New Old Parables: The Two Eagles & the Vine – July 19

Welcome to this sermon blog. For more details from the worship service for this day, check out the bulletin, posted here on the Bulletin page.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – read by Margo Nesbitt

To study the allegory of ‘The Two Eagles & the Vine,’ one should read all of Ezekiel 17. (I’m not sure how I put Isaiah 25 in the bulletin – that’s an error!) We are going to work through our chapter in stages. To start, the reading of the first ten verses. Ezekiel 17:1-10

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN. (Psalm 19:14)

SERMON: The Two Eagles & the Vine. I have a bit of a green thumb. I can’t grow a vine from a cedar, but I can take the sprig from an Eastern White Cedar, root it, and grow a new cedar tree. 

About ten years ago I saw the stump of a cedar, formerly a tall, narrow, columnar tree. It had been cut down, in the prime of life. I saw plenty of vigorous new shoots coming up. I snipped off some cuttings. I dipped them in rooting hormone. I potted them in soil. To my joy, some of them took! I brought them with me and planted some here at the Parsonage. A couple are still in pots, looking for a home. Check out my photos…

Rooted cutting of Eastern White Cedar hybrid
Young Cedar at the Parsonage
Mature Cedar in the neighbourhood

Biblical imagery uses a few main categories. I’d say three of them are: the image of a great City, scenes of people eating together, and pictures from agriculture or nature. It is no wonder, then, that we meet again this week some growing plants. So it is an agricultural sermon, more so than last Sunday. 

The Allegory of the two eagles and the vine fills up Ezekiel chapter 17. Did you remember this story? Maybe it has been a while since you read this chapter. Perhaps you had forgotten it. 

Once upon a time, a great eagle plucked the top off a cedar of Lebanon, and planted it in a far-off land, bustling with business. Then the eagle planted a seed in the original land grew into a sprawling vine. It ended up growing towards a second great eagle that came along. The vine got transplanted into a fertile, well-watered land. “Will it prosper?”

Maybe you have not seen a Cedar of Lebanon. I have not. But Sharon White has, when she was in Lebanon, thirteen months ago.  

From of old, in the Middle East, the Cedar has been known as a grand tree, a symbol of Lebanon. Ezekiel, at his moment in history, spoke a parable, of sorts, about the kings and kingdoms of his world. He speaks, on God’s behalf, a message to and about the people at the top. 

The first Great Eagle is king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the empire to the north that was taking over Judah. The Topmost Shoot of the cedar tree is the King of Judah, who got taken captive, with many other people, up into Babylonia. Now, the king of Babylon made an agreement and set up Zedekiah as ruler over Judah, under himself. Zedechiah is the Seed from the land the Eagle plants the fertile soil back in Judah. 

But Zedechiah of Judah decided to rebel against his Babylonian overlord, and make an alliance with Egypt, instead. The Pharaoh of Egypt is the second Great Eagle. Zedekiah, the vine, starts growing towards the Pharaoh, in hopes of a better deal. 

But this will fail. It breaks the agreement with his boss, the king of Babylon. And it is not what God has in store for the Chosen People who are now going into exile in Babylon, though some Jews do end up in Egypt, including the prophet Jeremiah. 

Such is Ezekiel’s warning, in the allegory of the vine and the two eagles: the ruler of Judah and the rulers of their neighbours to the north and south. Zedekiah can’t save himself or his people. So the end of the Jewish glory days in the Holy Land has come, and the end of their monarchy too.

Whether you know all this biblical history, or followed me though all that, the story here illustrates the creative power of the prophet Ezekiel and God. After the allegory, Ezekiel proceeds to preach a warning about the vine, Zedekiah. “Will it prosper?” The answer is ‘no.’ Check out verses 9 through 21. 

But then – and this is what is most interesting to me – God extends the allegory, in verses 22, 23 & 24. The LORD promises to come along as the Eagle, and make something new happen. Let’s read it.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Here is a messianic hope. The promise of a new Anointed One, or Messiah, or (in Greek) a Christ. One day, there will be a king of the Jews again.

The prophetic image of a shoot growing up is used for the Messiah by a number of Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah. Remember the Jesse Tree we sometimes decorate in Advent? It pictures the shoot coming up from the family of Jesse, and his son, King David. The shoot we see growing up is Jesus of Nazareth.

The Lord God … will take a sprig… I will set it out. …I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.

Christ Jesus is the Noble Cedar. Ezekiel did not know what His name would be, but he proclaimed the promised hope that there would be an Anointed One one day in the future. Jesus arrived hundreds of years later.

Speaking of Jesse trees, and the incarnation of Jesus celebrated at Christmas (and yes, we will hear an Advent/Christmas Carol at the end of the service), notice Ezekiel’s poetry at the end of chapter 17. What does God do?

I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

God is the God of reversals. Others had sung this same song, through the ages. Such as Jesus’ own mother-to-be, Mary. Pregnant in Luke chapter 2, she sang of God, in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is the work of the greatest Anointed One, to use that Hebrew term. God’s care for the needy is highlighted. God’s warning for those not-so-needy is proclaimed! In all this one thing gets reinforced: God is in charge. When Zedekiah thinks he will solve Judah’s oppression his way, he is told he can’t do it. He is told, from God, ‘I myself will take this… I myself will plant that… I will accomplish it.’

In world events today, some wonder about ‘the hand of God.’ I have heard of one NS preacher I know who is speaking of the coronavirus as part of God’s judgment. I hear others frame things up in terms of opportunity – a chance to distill down to what is really important in life and faith now. 

