A reflection on 1 Kings 19:4-8 (Alternative Reading) & St. John 6:35, 41-51
Elijah was a prophet of God, mighty in word and deed.
He was the prophet who cleansed Israel of the baals, those false gods of fertility, agriculture, and other things that so often fascinated the people of Israel.
Elijah swept through Israel in a religious revival that destroyed the altars of the baals, killed the priests, and restored the worship of the one God in Solomon’s temple.
He ought to be feeling pretty good about that.
But now—now all he wants to do is lie down in the shade of a broom tree and die.
And why shouldn’t he?
He is no better than his ancestors, he tells God.
All bones and dust is what he means, dead already.
Besides, his work he thinks has failed. He’s on the run, scared for his life. There’s little point in going on.
What Elijah had done aroused the hatred of Jezebel.
You probably remember the name but not the woman. She was the foreign wife of Ahab, the king of Israel.
When she came to Ahab, her husband, and moved to Israel she brought her baal religion and all that with her.
A lot of folks didn’t like it, Elijah included.
And now she has vowed she will make Elijah dead within a day.
So he had to run for his life, all the way to that broom tree.
And there he dropped, almost dead.
He wasn’t dead yet, but almost.
He was feeling like the next thing to it.
God should just get it over with, kill him off and fill out a death certificate.
Better God than letting that Jezebel get him.
And all this worked on that mighty prophet Elijah.
He looks in the mirror and questions himself. Who am I? Things are going pretty badly; what’s makes me a prophet?
Next time he looks into a mirror, why, he doesn’t see anything at all.
And it’s off to the wilderness with him. He walks all-day to a broom tree in the desert—the only tree for miles—and he tells God: Let me give it up. Take my life. I’m better dead.
God has another opinion. God refuses to let Elijah sit there feeling sorry for himself. He gives to Elijah a remembrance of who he is and to whom he belongs. Like the Jewish mother of folklore, God says, “Here, eat something—you’ll feel better.”
Psychologists, of course, will tell us that eating is the wrong approach for curing depression. Create a pattern like that and people will eat whenever they feel stressed and pretty soon they’ll end up depressed and overweight.
So, I don’t know if God did the right thing—speaking psychologically. But what with God being God and psychologists being psychologists, I’ll go with God this time.
Elijah gets food given by God through an angel.
Food is a remembrance.
That family recipe you have, handed down from one generation to the next—it tells you something about your family history, doesn’t it.
It’s a remembrance of who you are, where you came from, where you are now, where you may be headed.
That recipe, that food, says something about your origins, and it says something about your future. Knowing where you came from is very important in locating where you should be headed.
That’s what God did for Elijah under the broom tree.
He helped him remember where his power came from—helped him remember the source of his calling, helped him remember his origins. God’s food made Elijah get up and get on with his work.
And in that strength, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.
In the report from St. John this morning, Jesus is attacked. He’s a nobody, people are saying. He’s nobody but Joseph’s son. So who is he to say what he says—bread of heaven, really?
Jesus speaks as much for himself as for his critics:
I am from God.
I am the living bread.
Eat and live.
He had to say that—as much for himself as for them.
We go through that.
Somewhere about half-past forty, everybody it seems tries to figure out who they are, really are.
Of course “half-past forty” is hardly the only time.
Other times arise. Seems like I spent much of high school, and then much of college, and so on and on until, oh gosh, right up to this morning trying to figure out who I am.
Who are we?
Who do we want to be?
Where do we want to be?
And as important as those questions are, they really aren’t very important. My problem is, I’m trying to figure it out and somebody else already has.
The answer is already waiting for us. We have merely to stretch forth our hand this morning and we will receive the remembrance of our origins, a confirmation of our identity, an assurance that—even if we are unsure of where we belong—we will always know to whom we do belong.
Forever and always in baptism, we belong to him who feeds us at his table, Jesus, who said: “I am the bread of life. Come to me and you’ll never go hungry.”
So really, who are we, finally?
People gathered by the Spirit, loved by the Father, forgiven and redeemed through the Son, and sent on a mission with enough strength to do it.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, and a featured author at First Things magazine web site.