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)







Building for the Better

There was a man once, and building was the man’s business.  He’d made his fortune by building luxury homes, the property boom throughout the 80s and 90s had seen him do alright in life and now he could afford to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labour.  It wasn’t just his labour, of course, he didn’t build the houses himself, he had a team he trusted, a team he knew would always do their best for him.  And they always did their best for him because he was a good boss, he was fair with them, he treated them well.  And he paid them well too.

The man he trusted most of all was his project manager.  His project manager had been with him from the start, always working away in the background organising things, buying materials, supervising the contractors they had to bring in.  So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to his project manager when the man said to him one day, ‘I want you to build a retirement house for me.  Spend whatever you need to, I’m not going to interfere, I don’t want to be involved, but I want no expense spared, I’ll cover it. I want the best of materials, the best fixtures and fittings, I want this to be the best house my company has ever built.  I’m going to leave it completely in your hands.’

Now, the trouble was that the project manager realised that if his boss was retiring, it was going to mean he’d have to retire too, he’d lose the job he’d had for what seemed like forever.  How was he going to get another job at his age?  So he took his chance to pad out his own retirement plan.  Instead of the best of materials, he ordered the worst and charged his boss for the best.  Instead of luxury fixtures and fittings, he ordered the ones that looked good, but that underneath the gloss were cheap and shoddy.  And he charged his boss for the best.  Instead of their usual team of skilled craftsmen and contractors, he brought in all the cowboy builders he could find, he brought in inexperienced electricians, poor plumbers, rookie roofers.  And he charged his boss for the best.   When the house was finally built, oh yes, it looked good, it looked like quality – but it wasn’t quality.  If you tried to get a mortgage on a house like that, you’d have no chance.  But the project manager had made himself a tidy wee sum by pocketing the difference between what he said he’d spent and what he actually had spent.  As soon as he handed it over, he’d be off like a shot.

His boss was true to his word.  He hadn’t interfered.  He’d paid all the bills without a second look at them.  He didn’t even turn up on site until after the house was finished.  And when he did, he looked around at what was, at first glance, a great house, but one that was actually pretty much worthless.  Worse than that, it’d take more money to put everything right than what it cost to build.  And he said to the project manager, ‘Remember when I said I’d leave it completely in your hands?   I meant it.  I don’t need a new house for my retirement, but I know you do.  It’s yours.’  And he gave him the keys.

Our New Testament reading today is what’s become known as the Parable of the Tenants, some say the Wicked Tenants.  It’s part of a conversation Jesus has with the priests and the elders of the temple of Jerusalem, not long after he’d arrived there for what would be the last time.  The master plants a vineyard and leaves it in the care of his tenants.  He trusts them but they don’t live up to his trust (a bit like our business owner and his project manager), only they kill the servants who go to gather his fruit on two occasions, then kill his son too.  Jesus asks the priests and the elders what should happen to the tenants.  They give it the old ‘eye for an eye’, well, they would, wouldn’t they, as the priests are steeped in the Judaic tradition and that’s how they see justice, they say the tenants should suffer and that the vineyard should be given to those who deserve it.  As I say, steeped in the Judaic traditions, so they’d have known the book of Isaiah, they’d have known our Old Testament reading from Isaiah.  They’d have known the vineyard in Isaiah represents Israel, its owner is God and that the Israelites, despite having been given all they needed, despite God fulfilling all his promises to them, the Israelites failed to live up to God’s expectations.  The fruit that came from their vineyard wasn’t good fruit, as Isaiah says, ‘He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isa. 5:2)

 And the priests, on hearing Jesus’ parable and making all the Isaiah connections, they might have been self-satisfied, smug, they might have sat back and thought they’d had it all figured out.  They might have thought, well, that’s all in the past, we’ve learned from that, we are where we are.  We’re God’s people, he’s chosen us and we do everything his laws tell us to do, we’re untouchable.  But Jesus’ words take on an ominous tone.  When he says, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone’, he’s quoting word-for-word from Psalm 118, and the priests would suddenly be aware of the real point of the story.  When he says, ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,’ suddenly they’re in no doubt he’s talking about himself, and he’s talking about them.  Jesus is saying that clinging to the old laws isn’t good enough anymore.  Jesus is the stone, the cornerstone, the builders are the Jewish priests who reject him.  And they’re not untouchable anymore.

