The Crossroads of Life and Death
Hospitals are interesting places. Most of the floors are full of the ill, injured, and even dying, but there is always one area where life is just beginning. Hospitals serve as a type of crossroads where those leaving this life share space with those whose life has just begun. One hospital where I often visit church members even plays lullabies over the intercom every time a child is born. It’s a strange thing to be sitting at the bedside of the dying, only to hear the soft tones of a lullaby playing. In many ways Scripture, especially the ancient prayers of Israel, are like hospitals. There is illness, brokenness, and anxiety, but mingled in there is hope. We read some of Israel’s prayers and it is a lot like sitting in the room of a dying person, hearing those lullabies. The nearness of death fills the room, yet somewhere there is the joy and promise of a new beginning.
One of Israel’s prayers, prayed most likely during great turmoil and external threats, harkens back to God’s miraculous work on Israel’s behalf during the exodus. It uses horticultural imagery to describe the tenderness of God’s care for Israel, while also questioning why it is that God seems to have abandoned the plant to whom he had been so devoted.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. (Ps 80:8-15 ESV)
Israel is in the Intensive Care Unit. While they were once a thriving plant, reaching from the Red Sea to the Euphrates River, now their protection has broken down, and they are ravaged and fed upon by those that surround them. God tells them elsewhere, through the prophet Isaiah, why this has all taken place, why he has turned on the vineyard that he poured so much effort into establishing.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Isa 5:7)
Judgment has come to the vine that, despite the divine care it has received, refuses to produce the fruits of justice and righteousness.
However, if we listen closely, we can hear even within the anxiety of the text the tones of a lullaby. There is life here, even amid the sickness and death. The life comes through Israel, but not from it. The life comes from one who inhabits Israel’s story and makes it his own, from one who takes upon himself the sins of his people.
Just as a newborn baby emerges from a hospital that houses the sick and dying, this new life will emerge from the dead remains of a once proud plant.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Isa 11:1)
Just as the vine that is Israel was brought up from Egypt to inhabit the land of promise, this new life-bringing plant will also emerge from Egypt.
And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matt 2:14-15)
Just as the vine is imperiled by its lack of protection, and the aggression of those surrounding it, this new shoot will also face the contempt, scorn, and rejection of the people.
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa 53:2-3)
We have found the answer to Israel’s prayer. The vine will indeed be saved and find life in the True Vine (John 15:1). Israel’s plea, “Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps 80:3, 7, 19), will be heard in the person of Jesus, whose name appropriately means “Yahweh saves.”
Too often the world is like a big hospital. Suffering, illness, brokenness, and even death is all around us—on the news, in our schools, in our homes, and even in our churches. When it all becomes too much, when death overwhelms you, quiet your soul and listen closely. You will hear a lullaby sung by the angels, celebrating the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, and you will know that even from the midst of death, comes life.