David? Who’s He?

Abigail is quite a popular name. It means, ‘father’s joy’. You may well know an Abigail.

Our Old Testament passage, which is part of a bigger story has an Abigail. Does she do justice to her name? What is the story here?

First of all the prophet Samuel is no longer there; the prophet who anointed the young shepherd David king, while Saul was still king, had died. Even though Samuel and David didn’t see much of each other, David was aware of Samuel’s presence; of his prophetic voice and that was a silent support to David.

The fact that in our story Saul is still king, is the reason why we find David in the wilderness. For Saul is after him. And in this wilderness of Paran, David is a steppe sheriff. A good, caring one. He looks well after the shepherds of Nabal, a wealthy businessman, who is Abigail’s husband. So David is the shepherd of these shepherds, but at the moment the sheep of these shepherds are not in the fields. They’ve been taken away as they’re getting sheared. That also means partying; a yearly feast than no shepherd wants to miss: the celebration of lots of wool with lots of drinking, and lots of food. Nobody thinks about the fact that the harvest is good also thanks to David, who had been protecting Nabal’s shepherds, so they could do their work in peace.

David thinks, ‘give a little, take a little’. So David sends his men. Say to Nabal: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace to all that you have, from David, the son of Jesse. He has taken good care of your men. Share a little bit of what you’ve gained.’

It was not unusual to do so, to give a bit of the profit. It was courtesy to do so, but Nabal’s refusal is so much more than meanness and rudeness.

Nabal is not just mean and rude. That’s what it may be to us: unfair, unkind, just taking no giving. But in Bible stories it doesn’t stop with how things are for us, human beings. Bible stories give more, they also tell how things are seen by God.

David? Who’s he?

Nabal scoffs.

Well, David is the chosen king by God. God had His plan with David. So what we actually have here is scoffing at God.

This scoffing from Nabal echos what Pharaoh once did,

“Who is the Lord’, Pharao said, ‘that I should obey his voice.. I do not know the Lord.

When David hears this, he is furious.

“Every man strap on his sword!”

(Samuel 25:13)

Now this doesn’t sound like David, so touchy and so violent. It is as if things are different, now Samuel is no longer there for David. Has it changed David? Is David a bit lost without Samuel’s prophetic voice? Has David lost direction?

Let’s hope not. Good Lord, do something. For if You don’t, your chosen king David is going to be like Saul and then what? Then we’ll be back at square one.

What is it again Isaiah says…?

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2)

David is at this point of walking in the darkness of his anger. And this is where this story, that happens in the wilderness of Paran, that seems so not relevant to us, is exactly the opposite of irrelevant.

For the darkness in which David finds himself, is not different from ours; is not different from the people of whom Isaiah says,

The people who walked in darkness

We pray the words of the Lord’s prayer together, every Sunday, ’Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’.

Do we, kind of know what we’re saying at the moment we’re saying it, and then forget when we find ourselves, like David, caught in exactly that moment of temptation?

For the temptations to let our reactions and actions be determined by our anger, our impatience, self interest, all these temptations come to us on a pretty regular basis. That is why the first prayer of our worship is the prayer of confession, when we bring to God all those things that we thought, said and done that were not in line with God’s will, but that were detached from Him.

So through David, we can see ourselves. His anger may be justified, anger in itself is not sin, but how it’s handled can come close to sin and become precisely that.

As for Nabal, the husband of the discerning and beautiful Abigail, Nabal means ‘fool’.

Foolishness is spelled out and illustrated in the book of Proverbs:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool
cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.

 

And wisdom is spelled out too.

In the same book of Proverbs, wisdom is this:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, you are wise for yourself;
if you scoff, you alone will bear it. (9:10-12)

Foolishness vs wisdom.

So here, in our story we have the couple, Mr Fool and Mrs Wise.

What now may begin to emerge is that this is not a story that gives us historical facts. This story is actually a parable that has truths that don’t stop being truths.

