Keith Underhill: June 2015
Ezekiel & Jack & the beanstalk
Preached by Revd Keith Underhill on 14th June 2015.
So we all know how the story goes — a young lad is sent to market to sell the very few possessions that the family have left — and through trickery or fate — he looses the little he had and ends up with just a handful of so called magic beans.
On returning home seemingly empty-handed, he is roundly scolded by his mother and sent to bed — she in her indignation and anger throws these useless beans away in disgust.
Then depending on which adaptation of the story it is, it is either the fact that these beans are now resting in soil, or that they come into contact with water, that things begin to happen.
Unlike real life, there is an explosion of growth that is as dramatic as it is sudden.
In Jack and the giant slayer, the most recent film version of the story, the ground groans and struggles as a vine thicker and stronger than can be imagined shoots skywards at a rate of an Apollo rocket leaving Cape Canaveral heading towards the moon! It travels ever upwards, with the ground around it being torn asunder and shaking and moving as if the world itself is coming to an end.
When Jack is woken the next day, (or as in this film, literally swept up in all that is happening), there is the fully formed and fully-grown beanstalk disappearing into the clouds, beckoning him onwards to great adventures, danger and unimaginable wealth.
As I say, real life is not like that. We mow the grass, we trim the bushes, we cut back the roses, we tend our plants and they continue to grow, to get taller, thicker, and stronger — yet we see their growth not. We never witness them growing before our very eyes!
We turn our backs, we go to bed, we do something else and when we look again, the grass, the bushes, the shrubs and plants have become thicker, taller, and thornier and they need cutting, trimming, pruning and cutting back once more.
There is a great deal of imagery and reference to trees and vines in the Bible. Jesus in his parable in Mark chapter 4:26-34, (our set Lectionary Gospel reading for today), speaks of how the seed sprouts and grows but we know not how.
He speaks of how the tiniest of seeds, that of the mustard plant when planted, grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.
Jesus is talking to his disciples and to the crowds in parables, sharing the meaning only with those closest to him when they are alone or out of earshot of those who gather to hear this man from Galilee.
Likewise, God asks Ezekiel to speak in parables in the chapter from where our Old Testament reading for today is taken. Chapter 17 begins thus:
"The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, set forth an allegory and tell it to the Israelites as a parable. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon. Taking hold of the top of a cedar, he broke off its topmost shoot and carried it away to a land of merchants, where he planted it in a city of traders.
"'He took one of the seedlings of the land and put it in fertile soil. He planted it like a willow by abundant water, and it sprouted and became a low, spreading vine. Its branches turned toward him, but its roots remained under it. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out leafy boughs.
"'But there was another great eagle with powerful wings and full plumage. The vine now sent out its roots toward him from the plot where it was planted and stretched out its branches to him for water. It had been planted in good soil by abundant water so that it would produce branches, bear fruit and become a splendid vine.
Back to Jack and his beanstalk for a moment. Atop the monstrous stalk that has appeared from nowhere lies a new world, a new dimension, a new kingdom complete with a giant or an ogre or two.
It is there that Jack has his adventures, but the story always ends the same way with the eventual destruction of the beanstalk and all that is associated with it — all too quickly it is cut down and destroyed. It's size and its seemingly unlimited strength affords it no protection from the reality of the passing whims and fortunes of this world.
The axes are swung, "timber" is shouted and down it comes, crashing around the feet of those caused its downfall.
This is what Ezekiel chapter 17 is all about, we are only given three verses for today, but the chapter begins by using the imagery of a vine, of a tree, to represent the power and might of nations and armies and conquerors.
The tree, the vine, (and the beanstalk, come to that) all represent kingdoms. These kingdoms come and go and our short reading from Ezekiel set for today, (that Marian read for us), speak of how when God establishes his kingdom, his vine, all will be different.
Here, long before Jesus addressed the crowds and in a nodding glance and reference to the parable of the mustard seed, the prophet declares that God's vine will, by its very branches, grant shelter and shade to all the birds of the air.
God's tree, God's vine, will remain but those empires, those kingdoms, those worlds planted and erected by mere humans, will, just like those imaginary ones that are to be found at the top of the beanstalk, come crashing down.
They will be destroyed, they will be no more, their power and their dominion will be gone and long forgotten, becoming a mere footnote in the pages of human history.
Ezekiel is giving us an arboreal version of Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish house builders, who erected their homes on foundations of rock and sand respectively.
The worlds and kingdoms built by men, may well have grown tall and prospered, but their roots and their foundations are suspect and unsustainable and so eventually even the biggest and the strongest and the longest lasting fall victim to the inevitable and are no more.
Yet, and here is the good news, from out of the rubble, out of the mess of what was, God will do something new, for as those well known and well loved words from the beginning of chapter 11 of another Old Testament prophet remind us;
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him--
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord--
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The opening 5 verses of Isaiah 11, so often read and preached on during the season of advent — point to the future and to the establishment of God's Kingdom.
This Kingdom, represented so eloquently by both Old Testament prophets, will be one that unlike earth's proud empires will not pass away. It will, as John Ellerton, reminds us in his hymn, stand and grow forever,
'till all his creatures own his sway.
This is good news for all those who find themselves living under the iron rod of tyrants and despots, for even the most ruthless and brutal of regimes will not last.
Those who exercise power through violence, fear and intimidation will find that everything will eventually come crashing down around them, as it has in the past and always will.
For their foundations and their roots are not those of God's kingdom. Their values and all that they are built on are not those that are to be found at the heart of God's Kingdom. Justice does not flow like a river there and the birds do not find shelter under its branches and individuals do not live in peace under their own vines.
The days of those kingdoms are well and truly numbered.
Yet there is also a challenge within these parables — a challenge for us all — for do we seek to build God's Kingdom here in all its fullness?
As we seek to build Jerusalem in the midst of the dark satanic mills, where do we place our roots and foundations, in the things of God or of this world?
How do we see the Kingdom that we along with God, seek to fashion?
Bryn Rees, the hymn writer both reminds us and challenges us as to the very nature of God's Kingdom in his hymn The kingdom of God is justice and joy (number 255 in Singing the Faith, should you wish to look it up later)
When he states that;
"The kingdom of God
is mercy and grace;
the captives are freed,
the sinners find place,
the outcast are welcomed
God's banquet to share;
and hope is awakened
in place of despair".
And to those sentiments we say "Amen" even as we commit ourselves to pursuing that path.
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