Christmas Day has come and gone, and we move on to Epiphany in the Christian calendar – remembering the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, to worship our baby King.
We are feeling the tiredness, but not the anticipation, of the wise men as they neared Bethlehem. Lockdown has taken it out of many of us, this second, third (or more?) time.
This article will take us back to a depleted Elijah, under the broom tree, waiting for divine refreshment and some words to reacquaint him with his meaning and mission in life (1 Kings 19). We can also take some comfort at that broom-tree spot, too.
What comfort can we take? Whatever the outward appearance of things, the individual feeling about it all, the official forecast, the crowd inclination, or the conspiracy theory, we can know that as Elijah 2.0 (i.e. John the Baptist) said, “all people will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6). The story of the magi gives us a preview of the streaming of all the nations to worship the Lord, as imagined by Isaiah, another prophet.
Some of us are experiencing COVID-induced Days of Elijah
We have run a long race with this epidemic, and the marathon is not over. The new variant has come hot on the heels of the current variant and it is a “game-changer”. But the shifting sands of case numbers, government directives, isolated families, and media commentary beg the question: what game were we playing, anyway?
It’s very confusing, very wearying. Some of us are experiencing COVID-induced Days of Elijah, a tiredness in the bones that can’t feel any signs of an Ezekiel-style resurrection blowing the breath of life back into us.
Why is Elijah tired under the broom tree? He had done pretty well up to that point. He had picked up his coats and run with superhuman speed, not losing pace with King Ahab’s chariot. He had held his ground against the shrill ecstasies of the Baal prophets, and called Yahweh fire down from heaven with a straightforward, powerful, prayer. He oversaw the bloody riddance of these prophets of Baal in the Kidron Valley.
What saps him? Queen Jezebel is breathing revenge, and this breath is hot on the heels of Elijah. Zip. Zip energy to go. Now he is a spent prophet, lying under a bush in a scrabbly, inhospitable place: a wilderness.
Perhaps he is deflated at being wanted by the royal household. Perhaps it is the gas of an over-inflated self-esteem that is escaping in the wilderness: perhaps Elijah thought that he would be the divine agent that turned things around for Israel, and brought king and country into proper, enduring worship of Yahweh.
Both Elijah and Elijah 2.0 (John the Baptist) lived intense lives and that both had intense confrontations with corrupt royal power as they sought to bring Israel’s leaders to account before God. We know that John the Baptist was murdered in a horrible way that brought into the foreground the corrupt hedonism of the royal court.
Elijah seems pretty passive as angels tend to his physical needs, feed him and get him back to strength so that he can travel to Horeb, the mountain of God. His mind stays in that bleak place. He feels he has reached the end of every possibility available to him as a prophetic agent of change.
We know that we need to be careful with our own minds at the moment. Unhealthy mental wanderings in the COVID landscape can be dangerous.
We all have different, potentially delusional, grooves that we have a tendency to fall into as we ruminate. Are we the fixer-upper, the person emerging from lockdown ready to save our communities from their sinfulness? Are we the ones that have rescued all of Christian theology from online wrong-thinkers because of our strategic posts on social media? Does the march toward January 6 remind us that we hope to overturn a government and… why do we want to do this?
There seem to be “prophets” popping up at the moment to help us along any one of these paths. But we need to remember that Elijah ran out of steam and needed divine restoration. He needed angelic attention to his physical needs, and he needed grounding in a low-key Yahwist community- the “sons of the prophets” that end up overseeing the handover of prophetic leadership from Elijah to Elisha.
The poet Elizabeth Napier explored the tragic consequences that can result from unhealthy, delusional thinking and over-identification with historical prophets in her poem Mental Health Act, which was reproduced in The British Journal of Psychiatry. Napier narrates a story of someone who has “reconstructed” their decrepit living condition into the “Temple of Solomon”, who has:
“Hair and beard grown wild as a prophet’s –
entangled and matted as your thoughts –
an Elijah or John the Baptist, misunderstood,
intoning messages from God.”
For Elijah, the revelation of God in a “gentle whisper” is a corrective to the expected noise and fanfare of the wild-weathered Sinai revelations of Moses’ time. John the Baptist also witnesses something as intimate and enigmatic: he sees the Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism like a dove.
But the words of God that accompany this moment are less enigmatic, claiming Jesus as “my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). We do not need to become wild, wandering, untethered prophets intoning messages from God, because God has already given the Important Message (Jesus) to us, and we can rest as we come into his presence.
Some of us may be having a broom-tree moment as we emerge from the COVID wilderness.
John the Baptist also may have been having a “broom tree” moment within the darkness of a royal jail cell, when he sent word to get confirmation that Jesus was, in fact, the one (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). However, John the Baptist is different to Elijah in that he recognizes that God is always and forever calling his own people to himself. Elijah calls himself the last prophet of Yahweh, and yet God promises him seven thousand in Israel who have “not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). Indeed God raises up “sons of prophets” who continue to pop up in Elisha’s time.
As John the Baptist reminds us, there is no reason to despair, because God can even raise up “children for Abraham” from the very stones. God can and will make something out of what appears to be nothing. This is an encouraging thought as we, perhaps, are despairing of what Christian community will be restored to our churches in the wake of COVID.
There will always be violent people like King Ahab and King Herod(s) who wish to raid God’s kingdom. We, however, are not called to raid in return. Some of us may be having a broom-tree moment as we emerge from the COVID wilderness.
As we turn the corner into 2022, let’s pray for wonder and excitement for all of us as we retrace steps to visit the Loved One who loved us so much he came down from heaven to restore us to brim-full life, and then lie gently under the kingdom tree that has grown so steady, wide and strong that all the birds of the air lodge in its branches.