We see how human David is. He is overwhelmed by his anger and his reaction is to give in, just as we often do, it’s so natural. But that has consequences. And the consequences lead us more and more away from God into darkness, from which we cannot save ourselves, even though we think we can. We do so by switching on a light, a light that we can find: finding things that cheer us up, that keep ourselves busy, by taking ourselves not too seriously. But those lights last only so long, they’re superficial.

The light that came to Mary is different.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

That same light came to Joseph, in a dream, when the Lord spoke to him,

 …Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Now, it would be wise, discerning, to acknowledge that God’s son was born as a Jewish boy, which means that the name He was given was Yeshua, rather than Jesus. Yesua means ‘God saves’. If you have that in mind, what the Lord said to Joseph makes more sense,

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua (meaning, ‘God saves) for he will save his people from their sins

Our parable about David, and Nabal and Abigail, it doesn’t stop with David giving in to the temptation of his anger. We’ll follow the story next week and see how God went His way with David, how He didn’t let go what His Hand began through Samuel, in David.

That’s is how God is, He doesn’t let go what His Hand began.  And that is why we will have Christmas again.

Amen

Choosing Love

If you ever watch the program ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, you see and hear sometimes a young girl or boy singing with a voice that you never expected to come out of such a young person. A voice that leaves even Simon Cowell speechless; mature, powerful, filled with emotions that could normally only come from a man or woman with life experience.

It’s a bit like that in our New Testament reading. Its words come from the young Jewish girl Mary, but the words with which she expresses herself are immensely powerful; words that come out of her soul; words that spell out the essence of who God is: mighty, holy, filled by His mercy.

It is Mary’s Magnificat. She begins with magnifying the Lord, as her Saviour, how He has done great things for her, but then she moves away from herself. There is shift of focus from the personal to those who fear Him. Her view broadens as she draws into her song, God’s way, God’s history with the whole of Israel

And so Mary’s song works like a stone that is thrown into a pond, creating circles that become bigger. Mary’s song begins as a song that proclaims and celebrates God as the Saviour in her life, after which she moves to all the people of Israel, to whom she belongs, as they all, like Mary, have experienced Him as their Saviour.

Hymns in which God’s might, holiness and mercy are praised have been sung by more women, long before Mary, who all have experienced that God turned His words into deeds.

Miriam, the sister of Moses, the judge Deborah, and Hanna, the mother of Samuel. They are all Old Testament women who have done what Mary does, generations before her, each from within their time and circumstances.

In the book of Judges, Deborah the judge, sings

“That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
    that the people offered themselves willingly,
    bless the Lord!

“Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
    to the Lord I will sing;
    I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel”

Hannah, after leaving her little boy Samuel in the Temple and so kept her promise to God that she would give her son back to Him, sings:

‘My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation’.

And Miriam, Moses sister, when Israel had crossed the Red Sea after which their enemies, Pharaoh and his men drowned, Miriam sang with all the women,

‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously’

Miriam and Mary. There is this close connection between their names. But that connection signifies so much more as both stand within the salvation story, in which we also have been given our place.

All those inspiring forces from the past are mobilised and channelled into Mary’s hymn of praise.

The voices from women of Israel. Israel, the people with whom God chose to have this unique partnership. But from that partnership all the nations in the world were to be blessed, through the covenant, that God made with Abraham. And that is why Mary concludes her song with him, Abraham. The intimacy between God and Israel has its root in how God spoke to Abraham and from then to Abraham’s offspring. And because of that special and intimate bond, Israel belongs to no other god than to the God of Abraham.

That is why Israel is so often called virgin.

‘Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel ‘(Jeremiah 31:4)

‘She despises you, she scorns you, the virgin daughter of Zion’ (2 Kings 19:21)

As the mother of God’s Son, Mary represents this virgin Israel; and so she belongs first to God only. And from this virgin, Jesus Christ was born, out of God’s will, not out of procreation but from His visit to Mary, God’s Son was born.

Out of Israel. And so,only so; only in this way; the way of God, salvation came from the Jews.

