I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51
I think Elijah has the right idea. Go find yourself a tree and take a nap. You can’t beat it. Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey. I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all. He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment. Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him. Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away. We all have our ways of running away. Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape. The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand. It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life. Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet. A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.
Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel. She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time. Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves. They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure. They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God. So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead. Any one of us would run at that point. Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though. So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore. That’s not what happens to Elijah. He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel. Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found. He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found. It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.
We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God. God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart. All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found. We can all relate in those moments of our own lives. We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.
The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John. We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers. Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all. Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen. They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God. Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts. The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen. In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth. Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it. Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found. There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.
If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days. There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end. We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith. More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found. It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith. It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome. We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander. None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call. Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters. It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.