Words from a vineyard

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If Jesus walked in a cornfield on the sabbath he must surely have walked amongst the rows of a vineyard too. With friends occasionally in fields of short straw stubble, at other times making a climb along a dusty path, passing a farm house up among the grazing sheep. Birds sing in a scattering of trees, small insects hum and with every step the views increase, spreading wider all the way to the shores of the sea. Perched on a hillside, drinking in the sun, row upon row of short staked vines, trained and pruned to produce a good harvest of fruit for the making of wine.

Jesus and his disciples lived alongside the men and the women who worked the vineyards and amongst their community in synagogue prayers they read from Isaiah 5, a vineyard where, the ground is cleared of stones and only the best vines are planted. In Psalm 80 another vineyard is planted and as an image of Israel, these vine are monsters, taking root and filling the land, stretching from one shore to the next, providing shelter for all.

But in both these Bible songs the fate of the vines is the same: ripped out of the ground and flung into the fire, Israel is the vine, dearly loved but unfaithful and disobedient she is destroyed by the blade and the flame.

This is the picture that the disciples had in mind when Jesus told them, I am the vine. They understood him and they did not understand him, all at the same time. The story they were familiar with is based on sin and punishment but the story Jesus tells has a different focus. In the new story Jesus himself is the vine, God is the gardener and anyone who is listening is invited to abide in the vine like a new shoot, trimmed and trained to grow and bound and inevitably producing fruit.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  John 15 (NIV)

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I wouldn’t have noticed the two ways of seeing the vine imagery if I hadn’t visited a vineyard.

Shawsgate Vineyard is on a quiet B road, a few miles from Framingham, a tiny piece of hidden Suffolk that we sometimes visit. It has a castle and a river snaking its way down to the sea. There are farmhouses half timbered, ancient orchards and country lanes where the grass grows up through the broken tarmac in the middle of the road. Suffolk has a vine growing history that is 900 years old and the Domesday book records nearly forty vineyards in the county at the time of the Norman conquest. Shawsgate is a modern vineyard but you can feel the weight of years all around you.

I love being lost in thought between these vines. This is one of my favourite places and as I walked between the rows, thinking on the familiar words of John 15, I sensed a shift in my understanding of what Jesus was saying. Without ever acknowledging it I had seen the text as punishing and harsh. Without intending to I had a adopted a view of ‘my Father is the gardener’ that was all about God doing battle with my sin. In it God comes along with secateurs to cut out the rotten wood and the stems with fungus and blight. I am often on edge, often wondering what I will get wrong and the punishment that will result.

But amongst the lush green canopy of leaves that shade each tear drop bunch of ripening grapes I saw how the pruning work of this gardener is hardly ever the removal of diseased wood. These vines are attached to healthy stock, well watered and well cared for. They do not suffer from fungus and blight. The pruning of these vines is, as Jesus said, the removal of every branch that does not bear fruit because these grapes are always produced on one year old wood. At the end of every growing season the branches that have sustained the fruit are cut out and the plant rests over the winter. Because these branches will not bear good fruit again, their time is done. When the spring comes new shoots appear and these will form the branches that bear the new fruit. In this way the vine goes on being fruitful for as long as there is a gardener there ready to remove the spent wood. This is a process by which the gardener is able to produce one good crop after another from the same vine.

Can you feel the shift? One degree of glory unto the next? Does it speak to your soul?

He does not want to punish you, He wants to love you and to keep you safe.  He has a skilful way of producing good things in you. Draw close to him and read his word. Think on the good things of God and let Him heal and cleanse your soul of every harsh thought or fearful response that has ever stopped you knowing his love.

Abide in me, say the old words of the King James. Words of welcome.

There is nothing you can do that will make God love you more and nothing that will make him love you less.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. John 15.5 (KJV)

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Shawsgate Vineyard is between Framingham and Badingham in Suffolk, on the B1120. It is open to the public.

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Good Friday

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I’ve no shortage of reading this Easter week and what I have is dense with worthy thoughts on the cross. But something in the day is calling me out from behind all the words. It’s not enough to read it aright or speak it aright, I want to live it aright. It’s not enough to have given thanks because I read it was good. I want to give thanks like Jesus gave thanks, with the cross in view and the grave staring up wide and black. I want to eat the bread and drink the wine like he did, giving thanks because I’ve counted the cost. Giving thanks is not a gratitude list that someone else taught me to write. Giving thanks is a walking, talking, follow me life that demands I come up close and say the words myself.

The man who said “Tell no one,” made for himself a small pantomime scene, on the back of a donkey, coming into Jerusalem in the style of Zechariah, an unlikely warrior with no real sword. Gentle and riding on a donkey he invited their cries, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of The Lord!” He commanded an audience in Jerusalem on the busiest day of the year. The man who had sometimes tried to keep his presence a secret made sure that no one was missing this, then he disappeared into the crowd who wandered off to complete the business of the day.