It may feel bittersweet, to focus on Mary’s words that express her awe and wonder about God, while we aren’t allowed to sing the words of the song that we would have sung,

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
Tender to me the promise of his word;
In God my Savior shall my heart rejoice

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his Name!
Make known his might, the deeds his arm has done;
His mercy sure, from age to age to same;
His holy Name–the Lord, the Mighty One

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high

Tell out, my soul, the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
To children’s children and for evermore!

Our reading says: Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’. And magnifying the Lord can of course be done with loud voices. That is what we want through singing, it’s what we long to do. And we will again, but meanwhile, be comforted. Remember that the One to whom our praise is addressed; the One in whom we have faith, He doesn’t mind whether we express ourselves loudly or quietly in our hearts. He doesn’t hear or see us better, when we are loud.

The way we in which praise, in which we confess our faith in Him..it may well be more important to ourselves than to God. What matters for Him is that we do it, in the church, outside the church, in our homes, outside, loud or quiet, singing or just saying. What counts for Him is what is really there in our hearts; what He finds there, within us.

Human nature doesn’t allow much for being humble. Naturally, that’s not what we choose to be. Yes, we are willing when it’s not too costly, when it doesn’t touch our pride too much, when it doesn’t last too long. We don’t want to be left the darkness that, we feel, comes with dependence. We want the opposite: the light of our independence, our strength, our control.

But that is not state that Mary is in when she magnifies the Lord. That is not the light in which Mary stands when she says the words, ‘Let it be to me according to Your Word.’ When she says those words, she finds herself standing in the light of God’s grace. Maybe, realizing that, letting that sink in more, we may be drawn more into that state of humility.

It’s the state that God chose for Himself, when for Him the time was right to reveal Himself as He did: humble, in the vulnerability of a new born baby.

God’s choice to show His face in His own Son Jesus Christ, His choice for the humility that comes with love, which is patient, kind, which doesn’t envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude.

Let God’s choice for love be our choice too.

After all, we have been created by Him, in His image…

 Amen

 

Do Not Touch!

We all know, are feeling that it’s hard not to touch, not to hug family and friends and not the be touched and hugged by them.

Our New Testament takes us into a situation where the motto is the same: ‘Do not touch!’ A leper has come to Jesus. He seems to be in the early stages of his illness and therefore not isolated…yet. But he knows what his future is; he sees his fate looming: abandonment, complete rejection. For in addition to his physical illness and the suffering that comes with it, he is deemed as being unclean. And in his despair, he kneels before Jesus; trapped in the darkness of what lies ahead of him, he begs Jesus

‘If you will, you can make me clean’.

He asks Jesus to make him clean. He desperately hopes that Jesus wants to make him clean, while knowing that he, the leper, is not to be touched. So, will Jesus do what the man desires? Will He make Him clean from a distance?

The first thing that happens after the man’s plea is not something that Jesus does. The first response to the man’s plea is something that happens to Jesus, within Him:

He is struck by compassion, by pity and that overwhelming feeling makes that Jesus does something.

He touches the man.

Think back for a second of that moment in history when Lady Diane shook the hand of the person that suffered from aids. Just as that patient would not have expected to be touched by the princess, so did this man not expect to be touched by Jesus.

But that is what happens, from within that overwhelming emotion of compassion; from within His heart, Jesus touches him. Only after that, as a consequence of what happens in Jesus’ heart, the ‘Do not touch’, motto goes out of the window.

Jesus is not afraid to be challenged. He stretches out His hand and makes physical contact with the man. Then, the man receives what he asked for, when Jesus says,

‘I will, be clean’.

And the man was clean.

In the story everything happens so quickly. The story is read within a few minutes and that can make you overlook the order in which things happen, and then you fail to notice certain things.

One of those things is that Jesus has His own plan. He gives the man what he asked for, but not straight away. There is the sense of suspension that easily gets lost. The sick man asks Jesus to make him clean- Jesus feels compassion- Jesus touches-the man receives what he asked for.  There are stages.

