A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 16, 2015
1 Kings 19:1-8 ESV
You need not raise your hand, but have you ever had one of those “woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use trying” kind of days? Or weeks? Or months? The kind of week that the prophet Elijah had, as recounted in today’s story?
Elijah has always been considered one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He is named in the New Testament about 30 times, mostly in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus often made reference to Elijah, and at times spoke of John the Baptist as being a new and greater Elijah. Jesus’ disciples and others sometimes compared him to Elijah. And there are Jesus stories that draw on Elijah stories. So Elijah’s stature and importance in the Jewish faith, right up to the time of Jesus and beyond, is unquestionable. Still today, Jews include an empty chair for the prophet Elijah at their Seder meals. And yet, we find that Elijah was a man of clay just like the rest of us.
As a bit of background, Elijah was a devoted follower and ardent defender of Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But in the 9th century BCE, the Hebrew God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Elijah was not the only god that vied for the people’s affections. One of the major rivals to the Hebrew God was Baal, a Canaanite storm god and agricultural fertility god. Baal had two faces: he was believed to send devastating storms, but he also sent needed rains to make crops grow. And it just so happened that the Israelite King Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian, who was a devotee of both Baal and Asherah, one of the three great goddesses of the Canaanites. Asherah was often known as the “mother goddess,” and in statues and figurines was depicted as a nude. In fact, Jezebel and Ahab supported hundreds of prophets of both Baal and Asherah, and they ate at the palace table. Even worse, Jezebel had killed prophets of the Hebrew God.
As the story goes, because of the wickedness of the land, it had not rained in Israel for three years, resulting in a severe drought and famine. After three years, Elijah summoned the 450 prophets of Baal to a showdown. They would determine who was the true God, Baal or the God of the Hebrews. Two bull sacrifices were prepared on altars of wood. Elijah invited Baal’s prophets to choose one of the two sacrifices and then pray to their god, asking him to send down fire and consume their sacrifice. All day long they tried, but all to no avail. So then Elijah called upon the God of the Hebrews, who sent down fire and consumed the sacrifice, wood, and even the water Elijah had poured in the trench around the sacrifice. Elijah then had the prophets of Baal killed. That is a part of the story we just as soon not be there, but it is.
Well, Jezebel placed a bounty on Elijah’s head, threatening that he would be killed as well before another day passed. So we find Elijah running in fear for his life into the wilderness. He finds a broom tree, sits down under it, and starts to pray that he might die. The broom tree was actually a bush or shrub, the branches of which were used to make brooms, as you might imagine. So here we have Elijah out in the wilderness, sitting under a broom tree, having his own woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use pity party.
But looking at the story more seriously, we also have one of the classic stories in the Bible of a severely depressed man who wished to die, perhaps harboring inclinations to suicide. So it is a serious story.
As hinted in the beginning, many likely can relate to Elijah and his woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use trying episode. If it is not something we have experienced personally, then it most certainly is something we have seen in a friend or relative. Most of us have either had our own, or have tried to support someone else’s “under the broom tree” episode. Physically, Elijah was sitting under a broom tree. Emotionally, Elijah was in a deep, dark hole.
When under the broom tree, so to speak, it is easy to only see life one way—as hopeless and all gloom and doom, as being in a deep, dark hole with no way of escape and very little, if any, light shining through. Over the years, I have journeyed with many who have been in that deep, dark hole where all seems hopeless. It is a tormenting place to be.
But the truth is, often those “under the broom tree” experiences are not really as bad as they appear to be. Consider the experience of being in a dark cave. From one vantage point, it may appear as though there is nothing but darkness and no hope of light whatsoever. But a quick turn around a bend in the cave’s path might reveal a sliver of light in the distance from the cave’s opening. More walking yields more light, until at last you are back to the light of day. Sometimes the experience of depression can be that way. When in the deep hole of depression, all may seem to be darkness. But a step or two forward may reveal a small shaft of light that grows bigger and brighter with each step forward.
It was revealed to Elijah that he was not alone, there were those who loved him, there was a bright future ahead of him, and there was grace to see him through. If we—or those close to us—could only remember such when we encounter one of those “under the broom tree” episodes: we are never alone, there are many who love us, there most often is a bright future ahead of us, and there is grace to see us through.
Well, as Elijah had found himself to be exhausted, weak, and run-down, an angel (or “messenger” as some modern translations render it) provided him with food and drink that gave him the strength he needed for the journey that lay ahead of him. “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you,” the messenger encouraged. So Elijah “arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food . . . to the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:7-8). Such can also be seen metaphorically. Anyone who has suffered one of those “under the broom tree” episodes has a long journey ahead to recovery and wholeness. There are spiritual, personal, communal resources that are needed for the one journeying from the wilderness of depression. And often the services of a professional counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist and/or medication are in order as well.
While in Zion National Park, as we prepared to hike the River Walk Trail that leads to The Narrows, we were told to bring food and plenty of drinking water with us. We would definitely need it for the journey ahead of us. And so, we filled our hiking backpack with fruit and nut trail mix, peanut butter and crackers, and took plenty of drinking water as well. It is especially imperative for those who plan to venture up The Narrows—which is hiking in the Virgin River itself with sandstone walls on either side, with water reaching at times waist-high—to have plenty of provisions, as hikers sometimes find themselves stranded. Flash floods can result in hikers being cut off from civilization and help until the floodwaters recede. But lest I leave the wrong impression, we did hike the entire River Walk Trail as far as the entrance to The Narrows, but that was as far as we went. We had food and water, but we were not prepared for wading a waist-deep, cold river! Veronica, our resident park ranger, did hike up The Narrows and other members of our congregation may have as well. But we found that the journey up the river that day was just too great for us. Nevertheless, the necessity for proper provisions for the journey was not lost on us, whether that journey be a hike into the wilderness, or a journey from the depths of depression.
Every now and again, we (or someone close to us), like Elijah, find ourselves in the situation where we feel the journey is just too great for us. We may just want to sit down under a broom tree in self-pity. But as with Elijah, it is also important that our eyes be open to the life provisions that are already at our disposal. It is important that we realize, and that we help those we love realize, that we are not alone, there are those who love us, there can be a bright future ahead of us, and there is an unseen provision of grace to help see us through. Amen.