Sermon title – The Song of Songs
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Sermon title – The Song of Songs
Please click on the pdf icon above if you would like to read the sermon text.
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?
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!”
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.
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…
It’s the end of October and we all have our own feelings, shared feelings, about the kind of year we are having. We haven’t been able to do the normal things we’ve taken for granted, especially the things from which we get joy. Control has been taken out of our hands. This year we feel, is a wasted, unproductive year
Yet, we have moved from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn, and Winter will come, regardless of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. We still have been able to get our vegetables, fruit, bread, milk from the shops. Not in the same way we are used to. More than ever we have done online shopping. We cannot rush in and out the shop, while we have to wear our face covering. We have to be mindful of each other; of each other’s safety and that can include waiting, waiting to be allowed to go into the shop. And with waiting comes the need for patience.
What we then can buy is available in abundance. And what is available has been produced, with effort and patience. First by farmers and then, after what they have done, by lots of other people. If you ever watched the program, ‘Inside the factory’, you realize, how much is involved, work with care and precision, even though a lot of the work is done by machines. There are so many stages before food is ready to be transported to the shops. At this harvest service, we acknowledge all the work that is done by so many, that enable us to eat and drink. We celebrate their unseen labour, with all its details.
Our Old Testament reading also gives us details of labour, the labour of an eagle, given through a parable. We are used to parables in the New Testament, told by Jesus. And the reason why Jesus often speaks in parables is explained by Him to His disciples
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (John 15:11-13)
Jesus doesn’t speak about seeing and hearing the obvious. He speaks about the spiritual, about seeing and hearing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says to His disciples: ‘You see what they don’t.’
Spiritual blindness from His people has always been God’s struggle, His frustration, His heartache, throughout the ages. Here we have it again, during the time of Israel’s king Sedekia, who seeks support from Egypt, instead from what God is doing. And therefore Ezekiel is told by God to give a riddle, in a parable. A parable, about two eagles.
A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs. (17:3-6)
Now, the translation of ‘a great eagle’ is not accurate, it should say ‘the eagle’, because it is assumed that the hearers of the parable know whom the eagle represents. This eagle represents God; its beautiful features are described and point to God’s royal majesty. Taking the top of the Lebanon’s cedar tree, this eagle takes it to Canaan, for that is what ‘the land of trade’, stands for. And there in Canaan, in that promised land, the eagle plants the best of what he has taken. This is labour. This choosing of top quality, and bringing it over from afar, with love and care to plant it in the fertile soil. We see here the aspects of crop and labour, as we can recognize it in what is done by farmers.
The labour of the eagle is ongoing, his care is ongoing and they result in a vine, with branches spreading and its roots firmly remaining where it stood.
But then, the riddle. A change. Another eagle appears, looking like the first one but not the same. It’s of a lower rank. And then the vine that was there, blossoming, turns to this eagle, to be nurtured by it.
It had been planted on good soil by abundant waters, that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine. (Ezekiel 17:8)
It might…We hear deep disappointment and hurt from the first eagle, who planted it, who had given it so much loving care. Why does the vine turn away from its Planter. Why does it turn to another source, for its nurture? Why does it now expect what it had been given in abundance by its Planter, from another? Why does it not stay with him, the first eagle?
God feels like that when we turn away from Him. When we look for satisfaction in our lives through other sources than Him. The parable, with its strange turning point, wants to take us back to the Planter, to what He offers. It directs us back under His blessing.
Only Jesus, knows and feels God’s deep suffering from the spiritual blindness of His people. He Himself has been planted in the earth. He had come into the world to heal precisely that blindness. He is the vine. Therefore, in the same spirit of the parable, Jesus says,
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5)
Abiding with Jesus includes waiting in dark times. Eugene Peterson says:
‘Those who sow good deeds and expect quick results, will be disappointed. If I want potatoes tomorrow, then planting them in my garden this evening is useless. Planting and harvesting are separated by long stretches of darkness and silence’.
The disciples were told by Jesus that they were clean, pruned because of the word that He had spoken to them. So are we. The word has been and is being spoken to us. But it has to be heard with an open heart to receive it.
Hardheartedness makes blind and deaf and doesn’t give soil for God’s word to grow in it and to bear fruit. The bearing of fruit becomes visible in our lives through love. God can see how other people are affected when His love is reflected through us. He sees what we don’t. And yes, the bearing of fruit includes times of pruning, includes going through hard times. As Eugene Peterson puts it: ’long stretches of darkness and silence.’ Silence even in the church, without the sound of singing, but still the sound of God’s word.
So stay with Him. Jesus says,
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:16-17)
Faith, Hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
That love is to be passed on and with that love comes peace. As James says, a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:18)
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)