How is that in our lives, when Jesus addresses us, in our needs?

While we think and are focused on our thoughts and wishes, Jesus feels and thinks, He has a plan and it’s always a plan that is rooted in His love and remains immersed in His love.

Jesus can touch in mysterious ways. And it can take us a long time before we realize that He does. Much longer than the seconds in the story of the leper.

It is possible to not realize that God makes contact with us. And if that’s the case, He has time and takes time to let you learn to discern and recognize it.

For He wants to be known by you, recognized by you for who He is.  And it takes time to get to know Him. This getting to know Him, it’s part and parcel of training in and growing in faith. Faith in God who feels passionate love for us in His heart.

The compassion that makes Jesus touch the man, comes from the heart of God.

As we have it in our Old Testament passage:

Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.

The compassion, this intense love of God that we find in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that is the same compassion that Jesus feels for the leper. It runs throughout the bible, it runs throughout our lives, at all times, on both good and bad days.

God cannot, will never let go His love. Even though that love is not recognized, acknowledged, knocked down. It remains unshakable, unwavering. He is patient.

The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, (Exodus 34:6)

He is patient in the face of the statement that was once made by the French Philosopher Nietzsche, the statement that God is dead. Nietzsche made that statement on the basis of his conviction that only reasoning is the source of life.

When we reason, we form our own thoughts, we control them.

But this year, we all had to un-learn that we are in control of our lives. This year we all faced our vulnerability. Maybe, hopefully awareness of our vulnerability makes us acknowledge more than ever that the God of the Bible is a living, loving God. The God who during this difficult year, was present and whose presence, whose touch was felt in ways we could not have imagined and cannot imagine; in ways we could not have imagined and cannot explain by reasoning.

When the sick man is healed, he is told by Jesus to remain quiet about what’s happened to him. Instead of telling people, Jesus wants him to go to the priests and do what is required of him by Moses.

So, having followed His heart, Jesus remains the Jew who obeys the law. That is another thing that is easily overlooked. If we do, we don’t let Jesus be who He is.

But why does Jesus want silence?

Isn’t this an opportunity for mission? Sharing the good news?

Yes, but timing is a crucial thing in Jesus plans. His timing is His Father’s timing and it’s different from ours.

Jesus is very sensitive. Talking about what Jesus had done for the sick man at that point in time, would make people see Him as a miracle worker. People shouldn’t think too quickly that they know who He is from what they hear. Who He is to people will have to emerge by discovering who He is, bit by bit. No shortcuts, no running ahead.

So here’s something else that is not to be overlooked: the times of silence that are incorporated in God’s plans, for His reasons, reasons that are mysteries for us and with which we have to live.

The story starts with the anticipation that the leper would end up in desolate places. But it ends with Jesus ending up in desolate places as the result of the spreading of the news by the man, which Jesus told Him to not to do.

Getting to know God means becoming aware that He addresses our needs in His way; through His, and not our plans. So let‘s not run ahead, but stay behind Him and let Him set the pace. Learn from Him, who in His own mysterious ways moves and says,

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Amen

 

kingship vs Kingship

Dilemmas, we all know them. Someone says this about them:

‘It is difficult to manage the thoughts in our heads with the feelings in our heart…because only one of them is right.’

Einstein had his solution: If your head tell you one thing and your heart tell you another, before you do anything, decide first whether you have a better head or a better heart.

We all find ourselves struggling with dilemmas, small ones and big ones. My heart melts when I see a puppy, but my head says, ‘No, don’t give in’.

Our New Testament reading gives us the struggle that the apostle Paul has with the conflicts within himself. It’s the last paragraph of a passage where he spells out what causes the conflict between His love for God and sin that, he says, lives in him. He, Paul, who always loved, with all that is within him, the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob, Paul wrestles….A Dutch bible commentator says: ‘The dyke of his faith is undercut by the seepage water of sin’.