I might have been there, watching from the back of that crowd. Living the whole thing from the corners of my mind, gathering and sorting the pieces; allusions to scriptures and the stories of all he said and did. Treading the road with the crowds, I would have watched as they laid the cloaks from their own backs to cover up the dirt. I might have shared my stories and thoughts with friends brushing a little dust from my own clothes as I spoke .

Some around Jesus imagined a band of mercenaries, insurrectionists, plotters and terror mungers, riding stolen war horses into the city and taking the Romans by surprise. Others imagined a different liberation, a closed religious community in the desert far from the confusion of politics, philosophies and competing ideas, a hiding place in which they could spend the rest of their days in peace. But Jesus was somewhere else.

On the night he was betrayed Jesus was busy rewriting history with a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, behind closed door, with an intimate bunch of friends. The crowds long gone in search of their own people and their own places to celebrate the Passover meal, we can pull up a chair and sit around that invite only table and watch from the front row as the story unfolds. We are the people once on the outside brought near. We know the location, the secret address and we come to share last things with a few remaining friends before everyone else has fled and left him for dead. As we watch him break the bread and drink from the cup we hear him give thanks and the distances shrink, times, place and realities: closer to Him, closer to each other and closer to our rest. Closer now to all the promises ever shared, He calls us to worship, to prayer and to find deep quiet intimacy from a safer place beyond the cross, resurrection day a few short hours away.

Crowds

Today I’m sharing my post on Five Minute Friday, a weekly link up from mom blogger Lisa-Jo Baker.

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What is Five Minute Friday?

We write for five minutes flat. All on the same prompt that I post here at 1 minute past midnight EST ever Friday. And we connect on Twitter with the hashtag #FiveMinuteFriday

No extreme editing; no worrying about perfect grammar, font, or punctuation.

Unscripted. Unedited. Real.

Today’s prompt is, ‘CROWDS’

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START

Mark is the gospel of the crowd.

News of him spreads on the inland winds, it’s in the fresh flow of water pulled from a deep well and on the tongue of every passing vagrant, rebel in hiding or woman cast out from her home. The sun sets and the day ends and still they gather, the whole town at his door because everyone is looking for Jesus. No time to eat or rest as the crowds collect and swarm, pressing in closer to hear or to touch him. People are travelling mile upon mile, step by humble step, over mountains, through ancient passes and in from the desert. Some come on crutches and other are carried, they’re tardy and weary, walking and running, the lost and the lame all searching for Jesus. No house can keep him, no town can hold him, no demon can stand him, no soul can contain him, not the words that he says not the things that he does. The whole thing now started, must run to its end.

There in the early morning whilst it is still dark, solitary on a boat, on a mountainside alone or secretly seeking sanctuary in the home of a friend, Jesus prayed:

“Our Father, thy will be done. Thy will be done and not mine.”

And Jesus is master of the crowd. No individual missed in the blurring of faces, in conflicting voices  that battle attention, he fixes his gaze on the ones he came to save. Just the one.

A man with leprosy is made clean, a paralysed man lowered through the ceiling in front of Jesus is healed, five thousand are fed in a place called nowhere from a resource called nothing, a mute boy speaks, a blind man by the roadside receives his sight, a foreign woman from a far Northern place rushes home to find her troubled daughter now at peace.

At the Mount of Olives and entering Jerusalem the people of the spreading cloaks and branches  on the road cry out and their voices horde and swell. In the temple courts amongst the money changers and religious elite time is running out and the greater crowds arrive for the Passover feast. A quiet room, in secret, Jesus gathers friends, just a few, to tell them what must pass. So that when the crowd cry, “Crucify Him’ and he’s as good as dead and gone, there’s still a few good men and women from amongst that crowd who can not quite give up on a solitary and lonely truth: the truth that surely this man was the Son of God.

STOP.

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5minutefriday

Are you willing?

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While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

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START

The man said “If you are willing …”

The man who had already seen more-or-less who Jesus was.

The man who lived on the outside, never belonging, never valued, never acknowledged or given worth.

This was the highest he had ever lifted his head. This was the loudest he had ever raised his voice. This was the most public he had ever placed himself. The boldest, the brashest. He was fearless and intrepid. This was the most attention he had ever drawn. All eyes on him and his diseased worn frame. This was the closest he had ever got to a person who was not ill in quite sometime and he took the risk because the man he was drawn to was the most human thing he ever saw. And there in the eyes of this brazen humanity was the love and the forgiveness of God himself.

