Bread. Bread for the journey, bread to keep you going in the desert when you are done with doing…
We join Elijah in mid story, sulking under a tree. ‘I’ve had enough. I want to die.’ But in truth he’s been eating the bread of death for a long time. He’s been fighting a guerrilla war for the honour of his God, culminating in a showdown with the massed priests of Ba’al. How do you prove your God is better than theirs? You turn to the tools of death. You settle the score with sacrifice, with a wager. 450 priests chanting and praying and gashing themselves for fire to descend and burn up their offering of a bull. Elijah taunting all the time… Nothing! Then our hero, building his altar, butchering his bull, getting his enemies to douse the lot with water, and then again, and once again, building it all up to a showman’s climax of fire licking from the sky consuming all before it. And the people loving it, leaping up with one voice: ‘Yeah! Yahweh for us!’
But the sacrifice doesn’t satisfy Elijah. Not enough. … It has only fed the fires that are burning him up. He seizes on the blood lust of the people and butchers all the priests of Ba’al.
Which sends him on the run… We catch him in the desert, under a thorn tree, his elation drained away, wanting to die. ‘Enough’, he says, though he is famished and still hungry for death. The bread of death hasn’t satisfied him.
I like to think this place of hell is a place of grace for him, his moment of truth… I like to think that he’s not just depressed because he has the hounds on his heels but that, with the taste of blood in his mouth, he is beginning to learn that sacrifice doesn’t satisfies him. ‘I am as bad as the worst of my ancestors’, he says out loud. And then and there his God dies, his bigger and better Ba’al dies and leaves Elijah alone and at rock bottom. And there and nowhere else the true God comes to meet him. Or since, rock bottom is God’s natural habitat, Elijah finally makes it down far enough to find God. Either way God is revealed here not as a bigger Ba’al but as someone with bread to feed him and give him the taste for life.
Like Elijah we come to the altar with blood on our hands. We are killers, all of us. Our every meal we take from the mouths of others. Our clothes off their backs. Our liberty we buy with their despair. Our health with their infirmity. We are no better than the worst of our ancestors.
We come to the altar guilty as sin, deserving of death. And what we find instead is someone with bread to feed us. It’s not much, that bit of bread, but it is enough. Enough for God. Enough to give us the taste for life.
August 13th, 2006