Order of Service:
Call to worship
Hymn CH4 83 I rejoiced when I heard them say (verses 1&2)
Scripture readings (scroll down to read the text of the readings):
Old Testament Leviticus 23: 33-36; 42-43
New Testament John 7: 1-19
Hymn CH4 83 For the peace of all nations, pray (verses 4&5)
Sermon Conflicting goals (scroll down to read the sermon text)
CH4 641 Seek ye first the kingdom of God (verses 1&3)
Hymn CMP 249 How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him
Leviticus 23: 33-36; 42-43
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. For seven days you shall present food offerings to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the Lord. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work.
You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
John 7: 1-19
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.
Sermon : Conflicting goals
Disagreement between siblings. It’s a normal thing and we have it here in the home of Jesus and his brothers. They give their eldest brother advice. That advice is to go to Judea as the Feast of Booths is about to be begin. As we heard through our Old Testament reading, this feast is celebrated as it is required and spelled out by God in the Law given to Moses, so that generations will always remember that God had led the Israelites out of Egypt and that they wandered in the desert for forty years, dwelling in booths.
It may be that Christians feel this feast is not relevant to them, as we don’t celebrate it, but what is relevant is the preciseness with which God specifies timing of His requirements; the details He put in His words, His instructions to Moses.
That is how God is. He still works, creates through exact timing and particulars.
The reason for the brothers’ advice to Jesus is that the pilgrimage feast will be the ideal opportunity for Him to make Himself known, to get publicity.
‘No one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly’, the brothers say to Jesus. In their eyes, Jesus shouldn’t miss His chance to promote Himself.
Jesus had done works before in Judea. Earlier in John’s Gospel it says,
Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing (John 3:22)
In the following chapter it says,
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. (John 4:1-3)
Jesus seems to avoid confrontation with the Pharisees, the Jewish religious authorities. But it’s not avoiding, it’s postponing.
Meanwhile, His brothers think that keeping doing things in secret, doesn’t go with wanting to be heard. You’ve got to go publicly. They understand that the purpose of the signs Jesus can do is to point to who Jesus is, to Himself. Hence the urge to put Himself in the spotlight. That’s straightforward thinking; thinking that makes sense.
But in the midst of that reasoning, the eldest brother holds back; He doesn’t think in the way His brothers think, ‘My time has not come yet, but Your time is always here.’
Now what does that mean?
What Jesus means is that timing of what He does; of what is to happen to Him comes from His Father. It has nothing to do with a desire for success for Himself.
When Jesus speaks about timing, He points to His last hour on earth; when that time has come. What Jesus has in mind is what God has in mind for Him: His suffering and dying. All will go according to God’s plan and time.
And so He differs from His brothers. His agenda differs from His brothers’ agenda. They can stick to their own. Unlike Jesus, they are not being hated and therefore they’re not in danger. They can go as a family to Jerusalem, without Him.
Plans. Arrangements. Purposes. Timing. God’s and ours. They cause suspension and tension, don’t we all know it? And here we’re told that Jesus’ family struggle with that too.
A story with which more people may be familiar is the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus and his mother Mary were guests. The host, the groom ran out of wine, which was terribly embarrassing for him. Mary knew and stepped in by going to her eldest son urging Him to help them. The reply she got from her son was:
“Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2: 4)
The painful distancing by Jesus from his mother, already began when He was in the temple as a twelve year old boy. After the celebration of the Passover Feast, Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem, learning from the teachers about the law of Moses, keen on learning more about God Himself; discovering. When Mary and Joseph found him there after three days of looking for him, Jesus says,
‘Did you not know that I have to be in my Father’s house’? (Luke 2: 49)
Painful to hear for Mary and Joseph, this clear statement that it was not Joseph who was the father of Jesus, but that God Himself was Jesus’ Father.
Yet, after speaking to His mother in the way He did, Jesus went obediently with her and Joseph back home to Nazareth.
And at the wedding, after telling His mother that it was not yet His hour, He did help the desperate groom.
And now, after disagreeing with His brothers, Jesus did go to Jerusalem, not publicly but in private. Jesus arrives late at the Feast, to teach.
People had been wondering where He was. He was expected and was talked about. Sought by the religious authorities. The pilgrims have different opinions. There are those who don’t see Him as doing any harm. ‘He’s a good person’, they say. Others say that He leads the people of Israel astray.
In the middle of disagreeing opinions, about the middle of the feast, Jesus appears and teaches at the place where He as a boy was in dialogue with the teachers of the Law of Moses. And now, Jesus interprets the law of Moses in a way that His hearers have never heard before. And then He says,
“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7: 16-18)
Jesus’s words point away from Himself, to God; to His Father, from Whom He had come.
This was what was not understood by His brothers. Not yet. Their brotherly advice to Jesus to grab the opportunity to get publicity was rooted in their unbelief, as it says in the passage:
For not even his brothers believed in him. (John 7:5)
They thought in terms of an acknowledgment of Jesus by as many as people as possible. But it was an acknowledgment that had nothing to do with the kind of acknowledgement that Jesus has in mind. For Him, all He said and did happened through and for the Father. That was the essence of His teaching: it was all about His heavenly Father.
Jesus’s brothers’ unbelief didn’t last though. After Jesus’ resurrection, this is what the book of Acts says about them and their mother Mary,
All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts: 1:14)
Where does the disagreement between Jesus and His brothers leave us? Hopefully with a realization that there is never room for complacency in our faith in God. Over and over again we need to be found by Him through Jesus. We need to meet Him anew.
Like Jesus’s brothers, we lack belief when we aim for things that are in conflict with what He aims for. His purposes are the same as His Father’s.
In Jesus’ thoughts, words and deeds, we find the Father’s thoughts, words and deeds. They happen with a pace different from the quickness and slickness with which social media can make things happen these days. God’s words are rooted in His Love, Love that is patient, allowing for time, as it allowed time for Jesus’ brothers; as it allows time for us, and for those whom we don’t have time for. God does, in the midst of all that goes against Him and against all that He does, He doesn’t let go His purpose, the purpose of creating a Kingdom in which all His children have a place.