He had a hunch, he had come to believe, it had occurred to him quite often of late, from the snippets of story he had heard and any scripture he ever knew, that this man might just be willing, where no one else had cared.

The man said “If you are willing…?” and Jesus said “I am.”

With a stretching of the arm and an opening of the hand: I am.

Jesus said “I am willing …”

When the man got up from the dust of the ground his skin was clean and smooth. His skin and his body and his soul were healed in the place where his own willingness had met the willingness of God.

At hope’s end. Too tired to remember the right things to think, feel and believe. When it seems like we’re speaking from the outside, to an audience of none, we’re asking Jesus if he’s willing, then he answers, “I am willing” and we meet him in the place where our willingness collides.

STOP

5minutefriday

Today I’m sharing my post on Five Minute Friday, a weekly link up from mom blogger Lisa-Jo Baker.

What is Five Minute Friday?

We write for five minutes flat. All on the same prompt that I post here at 1 minute past midnight EST ever Friday. And we connect on Twitter with the hashtag #FiveMinuteFriday

No extreme editing; no worrying about perfect grammar, font, or punctuation.

Unscripted. Unedited. Real.

Today’s prompt is, ‘WILLING’

At the cross

Long habits of self loathing or low self esteem die hard and some mornings the black dog mood hits you before you even wake. Before you raise your lazy head from the sunken pillow a little scrap of sad creeps under the door and shakes you awake with its whispering doom. Ambushed by a depression you gave up long ago, you have a strategy to rout your combatant before he can even touch the God blessed waking day ahead.

“Don’t you realise I have power?” said Pilate to Jesus. And Jesus answered, “You have no power over me.” (John 19.10-11)

In small skirmishes fought out on the battle grounds of our minds, we are never the victims. We found surprising safety in a place of terrifying violence, namely the cross. If we are safe there we are safe anywhere.We were not scared to face the cruelty of that place with all its harsh realities because we know the man who hung on that cross owned that place and that time, as an episode in the unfolding story where all of the world’s sin would be silenced forever. Silenced in the cry, “It is done!”, entombed in three cold grave days, then drowned out by the roar of a rock rolled away from the mouth of a darkness that had threatened to consume God himself.

This song has been keeping me company through a week that seemed a little hard.

 

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolises divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours….’ ‘The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.”

John R. W. Stott

A walk one winter night

Now the holidays have come there will be slow days at home, the wrapping of presents and the lighting of candles whilst all around the house we breath in the aromas of Christmas baking: cinnamon, brown sugar and almond paste. There will be a little more time lying in bed on cold mornings and we will share the preparation of food around the kitchen table. In the afternoons we will choose which films we want to watch and talk about articles we read online and which Youtube videos we have all watched. And there will be music from the kitchen as we bake and in the sitting room where we read and the near constant strumming of the ukulele and banjo in the rooms up above. Piled on the coffee table we have the Christmas books, Dickens, Narnia and travelogues of the Middle East. This is a huge book time for us: we give books, receive books, we read books and discuss books. In our home we never tire of stories, our own and those of others.

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I found this video-ed storytelling treat on the storyline blog this morning and hope that at some point today you will find time to listen. Everyone loves being read to, but we forget the pleasure in old age or busyness or in our surrender to the louder demands of TV and internet. It’s fifteen minutes long; so make yourself a milky coffee and choose something baked from the cake tin before you sit down to watch.

In the distance I saw a warm glow coming from a small wooden stable in a yard down the street, sheltering something inside that was older than the stars and bigger than the whole wide world, and it was real.

from Al Andrews, A Walk One Winter Night

You can purchase, Al Andrews, A Walk One Winter Night:A Real Christmas Story at a real bookshop or online.

Shepherds

I have four children. They all went to toddler groups, nursery, school and Sunday school and I estimate that over the past twenty years I’ve seen approximately thirty nativity plays. So with such a vast experience of the Christmas story you would expect me to know the tale quite well, but I’m reading Luke’s gospel at the moment and learning some new things about the characters that populate this all too familiar story. With a little extra study and help from some well grounded Biblical scholars I have been reading the first century Jewish context (rather than their tea-towel-on-the-head nativity play context) into the account.

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Some Christians are nervous of too much academic input into our reading of scripture and rightly so where intellectualisation of the Bible has robbed it of the power to speak faith to us. We do not study the historical context of the books of the Bible to fuel our fire with proud arguments, clever reasoning or to distance ourselves from real lives, our own lives and the lived out realities of the everyday people of God. Instead we consider the historical Jewish backgrounds of the people and events in the Bible because the writers were themselves Jewish and their language of faith was layered with centuries of experiences, customs, traditions and language quite different from our own.

