A new creation

Psalm 8

Luke 2: 21-39

 Ten days in to the new year, and what has changed? The year is new, 2021, but we still find ourselves within the same struggle of 2020?

Words from the book of Ecclesiastes say,

…there is nothing new under the sun.
   Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?.. (Ecclesiastes 9-10)

These word have a tone of cynicism, and we too may feel that same cynicism.

So, what’s new? Well, the birth of a child is always new. Children were born in the midst of the challenges and sadness of last year and they continue to be born. Every new born child is a new creation. Creation begins anew, every time a child is born. That is what the birth of a child is, from a biblical point of view.

After telling us the story about the birth of God’s Son, the Gospel writer Luke tells us  what happened to the baby boy that was born in a stable in Bethlehem, when he was eight days old. And we’re told, because Luke wants to draw our attention to the fact that Jesus was born as a Jewish baby boy. For on that day, the eight day, He, like any other Jewish boy, was circumcised and was given His Name. Mary knew, before she had conceived, that her son would be called Jesus, and Joseph knew that as well. He was told in a dream. Still, it was not until the eight day, that God’s Son was given the name Jesus, as was required by the Law of the Lord.

The Gospel writer Luke also tells about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth too had conceived. Elizabeth’s husband was Zachariah, the priest. And they were a couple that were far too old to become parents. For nature, they were too old, for God they weren’t. He gave them a son, despite their old age:

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child.  And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”  And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”  And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called.  And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. (Luke 1:-57-63)

Here we have it again: wonder, after a discussion had taken place about the child’s name. John? Where does that name come from, no one in the family is called John; he should be called Zachariah, after his father.

The birth of John the Baptist; a child born for a particular purpose of God. Because of that, the patriarchal practice that the son is called after his father, didn’t happen. Instead, God’s way happened. He was called John, according to God’s will, who called him.

God’s ways cause to wonder, as His ways are not ours. He who created the world in seven days didn’t call it a day, after those seven days of creation. No, being a God of new beginnings, He begins over and over again. And therefore, since the eight day follows those seven days of creation, it is that eight day that symbolizes in the bible, God’s new beginning.

That is why a Jewish baby boy is circumcised on the eight day, because on that day he, as God’s new creation, enters the covenant that God made with Abraham. The baby boy is brought into that covenant by his parents and so is included and participates in that covenant. In fact, in Hebrew it doesn’t say that a covenant is made; a covenant is cut. Belonging to God is something that cuts deeply. It involves heart and soul and might, as it says,

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5)

Like all other Jewish baby boys, both John and Jesus are brought into God’s covenant on the eight day. Their names are called out on that day. Just as the Law of the Lord required. But there’s a difference in how it happens. There are lots of people on John’s eight day. As for Jesus, 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)

That’s all it says. A plain statement. It seems as if Luke thinks: ‘less is more’. And that more lies in His name. No, not just more, everything lies in His Name, in the Hebrew name that he was called, Yeshua, which means, God saves. Who He is, what he will do, His whole being is held in this name.

He is the Saviour, through whom God came to save the world. He was called Jesus for us. So that we would be saved, following Him. There was the blood from his flesh that came with his circumcision, but so much more blood was to come from His flesh, later, for us.

Mary and Joseph didn’t know, but the old Simeon did.

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2: 34-35)

Both he and the old Anna, had been waiting for their redeemer. The solidness of their faith, their patience, their joy when they at last after years and years of waiting see Him.

And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2: 38)

Meeting our Redeemer. It’s not a superficial thing. It’s deep, as he reveals thoughts from the hearts, as Simeon says.

 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40)

May, through our Lord Jesus Christ, the favor of God be upon you all

Amen.

 

There is a Place By Me

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.

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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’.

Amen

Saved to Save

Throughout the ages, mothers grieve. One grieving mother said to me recently: my boy went straight to God.

In our Old Testament passage it is mother Rachel who grieves for her children. In our New Testament passage it’s the mothers whose baby sons have been killed by king Herod. Neither of the passages is an historical account. Instead, both of them give a reality of life. Innocent children die. Tomorrow on December 28th that is what is remembered in the Christian year, the death of the innocent children as we have it in our New Testament reading.

King Herod feels threatened by the arrival of the new born king, of whom he is made aware of by the three wise men.

Herod thinks, ‘good to know’, and then says, ‘Come back and let me know where I can find Him so that I can worship Him’. When he realises that he has been tricked by the wise men, he finds his own way of getting rid of the new born King.

Fear and power. Put them together and you get the killing.

This Herod is clearly a twin brother of Pharaoh of Egypt. Same character. Same fear. Same power. Pharaoh too demanded that all new born baby boys were killed: thrown into the river Nile. Two powerful rulers with the same style of reigning.

While king Herod kills, the new born King is taken to the land of Egypt. He escapes the cruelty, is not going to be killed…yet.

In Luke’s Gospel, where it tells about the shepherds that went to the stable in Bethlehem, it says that Mary, ‘treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’.

This Jewish young girl, who magnified the Lord with her song

    Holy is his name.