Let seeking that Kingdom be our purpose, for His Name’s sake.
Order of Service
CMP 295 I serve a risen Saviour (verse 1)
Call to worship
Hymn CH4 334 On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s cry (verses 1&5)
Exodus 12: 5-13
John 1: 19-34
Hymn CH466 Before the throne of God above (verses 1&3)
Sermon First things first (scroll down for sermon text)
Hymn I watch the sunrise (2 verses)
CMP 295 I serve a risen Saviour (verses 2&3)
Last week we heard the passage that tells about the twelve year old boy Jesus. He is in dialogue with His teachers, in the temple. And then, Jesus’s parents appear, distressed and also relieved, as they had been looking for Jesus for three days. And this is what happens,
And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
As parents, Mary and Joseph are naturally concerned about Jesus’s wellbeing. But Jesus Himself points to a different kind of wellbeing, that comes from a different kind of relationship: the relationship between Him and His Heavenly Father.
Jesus is learning and discovering who He is and that is a process that doesn’t happen without tension. The fact that He went with Mary and Joseph back home, to Nazareth, obediently, while being aware who His true Father was, gives that sense of tension that Jesus must have felt.
It is not so much that Jesus’s first priority is to be in His Father’s house as the building. What He means is that He first and above all stands in relationship with His heavenly Father. That relationship, that is what is given first priority by Jesus.
John the Baptist and Jesus.
Their mothers are cousins. The two boys come from very different backgrounds. Joseph is a carpenter and Jesus would, as eldest son, have had to play His part and would have been given responsibilities.
John’s father is a priest. His name is Zechariah and therefore John should actually be called Zechariah too. But the old Zechariah, whose wife had passed the time that she could have children, had been visited by a messenger from God. And this messenger gave him this message: ‘Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’
Zechariah was given both a promise and an instruction, from above: the promise that to him and Elizabeth, his wife, a son would be born. And with this promise, the instruction came, to call him John. And to this promise and instruction these words were added,
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. (Luke 1:14-17)
In our New Testament passage, we find the grown up John, in dialogue with the authorities of Jerusalem.
The official representative in the world, appointed by God, versus the official representatives of the Jewish religious authorities.
What this tells us is that John is known for what he says and does in the spirit of Elijah and, that he’s being watched by the officials in Jerusalem.
And now John is asked by this delegation from Jerusalem: ‘Who are you?’
He could of course say, I am John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. However, given his birth story, that answer would not say who he really is. It wouldn’t clarify what he says and does. It had been foretold to Zechariah that John would be great before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. Yet, it is emphasized that he’s neither Elijah nor the Prophet, nor Christ. ‘So, who are you? We need you to legitimize yourself, for Jerusalem wants an answer to that question’.
Well, there are questions in life that don’t have a straightforward answer. What John the Baptist says and does as a grown man, is shaped by his call from God; by the purpose God had for him even before he was born. And that purpose cannot be grasped by human intelligence; by human logic. It can only be grasped in the light of John’s birth story, as it was created from above.
The prophecy by the angel Gabriel, to his father Zechariah was proof that a completely new beginning; a new page in Israel’s history; in its salvation story with God, had begun, in Jesus.
John the Baptist is like a converging fire glass. He says in his way what the prophets had said before him. Like them, he doesn’t yet name Jesus Christ. The prophet Malachi says:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1)
John points to the same Lord, when he says,
“I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. (John 1:26)
All this happens in Bethany, across the Jordan. The same place where under leadership of Joshua, Israel crossed the Jordan to enter the promised land. The same place where later Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead. At that place Jesus appears the next day. Seeing Him, John says:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
That takes us to the offerings that the Old Testament tells us about.
When we talk about offerings it’s usually the offering during our church service that we have in mind. The word offering isn’t associated with the slaughtering of an animal for offering. Not in Western thinking.
John, however, being a descendant from the tribe of Levi, John’s mind is so familiar with the lamb that is slaughtered. He’s grown up with what it says in Leviticus,
“If he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring a female without blemish and lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. And all its fat he shall remove as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on top of the Lord’s food offerings. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:32-35)
And there is the Passover lamb as we find it in our Old Testament reading of today.
While they came from different family backgrounds, John and Jesus shared their deep knowledge of these passages.
And it would have become clearer and clearer to Jesus, that He was the lamb to be offered for the sins of the world.
A child asks her mother: ‘Why do we close our eyes and fold our hands when we pray?’ The mother’s answer is: ‘then you can think of Jesus on the cross and not be distracted.’
There is so much to see, so much to know. And so much can be seen and known so quickly. Social media has made possible what once was impossible. And it’s good that through technology we can see each other, now we cannot meet physically; that education can to a certain extent be continued, under these circumstances.
Yet, the same time, what we can see and are able to do through that same social media…can drown out what we need to hear first.
Did you not know that I have to be in my Father’s House?
The first words that the child Jesus spoke in the temple, with which He puzzled His parents Mary and Joseph, the words that He spoke and meant,
Do you not know that He comes first?
Do we let Him come first? Do we know that hearing His word brings about a different kind of wellbeing, in the midst of the storms in our lives?
A wellbeing that is called peace?
Paul points to the prophet Isaiah when he says,
Isaiah says: ‘Lord who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing though the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
First things first.
Isaiah 54: 1-8
John 1: 1-4
Maybe some of you know that I’m fond of a good walk. And over the past few months, nearly a year now, I suppose, I’ve been walking even more than I used to. When the government advised us back in March that we should stay at home and only go out to the shops or for an hour’s exercise, I took them at their word – I made sure that I spent that hour outside, walking. And I wasn’t the only one. It seemed like everyone was doing the same, I saw people out walking I’d never seen before, crowds of them – the canal towpath was busier than I’d ever seen. It didn’t last. The canal towpath didn’t last, for a start – remember the storm that caused the canal to break its banks and overflow? That put paid to anyone walking on that stretch, at least. That bit still hasn’t re-opened, I’d like it if it would before I leave Polmont, although I can’t see that happening.