But then…Paul’s joy, when he thanks God for Jesus Christ, who breaks through that impasse: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Less than two months now, before Christmas. Whatever the restrictions and changes will be, the reason why it will again be Christmas remains unchanged. That reason is that it was God’s initiative, driven by pure love for the world; for his suffering world, to break through its darkness, as a light that started to shine from within that insignificant stable in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem. That takes us to our Old Testament reading. It is where Samuel is sent to, by God, for a mission. And that mission is to anoint a new king for Israel, a king with which king Saul was to be replaced.

Saul was the king that had been given to Israel by God, when Israel asked for a king. But Saul turned out to be a king that did what he wanted, not what God wanted. And because of his disobedience to God, Saul was rejected by God.

God too has regrets, as it says in an earlier chapter:

“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.. (1 Samuel 15:11)

So Samuel was sent to anoint the king with which God wanted to make a new beginning. In Bethlehem, that was where that king was. All very well, but to do that while Saul is still king, that was risky. No wonder Samuel wasn’t keen:

‘How can I go? If Saul hears, he will kill me’

but God offers the reluctant, scared Samuel a solution:

‘Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you’ (1 Samuel 16: 2,3)

Samuel knows only so much, so little of how God will help Samuel complete this mission. God tells him only very little about His plan. He only tells Samuel what he thinks Samuel needs to know.

Isn’t that a situation we often find ourselves in? In our personal lives. In the church with all the changes? We do what we feel we have to do. But just as God was building something new for Israel then, with Samuel, so He is the One that builds something new with us, now. Our efforts are to be given with the awareness that God Himself remains the creator of new things. As the Psalmist says,

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

Everything we do, has to be done from within that humility towards God.

So Samuel does as he’s told, he goes to Bethlehem. When the people in Bethlehem, the elders, see him they wonder why a prophet has come to their town. So they ask, ‘Have you come in peace?’ ‘Yes, I have come in peace’, Samuel replies, still unsure and unsettled.

And then he meets Jesse with his seven sons. Eliab the eldest, a tall young man, is the first one passing Samuel. Seeing Him, Samuel thinks, ‘he must be the one. He must be the new king’. However, Samuel got it wrong. He was misled by what his eyes saw and therefore was corrected by God:

No, Samuel, don’t look at his appearance. It’s not about what human eyes see. It is about what I see. And I don’t look at outward appearances. I don’t look at what is obvious to human eyes. I look at the heart.

The second son comes forward, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth…None of these were God’s chosen one. Well, it must be the seventh then. But no…The new king God had in mind was not there.

What now? What is this? A failed mission? Has Samuel come all the way to Bethlehem with a heavy heart for nothing?

‘Are these all your sons, Jesse?’

‘Well, there is still one, the little one. It can’t be him. He looks after the sheep’.

‘Call him, Jesse’, Samuel says.

They were all ready to start the meal, but they couldn’t, because the little one wasn’t there yet. Samuel, Jesse and the seven sons of Jesse had to wait for the eight son of Jesse.

Eight is, in Jewish thinking, a number of God. We have seven days. Our eight day would be Sunday, which is the first day.

So we don’t have an eight day, it’s not on our calendar. But in the bible, crucial things happen on this eight day. Israel’s sons get circumcised on the eight day, including God’s son Jesus. In Luke it says,

 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21)

When the little David arrived, the child of Jesse that didn’t count, this is what God said,

“Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. (1 Samuel 16: 12,13)

It makes sense that it was Jesse’s eight son with whom God wanted to make a new beginning. It doesn’t make common sense, but biblical sense. The eight day in the bible is the day of a new beginning. It stands for God’s time, a time of the highest order, when a reality from that highest order enters our lives. When He begins something within us and with us; something that we never could have thought of ourselves.

The Spirit of God rushed upon David from that day forward…Does that mean that David was the perfect king? No. David too was human. Like Paul, David struggled with sin; with conflicts like all of us do; in which we all can be stuck.