And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate; (Luke 1: 49-52)

Oh, she knows what her Lord had done in the past, when Israel was led out of Egypt…and now in the light of that; in the light of all that she already knew, and now had come to know, and now feels when she is holding her baby, she is pondering.

But then, the next moment she finds herself with Joseph and Jesus fleeing, to Egypt.

Israel and Egypt. In the bible they seem to have a kind of love-hate relationship.

Once, Egypt was the place where Jacob and his sons went when they had a famine in Canaan, where they lived.  The bread in Egypt saved them. It did, but not for ever, for the offspring of Jacob and his sons, Israel, for them Egypt turned into hell when they were made slaves.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel grew in number.

So much, that Pharaoh was terrified that Israel would continue to grow into a strong nation and would be able to stand up against him. And so Pharaoh exercised power in his way. And that power killed.

So, here’s an Egypt that symbolizes the powers that oppress, kill, makes life hell.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Egypt is the opposite of that. The new born King is kept safe there in Egypt, until Herod’s death and Mary and Joseph and Jesus went to live in Nazareth.

Into Egypt and then out again. Why this movement? Well, the reason is given,

This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

In all the stories that we have, throughout the Bible, it’s about what God says and does. His word and deed are one, that’s why it says,

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

Where it says that the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem, it doesn’t say that they went to see the Christ child. They went to see,

‘…this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2: 15)

What happened was that the word of God had become flesh. That word of God made them rush to Bethlehem, where they found that that word had become a baby, the Christ child.

Jesus was saved from the hand of Herod, just as Moses was saved from the hand of Pharaoh. Both were saved to save; saved for God’s purpose.

So, Joseph was told, in a dream, to flee to Egypt.

Herod does not allow for ridiculing him. None of the tyrants do; it is what they do: they mess about with people. Don’t we all know that Egyptian Pharaohs continue to exist throughout the ages? It’s just that their names change.

Jesus as a baby, is not killed, but he will be, later and he will be called: king of the Jews, words immersed in the cynicism; the contempt with which the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross.

The Massacre of the Innocents, it’s a story about Egypt, about Bethlehem, it’s a story of all times.  Always again those tyrants who cause mothers to cry and weep in despair, as Rachel did, representing all the mothers of Israel, at the time that Israel were gathered in order to be deported to Babylon. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Israel. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Bethlehem;

Inconsolable they are, the mothers and fathers of children, teenage children and adult children, of children who have been taken away from them. Inconsolable are the children who have lost mothers and fathers.

Yet, the story of the vulnerable, poor King that was born in the stable goes hand in hand with the suffering that comes with the death of all those innocent children killed by Herod. In them the suffering of the Christ child was already foretold. They already suffered and died with Christ before He did.

The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of that suffering; because of that suffering, God came down to go through every minute of precisely that suffering Himself, in His Son. But then, after the suffering and dying, God did something again: He raised His Son from the dead. In that resurrection, suffering and death are held.

So, here we have in the Gospel of Matthew, two kings. The one with whom we are all familiar; who is loud and visible; the one who exercises power as it suits him or her; channelling them into their purposes:

That king vs the new born King.

As Christians, we don’t share a kind of general hope: the hope that all will work out, somehow, or that there is something after life. No, our hope is specific. Through Christ, God Himself is our hope, in that He is with us, throughout everything we go through.

Coming to the end of a hear in which so much pain has been suffered, so many lives have been lost and are being mourned, we have this hope. It gives us solid ground under our feet. It gives us reason to ponder in our hearts, as Mary did.

As we are about to enter a new year, be encouraged and persevere in that hope: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

 

Wonder

It was Frank’s first time as the department store Santa and just before the grotto opened for the day, he looked out through the curtains to see a queue of mums and dads and children snaking all the way from the grotto to the toy department. ‘What am I letting myself in for?’ he wondered.  ‘Am I going to be any good at this?  I think I look the part, I’ve got the glasses and the white beard, I’ve got the red robe with the white fur and a red suit and I’ve got the black boots, I’ve got plenty of padding.  I look like Santa, even if I don’t feel like him.  Hope I’m going to be okay.’

Jackie the elf sensed his trepidation.  Jackie usually worked behind the makeup counter but every December she took two weeks’ holiday to work beside Santa in the grotto because she just loved Christmas so much.  She’d seen plenty of Santas come and go, and she could tell Frank was nervous.

‘Look, don’t worry about it,’ she said.  ‘Try to relax and enjoy yourself.  Just, whatever you do, try not to scare the kids, won’t you?  Be jolly, be Santa.’

Frank did relax, and for a while everything was okay, and he did enjoy himself.  For the first half a dozen children, that is.  But the seventh one, well, it didn’t go so great.

Frank could tell the wee boy was scared of him.  As he came into the grotto he was half hiding behind his mum, looking at Frank as if he were some kind of ogre, not friendly old Santa Claus.  And as soon as his mum sat him down beside Frank, he started bawling and crying.  You could probably hear him in the menswear department, and that was on the floor above.  He just wouldn’t stop.  And his mum just looked at Frank expectantly, as if to say, ‘Well, you’re Santa, deal with it.’  Frank looked at Jackie the elf, but he didn’t get any support there – Jackie just folded her arms and looked amused.  She’d seen it all before.