But for many people, the daily walks didn’t last either – I could see it as the weeks and the months went by, fewer and fewer people were out on the streets and the paths. Maybe as lockdown eased, they didn’t find it as necessary as they did before, they had other things to do. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But I kept going.
And I walked lots of paths and trails I’d never known before. All within just a few miles of home, or even less. Like, for instance, do you know in all my years of living in Polmont I’d never actually seen the reservoir, far less walk all the way around it. You could go out of here and be there in 10 minutes. And up at the canal, just past Beattock Cottage at Gilston Park, I’d always thought the bridge over the canal there didn’t lead anywhere anymore, but cross it and you’ll find a really nice half mile woodland walk that’ll take you out at Ercall Road in Brightons. It’s a bit icy and muddy just now, though, so if you fancy going, mind and wear your wellies. A wee bit further afield, up at Maddiston there’s a path that leads all the way to California – that’s really become a favourite walk of mine. I’m going to miss it. I’ll miss all the trails and pathways that criss-cross this wee part of the world that we live in.
But where I’m going, of course, there will be new paths to discover, new places to visit, new routes to take, new walks to make. And in just under a couple of weeks I’ll have the chance to set out, exploring the highways and byways of my new home. I don’t plan on doing any camping, but in the reading I just gave from Isaiah today, the prophet says, ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back.’ I think, in a way, with my walking and my discovering, that’s what I’m doing and what I believe God wants all of us to do. We all live in our own tents and sometimes it’s tempting to hunker down in them and let the world revolve without our input. Maybe this past year has just strengthened that resolve in some people and, again, that’s understandable, but the truth is it’s not good for us to stay in our tents forever. The curtains have to be opened, our habitations have to be stretched out.
You know, I can remember, right at the very start of my journey towards becoming a minister in the Church of Scotland, I was in a psychologist’s office (yes, we have to take psychology tests to make sure we’re suitable for the job!) and there was a poster on the wall that said, ‘A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.’ And that’s stayed with me throughout. ‘A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.’ I suppose it’s kind of fitting that I’m going to a place where the harbour is the main focus of the town, hopefully the harbour and the church, if I’ve anything to do with it, but the real message is that like ships we’re not supposed to stay in the harbour, we’re meant to explore and make the most of all that the world, God’s world, has to offer.
Going back to Isaiah, and turning back from my ship metaphor to his image of tents, he says, ‘lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.’ We become stronger by making our tents bigger, by opening them out, by being part of the world, not just being an observer of it. We’ve been restricted lately, we all know that, but as things begin to improve, which they are doing, thanks to the scientists and the specialists, slowly but surely, we’ll have every opportunity to lengthen our cords.
So I’m in the middle of packing to leave, I’m filling boxes and, I’ve got to be honest and say I’m not enjoying it in the least. The one thing that’s keeping me going, though, is the knowledge that the boxes will all soon be opened again, but in a new place. And, in a way, that’s what we’re all doing just now as we enter this new year. The boxes we’ve filled over the past year, what we’ve piled in to them; the frustrations over lockdowns, over wearing face coverings, keeping distances, they’ll all eventually be opened in a new place, but a better place. And I think it’s up to us to make the best of it, by being as much a part of it as we can. Not everyone can walk miles through the countryside, seeing God’s creation in action all around us, I know that. But we can all stretch our boundaries just a bit, because I think one of the things Isaiah was telling us that last thing God wants us to do in that new place, that better place, is hide away in our tents.
We’ve heard, words from the book of Isaiah
My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I call to them,
they stand forth together. (48:13)
These words and those of our New Testament reading, In the beginning was the Word,’ take us back to the beginning of the first bible book. To the creation story that tells how God created the heavens and earth with His word. How He created Adam and put him in His perfect garden; the garden of Eden. And then Eve was created by God, while Adam was asleep.
And then, when Adam wakes up, we hear the first human speech, in jubilation, in amazement. Now, don’t forget this is a story, a story that holds a truth within it; that tells about something that still happens. When someone realizes, recognizes, discovers the love of his or her life. A discovery filled with joy: This is the one!
And living in paradise, in the garden of Eden, they were allowed to eat of every tree of the garden, except of one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of all the trees they could eat, except of one. The accent here lies on, ‘all the trees’, to emphasize God’s generosity; who wants us to enjoy what He has created for us, as John has been doing and will continue to do in Portsoy, through his walks, discovering new places, that he hadn’t known about first.
God gives freely, but He also gives boundaries. In the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, that boundary is symbolized by that one tree that is not to be touched. Live, freely but don’t touch that tree, for that tree says: This is God’s. Let only God be God. Don’t start behaving as if you are God. Only He has all the knowledge, the insights of life and its secrets. There’s a limit that must not be exceeded. You go past it, and you forget that our world isn’t ours, our life isn’t ours. They are His.
But Adam and Eve did overstep that boundary, again symbolized through this encounter with the snake who was twisting God’s words.
And they fell for it.
Overstepping boundaries is what people did and continue to do. It’s the sin of all generations.
But that what humans do or fail to do, sin, doesn’t make an end to God’s faithfulness to what He once began.
Our Old Testament passage is exactly about that. Israel had overstepped God’s boundaries. They had disobeyed God in the promised land. The consequence of that, the consequence of their unfaithfulness was that they ended up in exile, in Babylon. But in Isaiah’s passage of today, we hear God’s own words of hope. Israel’s time of facing and going through the consequences of their disobedience to God, He Himself makes an end to that. And by doing that, He is back to what He intended: to give space in abundance.