Most buildings these days don’t have cornerstones.  The building I spoke about in my own wee parable about the crooked project manager, it wasn’t built with a stone which, if was taken away, would cause the whole place to come tumbling down.  A cornerstone, when they were used, at least, was usually the first to be laid, it was the one that determined the position of the whole structure, in effect it held the whole thing up.  And everything built up from the cornerstone.  It gets me thinking, what are the cornerstones in our lives?

I need you to use your imagination here as you read or listen to this.  Imagine a jar with a lid.  This jar is our lives, your life, if you like.  I’m sure you’ll be imagining an empty jar.  But our lives aren’t empty, our lives are full of all sorts of things.

Imagine pouring seeds into the jar, imagine filling about half the jar with seeds.  These seeds are the small things.  These are the things we do every day that take up our time.  Going to the shops, making meals, eating and drinking.  All the things that we do because we’ve got to.  Washing our hands – there’s plenty of that going on just now – putting on our masks going into the shops, taking them off again when we get out.  Walking the dog, mowing the lawn, doing the housework.  Making the bed, getting into it and getting out of it.  Things that we do without even thinking about them.  Putting a washing on, getting the car serviced.  None of them very exciting things, but things we have to do to keep our lives going.

Then there are the things we want to do, when we get the chance.  Imagine adding half a dozen tomatoes to the jar on top of the seeds.  These represent things like going out for dinner, watching football matches – if that’s your thing, although we’re not going to be watching many for the next while, except on telly.  Trips to the cinema if we’re brave enough.  Holidays, when we can travel.  Nice things.  Good things, things we enjoy.

And then there are the people that we have to make time for in our lives. Imagine adding two or three apples on top of the seeds and the tomatoes.  These are our family, husbands, wives, children.  Our other relatives.  Our friends.  People at work.  Some we have to make time for, some we want to make time for. The church is part of our life too, and these represent our church life.  The time we spend here on a Sunday morning.

And when we’ve filled up our lives with all of this, then there’s God to fit in too – our relationship with him, the time we spend reading his word, the time we spend speaking to him, praying to him.  Imagine adding something big – it’s only fitting, after all, it represents God – imagine adding a grapefruit on top of everything else.

Unless you’ve pictured a really large jar, there probably isn’t room in the jar.  You can’t get the lid on.  We’ve filled our lives with so much else, we haven’t left room for God.  So what do we do?

We start again.  Take everything out of the jar and start again.

Only this time we start with God, and the time we spend with him.  The grapefruit goes in the jar first.  We put God at the centre of our lives, make him the foundation of our lives, the cornerstone.  Then we add in the apples, time we spend on our church life, the time we spend with the people in our lives.  The important things come first.  Then if we add in the things we have to do every day to keep our lives going, the tomatoes and the seeds in our  imaginary jar, the boring stuff, and the things we enjoy, the things that make us happy, that we want to do – well, somehow, the seeds will find the gaps and flow around them, and everything just fits.  The lid goes on, our lives are full.  We can’t see God in here, you can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, at the heart of it all.  Start with the cornerstone, it just makes sense.  And the cornerstone in our lives may not be visible, but it’s there, and it’s holding everything else up.

That’s what the temple priests didn’t realise when Jesus told them the parable of the tenants.  They focused on the tenants, on their misdoings, on their inadequacies.  They focused on the law, and sticking to it no matter what.  And they thought the landowner should be strict with the tenants, should punish them according to the law, should keep them in their place.  What they didn’t realise was that the landowner was right there among them, right where they were.  And I think that’s the same with us, the landowner is God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, call him what you will, and if we start with him, make him our cornerstone, well, everything else in our lives has a way of fitting into place.