Sunday 2 October
Deuteronomy 26.1-11 John 6.25-35
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Harvest Festival can seem like a very straightforward event but, if we allow it to, the deeper meaning of our readings today have the ability to transform the way we live and the relationships with have with God, with one another and with those most in need.
So I am going to suggest today that Harvest can have multiple layers of meaning each of which we need to appreciate, but then peel back to expose a deeper layer before getting close to the heart of the issue. If only there were some kind of multi-layered vegetable that I could use to illustrate that point.
Of course the uppermost layer of today is about recognising that all of the gifts we have come ultimately from God, taking some time out from the busy-ness of our lives to recognise that fact and then to say “Thank You”.
In a way we have a mini-Harvest Festival here every week: when the collection is brought to the front of church it is raised up before the Altar and I say a prayer which goes like this:
“Heavenly Father, everything we have comes from you, and of your own do we offer you. Bless these gifts to your praise and glory.”
The reading we had from Deuteronomy, which is one of the oldest books in the bible, recalls the time when the Jewish people were first settling in the promised land, the land of milk and honey.
In that reading God told the people of Israel that when the promised land has produced its rich harvest they are to take the firstfruits – importantly not the leftovers or the windfalls , but the first fruits – and they are to put them in a basket and present them before God, remembering the hardship from which they came and
“…rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you and your household.”
How brilliant is that? God commands his people to ‘rejoice’ in all the good things they have been given.
How often do we rejoice in the goodness of God? As Christopher pointed out last week everyone here is amongst the top ten percent richest people in the world – simply to have a roof over our heads and food in our cupboards makes us truly blessed. But do we take the time to rejoice in those blessings or do we take them for granted or, even worse, do we spend our time being envious of those who seem to be even richer than us?
Godliness with contentment is great gain but today we are commended to contentment with rejoicing!
Although I said that is the surface layer of harvest that does not make it unimportant or trivial. Far from it. To truly, deeply, recognise that all we have is a gift from God and to be truly, deeply, thankful for that not just at Harvest but at all times, would be to change our relationship with the material world.
But we are invited to go deeper.
Although the reading from Deuteronomy this morning finished at verse 11 I think that verse 12 takes us further into the purpose of today:
“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow.”
The Harvest celebrations to which the Israelites were called did not simply consist of rejoicing for that which they had been given but they were required to share it with those most in need. They had to give some to the Levites in order to support the worship of God but they also had to support the foreigners in their midst, orphans and widows. When we think of the Jewish people settling the land of milk and honey it is all too easy for us to think of them simply driving out all foreigners but, actually, time and time again the Old Testament commanded them to look after the aliens, remembering that they had spent many years as foreigners in Egypt.
So our thankfulness must flow into charity. Here we express that charity by supporting local foodbanks and it is wonderful that we are able to do that, again not only at Harvest but throughout the year. But we can always do more to feed the hungry – if each of us here put an extra item in the food bank box each week then it would be overflowing every week – and what better symbol of God’s overflowing love for us than us being an overflowing blessing for others.
But, can I suggest, that charity for others does not just mean giving them stuff, either money or food. The word ‘charity’ actually means love. The proper Christian response to those in need around us is not just to give them stuff but to love them. The current political discourse at the moment, not only in this country but across Europe and America, is turning quite ugly especially in relation to the aliens in our midst. Xenophobia and the hatred of others is never the Christian or the Godly response. At Harvest we are called to remember God’s love for us and to respond by loving all those around us.
For today’s purposes there is one final layer to this Harvest celebration. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus reminds all those around him, which includes us, that we should not be concentrating all our efforts and thoughts on the purely material gifts:
“I tell you the truth, you were looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
As they often did the people around him at the time completely missed the point and they asked Jesus what further miraculous signs he would show them and, on the subject of loaves, they reminded Jesus that Moses had fed his people in the desert with manna from heaven. They still simply want to eat their fill.
But Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them bread from heaven, but God himself, and then seeks to move their understanding of bread on:
“For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir”, they said “from now on give us this bread’”
Although one cannot be sure one still gets the impression that they were thinking about real bread, miraculously descended from heaven. Then Jesus brings them to the point:
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus is not seeking to ignore real hunger and thirst – after all it only at the start of this same chapter that Jesus fed the 5000 with real food and drink and, as we know, we are commanded to give real food to the hungry – but he is also seeking to move the people further and deeper into their spiritual needs. He is speaking to the spiritually hungry and thirsty, those around him and to us, and telling us that when we eat the bread of life our deepest needs are met and we shall be filled for ever. Not with food that spoils but with eternal food sent from heaven for us and for our salvation. Chapter 6 then concludes with Jesus saying that his body is real food and his blood is real drink and that unless we eat and drink of him we have no life in us. It is a remarkable journey from the physical feeding of the 5000 to the spiritual feeding of his followers on him who is the bread of life.
So, at Harvest but I hope every week, we give thanks and rejoice for all that God has given us, we share our gifts with those around us but most importantly we draw close to Jesus through our worship and through the sharing of his body and blood in bread and wine knowing that through him we are filled and raised to everlasting life.