Depressed Under a Broom Tree


TEXT: 1 Kings 19:1-16

Last we saw the prophet Elijah, he was on Mt. Carmel challenging the prophets of Baal to a divine contest...who can make their God rain down fire and consume the sacrifice. Of course, Elijah's God, Yahweh, won the battle. That was in 1 Kings chapter 18. Of course Elijah couldn't leave well enough alone. Plain victory was not enough; he also had to slaughter all the prophets of Baal.

Now the religion of Baal happened to be the religion practiced by the Queen at the time, and Queen Jezebel was none too pleased at having all of her prophets skewered. Elijah had already been a nuisance at the court before this, and with the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, Elijah found himself running for his life a scant seven verses later.

Elijah runs into the wilderness, and in the story that follows, we see that even the great prophets of God had their bad days. Elijah is depressed. He has been trying to get the northern Kingdom of Israel to stop worshiping idols and return to the worship of Yahweh, but it has been an uphill battle, especially with Baal worship having the official sanction of the royal court. Even when he thought he had proved Yahweh's superiority without question on Mt. Carmel and disposed of all the prophets of Baal, the culture was not changed. People still worshiped Baal, led by their Queen.

So, Elijah does what any good pastor would do under such circumstances. He sits under a solitary broom tree and says, "I want to die. Take my life, Lord!" he cries. "I'm no use to anybody." And, like any depressed person, he hides from the world in sleep.

The thing about the calling of God, however, is that it doesn't go away. You can't run from it, as Jonah discovered, and you can't sleep it away, either. Elijah's sleep is interrupted by an angel, who brings him food and drink. He gets up, eats as the angel commands, and then goes back to sleep again. The angel comes back a second time and it happens again... "Come on, Elijah, snap out of it. Eat...drink...get your strength up, you've got a journey to make." So Elijah gets up, eats and drinks again, and travels forty days to Horeb, the mountain of God.

This passage talks about Mt. Horeb, but most people know it better by another name. It is none other than Mt. Sinai and like Moses before him, Elijah goes up the mountain...making a pilgrimage seek the wisdom of God on the mountain. It takes him 40 days to get there, the Bible says, but it may or may not have been actually 40 days. In the Bible, numbers are often used as symbols, and the number 40 is the symbol for a time of struggle. Jesus fasts for 40 days before his temptation in the wilderness. Israel wanders 40 years in the wilderness. Noah is cooped up in a boat for 40 days and 40 nights. When you see the number 40 in the Bible, look out. The going is going to get rough.

So Elijah ends up in a cave on the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments and the angel comes again. "What's up, Elijah? What are you doing here?" Elijah's depression is serious. It has not gone away in 40 days and nights. "I've done my job, God. I've done everything for you...even been fanatical about it. I've done everything I can to wipe out the worship of Baal from your people, but it hasn't worked. I'm the only one left who worships you, and now they're trying to kill me."

The angel is undaunted. Go out of your cave, Elijah. Come out of the dark and stand on the mountain. God is going to come and deal with you directly."

In the next verses, we are meant to remember the days of Moses on the mountain. When Moses brought Israel to Sinai, the mountain quaked and burned and smoked and blew. It's the same mountain, but God's approach is a bit different this time, because the situation is different. Elijah's whole life has been represented in the quaking and the fire and the wind. But suddenly it is quiet...too quiet...the kind of quiet where even the noises that are supposed to be there are not there and you know something is up. Elijah steps out to meet God.

The question from God is the same as from the angel, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" and Elijah's answer is the same. Even being in the very presence of God has not lifted his dejected spirit. Now I don't know what you would expect from God in such a situation, but I think I would have expected a bit more understanding than Elijah gets. There's no "There, there, will get better." There's no, "I understand how you feel, you've had it rough. Why don't you head down to the Nile for a bit of vacation." No, God doesn't even acknowledge Elijah's feelings. "Go anoint a couple new kings, Elijah. And while you're at it, get a successor for yourself." Then comes the kicker down in verse 18. "Oh, and by the way. You're not the only one left. There are still 7,000 others."

The last time we met God on this mountain we discovered that meeting God is not just a warm-fuzzy experience. Our relationship with God is purpose-driven. When we give ourselves to God, we are signing up for work. There are incredible benefits; you'll be given all the training and supplies you need; and you won't find a better employer; but you will be expected to do the job. And what is the job? To help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. To spread joy rather than bitterness, love rather than hate, self-control rather than gluttony, humility rather than pride.

The role of the prophet is especially hard. Prophets don't just tell the future. The role of the prophet is to speak for God. It's sort of like the role of the vice-principal. The prophet is the fall-guy. He or she is the one who has to confront people with the will of God and point out the places where they are falling short. As Elijah found out, it's the kind of calling that can get you killed. This little story about Elijah, a prophet so great that people in the New Testament thought Jesus must be Elijah returned to earth, gives us a perfect picture of life in God's service.