Enlarge the place of your tent
And let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
Do not hold back, lengthen your cords
And strengthen your stakes
Our God is a God of new beginnings. It is in the light of that truth that we stand, at the beginning of this new year. In the light of His hope. It was His purpose that the place He had created for us, the space around us was to be used, enjoyed by us. Through the restrictions it has been taken away from us, and it may have felt as if God wasn’t there. But God doesn’t let go what He once began; His purpose isn’t annulled by anything.
The words, ‘There is a place by me’, are words from God Himself spoken to Moses, in the book of Exodus (33:21). These are words without end. They are words spoken to us, now.
But let us not only take, receive from Him. Let’s give Him the space of our heart; the heart you’ve been given by Him. Give to Him, without reservations. The more we give to him, the more He can plant seeds of love, which we then can spread.
For He has given, that what is most precious and therefore most vulnerable of Himself: His own heart, His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, for whom there was no place in the inns.
Let’s say to Him, ‘There’s a place by me’.
When we are left in the dark, we react. In different ways, according to how we are as persons. We try to find things that make that darkness disappear; take things in our own hands; find things with which we can bring some light to us again, things that have the effect of a torch, switched on, handled and controlled by us, so we don’t feel lost anymore.
But what we have learned, this year, is that we don’t have control. We lost the control we thought we had; that we assumed we had. Without having control of our lives, we feel lost.
Last week we saw how David was lost, because he had lost the voice of Samuel, the prophet. The prophet who had anointed David king, when he heard God’s voice, saying to him, ‘Arise, anoint him, this is he.’ (1 Samuel 16:12)
‘Hearing’, particularly in the name of the book called Samuel is essential as you can hear in the name Samuel, ‘sama’, which means to hear. In the bible, names are not just names. Their meanings are reflected in the person’s personality, so here, ‘hearing’ is reflected in Samuel as prophet, and in Samuel as bible book. However, through Samuel’s death, there is no prophetic voice to be heard by David anymore. That direction is lost. That is the darkness David finds himself in. And while that is so, David is hurt, unappreciated, scoffed at by Nabal.
But in fact, it is God Himself who is mocked by Nabal. For David had been chosen, set apart by God, for His purpose: to be Israel’s king.
The way David reacts to Nabal is uncontrolled, he loses his temper, is overwhelmed by anger and aggression, and he lets that aggression determine what he is going to do. He will, with his men, kill Nabal and his men.
So war is declared.
In this dire situation, one of Nabal’s men thinks of Nabal’s wife Abigail. He goes to her and says to her what he doesn’t dare say to Nabal, his master,
…one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to greet our master, and he railed at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we did not miss anything when we were in the fields, as long as we went with them. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. Now therefore know this and consider what you should do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his house, and he is such a worthless man that one cannot speak to him.” (1 Samuel 25:14-17)
This servant of Nabal tells Abigail what has happened and what is about to happen. When Abigail hears what the servant is saying, there’s no sign of solidarity with her husband. She doesn’t say anything about the fact that the servant calls her husband a worthless man. Instead, she takes action, immediately. She does what Nabal should have done, when he was asked to give David something of the abundance he had, of his wealth. For it was also thanks to David’s care for Nabal’s shepherds, that Nabal was able to make the profit he had made. But then, the name Nabal, means ‘fool’. Consistent with what his name means, he is of course only full of himself and when you’re full of yourself, you don’t see and hear anything else.
Abigail reacts quickly and takes two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep, grain, raisins and cakes. With all that she is on her way to David, on a donkey, but she says nothing to her husband.
Abigail and Nabal, they are not a happy couple. In last week’s reading it was said specifically that Abigail was discerning and beautiful. Discernment comes with wisdom. That is what we have in Abigail as opposed to what we have in Nabal. In this couple we have wisdom versus foolishness.
When Abigail saw David,
she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal[is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. (1 Samuel 25: 23-28)
Here we see how tact, wisdom and grace come David’s way through this woman. She sees, discerns David’s temptation and prevents David from giving in.
David may have lost sight of his call, but Abigail hasn’t. Samuel’s prophetic voice is no longer there, but God uses Abigail’s voice. Abigail stands firm in the promise, in the purpose that God has for David. Her encounter with David, is immersed in her faith in the Lord, and we can hear it in how she, like Mary, spells out God’s power and so magnifies God. She says,
Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. And when the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.” (1 Samuel 25: 28-31)
Abigail’s wisdom and humility come to David, while he finds himself in the darkness of his anger. Through her, he is reminded of who he is: God’s anointed one.
Through this story, Abigail’s wisdom comes to us too. It can be received by us and remembered, when we find ourselves in the darkness of our anger, impatience, our criticism.
A change of shift of focus, within us, from ourselves to God, just as we see that happening in David, that is what makes room in our hearts for Christ’s arrival…
Because David understood Abigail, he could say:
‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me!’
How receptive are we to reminders of who we are, children of the one Father? How receptive are we to God’s call to open up to His wisdom, wisdom that is immersed in His love and to let that wisdom shape our thinking?
Thanks to Abigail who, through her strength and humility, was indeed her Father’s joy, David’s plan to wage war; to insist on his way of taking revenge, didn’t happen. Instead, it became peace.
And from within his own peace he said to Abigail, ’Go up in peace to your house…’
Abigail did tell Nabal. God took his revenge, that’s why David didn’t have to do it.
Let that so be for us. Let us realize, be reminded, like David, that God’s purpose for us is peace. And from within that peace, let us be, our Father’s joy.
How wonderful it is to remember – that “God is our refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble.” The ability to remember is a wonderful gift that God has given to us. In a flash you can be a child again, skimming rocks across a pond, or walking in a meadow. Many of us can recall the time when we fell in love, got married, had children all over again. You can remember – because those memories are fixed in your mind. And time cannot rob you of those so long as your memory continues to function.
