says: “There was a great wind … but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire….”

What does it mean that God was not in these things?  I’ve heard some theologians argue that this scripture is proof there are places where God is not, that there are places where God is absent, places from which God withdraws. Some people believe there truly are God-forsaken lands or situations.

I don’t believe that.  I can’t believe that.  There are times when it feels like it, times when it feels like I am alone in the midst of this storm, this earthquake, this fire.  And what gets me through them is believing God is with me.  You see, I think God isn’t just present with us.  I think God IS presence, which means there is no place God isn’t.  Oh, I can imagine plenty of places where God is distraught.  I cannot imagine a single place where God is not.

Maybe God’s message wasn’t in the whirlwind.  Maybe God’s voice couldn’t be heard in the earthquake.  Maybe God’s words didn’t come from the fire.  But after the fire came “a sound of sheer silence.”  That’s how it is translated in the NRSV.  It is a notoriously difficult phrase to translate.  In other versions it is referred to as a still, small voice, the sound of soft stillness, the sound of a gentle blowing, a gentle whisper, a murmuring, and even “the voice of those who were praising softly.”[5]

Regardless of how you translate it, it is significant because Elijah was a big, showy prophet who performed big, showy miracles for a big, showy God.  And that’s how he expected God to show up.  But he needed silence—or close to it—to hear God speak.

There’s an old song by Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman that I wish used inclusive language but I’ll quote it as he recorded it:

These are the places I was so sure I’d find Him

I looked in the pages and I looked down on my knees

I lifted my eyes in expectation

To see the sun still refusing to shine

 

But sometimes He comes in the clouds

Sometimes His face cannot be found

Sometimes the sky is dark and gray

But some things can only be known…

When we can’t see

So sometimes He comes in the clouds.

Sometimes God does appear to us in the wind and the earthquake and the fire.  And sometimes God speaks in the silence.  And sometimes we only get a scruffy shrub as temporary shade.

I wonder where we are today, as a community.  I wonder where you are today, as an individual.  Are you under the broom tree?  Tired, despairing, and seeing only death?  Look around for those divine messengers who provide nourishment for the journey.  Are you traveling through the wilderness?  Uncertain of what comes next?  Watch for the holy space that is to come.  Are you in the middle of a windstorm, earthquake, or fire?  God is awfully hard to hear in the middle of the crisis, but there is no place God is not.  Are you waiting for a word from the Lord?  Then be still.  Listen for the gentle whisper, the murmuring, the voice of those who were praising softly, saying peace.  Peace.

[1] Clendenin, Dan. www.JourneyWithJesus.net.

[2] https://fivetalents.org/blog/2017/8/21/beneath-the-broom-tree-discovering-hope-in-the-deepest-moments-of-suffering

[3] https://dscumc.org/blog/2019/07/01/lessons-from-the-broom-tree/

[4] Bratcher, Dennis. http://www.crivoice.org/1kng19.html

[5] From various sources, especially Working Preacher, Nancy deClaisse-Walford.

 

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