But David let God correct him. David had to be the king to God’s own heart, by remaining the humble shepherd he was, in his heart

There is not one dilemma, not one struggle that God doesn’t know about; from which He doesn’t want to save us. But we have to let Him do it His way. To be able to do it His way, God needs that what we don’t like, our humility…

What God saw in David’s heart was humility. That’s what made him the opposite of king Saul. With that humility God started to build something new in Israel. For through David, God pointed at and  started to build a kingship that was of the highest order, His own Kingship. For from David, the shepherd in Bethlehem, generations and generations later, the little Jesus was born, in the same Bethlehem, the King of all kings, the Shepherd of our lives.

Amen

The Eagle and the Vine

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. 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)

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Is the Lord Among us or Not?

Our Old Testament reading draws us into a terrible tense situation. Moses and the people of Israel are in the desert, without water. While the story may not seem very relevant to us, at first sight, the question that is asked, ‘Is the Lord among us or not’, is very relevant. It is a question that has been and continues to be asked over and over again. Is God here with us, during the crisis we find ourselves in or not? Where is He in all this?

During this time of tensions; distress; lack of prospects, just as it was felt in the story of Moses, we may all ask that question at times silently or not so silently, when doubts are kicking in, or anger, when again, restrictions are tightened…and we are thrown into isolation, once more

Yet, we are urged to stand firm in our belief that God is with us, that God is love.

How that faith can shape our lives now?

This is how Paul, in all its detail, describes love:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Here we have it… Love spelled out, love as God shows it in His Son Jesus Christ.

It is because God loved us first, with His perfect love, that we can love. He is the source, and therefore it is of crucial importance to stay close to Him. One way of putting it at this time is, when everything happens online, is that we need to stay online with Him; be insistent that the connection doesn’t get lost. Awareness of His presence, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

That is what He longs for, and that is why He gave us the greatest commandment, as an anchor in the storms of life:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22: 37-40)

Is it easy to love…? Is it easy to be what is described by Paul, to be patient, kind, not insisting on our own way…?

Years ago, I had a friend who said to me she needed lessons in love. She recognised, felt, her inadequacy particularly when it came to love someone.

To love someone can be hard. When it is always assumed, not valued, taken for granted, not appreciated, or even scoffed at, rejected. All these different possibilities are realities in life. You may have your own experiences.

Yet, it is the ultimate purpose of our lives, given by God. You could say that it is everyone’s mission to love and with God’s help it is not a mission impossible.

Hearing the story of Moses, you may feel for him as his mission seems pretty much a mission impossible. But he learned a lot, from and with God while He found himself thrown into the most impossible situations. And that is why the story can be encouraging to us, for when we find ourselves in impossible situations.

The story also reminds me of the time, long ago, when I was the lucky one who got the job as team leader when working with young people. Having been singled out from my colleagues, I found myself between them and a management committee to which I was accountable. But the management committee was divided, fragmented. A difficult time, yet never without God’s help.

We find ourselves in difficult situations. We find ourselves in a fragmented world. And this where God offers His oneness. We can count on Him, just as Moses could in the desert, when He asked for His help. We can count on Him, when we ask Him for help. It says specifically in the book of Deuteronomy,

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

What that means is that in Him we see perfect wholeness, loyalty, faithfulness to us. Being Love, God does what He does, out of love and with love comes solidarity. God’s solidarity is what He offers to us in times that we struggle; when life gets though.

In our story we see that God helps Moses and the people of Israel, when they are stuck. God’s help comes, but in a very strange way.

Moses is told to take his staff and strike the rock on which God was going to stand. How much sense does this instruction make in the middle of the desert?

Still, Moses did as he was told; even though it did make no sense at all. And so God received from Moses trust and obedience, even though Moses did not understand God’s way.

We see the ultimate obedience to God in Jesus in our New Testament reading. An obedience that comes from humility, and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Humility. How does that fit in this world where the emphasis lies on confidence, achievement, control? How can humility have a place in all that…?