Some of our memories are happy, and we can recall wonderful experiences. But some of our memories are sad and we may weep. The problem, though, is that sometimes memory fails us. Sometimes we forget. I think that our annual Remembrance Sunday Service is one of the most important services in the Christian calendar, after Christmas and Easter. Because it helps us not to forget why we have the freedom that we enjoy today. It reminds us that the peace that we have enjoyed for nearly 75 or so years here in Great Britain was not bought cheaply. And it gives us an opportunity to say “Thank you” for the sacrifice that so many made, with their lives, with their scars of war in order that we in the United Kingdom can enjoy peace
Some of you may still have vivid memories of the war – and of fallen comrades and friends In war many people found their faith – others lost it.
In a second hand bible were written some words, it was obviously very meaningful to the previous owner, an elderly lady because she had specially typed it out on a piece of paper. She had written as follows: The following lines were discovered on the dead body of an American soldier killed in action in North Africa, in 1944. They were found by a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps and were printed in a Tunis newspaper. They found their way to Britain via the United States. A friend of the writer of these lines, who was with him when they were written (and who survived the battle in which the writer was killed) said the soldier was a thoroughly wild character, but there were tears running down his face as he wrote the following lines.
“Look, God, I have never spoken to you,
And now I want to say: “ How do you do?”
You see, God, they told me you didn’t exist,
And I, like a fool, believed all this.
Last night, from a shell hole, I saw your sky,
And I figured then they had told me a lie.
I wonder, God, if you’d take my poor hand?
Somehow I feel you would understand.
Strange I had to come to this hellish place
Before I had time to see your face.
Well, I guess there isn’t much more to say:
But I’m glad, God, that I met you today
The zero hour will soon be here
But I’m not afraid; because you are near.
The signal has come, I shall soon have to go
I like you lots – this I want you to know.
I am sure this’ll be a horrible fight:
Who knows? I may come to your House tonight.
Though I wasn’ t friendly to you before,
I wonder, God, if You’d wait at Your door?
Look, I’m shedding tears, me shedding tears!
Oh! How I wish I’d known you those long, long years
Well, I have to go now, dear God. Goodbye
But now that I’ve met you, I’m not scared to die.”
As we remember in this Service today – the cost to millions of our servicemen and women – of that peace that we enjoy today – may I ask you to think remember further back – to the man who hung on a Cross – so that we may have our peace with God today. Thank God that we don’t have to go “to that hellish place” that that young American Soldier wrote about before he had “time to see God’s face” Jesus gave us two great rules to govern life in our society.
The first was this. To “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind (Mt 22:37) and the second was to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:39) Let us go from this Remembrance Day service resolved to make these the goal of our lives: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God” (Mt 5:9) Let us continue to build on the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives for our country. Let us leave it a better place – for our having been here.
It’s very daunting for me to stand and preach on this day of all days. The closest I’ve come to living through a war is seeing it on the television, Yet, today is still desperately important. Many of us were not around sixty and more years ago, as others of you have been. For our young people in High School, the first Gulf War of 1991 is something that they read about in history books, and yet there are still a number of veterans of that war and our previous World Wars still alive. Remembrance, if it is anything, must be comprehensive. Our remembrance is not just that of the two world wars, or of the countless other conflicts that have gone on around the world. Our remembrance goes beyond that, as we also remember emergency services (fire brigades, police, ambulance staff), support services, such as the many chaplains to forces, and not least the millions of civilians who died as a result of war and terrorism.
It has been said that people are the sums of their memories. Today is, in part, the memories that we bring with us. Some of you bring memories of active service. Some of you bring memories of those whom you have loved and lost. Some of you bring memories of civilian life during wartime. Some of you bring a long commitment to peace and working for peace. Each of us brings different memories and thoughts to our act of Remembrance, which helps to make it more comprehensive.
We are here to remember all those people, of whatever country, who have died in the pursuit of freedom and good. We are here to give thanks to God for their lives given for the freedom of many countries around the world. We are here to acknowledge publicly and before God that countless people have given their lives for us, for our freedom and for others and their freedom. We are here to pray for all who suffer and have suffered as a result of war. Particularly those of us who, like me, are too young to remember war, need to remember that many gave their today for our tomorrow.
Whenever there is a war or conflict we are usually hopeful that it will be the last, that there will be no more war. But we are not free from war and the pain of war. Our purpose today is to acknowledge that pain and to remember it, but also to thank God for the freedom that so many now enjoy because of the laying down of life by so many for this and many other countries and to pray for peace. We thank God for those who laid down their lives for others, as John’s gospel talked about. We acknowledge the example of Jesus in laying down his life for others.
It would be a mistake for us to think that remembrance is simply about the past, about what has happened. Our remembrance is not simply something in the past, but something that we make present here and now as we realise the significance for each of us. Whoever, whatever, wherever our thoughts turn to, today we acknowledge love laying down its life for others and we recognise that there is no greater thing that one can do than loose one’s life for the benefit of others, for freedom and liberty.
Sadly, we take the sacrifice of the many men and women who served in the Forces for granted. We too easily forget the price they paid for the peace and freedom we enjoy today. I think Remembrance Sunday is one of the most important services in the Christian year – a time when we stop to “remember them” I am not old enough to remember the Second World War – I was born thirteen years after it ended.
How true it is. Remembrance Sunday is not just a reminder of those who died in the First and Second World Wars – important as they were. It is also a reminder of other conflicts that our armed services have been in. The ability to remember is a wonderful gift that God has given to mankind. Some of our memories are happy and we can recall wonderful experiences. But some of our memories are sad and we may weep as we remember them.
The First World War ended 102 years ago
The Second World War ended 75 years ago
Yet despite the passage of time, it is still vitally important – yes, it is right – that we remember that many still bear the scars of was today. And it is good for us to remember those who have fought for their country, to support them and to pray for them.
Today is a day when we say “Thank you” to all those who made the sacrifice that we can stand here today in peace and freedom. We may even remember the names of those who died this morning. But we must not forget those who are still suffering as a result of these wars. And not only can we remember but we can practically respond to the retiring collection being taken as you leave this morning for the Erskine who having been caring for our servicemen and women since 1916.