The first New Testament readers or even earlier hearers of this Christmas story would have their own particular associations with places, people and events in the story and these associations could be quite different from our own. Even individual word choice had the possibility of opening up whole universes of meaning for the original hearers that would be completely closed to us. For example, when they heard the story of the shepherds and the words of the angel, “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born” the town and the idea of a saviour were not random. Instantly they would have have linked the nativity shepherds to King David, who lived about 1000 years prior to the birth of Christ and to associated ideas of a Messiah and a future kingdom expectation. The biblical King David began life as a shepherd boy in the hills around Bethlehem. He was an unlikely candidate for kingship but went on to become eulogised as Israel’s most glorious and successful king. He united the people of Israel, led them to victory in battle, conquered land and paved the way for his son, Solomon, to build the Temple in Jerusalem. All the Messianic hope of the Jews of that time was focused on the House of David. In short they were expecting a Messiah who would be like David. After the death of Jesus the new theologians of the church began to piece together an understanding of the new covenant that could build a parallel between the life of David, shepherd boy turned king, and the life of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of John 10. It was a parallel that made new sense of the coming kingdom of God. It was the lynch pin in the turning of their hearts from the old covenant with an earthly King, an earthly temple and a written law to a new covenant with a heavenly King, inner worship and a transformed heart.

So the 18 short verses in the gospel of Luke chapter two that give us the account of how the shepherds came to visit the infant Jesus are much more than an example of God choosing a ragamuffin bunch of semi-vagrant agricultural workers to witness the first facts of the incarnation. In fact, a little study reveals that the social status of the shepherds was unique, complex and in many ways a social and religious contradiction, revealing to us some big picture truths about what God would achieve through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It was unusual in Biblical times for livestock to be raised close to a town. People may have kept a few animals near to where they lived, but large numbers of animals would never have been reared close to human settlements because of the smell and faeces which presented a challenge to the religious laws of the time regarding cleanliness. Bethlehem however was an exception. The lambs raised in the lime stone hills around Bethlehem were destined for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, just six miles away and as such they and their keepers had special status. In the month leading up to passover the lambs would be made ready for the festival, for sacrifice or for eating at the passover meal. The shepherds who tended these specifically purposed flocks understood their responsibilities and they worked with the rabbis and priests to ensure that only perfect specimen were sent to the temple. These perfect lambs would be wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like the swaddling clothes of Luke 2.7 that Mary used to wrap her son.

Jewish tradition in the Talmund and Christian tradition in the writings of the early church historian Eusebius identify the area around Bethlehem as Migdal Eder meaning “tower of the flock”. This is the place where Jacob went after Rachel died, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder” (Genesis 35.21). It is also the place referred to by the prophet Micah when he says, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock (Migdal Eder), O stronghold of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you, kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem”. Archeologists and historians are unable to agree on the exact location of this place though it is reasonable to assume there would actually have been a tower there. This tower could have been for the shepherds to use in their work managing and protecting the flock, but some scholars have suggested it was provided for priests involved in the selection of temple lambs and essential in keeping these holy men separate from the unclean activities of shepherding.

Whatever the procedures it is certain that the shepherds lived firmly outside the city walls because the work they did left them unclean according to Jewish laws. The demands of their job and the time scales that they worked to would make it virtually impossible for them to visit the synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem. This would have isolated them from worship and faith practices that provided for the forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. Ironically the shepherds whose lives were inexorably bound up in providing the sacrificial lambs that took away sin of the people were unable to personally receive this forgiveness for themselves.

So, when we read, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”, we understand that the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world will be born in Bethlehem because that is where all the sacrificial lambs come from. What an amazing message for anyone who has felt excluded from the loving kindness of God! Furthermore, as the shepherds get up off the ground and make their way to find the child, they are walking out of the old covenant that separated them from God and into the new covenant and a new relationship with God and new possibilities of complete forgiveness for sin and un-hindered access to God.

So if you have ever wondered about the unusual details of the nativity story consider how God likes to show rather than tell. Notice the breadth and depth of what he is able to show us when he has shepherd visit the infant Jesus. Consider the greatness of the kingdom truths and the impossible task of communicating them to fragile minds. He is not a wordy God of long theological explanations but he writes his truths for us in human lives and especially in the human life of his son Jesus.

Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process. The Holy Spirit confirms this:

This new plan I’m making with Israel

isn’t going to be written on paper,

isn’t going to be chiseled in stone;

This time “I’m writing out the plan in them,

carving it on the lining of their hearts.”

He concludes,

I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins.

Hebrews 10.11-18 The Message

You can read more about Migdal Eder on Biblical Geographic.

Some scholars have explored the possibility of Jesus being born at Migdal Eder rather than in Bethlehem. Bill Blankschaen provides a short introduction to their arguments here.