Monday, August 10, 2015

The Broom Tree and the Cross

1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

 There are peaks and valleys in our spiritual life and frequently one follows very closely on the other.

We should think of our walk with God not as a casual stroll through a country meadow, but as an arduous journey across a mountain range. There will come times when after scaling the steep cliff we are rewarded with the dazzling view from the peak where all is bathed in sunlight and we rest awhile awed by what we see there. Even though the peaks are glorious we are not meant to stay there, no, we must journey on.

We just celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration this past week. If you recall this was Peter’s mistake. After witnessing his teacher on the mountain top resplendent with glory, and accompanied by Moses and Elijah, Peter wished to build booths and remain there forever, but the scriptures remind us that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Jesus knew that it was necessary to descend from that mountain, down the steep ravine, into the shadow of death and his cross.

Sometimes the heights of spiritual joy are followed quickly by the dark night of the soul. Such is the case in our Old Testament lesson which tells the story of one of the dark valleys in the life and ministry of the great prophet Elijah. He is on the heels of a decisive victory over the priest of Baal at Mount Carmel. He has proved that the Lord is mightier than the false gods of the people. His victory is capped by the Lord sending rain on the land after a long drought. The people are filled with awe and amazement at the power of God and recognize Elijah as his prophet. Yet his time in the sun is short lived. The wicked Queen Jezebel is enraged and seeks his life. Elijah needs to flee into the wilderness. 

As our reading begins, he is at the very end of his rope. He is utterly exhausted, every ounce of energy and faith that he has is utterly spent. Despite his recent victory, he doubts if his ministry to call the people back to God is any good at all. Many had failed before him and he thinks to himself, “I am no better than they were.” He is so full of despair and fatigue that he feels as if he cannot possibly go any further and he begs God to take his life. Not able to take a single step more he lays his weary bones in the shade of a broom tree. 

The broom tree is said to bloom with a myriad of white flowers that emit a pleasant fragrance of honey. The lovely odor of the tree was no doubt a balm to his sorrow and weariness. It is a time of much needed rest and renewal. This is the mercy and providence of God. He did not create us for work only, but also rest which is why it is written, “he gives to his beloved sleep.”

The well known slogan of the over-functioner and workaholic is, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” If we try to go without rest, however, our death may come sooner than we expect! Try as we might to fight It, no one can survive without sleep.

God has woven a Sabbath—a time of rest and renewal—into the very fabric of creation. Just as the sun goes down every evening and rises up again like a new creation every morning, so we too must lay down to rise up again refreshed and recreated each day.

We need not only rest but also times of recreation to restore our soul. God has planted Broom trees all over his creation. Where is it that you go for rest and restoration? Maybe you enjoy gardening, or time away hunting with your friends. Maybe it is music that lifts your spirits, reading a novel, or just spending quality time with your family. Too often in our work-obsessed culture, such activities are dismissed as idleness, but God blesses and honors these times as part of the necessary rhythm of life.  E.B. White said, “We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting laundry.”

Sabbath exists for the renewal of joy. This idea of recreation—or re-creation—is at the heart of why God ordained Sabbath. He wants us to acknowledge that he is the creator and we are the creatures. We continually need to return to him to be restored and refashioned, strengthened for the work he has given us to do. This is never so necessary as when he leads us through the dark valleys.

There, in his place of rest at foot of the Broom Tree, Elijah, who had come to the end of his way, was restored by God. Twice an Angel, a messenger of God, touched him and invited him to eat and drink. God had provided a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water, but this was no ordinary bread and water. These two small meals were enough to keep Elijah strong for forty days and forty nights!

Generations of readers have enjoyed J.R.R Tokien’s classic series of novels, The Lord of the Rings. What you may not know, is that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. His tale is full of symbols that resonate with the Christian faith, not least of which is the Lembas Bread that the heroes eat on their long journey to save their world from its captivity to an evil power. This is a very special bread made by elves. Literally the name means, “way bread” or “Journey bread.” The novel describes it this way,

“The Lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” (Return of the King, 262)

The Eucharist too is waybread. We eat it with our cloak tucked in our belt, sandals on our feet, and staff in our hand. The journey is arduous but with this food we endure!

When we gather together as the Church we share this Sabbath meal—The Holy Eucharist. This is the food that sustains us as we travel across the peaks and valleys of our spiritual life. When we feel that we cannot go on it is here that we receive God’s empowering grace. When we despair of our life it is here with our brothers and sisters around the Lord’s Table that we find hope.

Just as our bodies need rest and food to survive, our souls also need to rest in God through worship and to feed on the spiritual food of Christ’s most precious body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. Deprived of these the soul will soon grow weak and perish.

As wonderful as that broom tree was, under which God’s prophet was refreshed, it points beyond itself to another tree of which it is only a dim reminder. The tree upon which the Son of God purchased our salvation, the Cross of Christ. It is there in the shadow of the cross that we rest in his perfect, finished work. It is there that we come to be restored and recreated. It is there that we are continually refreshed by his sacrifice, fed with his body and blood. Jesus is the living bread that comes down from heaven whoever eats of this bread will live forever.