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Many of us will have memories of Harvest Festivals in churches that had huge ornate displays of food filling the entire front of the church building. But as we’ve become increasingly used to find whatever bit of food takes our fancy at whatever time of the year we might fancy it so the idea of a Harvest Thanksgiving Festival seems increasingly irrelevant to our everyday lives. After all when you visit your local supermarket it isn’t at all easy to tell when the harvest season is upon us.
Back in 2003 a journalist wrote an article for The Guardian. She had gone to supermarket and came away with a basket containing 20 fresh foods. Her next task was to calculate how many food miles had been clocked up. Her apples had come from America and her pears from Argentina. The fish had swum in the Indian ocean. The lettuce and the broccoli were grown in Spain but her tomatoes in Saudi Arabia. The baby carrots and garden peas came from South Africa but her salad potatoes were from Israel. The sugar snap peas had been flown in from Guatemala and the asparagus from Peru, all to be washed down with red wine from Chile. Brussels sprouts had come from Australia (despite the fact that British growers complain that they can’t sell many of them outside the Christmas season!) Prawns from Indonesia; chicken from Thailand; red peppers from Holland; grapes from Chile; strawberries from Spain and finally there was some British beef. Her total basket had travelled more than 100,000 miles!
I fear little has changed for when I wanted to buy some apples this week I saw they were shipped in from New Zealand even though we live in the county that was once known as being the Garden of England!
Harvests are still important in rural settings and rural communities today. Life would be hard if the harvest failed – a good harvest was something to be very glad about, something for which to give thanks to God. God is so often so very generous towards us having created a wonderfully productive world for us to live in and keeping faith with us even when we humans have not kept faith with him!
In Bible times harvests were special and the Bible has a lot to say to us about them. So we’re going to spend our time this morning thinking about this theme of harvest.
Harvest or Harvests?
The first thing for us to underline is that the people of God in the Bible were meant to take harvest matters seriously – God in his mercy and grace ordained not one but three festivals that involved the celebration of harvests:
The first harvest of the year was the barley harvest sometimes described as the first-
The second harvest occurred some 7 weeks later – it was the wheat harvest and was celebrated by the Feast of Pentecost.
The third harvest took place at the end of the growing season – this was the grape harvest or the harvest of summer fruits. This feast that celebrated this particular harvest was known as the feast of Tabernacles.
References to these various harvests are scattered throughout the OT. We read, for example:
Ex.23:16 "You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour."
Ex.34:22 "You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end."
And although they were different and celebrated at different times there were common features. Each harvest festival directed attention towards God’s gracious and generous provision that met the needs of his people. The appropriate and entirely proper response to this was joyous celebration that was full of thankfulness and praise!
In speaking about the coming of the Messiah Isaiah wrote of the joy the people would then experience – he described this joy by comparing it to a couple of familiar scenarios:
Is.9:3 "You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil."
Such joy was not to be restricted to the rich landowners who might normally be expected to profit from bumper harvests – the LORD instructed his people to make especial provision for the poor and vulnerable at such times:
Lev.23:22 "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God."
Such instruction was important and hence repeated:
Deut.24:19 "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands."
A few years ago we decided to stop having a big display of food at our Harvest Thanksgiving service but that shouldn’t stop us being oh so thankful to the Lord for the wonderful way in which he provides for us, day after day, month after month and year after year. Indeed a major factor in our decision not to have a big display was that we didn’t find it easy to make good use of the food afterwards! Few people live in real food poverty around here and we didn’t find it easy to give it all away. How glad we ought to be that we have been entrusted with so much! How thankful we should be!
So instead of making a display that is nice to look at for a couple of hours we use the offering in a special way to try to alleviate some of the suffering in the world. In recent years for example we have sent gifts to Haiti and to the Yemen.
This is how we try, in our small way, to follow the spirit of what the Bible teaches about making provision for the disadvantaged during the time of harvest celebration. We don’t do this to try to curry favour with God as though we might somehow buy his favours, we give because he has already given so generously to us. Our giving is simply to be our way of responding to his generosity.
When Jesus sent out the Twelve on a mission he gave them this set of instructions:
Mt.10:8 "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give."
This year we are proposing to send a gift to help the Christian community in Indonesia which has been badly hit by the recent Tsunami. I would encourage you to give generously by using the envelopes available at the back.
We have indeed received so much let us also be those who know what it is to give freely too!
Reminders of God’s Faithfulness
While harvest festivals provide us with a wonderful opportunity of giving thanks to the Lord God for generously meeting our needs that is not their only function.
