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Under the broom tree

26th July 2014

1 Kings 18 tells the story of how Elijah called King Ahab and the people of Israel to witness a contest between the Lord and the false God Baal. 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah sacrificed a bull to Baal and prayed to him to send down fire to burn it up. There was no answer. Then Elijah built an altar, put another bull on it, drenched it with water and prayed to the Lord. Fire came down from heaven and burnt it up. Elijah then had the false prophets executed.

Probably the next day or the day after, this happened:

1 Kings 19v1-8
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.
When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, "Get up and eat." He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you." So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

This story can teach us many things. The first is:

If you run away from your fears, you'll probably end up in the desert

Queen Jezebel could have sent assassins to kill Elijah but, instead, she sent him a messenger, warning him to get out of the country. It seems she was as afraid of him as he was of her. Or perhaps she was afraid of how the people might react to the murder of the prophet who had proved that the Lord is God. But Elijah didn't stop to think. He panicked, and ran for his life.

He ran south, out of the northern kingdom of Israel, right through Benjamin and Judah, to the most southerly city in Judah - Beersheba. And then he went another day's journey, on his own, into the desert.

When he got there, he found a broom tree. A broom tree is a good thing to find in the desert. It has a narrow trunk and a wide top and so provides good shade. So he sat underneath it and prayed. He said, "I've had enough, Lord. Take my life; I'm no better than my ancestors."

A lot of us have prayed something like that. I suspect that most Christians, at some time, feel like giving up. We might have problems at home, or at work, or in church. We might feel the pressure of standing up for God in a godless society. We might get frustrated, thinking our lives are making no difference. In England right now, we may even feel like the church is losing the battle.

Despite our occasional victories, we still get it wrong sometimes. And when we do, we realise that we're "no better than [our] ancestors". Elijah may have fallen into the trap of congratulating himself, rather than God, for the great victory on Mount Carmel. Now, in the light of his running away from Jezebel, he knew that it wasn't him that burnt up the sacrifice. It wasn't even his own courage that enabled him to stand before 850 enemies and prevail - it was God-given courage. Now his courage had failed, he remembered that he was just a man, like you and me.

He'd done his best. He'd been very brave. He'd won great victories. And now he was exhausted, afraid, drained. He found a place where he could be on his own, and he prayed honestly. But he prayed for death. A second lesson from this passage is:

Even great men and women of God have bad days

I suspect, again, that many Christians have prayed for death. But Paul wrote, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4v7) and, really, we know that God wants us to finish the race. God knows the best time for us to die, and it's for Him to choose that time.

Having prayed that prayer, he lay down to sleep. He was probably too tired to stay awake. And he probably hoped that God would answer his prayer immediately, and he would never wake up. Instead, God sent an angel to him. The angel didn't give Elijah some profound theological insight, or further instruction, or any kind of rebuke. He merely suggested that he eat some breakfast.

There are times when what we really need is a good meal and a sleep. There's nothing unspiritual about looking after our bodies. In fact, I think there's something unspiritual about not looking after our bodies. The angel was telling Elijah that he needed to build up his physical strength. God wants us to be healthy in spirit, soul and body.

Psalm 23v1-2a
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.

And a good meal and a good sleep can restore our soul as well as our body, because the different aspects of our being are more interconnected than we like to think.

After Elijah had eaten breakfast, he went back to sleep. He must have been exhausted. And when he'd slept enough, the angel woke him again, and gave him another meal. God is far more practical and down-to-earth than many of the Christians I meet. Lesson three is:

Sometimes, we have to stop, rest and eat

I hope you don't consider it inappropriate when I say that the night before Gethsemene, Jesus had roast lamb and a few glasses of wine with his friends. I know that the Last Supper was one of the most important teaching moments in the Bible for us. I know Jesus was observing Passover, and that He gave us a lasting, invaluable ordinance that night. But He was also a man being supported by friendship, food and wine as he faced his greatest ordeal. Sometimes, we need friendship, food and wine, too.

The angel said, "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you". And I tell you, dear brother or sister in Christ, that the journey is too much for you and me, as well. We need God to supply the spiritual, emotional and physical strength we need to accomplish what He's sending us to do. Let's accept his help. We need spiritual, emotional and physical food.

This part of Elijah's story ends with the words, "Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God". When his strength was restored, he was ready to move on to new experiences of God.

In our service to God we too will experience physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. We may well also experience moments of fear. We may find ourselves in some sort of literal or emotional desert. In the desert, God will provide each of us with a broom tree - an environment that gives us enough shelter to be able to pray and to rest. When we've rested, He'll give us sustenance - whatever we need - physical, emotional or spiritual food - or all three. And He'll give us time to rest some more. And then He'll give us more sustenance. And then He'll call us to walk to the mountain of God, a place of prayer and revelation.

Please, when you're in a desert and you need a broom tree, don't be too spiritual to accept the shade it offers. Your journey isn't over; God can show you a great deal more yet. But sometimes you need to rest and eat (physically or metaphorically or both) and to let God restore your soul.