In our personal lives today, some wonder about the point God is making in this unprecedented year. Many plans are being troubled. Plans for families to gather are shut down. Plans for medical help and healing are stalled. Plans for work and education are disrupted. Day-to-day life is altered, and many people are confused, or angry, or depressed by it all. How will we be helped by the Hearer of Prayer?

Help. Answers. It is not always clear what the right answer could be. Is something that happens a blessing, or a curse? We sometimes guess wrongly.

Here’s an old story to ponder, one I’ve told before.

There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours told him, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

One day he didn’t latch the gate properly and the horse ran off. “Oh no! This is terrible news!” his neighbours cried. “Such terrible misfortune!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbours told him. “Now you are rich!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The following week the farmer’s son was breaking-in one of the wild horses when it kicked out and broke his leg. “Oh no!” the neighbours cried, “such bad luck, all over again!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next day soldiers came and took away all the young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was left behind. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The path of life takes many twists and turns. The good and the evil are mixed in together. Look at the life of our Jesus through the eyes of that wise farmer of Ecclesiastes…

Dear Mary is pregnant. 🙂
Oh! But she is not married yet. 🙁
An angel assures Mary and Joseph to wed and raise the child. 🙂
When the baby is due, they have to leave town. 🙁
A place for them is provided, just when there seemed to be nothing. 🙂
Then the local ruler decrees all baby boys be killed! 🙁
The holy family flees and finds safety in Egypt. 🙂
As an adult, Jesus teaches and heals and gathers disciples. 🙂
The powers that be decide to get rid of Him. 🙁
Several times, Jesus easily escapes his enemies. 🙂
One of His own disciples turns Him in. 🙁
When on trial, one local authority declares Jesus not guilty three times. 🙂
Jesus gets sent to a terrible execution anyway. 🙁
A couple days later, He is seen, alive again! 🙂
A few weeks later, Jesus leaves, for good. 🙁
But He promises the Spirit of God to his disciples, Who does arrive. 🙂 And Jesus promises to return.
Almost two thousands years later, has He returned? 😮

In the moment, any day, any week, any year of our lives can be a disaster. But what comes next? More is possible with God than we ever ask or imagine.

So, we also heard a story today from our Anointed One. Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. Again, a little later, there is an explanation. Some basic lessons  appear to be that: One, our attempts to pull up the weeds among us are premature. Two, our attempts to pull up the weeds among us will disturb the wheat and wreck the crop. Three, the task of judging belongs to Christ, not to us.

Most of us have dealt with weeds in our crops, or our flowers, or just in our lawn. But just take a look at this. I’m no farmer, but those who are are planting things in ways I never expected. 

Here is a field of barley, across the dirt road from our cottage. Is it full of weeds? At first glance I’d think so. But no. What was also sown with the barley? Peas. I saw them in bloom earlier; now the pods are forming. A mixed crop. Later, those fields will be combined: feed for the pigs at Longspell Farm. 

This was not a practice in Palestine of old. Crops were sown as pure monocultures. Anything else coming up in the field was a weed. In the case of wheat, darnel, also called tares, is a bothersome weed. The plants are very similar in appearance to wheat, but the darnel is actually toxic to eat.

Jesus’ story is memorable, and may be quite familiar to you. The farmer plants seed. An enemy sows weeds in the same field: tares or darnel. There is a lesson just in these facts. Notice that it is not God who makes all things happen, the good and the bad. There is an Enemy held responsible. Not as it sometimes had been thought in OT days, when the saints of old spoke often of God sending evil upon people.

Jesus, especially, clarifies the character of God. God is good and right, never causing wrong or tempting us to do wrong. And, as Ezekiel knew, in the days of Zedekiah of Judah, God takes the lead to guide & save people.

So we look for ‘the hand of God’ in the challenging events of our lives, and those we love. We look for the Spirit blowing through world events today. Shall we continue to put our trust in God as our Saviour? There are big players playing their parts. A great Eagle named Trump, and another named Trudeau. Or a Vine called Dr. Tam and a Vine called Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada. 

I wonder what sort of cutting God will take, and plant, and grow, and make flourish among us? What will Jesus do, today?

PRAYERS Let us   pray. O Christ, Noble Tree planted in history, planted deep in our lives: we confess. We confess we have not learned all our lessons from history. We confess we have not learned all our lessons from scripture. We confess we have not learned all our life lessons. We listen for wisdom today in every direction: guided us, Master. Show us godly wisdom. Make our minds teachable and our hearts malleable. Grow in us, and grow us up all the more, in these days when our community and our world, Lord, need Christians of maturity and confidence. 

O Spirit, giver of John’s vision of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations: we pray for healing, as always. For healing among the nations who are in conflict, the cultures who tell lies about one another, the peoples who live in fear of one another. It is so hard to have peace in a world of fear and crisis, God. You must act; and You must help us do our part. 

We pray for healing in our own lives too. Healing in times of grief: we think again of the family of Marj Wilson. Healing in times of uncertain health: bless folks like Dwight and Terry and Peter and Jack and…

We seek healing help in the lives of those confined to hospital, such as Donna and George; and those isolated in the place they call home. You sustain, Comforter, You guide, You encourage, we pray.

O Father, who grafts us into the Vine of Jesus: we pray for people who seem far from being one with You, knowing You, finding grace and salvation. We seek good things for the many people we know who had a taste of Your presence, once, but have rejected, or forgotten, or simply neglected to look to You. And we ask You to inspire those for whom their religion is mostly a comforting and nostalgic bunch of routines. 

O Holy One, perhaps our prayer has been very routine and ordinary. We are ordinary people. We are humbled & grateful, that You love and You choose ordinary people. Thank-You. Amen.

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