Under the broom tree

Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

I keep a picture on my desk. It shows a man in a long black robe, wearing a red cap, and wrapped in a red mantle. He’s lying on the ground, barefoot, next to a dirt path, and he looks like he’s asleep, with his head resting in his right hand. Next to him is an angel, dressed in a long white robe, with lovely light brown curls and beautiful wings, just like they painted them back in the late 15th century, in what is Belgium today. The angel is bending over the man on the ground, gently touching with their right hand the man’s left shoulder. Next to the man’s right shoulder, you can see a little round loaf of bread, sitting on top of a simple ceramic mug. The painting is part of an altar piece, and it’s known as Prophet Elijah in the Desert, by Dieric Bouts.[1]

It’s a scene from the passage from 1 Kings we just heard. I’ve kept the picture on my desk for I don’t know how many years; it’s no fancy reproduction—just a color copy from a book, in a cheap photo frame. There are usually multiple stacks of books, magazines, and papers on my desk — some people would probably call it cluttered. But there’s never been a pile in front of that picture. Prophet Elijah in the Desert. I want to be able to see him when the time comes. I put him there knowing that there would be days when I’d be alone in the wilderness and I would appreciate the reminder of God’s gentle presence and persistent faithfulness.

In ancient Israel, they didn’t have what we call superheroes, figures like Spiderman or Wonder Woman, but if they had had that cultural concept, Moses and Elijah would have been prime candidates. Heroes of obedience to the call and purposes of God. Moses the prophet and liberator, Elijah the prophet and troubler of kings.

In the days of Elijah, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were rulers over Israel, but they had abandoned the covenant of the Lord God of Israel in their fondness for other deities, and life did not flourish. There was a drought in the land, a persistent drought; the poor were starving. Elijah said to the king, “Let’s have a contest; let’s see which god is the true God. Gather the people on Mount Carmel and bring all your prophets. I’ll meet you there.” If you don’t know the story, look it up, 1 Kings 18, it’s epic. One lonely prophet of the Lord against 450 prophets of Baal; the challenge: kill a bull, prepare an altar with rocks and wood, and ask your respective god to light the fire for the sacrifice. Long story short, Baal’s bull was slowly rotting in the sun, but the Lord sent fire from heaven in the most spectacular display of power to consume the bull Elijah had prepared along with the entire altar. Elijah won and, to mark the victory, he killed the king’s prophets, all 450 of them. And then he outran the king’s chariot, in the pouring rain, on their way back to Jezreel. It was Elijah’s big day of public triumph. Ahab told Jezebel and she promised Elijah she would do to him what he had done to the king’s prophets.

Now we get to see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, a hundred miles, as far away from Jezebel as he can. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life.” He is tired, not just in muscle and bone, but in his soul. He is done, spent, exhausted. No more superhero stunts, only sleep. It is enough. What was it that drained him? It’s surprising, isn’t it, after the triumph of Mt. Carmel.

The story doesn’t offer explanations, doesn’t invite psychological speculation or learned remarks about boundaries and self-care. But it has invited me to identify with the man under the broom tree, because I know the smell of the dirt under that tree, the feel of dust between my fingers.

Superhero Elijah on Mt. Carmel I worry about. Superhero Elijah I look at with a critical lense, with a Jesus lense. Superhero Elijah I can laugh at, sometimes, when it’s the right moment, like he’s the guy whose name is on the cover of some comic book. But I’ve never wanted his poster on the wall above my bed. Yet I do need to see the man under the broom tree.

On Friday afternoon, Don and Leigh Ann were sitting on the back porch of their house on the corner of Cherokee and Aberdeen. They were working on a spreadsheet, columns and rows, cells and figures, which may not sound exciting, but it was, because they were doing the numbers to see whether this might be the year when they would be able to become full-time gardeners and travelers; they were making retirement plans. And then death intruded in the most unspeakable way, took Don, and left Leigh Ann’s life hanging by a thread. For hours, she was in surgery, with her sister alone in the waiting area, calling family members, repeating over and over the horrific news.

When there’s been a crime, there’s no patient information to call or ask, so I just walked around the ER and various waiting areas, hoping to see folks who looked like they might be family of Don or Leigh Ann. And I just happened to be there when Leigh Ann’s sister looked up from her phone and we both went through that moment of half-recognizing each other after not having seen each other for a few years, and then we just sat and talked and cried and waited together, and it was good. It was good, because seeing each other, touching hands and shoulders, we remembered that we were not alone with the shock and the pain of death’s violent intrusion.

Elijah woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” It was the most basic of life-giving gestures: a touch on the shoulder, a little bread, a jar of water, and few words. Elijah ate and he went back to sleep.

And a second time the angel of the Lord touched him, and told him to eat and drink, adding that otherwise the journey would be too much for him. Elijah couldn’t even imagine that there would be a journey, but now he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.

He went all the way back to the covenant place, the place of promise where God had given Israel the commandments, all the way back to the beginning of the relationship between God and the people of God, and there he spent the night in a cave. The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up and spoken up for you.

I have confronted the king for you.

I have urged, warned, threatened for you.

I have ridiculed the king’s prophets for you.

I have killed for you.

I have been zealous, very zealous, for you.

“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.”

Elijah sounds to me like he felt alone and abandoned in an epic struggle for righteousness and justice. He sounds to me like he’d been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord to match his own. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways; some mountain-splitting, earth-shaking display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent; some spectacular feat that would make God’s people stop limping like they had been, thinking they could follow the Lord with one foot and their idols with the other.

In the days of Moses, when God made covenant with Israel, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain. There was a blast of a trumpet so loud that the people in the camp trembled. On that day, Moses brought them out of the camp to meet God, and the mountain was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. And as the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.[2]

Elijah sounds to me like he’s been wanting to see some of that kind of action from the Lord for some time. Something to end Ahab’s corrupt rule. Something to keep the people from wandering off. Something to stop the evildoers with murder on their mind. Something to end the cruel practice of locking up children in conditions we wouldn’t allow in animal shelters.

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. 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. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s own zeal, his righteous rage, his passion for deep and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion—but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only sheer silence, which, after all that earth-shaking noise, had a sound all its own—and Elijah heard it; he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out.

God asked him the same question again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah gave the exact same answer as before. Even in the very presence of God, he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left.”

There’s little use in us telling him that he is not alone, that he has never been alone, that he has been fed by an angel in the wilderness, and that there have always been others beside him who did not bow their knees to Ahab’s idols. There’s little use in us telling him, but we can show him—standing up with him, speaking up with him, walking with him on the way of the Lord.

This is a song I’ve been humming since Friday.

[Rhiannon Giddens, He Will See You Through]


[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

[2] Ex 19:16-19

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