As we stand in our parish church today, these thoughts of sacrifice should bring us back to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us all on the battlefield of Calvary. St. John put it well when he said: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) Jesus gave his life not only for his friends but also for his enemies.
Jesus had no need to experience human suffering but he did for all our sakes. Man’s evil –that’s basically what we call sin – has separated us from God. Jesus died to reconcile us to God, by dying in our place. This reconciliation is a gift that we can receive simply by asking Christ to come into our lives.
It’s the end of October and we all have our own feelings, shared feelings, about the kind of year we are having. We haven’t been able to do the normal things we’ve taken for granted, especially the things from which we get joy. Control has been taken out of our hands. This year we feel, is a wasted, unproductive year
Yet, we have moved from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn, and Winter will come, regardless of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. We still have been able to get our vegetables, fruit, bread, milk from the shops. Not in the same way we are used to. More than ever we have done online shopping. We cannot rush in and out the shop, while we have to wear our face covering. We have to be mindful of each other; of each other’s safety and that can include waiting, waiting to be allowed to go into the shop. And with waiting comes the need for patience.
What we then can buy is available in abundance. And what is available has been produced, with effort and patience. First by farmers and then, after what they have done, by lots of other people. If you ever watched the program, ‘Inside the factory’, you realize, how much is involved, work with care and precision, even though a lot of the work is done by machines. There are so many stages before food is ready to be transported to the shops. At this harvest service, we acknowledge all the work that is done by so many, that enable us to eat and drink. We celebrate their unseen labour, with all its details.
Our Old Testament reading also gives us details of labour, the labour of an eagle, given through a parable. We are used to parables in the New Testament, told by Jesus. And the reason why Jesus often speaks in parables is explained by Him to His disciples
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (John 15:11-13)
Jesus doesn’t speak about seeing and hearing the obvious. He speaks about the spiritual, about seeing and hearing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says to His disciples: ‘You see what they don’t.’
Spiritual blindness from His people has always been God’s struggle, His frustration, His heartache, throughout the ages. Here we have it again, during the time of Israel’s king Sedekia, who seeks support from Egypt, instead from what God is doing. And therefore Ezekiel is told by God to give a riddle, in a parable. A parable, about two eagles.
A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs. (17:3-6)
Now, the translation of ‘a great eagle’ is not accurate, it should say ‘the eagle’, because it is assumed that the hearers of the parable know whom the eagle represents. This eagle represents God; its beautiful features are described and point to God’s royal majesty. Taking the top of the Lebanon’s cedar tree, this eagle takes it to Canaan, for that is what ‘the land of trade’, stands for. And there in Canaan, in that promised land, the eagle plants the best of what he has taken. This is labour. This choosing of top quality, and bringing it over from afar, with love and care to plant it in the fertile soil. We see here the aspects of crop and labour, as we can recognize it in what is done by farmers.
The labour of the eagle is ongoing, his care is ongoing and they result in a vine, with branches spreading and its roots firmly remaining where it stood.
But then, the riddle. A change. Another eagle appears, looking like the first one but not the same. It’s of a lower rank. And then the vine that was there, blossoming, turns to this eagle, to be nurtured by it.
It had been planted on good soil by abundant waters, that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine. (Ezekiel 17:8)
It might…We hear deep disappointment and hurt from the first eagle, who planted it, who had given it so much loving care. Why does the vine turn away from its Planter. Why does it turn to another source, for its nurture? Why does it now expect what it had been given in abundance by its Planter, from another? Why does it not stay with him, the first eagle?
God feels like that when we turn away from Him. When we look for satisfaction in our lives through other sources than Him. The parable, with its strange turning point, wants to take us back to the Planter, to what He offers. It directs us back under His blessing.
Only Jesus, knows and feels God’s deep suffering from the spiritual blindness of His people. He Himself has been planted in the earth. He had come into the world to heal precisely that blindness. He is the vine. Therefore, in the same spirit of the parable, Jesus says,
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5)
Abiding with Jesus includes waiting in dark times. Eugene Peterson says:
‘Those who sow good deeds and expect quick results, will be disappointed. If I want potatoes tomorrow, then planting them in my garden this evening is useless. Planting and harvesting are separated by long stretches of darkness and silence’.
The disciples were told by Jesus that they were clean, pruned because of the word that He had spoken to them. So are we. The word has been and is being spoken to us. But it has to be heard with an open heart to receive it.
Hardheartedness makes blind and deaf and doesn’t give soil for God’s word to grow in it and to bear fruit. The bearing of fruit becomes visible in our lives through love. God can see how other people are affected when His love is reflected through us. He sees what we don’t. And yes, the bearing of fruit includes times of pruning, includes going through hard times. As Eugene Peterson puts it: ’long stretches of darkness and silence.’ Silence even in the church, without the sound of singing, but still the sound of God’s word.
So stay with Him. Jesus says,
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:16-17)
Faith, Hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
That love is to be passed on and with that love comes peace. As James says, a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:18)
So, what are we to make of our reading today? The first thing we need to know is that we don’t have to take Revelation literally. There are churches that do, of course, that believe every single word in the Bible is literal truth, word for word. I’ll give you an example, there’s a Pentecostal church in Kentucky in the USA – the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, it’s called – and it this church had a pastor called Reverend Jamie Coots. Reverend Coots believed in the literal truth of the Bible, and he based a lot of his preaching around the book of Mark, specifically chapter 16, verses 16 to 18. Let me read that to you: ‘Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. Believers will be given the power to perform miracles: they will drive out demons in my name; they will speak in strange tongues; if they pick up snakes or drink any poison, they will not be harmed; they will place their hands on sick people, who will get well.’ It’s a powerful image, so to drive home his point, Reverend Coots would regularly feature live snakes in his sermons, he’d bring them out and handle them in front of the congregation. Very dramatic. The thing is, you might have noticed I’m speaking about Reverend Coots in the past tense. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago. He was bitten by a rattlesnake during one of his services.