In the book of Proverbs, there is this beautiful saying:

Before destruction, a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honour. (Proverbs 18:12)

That honour will be given by God Himself alone, after humility. Jesus says:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29)

Christ humbled Himself like no one else. In Him God came from His high throne in heaven into the world and so He let go His Glory; in order to be a servant; prepared to serve; completely available to God and people. And He did not change His mind when the suffering and death on the cross came nearer and nearer.

Even that night of His arrest, when He knew He was about to suffer and die, He celebrated the last Passover with His disciples, the Passover that celebrates and honours the God who set Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Set free through the blood of His Son. That is what we are.

Jesus remained faithful, loyal to the One who sent Him into the world and so God was able to achieve His purpose through His Son.

That loyalty, that is what God desires from us, His children. Loyalty to Himself and to each other, in response to His loyalty and faithfulness to us.

Is the Lord among us or not?

That is to be discovered by ourselves, not once or twice, but over and over again, when we are open to Him, when we face our own vulnerability and lift our eyes to Him. Just as it has been done by those who went before us, in faith: our parents, grandparents, their parents, and before them Moses, the other prophets, the Psalmist, the disciples when they looked at Jesus, and all those after them throughout the ages. It is to be discovered by ourselves so that, what once has been said by Job in his suffering, can be said again and again, in humility from within the heart:

I heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.(Job 42:5)

Amen

The Jabbok Story

A leopard never changes its spots. You know that saying. You may have experienced the of truth it. People are what they are. But the spots of course are on the outside, are visible. There is more than the visible, more than meets the eye. So here’s another saying:

‘The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about’.

Both sayings could be related to Jacob. The grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah had been barren all her life. But the son that was promised by God, was received by them, from God, in their old age. His name was Isaak and he had two sons, twins Esau and Jacob. Brothers fight, it’s normal. However, in the case of Esau and Jacob, that fighting started, seriously, while they were in their mother’s womb, and the one who was born last, actually continued that fighting, as he tried to grab the heel of his brother, the first born. A last attempt to win, to be born first. But he wasn’t born first and therefore didn’t have the first born right. The name of the child that tried to grab the heel of his brother was Jacob, which in Hebrew means ‘heal-sneak’.

Yet, he managed to get the first born right, by stealing it. Pretending that he was the first born, Esau, Jacob managed to make his old father Isaak believe that he was Esau. So Isaak gave him the blessing that was Esau’s. That is how Jacob got the blessing, through a lie. Characterized by his strong will to get what he wanted, including the blessing, Jacob was used to being in control.

Last week we heard how Jacob had to leave his home, his home in the promised land Canaan. He had to leave his beloved mum, dad and angry brother Esau. A painful parting.

Yet, in the midst of his loneliness, God reached out to Jacob, gave him the assurance of His presence, every step of the difficult way that lay before Jacob, despite of what he had done, despite of what he was: a mummy’s boy, used to being spoilt by her, being allowed to live his life on his terms.

Stealing the first born right, that was what crowned it all.

A leopard never changes its spots. Can God change them?

Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was promised by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars and that they would be a blessing to all the nations. But look at this grandson, this dishonest man. How can he, with his dishonest practices, be a blessing to others?

Well, God had incorporated in His plan, an educational plan for Jacob. That plan shaped Jacob’s way, and, as for his deceit from which his father Isaak and brother Esau suffered, the plan included a taste of Jacob’s own medicine.

Jacob fell in love with the youngest daughter of Laban, Rachel, whom he wanted to marry. But Laban made Jacob work for him first, seven years.

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:20)

However, after the wedding, Jacob realized he had not been given Rachel, by Laban, but Rachel’s older sister Leah.

Surprised why he had been deceived by his father in law, Jacob asked why, to which Laban answered. ‘We don’t give away the younger before the firstborn. Work for Rachel now, and I will give you her’. Another seven years, Jacob had to work, before he was given Rachel.