As we discovered back with Moses, life in God's service is not necessarily "safe" in the way that we usually consider it. Both Moses and Elijah had to confront kings, and both Moses and Elijah had prices on their heads as a result. But when Elijah wears out with the work, God feeds him. God provides the nourishment that will be needed for the journey. But God doesn't coddle Elijah and insists that Elijah see the truth about his situation. He's not the only faithful one out there, and there is someone else able to do his work. We can learn from this.

God doesn't buy our self-importance. We are not the only ones out there doing the Lord's work, and God has somebody else ready to step in when we're done. Over and over again I have said to the leaders of this church: Don't do it alone. Nobody owns a job in this church, whether paid or volunteer...including me. It is all God's work, and everybody needs to be sharing the work of ministry with others. There are no lone rangers in God's Kingdom. If you come before God like Elijah does, down because the workload is too heavy, you can expect the answer that Elijah gets. "There are plenty more faithful out there...go get yourself an assistant."

After telling Elijah that, God sends him right back into the fray. Go anoint a couple more kings. Well, you can be sure that the kings that already were in power were not going to be pleased with Elijah anointing new ones. This was not going to make Ahab and Jezebel any less likely to want to kill him. But that's his job, and Elijah goes and does it. We don't see any more depressed incidents after this. Elijah has his focus back. It's not about him. It's about God and God's work.

We in the church have become too soft. We get worn down by life and come to God to feel better and be cared for. Now that's not wrong, but what I want to point out is that God does that in non-traditional ways. And the way of God is supposed to be the way of the Church. At first, yes, the angel is there to feed us. When we are completely spent, we are cared for an given the nourishment we need. That is why in this church we having caring ministries. The Care Team, Stephen Ministers, our Lay Minister, and many others do what they can to provide for the care and support of the exhausted and the sick.

But the whole purpose of becoming rested and healthy is so that we can be back about God's business. The angel does not say to so you'll feel better. He says to eat so that he will have strength for the journey. When the angel has cared for Elijah, God shows up with another task...sending him right back into the danger he was running from. It was the same with Moses. It was the same with Jesus. After the angels nourished and strengthened him at the end of his temptations in the wilderness, he went out to begin three grueling years of ministry. After the angels sustained him in the Garden of Gethsemane, he went out to face the Cross. Faith is not for sissies.

Whether the mountain goes by the name of Mt. Horeb or Mt. Sinai, it has the same message at its summit. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Be obedient. Do the work of God and God will supply your need, and give you whatever talents, resources, and opportunity are needed for the work. Keep focused on God rather than yourself and you'll be fulfilled in your work, even if it costs you your life.

We are here together to support each other in the work of the Kingdom of God. It's not work we retire from. Our assignments may change to match the abilities of our age and stage, but we are never without work in the Lord's service, even if it is just being the silent witness to a gracious life. Every single human being who sets foot on the mountain of God is given a task. For life. It's a task that will ripple out from you to others...waves of the Kingdom of God spreading across those you meet. It's a task that will go on spreading after you're gone and down through eternity. No matter what happens with your earthly job; no matter if terrorists blow up your building or shoot you down in the street, the work you do for God lives on, because love never ends.

This is what we are supposed to be about in the Church. This is not a place to hide. It is not a place just to feel good. It is a place to meet God, to find out our purpose on earth, and to learn how to be faithful to that calling. It is a place to give strength to the exhausted, food to the hungry, and encouragement to the disheartened so that God's voice and calling can be heard more clearly. The job of the Church is like the job of the angel that came to Elijah. He wakes Elijah from sleep, insists he eat nourishing food, and then boots him out on a 40-day journey in the wilderness to meet with God on the mountain. Elijah didn't particularly want that. He wanted just to go to sleep and not wake up. That is not God's way, nor can it be the way of the Church.

I have been Elijah under the broom tree more often than I care to admit. But always, after the earthquake, the wind, and the that stillness that is too still to be anything but God, there comes the renewal I need. Often one of you has been the nourishing angel or the voice of God that has reminded me of my true calling. Sometimes God has allowed me to be that for some of you. That is why we are here together, you and I...we are the Church. Get up and eat.



As I was writing this sermon, unbeknownst to me, my dear friend Karl Dokoupil was hanging dead in his back yard, so despondent that he had taken his own life. His 15-year-old son was to find him a few hours later. His death is one of the reasons our work for God is so important. Had he been able to accept the love of God into his life, he wouldn't have counted his life so worthless. Could he have known how precious he was in God's sight and known the task God had for him, he could have come out of his cave and seen God on the mountain rather than insisting on the sleep of death.

As I struggled with my own Elijah moment in the hours after learning of his death, God gave me the same answer as was given to Elijah. Get up and eat. There is work to be done. There are souls who don't know the love of God, and they will leave misery in their wake. We must work them together to turn them to Love. So we must. So we shall.

© 2003, Anne Robertson

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