So yes, taking scripture too literally can bring its problems. There’s no question of literalism in the passage I read from Revelation, though. It’s quite clear that everything that takes place here is part of a dream, a vision. Now, I’ve got to say that interpreting visions, or analysing dreams, isn’t an exact science. Despite what psychotherapists like Freud and Jung would say, I’m not sure it’s really a science at all. I remember one of the newspapers, I think it was the Daily Record on a Saturday, used to have a regular column where people would write in with their dreams and an expert would analyse them. Just for fun, I used to cover up the analysis bit and read the letter and then come up with my own interpretation, and I honestly think I sometimes came up with a better analysis than the expert, and I don’t know anything. I don’t really believe in dream analysis, I suppose. But we’re not looking at a newspaper column here, we’re looking at words and images that have made their way into the Bible, into Holy Scripture – they have to mean something. So let’s try and de-code them a little and work out just what they might be saying to us.
Revelation is written by a man called John – we don’t know who this John is, it’s almost certainly not the same one who wrote the Gospel – and John, in a vision, a dream, is in heaven. And it’s dazzling. A throne with a person sitting on it, his face gleaming – jasper is a kind of reddish brown, carnelian is orangey-red – there’s an emerald rainbow all around him and he’s surrounded by 24 other people on thrones, dressed in white, with gold crowns. Flashes of lightning, lit torches. Even reading it, hearing it, you want to shade your eyes, it’s so bright. And light means Jesus, it means God. We’ve heard it before, it’s a regular refrain throughout Scripture.
‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ (1 John 1:5)
‘I am the light of the world.’ (John 8:12)
In front of John is all this light, all this brightness, and that, to me, implies he’s come from a place of darkness. It speaks to us of optimism, I think, that whatever darkness we’re going through, and let’s face it, we’ve been going through some dark times recently, whatever darkness we’re going through, there’s light ahead.
It’s October, just a couple of weeks until the clocks change, an extra hour of daylight in the morning. You know, I used to collect watches and it was important to me that they all showed the right time, even if I wasn’t wearing them, and when it came time for the clocks to change, it used to take me ages to change all my watches so my extra hour was pretty much wasted. It was even worse in the spring when we move the clocks back. I don’t collect watches anymore, and because everything’s electronic now the clocks on all my gadgets manage to change themselves, it’s like magic. But, of course, the reason we turn the clocks back at this time of year is so we that extra hour of light in the mornings. We need the light to get us up and get us going. We need the light to overcome the darkness. And, in his vision in Revelation, the first impression John gets of heaven, of God, is pure light.
So far, so good. The benefit of light over darkness – I think we can all understand that. But here’s where things get, okay, I’ll say it, things start to get really weird. We hear about four creatures, one like a lion, another like an ox, number three with the face of a man and a fourth that looks like an eagle. And they’ve all got six wings and they’re covered with eyes. Now, I’m fairly sure it’s passages like this that led George Bernard Shaw to write that Revelation is, and I quote, ‘a peculiar record of the visions of a drug addict.’ But it’s all symbolism, we can’t take these descriptions literally. Possibly the most common interpretation of these four creatures is that the lion represents wild animals, the ox stands for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolises animals that fly, and the one with the face of a man is – well, that one’s obvious, I think. And taken as a whole, the four creatures represent all of God’s created species. Six wings? What’s that all about? Well, I think we can turn to the Book of Isaiah for that one, Isaiah speaks of angels with six wings, two to cover their faces as they couldn’t gaze upon God, two to cover their feet as they stood on holy ground, and two to fly with. And all the eyes? Well, those are to see God’s work wherever they look.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, how could I be expected to know this, without having to look it up? Well, you couldn’t, I suppose. I guess that’s my job, to try to explain it to you. Although, to be honest with you and I’m sure you won’t be too surprised, I didn’t come up with this explanation myself, I had to go to my books for help. And believe me, this isn’t the only interpretation! Another is that the four creatures represent the four gospels – I can’t help but think all they’ve got in common is the number four, though.
I think there’s always a line in every Bible passage that helps make things clearer, though. And in this one, for me at least, it’s when we are told ‘day and night they never cease to say. Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’ Isaiah says that too, about his angels with six wings, only he has them singing. And I think it kind of ties it all together. What, or who, these creatures are, to me is less important than what they do. ‘Day and night they never cease to say.’ Or sing. In John’s vision, all of God’s creation, all of these bizarre creatures, they sing his praises all the time, they’re totally focused on him.
We all know the story about David and Goliath. David had his focus right, he focused on the help he could be guaranteed by God in defeating the giant he was squaring up to. And there’s a great quote by the Christian author Max Lucado, it says ‘Focus on giants, you stumble. Focus on God, giants tumble.’ ‘Focus on giants, you stumble. Focus on God, giants tumble.’ So it doesn’t matter to God how big our giants are, it doesn’t matter to God how big our problems, our worries are, but it matters to our giants, our problems, our worries, how big our God is. If we keep our focus on God and what he does for us, if day and night we don’t stop singing to him – not literally, and we’re not allowed to in here anyway, but with our minds – if we don’t stop singing to him then our problems and our worries, our doubts, our fears, the discouragement we feel sometimes, well, they all have a way of working themselves out.
The last image I want to mention from our passage in Revelation this morning, from John’s dream, his vision, is of 24 elders casting their crowns in front of ‘the one who sits on the throne.’ Why 24? Well, some say it’s counting up the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel – again, we can’t know for sure. Other interpretations are available. But if there’s confirmation needed that the 24 elders are facing God, it comes now, as they say, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power.’ And those words are really pretty close to the ones we said together earlier on in the Lord’s Prayer, aren’t they? ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.’ When it all comes down to it, the elders in John’s vision pray the same way as we do, they’re not so different from us.
