Blog

Harvest

Readings

Genesis 9:12-16 & 8:22 and James 1:13-20

Where do apples come from?

Trees is an obvious answer but we could also say Kent, England and with supermarkets and fast transportation South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, etc.

Even in my lifetime vegetables and fruit had seasons and harvest was therefore significant. Some things were only available ‘in season’. Even now I don’t eat apples when only those air-freighted across the world are available.

Our modern western lifestyle of air-freighting food thousands of miles to stock supermarkets as well as frozen and tinned food has reduced the food significance of harvest to us.

This is not so in many poor rural economies elsewhere in the world where any problems with disruption to agricultural seasons which affects harvests such as drought or flooding or conflicts can mean people literally starving to death.

Harvests and seasons were very significant in Biblical times and as well as their physical significance but there was also a spiritual or religious significance.

Looking at the two passages
Genesis 8 & 9 follow on from the narrative about the Flood.

This marks a great transition. Instead of God wiping out creation again because of human wickedness, God makes a covenant. A covenant is normally two-sided but this is unilateral or unconditional by God. God has accepted that humans are flawed and often wicked but he will allow humans to continue to live on earth and not destroy them by flood again. This He solemnly promises.

Genesis 9 10… every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12 And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
The rainbow is the reminder to God of his covenant. That is not to say there were no rainbows before but they now have a new significance. As noted the covenant is unilateral for God so the rainbow reminds Him about His actions which not only include not flooding the earth but also that there will be continuity to provide what is required for harvests and thus food:
Genesis 8 22 “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”
The rainbow as well as a sign to God of his covenant also reminds us that the seasons, the harvest etc. are because of God’s actions and not ours. We can affect such things often negatively but ultimately God is in control. This is stated in a very well-known and traditional harvest hymn:
“We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand:
he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain.”
Matthias Claudius (translated Jane Montgomery Campbell)
Because of God’s unilateral covenant proved by the rainbow humankind has a new start and a guaranteed provision for growing food.

What can learn from James’s letter?
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
This verse contrasts God’s unchanging goodness with physical created things (heavenly lights and shadows) which change with time and seasons. There is also a contrast between God and us humans of which more later.

But what can we say about this apparently odd verse 18?

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
The reference to ‘firstfruits’ seems to be associated with harvest.

The write of this letter is traditionally said to be a son of Joseph and Mary but whichever James he is, he is Jewish and the letter is written to Jewish Christians, as he says in the opening verse of the letter:

1 “… To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:...”
To understand this reference we therefore need some background of Jewish festivals. There were three great pilgrimage festivals when Jews were expected if at all possible to go to Jerusalem. One was Passover and the other two were both harvest festivals. In the autumn there was Sukkot, the ‘Festival of Weeks’ with booths made to symbolise the wandering in the desert post the exodus from Egypt. Earlier there was Shavuot (our Pentecost) which celebrated the grain harvest or ‘first fruits’ and was connected to the giving of ‘The Law’ (Torah) to Moses. Thus both harvest festivals have deeper spiritual meaning.

The ‘firstfruits’ festival (Shavuot) is concerned with laying down the principles of what we might call moral living. James does this in his letter but in a very different way to the Ten Commandments in Exodus.

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
If we look at the traditional Ten Commandments we can see how what James is referring to can often be the root cause of not carrying them out.

Sukkot, the autumn festival, is not only about God protecting the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert but also about the salvation at the end of that wandering. It follows Rosh Hashanah, the ‘Feast of Trumpets’ which is about repentance, and Yom Kippur, which is the ‘Day of Atonement’ (all of which are referred to in Leviticus 23). So James is not only giving us the contrast between a never changing good God and us fickle flawed humans but also a hint for us to reflect and put ourselves right with others and with God, as required in the Jewish calendar of festivals.

James reminds us that we need to especially to not delude ourselves that we have gone astray because God tempted us.

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
The consequences of being ‘dragged away by their own evil’ are given in verse 15:
Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
The solution to breaking this spiral of disaster Is not to blame God or even Satan but to take responsibility for our own actions and to repent as is done before the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.

Atonement which is normally defined as ‘satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; to make amends’ is different for us as Christians compared to Judaism as our sins are already atoned for, through the life, suffering, and death of Christ. However as Christians we do still need to reflect and repent and so as we celebrate harvest and go towards Advent and the start of the new church year, let us by all means reflect on God’s bounty in terms of harvest produce, let us give thanks for His continuing provision and give our gifts for those worse off in terms of physical resources BUT... perhaps we should also reflect on ourselves, our lives and our relationships with others and with God in an honest manner, not blaming other people or circumstances.

As we reflect over the past year we need to remember both the things we have done which we should not have done and also what we should have done but did not do. We can then decide how we need to improve and then act to achieve that improvement. This is repentance. Remorse is an emotion but repentance requires action.

In this spirit of reflection, repentance and renewal this is a prayer based upon one used by Bishop Oscar Romero who was murdered by the El Salvador government for his support of the poor and oppressed in that country,

Lord may this be what we are about.
That we plant the seeds that one day will grow.
That we water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
That we lay foundations that will need further development.
That we provide yeast that produces growth far beyond our own human capabilities.
That we are a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest, even though we may never see the end results. You know that we are workers, not master builders; ministers and not messiahs.
But may we be workers for You who is the master builder, to help restore the creation and people as You would wish them to be, starting with ourselves.
AMEN