When God has his educational plan, don’t underestimate it, for it will not fail to serve His purpose. And in His time, God told Jacob to go back to the land Canaan, where he was promised by God a new future. So Jacob returned.

You can imagine, that Jacob was overwhelmed by memories, when the land Canaan came into sight, after all those years.

That’s where we are in today’s first Old Testament reading. Jacob made sure that his family and all his possessions, his wealth, had crossed the water of the Jabbok, first.

Then he is left alone.

Jacob is overwhelmed by his fear, fear to meet Esau. Fear for Esau’s anger, the anger that drove Jacob out of the land, across its borders, years ago.

In the bible we come across a lot of playing with words, with names. In both the name of the river Jabbok and in the name Jacob, you hear the sound ‘abak’ meaning ‘struggle’. And by playing with these two names, the author says to its readers and hearers, ‘Jacob finds himself in a phase of transition. Jacob had to cross the Jabbok, because, symbolically, this water, was filled with all the things inside Jacob. All the things that he needed to face, acknowledge, that he needed to leave behind, before entering into that new future that God had for Him’.

Then, suddenly out of nowhere, ‘someone’ struggled with Jacob. Clearly, this ‘someone’ was involved in Jacob’s crossing, in his transition. This is a wrestling of life and death. Who is this opponent? A river demon? There’s no winner in the sense that we are familiar with. This opponent, in all its mystery, only needed to touch Jacob’s thigh, and it got dislocated. He didn’t need to hit Jacob, didn’t need to strike him. Just touch, the socket of Jacob’s thigh…Whoever this opponent was, this struggle took place in the presence of God. Jacob knows this all too well. The opponent urges Jacob to let him go, but Jacob’s reaction is,

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (Genesis 32:26)

And with saying the name Jacob, all of Jacob’s questionable history came out: the grabbing of his brother’s heel at birth, taking from him his blessing. All the dishonesty, the insistence on a life on his terms, on staying in control, it all came out.

Jacob got the blessing, from the One he was fighting with, but not as Jacob. Not the ‘heel-sneak’ style of Jacob was blessed. A new name, with which Jacob was given a new identity, was given first. Then he was blessed, under the new name Israel, which means, ‘God-Fighter’.

A fundamental change had to happen first, and that change came with a new name.

 “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

(Genesis 32:28-29)

Jacob’s opponent refused to give Jacob His Name. Instead, He gave Jacob the blessing.

The Holy One with the ineffable name gives new names. What that means is that He initiates new beginnings, in His time, for His reasons, in His way, as it is said again in our New Testament reading:

and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:17)

Here we have Christ’s promise that perseverance to stay close to Him, takes us to a into His recreation, a new beginning, symbolized by the giving of a new name, about which no one else knows. That tells us that it’s something intimate, just between Him, the Giver and the receiver.

Jacob limps.

The way in which God realized his educational plan with Jacob, included wrestling that didn’t leave Jacob without scars. But what Jacob gained through the wrestling was that Jacob’s fear for Esau was conquered. Only then he was ready to learn  that the Esau he was so dreading to see, was so not the Esau Jacob had in mind. Instead, it was an Esau in whose face Jacob saw God’s forgiveness. That was Jacob’s entering in his new future.

The way in which God goes His way with each one of us, includes battles and, like Jacob, we don’t come out of them without scars. But it is with those scars that we can move on, into a future that is held in God’s Hand, just as Jacob’s was. And so, The Jabbok story is also our story.

Christ’s promise to us, as we have it in our Revelation passage, is rooted in the promise God once spoke to Israel, with which I end,

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,

until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,

    and her salvation as a burning torch.

The nations shall see your righteousness,

    and all the kings your glory,

and you shall be called by a new name

    that the mouth of the LORD will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,

    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

    and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

    and your land Married;

for the LORD delights in you,

    and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

    so shall your sons marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

    so shall your God rejoice over you.

(Isaiah 62:1-5)

 Amen

 

 

 

 

A Change Like a Leaf on a Tree

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.

Amen