You know, I said earlier that I don’t really believe in analysing dreams. Well, maybe I’ve spent the last 10 minutes or so proving that I am to dream analysis what politicians are to plain speech – maybe I’ve confused you more than I’ve informed you. If that’s the case, maybe this’ll help. I was told once by one of my tutors that you should be able to sum up your sermons in one sentence, so here goes. God is the light we need when darkness threatens, and if we focus on him, in our thoughts and our prayers, then all will be well in our lives. And that’s not really too big a Revelation, is it?
I have heard people say that this year is a wasted year, that it doesn’t count. That would make us all a year younger, which may sound good, but it’s not true.
Moving into Autumn, we have shorter days and longer evenings. Soon we will see leaves changing colours and falling of trees. The moving from one season into the other happens with changes, they happen every year, so we expect them every year. Unlike the changes we have been experiencing since March, due to the pandemic. We never expected to sit in the church like this, two meters apart from each other, while wearing face coverings
But we will experience more, bigger changes in the church, changes of a different nature. Changes in its shape and structure, due to all sorts of factors.
But those are not the changes to which the title of the sermon, ‘A change like a leaf on a tree’, refers to. What it does refer to is the change that Jesus in our New Testament story sees in a man that is about to be his disciple.
A more well known story where an unexpected change is happening is where Jesus calls a little man, named Zaccheus. Zaccheus hid in a fig tree from where he safely, from a distance, could see Jesus, without being seen by Jesus, Zaccheus thought. For when Jesus approached the tree, He stopped and looked up straight into Zaccheus’s eyes, called his name and then said that He wanted to be Zaccheus’s guest.
In our New Testament reading we have another fig tree with a man, Nathanael, but he is not a little man and he doesn’t sit in, but under the tree. Whatever it was he did, it is interrupted by Philip, who finds Nathanael and says,
“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1: 46)
‘We have found him…’ It sounds as if the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, had been on their mind, as if they had been looking, waiting for Him.
But maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to also say that the One who was found, was Jesus from Nazareth. For Nathanael came from Cana and Cana and Nazareth, they don’t go together. There’s rivalry between the two, Cana looks down on Nazareth. That clarifies Nathanael’s response to Philip: “…Nazareth….are you telling me Philip that anything good from God can came from Nazareth?”
Cynicism. There is a place for cynicism in the bible. John preached about Thomas’s scepticism two weeks ago. And there is one whole bible book that is full of cynicism, the book Ecclesiastes. And here we have it at the point when a group of disciples is being formed, around Jesus. Jesus from Nazareth is being assessed by Nathanael in terms of the rivalry between Cana and Nazareth.
Philip is not put off by Nathanael’s response, and says, ‘Come and see’.
What Nathanael doesn’t realize, when he walks with Philip, is that he is the one who’s being assessed; being looked at, looked through by Jesus. And as soon as Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus says with joy in his voice,
“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)
The name Nathanael means, ‘gift of God’, and by describing Nathanael as He does, Jesus acknowledges that Nathanael is a gift of God to Himself. This clarifies the joy with which Jesus meets Nathanael. He knows, that what He is given in Nathanael, is what the Psalmist says
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2)
Jesus sees Nathanael as he really is. He sees us as we really are, with or without face masks. Nothing, including scepticism, covers up what’s on our mind and in our hearts. God deals with what He sees.
Nathanael is surprised…’How do You know me?’
“Nathanael, before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
And now we have come to the change like a leaf on a tree. For as soon as Jesus says this, Nathanael’s objections and suspicion disappear and words of confession come out of his mouth
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)
If being seen under the fig tree by Jesus is reason for Nathanael’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God, then that is only the beginning. You will see much greater things than what you see now, Nathanael.
Greater things, what are they then? At that point in time Jesus points to their shared knowledge of an episode of the Jacob story.
“….you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
‘You will see…’Just as Jacob did, when he was fleeing for the consequences of his deceit to his old father Isaak, fleeing because of the consequences of stealing the first born right, the blessing from His brother Esau, that left Esau raging. Jacob had overstepped boundaries with the result that his life was not safe anymore, as his brother Esau said, he was going to kill Jacob.
Leaving his home, his mother Rebecca and father Isaac, and furious brother Esau, Jacob puts himself to sleep, with a stone as support for his head. Jacob is feeling so alone. Alone? What is he seeing? A ladder is put on earth, from heaven. From heaven. Not the other way around. One cannot put a ladder on earth that reaches heaven. It has been tried, when people had this plan to build a tower that would reach heaven. That effort failed as God intervened by confusing the overconfident builders through giving them different languages. Overstepping boundaries has consequences.
Jacob doesn’t only see the ladder but also angels, ascending and descending. Descending they carry God’s comfort. Ascending they take Jacob’s guilt, grief, loneliness. Then God speaks to Jacob,
“I am the LORD, the God of
Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.
For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
Why does Jesus point to this story? Why does He take Nathanael and the other disciples, and us, back to this ladder; to this connection between heaven and earth, with its angels?
Jesus does so because, now He speaks about Himself. This connection between heaven and earth, that is Jesus Himself. His new disciples were about to learn to see that, from then onwards, the heavens open, with angels descending and ascending, everywhere where Jesus went. True, the way Jesus says it is still a riddle, calling Himself the Son of Man. But what He is saying is that through Him, heaven had come to earth.
Jesus takes his disciples and us back to Jacob’s experience, for His reason. Jacob’s life had completely changed, being a mummy’s boy, he was now having to go a long way, without her running around him to make sure he had everything he needed. But what Jacob saw and heard, gave him strength and courage to go that difficult way, knowing that he wasn’t going anywhere without God.
Neither do we, whatever changes lie ahead. God’s words of assurance of His presence, His comfort, His encouragement, that came to Jacob when he saw the ladder with descending and ascending angels, those words of assurance come to us, words that have become flesh in His Son. The assurance of God’s presence in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as changes continue to happen, small ones, big ones, not one of them will be bigger than the promise of God’s presence with us.