Harvests were mentioned in our Bible reading earlier and I want to draw you attention back to that passage now – Gen.8:20-
Gen.8:22 "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."
This is part of a wider promise that the LORD made to Noah in the aftermath of the flood that had destroyed all animal life upon the earth with the only exception being those lives which had been preserved in Noah’s ark.
The covenant by which the LORD bound himself included the promise never again to destroy the earth by means of a universal flood. This promise which was given to Noah was nevertheless not intended to to be limited to Noah and his immediate family alone. God specifically declared that this covenant was established for the benefit of many more than that as we see in
God told Noah that the rainbow in the clouds would be the sign of this covenant. When God saw it he would remember his commitment and keep it. Similarly when Noah saw it he could face the future with confidence trusting God to be faithful to that commitment.
Now it is in this context that God also spoke about the regular succession of the seasons and, in what particularly concerns us this morning, the regular re-
So today as we think about God’s generous provision for us once again we are also to remind ourselves that he is a God who keeps his promises – all of them! He has proved himself to worthy of trust over and over again and when we put our trust in him we are simply taking him at his word and given his track record that is an exceedingly reasonable and safe thing for us to do.
So let me pause and ask you if that is what you are doing? And if not, why not?
Someone might perhaps want to respond by saying that from time to time we hear of harvests failing and we also of devastating floods taking place. These things suggest then that God hasn’t kept his promise after all and so isn’t as trustworthy as I’m saying he is. What are we to make of that?
Well, we must think carefully – never let it be said that here in Sunnyhill we are opposed to serious thinking! One of the biggest problem of our day and age is that people don’t think seriously enough!
The flood at the time of Noah was a universal flood the like of which has never ever been seen since. It was a flood that covered the entire earth. And there is a wide range of evidence that accords with such a catastrophic and universal flood even though much of the secular scientific constituency does not want to consider it. The fossil record points to the sudden destruction of life forms and fossils have been found traversing different rock strata something that would not be possible if such strata only developed over very long periods of time but which are totally consistent with the rapid laying down of sedimentary material that would have occurred in a world-
Why have I labored this? Well it is because God’s promise at the time of Noah was not to repeat another world-
The promise about the continuation of the seasons and the harvests comes in this context. The fact that local harvest have failed leading to great hardship and loss of life – such as the Potato Famine in Ireland in the mid 19 th century – does not prove God failed in his promise for he never did promise that local harvests would never fail. Even when local harvests fail the world’s food supply continues to be large enough to meet the needs of the entire population of the world because of God’s faithful generosity. I’m not at all wanting to suggest that local harvest failures and famines are unimportant but the problem can’t be laid at God’s door when human political and economic factors effectively prevent or seriously delay the supplies of food getting to those who stand in need of it!
A couple of years ago Tesco’s was feeling the heat of competition coming particularly from the discount store Aldi. Tesco’s decided to reduce the number of items it made available in its larger stores – instead of selling 90,000 different things it would aim to reduce that number to a mere 60,000! Tesco’s could only make so much available because our God is graciously and generously providing so much for the world in which we live. Next time you’re stood in front of the 28 different bottles of ketchup trying to make up your mind which to buy remember to thank God for his faithful and wonderful generosity!
The Harvest theme is carried over into the pages of the NT and there it is developed in a fresh way.. Instead of harvest being confined to the gathering in of material crops the NT speaks almost exclusively of a spiritual harvest to be reaped at the end of time as we know it.
It is possible to find this idea of a spiritual harvest in the OT as for example in the prophet Jeremiah where we read:
Jer.2:3 "Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest."
And possibly again in:
Jer.8:20 "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."
It was Jesus in the NT who spoke in strongly spiritual terms when speaking about harvests. Speaking to his disciples he said:
The apostle Paul understood what Jesus meant when he said this. When he wrote to the church in Rome he spoke of his desire to enjoy a measure of spiritual success as he ministered amongst them and he described this success he desired in terms of a harvest:
Rom.1:13 "I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you… in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles."
The harvest Paul looked for was the transformation of human lives as he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately the final harvest would come at the end of the age when God would send out his angels as reapers to gather it in. This harvest involves judgment as is clearly stated in the Book of Revelation:
Rev.14:19 "So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God."
The gospel offers us the only way of avoiding this outpouring of divine wrath – it is a serious matter. Have you believed God and trusted in Jesus to be your Saviour?
May God grant us his grace that we might do so.