None of Frank’s ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ seemed to be having any effect.  And telling the wee boy he was definitely on the nice list and not the naughty one didn’t help either.  But then Frank had an idea.

First he took off the glasses, and the boy could see the eyes that were looking back at him weren’t the eyes of an old man, but they were young and they were twinkly.  Then he took off the white beard and the wee boy stopped crying and looked at him curiously.  Then Frank took off the red robe and jacket, leaving him in just an ordinary t-shirt.  The wee boy looked at him and laughed, the tears all gone.

Now both of them, Frank and the wee boy, were quite relaxed and happy in each other’s company.  And now they were the best of pals, Frank told the boy a story.  It was a story about how once, a very long time ago, God decided he was going to come down to earth to live alongside the people there, to be among them.  He didn’t want to frighten the people, so he was born the same way as they were, he wore the same clothes as they did, he lived an ordinary life just like them.  The wee boy listened, hanging on Frank’s every word, his eyes getting wider and wider.  And as Frank told the story, he started to put all the Santa gear back on again.  He put on the red jacket and the red robe, the glasses and, finally, the long white beard.  Eventually, dressed as Santa again, Frank gave the wee boy his gift and then, all too soon, time was up.  There was a whole queue of children waiting to see Santa, so the wee boy and his mum had to leave.  As they went, his mum turned to Jackie and said, ‘That was nice, but it’s a shame that your Santa spoiled all the magic.’

Looking back at Frank, the department store Santa, Jackie smiled and said, ‘Maybe it ended the magic, but I think it’s started a whole lot of wonder.’

We dress up Christmas in all sorts of ways, we give it a red suit and a white beard and, sometimes for us, like the wee boy in the department store, it all gets a bit overwhelming.  This year, maybe more than any other we can all remember, Christmas is pared back, stripped down – you could say it’s like Frank sitting there in his t-shirt instead of his Santa gear.  But I think this year gives us the perfect opportunity, if opportunity is needed, to remember the true message of Christmas – that God is with us, God is among us.  And next year, well, next year we’ll put all the gear back on again and Christmas will be just like we’ve come to know it.   But the message will still hold true, no matter how much we dress it up.

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The birth of a child brings about emotions in the parents that cannot be described by words. Emotions that overwhelm, deep love, intense joy. After months of waiting, after all the pain that comes with giving birth, there is pure wonder.

And the child itself, as it grows, he or she discovers all sorts of things, with amazement, watched by its parents.

Pure wonder is something that happens to you, you’re captured by it. In our bible readings, it happens to the shepherds, and to the people who hear from the shepherds what has been told about this new born child in the stable.

The story doesn’t say that they believed what they heard. It says that they wondered.

But then, can faith begin without wonder?

There are people who wonder about things a lot. There are people who do less so and there are people who just don’t.

How do we hear the story of the birth of Jesus; the story about Jesus’s mother and Joseph; the story about the shepherds. How do we hear the stories that follow from there? The story that tells about the twelve year old Jesus in the temple. Only twelve years old, He amazes the teachers of the Scriptures with his insight. And Jesus continues to amaze people when He heals the sick, when He speaks to people words that make them aware of new things.

Words that regularly amaze, shock His disciples, for instance when they stop children to come to Him. Jesus reacts to that by doing the opposite. He called the children to Him, saying:

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)

 The little boy in John’s story was scared until Frank removed all the layers that made him Santa. That stripping off layers, that made the boy calm down. And then when Frank told the boy the story about how God chose to come down to earth to be with His people, the boy heard every word Fank was saying. And hearing them, the boy’s eyes got wider. He was amazed.

Just like the shepherds when they were told about the new born king by the angels; just like the people who, through the shepherds heard about the new born baby in the stable.

In the midst of all those wondering people there is one who starts to think deeper,

‘Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’

Would she have begun to see connections between what she was told, knew, came to know, what she felt? All her pondering was brought about by that wonder, that came to her when she was told the Good News that she was going to give birth to God’s Son. The news that she, humbly, received, without understanding how that could be.

How much of our thinking allows for; is triggered by wonder? Is it not all too often played down, stifled even, by the layers that we are not so willing to remove:  the layer of the insistence on self-protection; the layer of ‘wanting to fix things’, the layer of ‘wanting to stay in control’.

That would be the reason why Jesus took a child as example for his disciples and for us now. For a child is free from those layers. Therefore, for a child, there is so much room for wonder.

As Frank could see in the eyes of the little boy who listened to Frank’s story about God coming down to earth; about how He chose to do it: as one of us, to be with us.

Following this new born boy in Bethlehem’s stable, we’re taken into lots of stories with people who wonder, amazed about what Jesus does, what He says, when He refers back to what has been said in stories that tell about His ancestors, in the Old Testament; to what has been said by the prophets who foretold His birth.

May the story of Jesus’ birth with all those other bible stories, kindle in our hearts a whole lot of wonder, encouraging us to discover more and more about the Holy One, who chose to come down in the vulnerability of new born baby, for us, to be with us.

Amen

 

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