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.

 

 

 

 

 

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