When I was a student I used to help take groups of primary school children from the inner city of Manchester just ten miles out of town for a week of camping near a farm. When I was their age we used to drive out to a farm and visit the animals so I was surprised that it was the first time some of those city children had ever seen cows, except perhaps on television. Some of the children would not be convinced that the milk they drink actually comes from cows, and does not somehow form in bottles.
Harvest Festivals keep us in touch with the real world. It is good to be reminded of the part that farmers have in providing the food we all eat. It is too easy to assume that beans grow in endless supply in tin cans. This morning, I want to suggest THREE reasons why Harvest festivals are still important for us!
1. BE GRATEFUL FOR GOD’S BLESSINGS
What’s your favourite kind of food? Curry, steak, rice, noodles, pasta, pizza, burgers, or what about good old fish and chips? Chinese, Indian, Italian, French, English, we really are spoilt for choice! Just think of all the different varieties of cheeses, and the weird and wonderful fruit freely available at the supermarket. Even “our daily bread” comes in so many different shapes and flavours. On holiday abroad we love fresh baguettes and brioches and pain chocolats and croissants! Plain croissant, almond croissant and of course all kinds of savoury croissants too!
It is so easy to take God’s good gifts to us for granted – not only our food but homes and our clothing homes, and all the luxuries of life we enjoy while millions are dying without even the necessities. We forget that these things only come to us as gifts of God’s grace. We praise the Lord as Creator of the world, but often forget that He is also its Sustainer. Without the continuing activity of Almighty God, upholding His creation in love, we would all instantly cease to exist.
Harvest gives us an ideal opportunity to pause for a while to give thanks for the countless blessings we receive from the Lord, not least on our dinner plates every day. The Coronavirus crisis has confronted us with panic buying and supermarkets running out of the essentials. This should remind us of the challenges many millions of people around the world face in getting enough to eat every day of their lives. When so many are living on a meagre and monotonous diet, we can choose between more foods than we can name or pronounce. This week let’s remember the presence of God our Sustainer by thanking God in a silent prayer each time we eat a different kind of food? That could easily turn into a hundred prayers by the end of the week!
Let us also be grateful for work, for transport, and for medical care, and many other blessings we enjoy in everyday life that we can so easily take for granted. Due to Coronavirus many people have lost their jobs, and very many more are now facing that prospect. Transport has changed dramatically. Doctors and hospitals have been overrun and many people have had vital treatments delayed or cancelled. All these problems are returning as the number of Covid cases is rising so fast. Let us pause to reflect that millions of people across many countries face these kinds of challenges every day.
We live in a world of “instant everything”. All we need and want is readily available on a basis of live now, pay later. We hear people complaining because they can’t get a seat in their favourite coffee shop or stay in the pub until midnight. It can be so easy to take for granted the luxuries of life, never mind the necessities. Harvest Festivals are important because they help us to be truly thankful for “our daily bread” and for all the other material blessings we enjoy which countless millions in the world do not.
Count your blessings one by one
when dawn appears and day has just begun.
They will light your heart with happiness,
make each hour bright and bring you gladness
Count your blessings one by one,
when twilight falls and toil of day is done.
And in sweet dreams they’ll come again to you,
if you will count your blessings each day through
Count your blessings while you may;
the big or small, whichever comes your way.
For then you’ll find this world a place of love,
if you will count your blessings from above.
2. REMEMBER OTHERS LESS FORTUNATE THAN OURSELVES
When the Apostles in Jerusalem met Paul they gave him only one simple instruction. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:9-10)
It is good to take time to remember the poor people around the world, and some people in our own town, who face a daily struggle to afford or to obtain food to eat. We all need a deeper awareness of our dependence on the goodness of God, and our gratitude to Him, for the quality of life we enjoy every day. Harvest time is about celebrating the generosity and the faithfulness of God to us.
But at the same time we should remember that every night one thousand million people, one billion people in the world go to bed hungry. That is more than 150 times the population of Great Britain. Thousands are starving today because of drought or flood or crop failure or all kinds of diseases which are caused by an inadequate diet. And because of underlying health problems, all of those disadvantaged people are more vulnerable to Coronavirus than most people in England are.
There is poverty in this county of course. Many pensioners are finding it hard to manage. Millions of people are caught in the debt trap, paying so much in interest they can never pay back any of the capital. Others are in the benefits trap, where they struggle on inadequate benefits since their income would be even lower if they did get a job. They would then lose rent rebate and have to pay so much for childcare. Some others, including teenagers, will be sleeping rough on the streets tonight. And these problems are going to multiply as more businesses fail and more shops and restaurants close and more people lose their jobs.
But in comparison to many countries of the world, even the poorest here are rich. Few in Britan are starving and none need be. We often take for granted the medical care available to everyone here which is so much better than most of the world enjoy. Compared to most places around the earth, Chelmsford is a very safe, comfortable, war-free, and wealthy place to live.
There was a Letter from a Christian in MALAWI (to Third Way (May 2000 p 7).
“If you consider everything that the Bible says about wealth as a whole, the conclusion that most Western Christians are far richer than God would have them be is inescapable. And make no mistake, all the most destitute in England would be considered materially rich in Malawi, no matter how impoverished spiritually, socially and emotionally they may be. …..
Living at the level of affluence of the west is an act of gross selfishness and cruelty. To be rich as westerners are is selfish because the lifestyle of the West is built and sustained by exploiting the poor and the helpless.”
Some strong words there. Our Harvest Thanksgiving calls us to a fresh appreciation of all these blessings which we enjoy which so many peoples and nations do not. As we give thanks to God for His goodness to us we are challenged to careful stewardship of all that He has entrusted to us, to “learn to live more simply so others might simply live.” As we receive God’s love, it stirs us to generous sacrificial giving in return.
In the Book of Esther chapter 9, Mordecai wrote to all the Jews “ 21 that they should celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote to them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.”
Celebrate by giving gifts to the poor. For practical reasons we are not organising a church Harvest Thankoffering this year. But it may be that you will want to give yourself to those less blessed than we are. Perhaps to CHESS, the Churches Homelessness Emergency Support Scheme, or to Chelmsford Food Bank. Perhaps looking abroad you might want to support the Arise Project at Kaniki in Zambia. Or you may have other charities you would want to give to at this time as an expression of gratitude to God for all His goodness to us.
Counting our blessings, remembering others who have so little when we have so much.
3. THE SPIRITUAL MESSAGES OF HARVEST
Do you remember a few years ago there was a TV advert for a certain brand of chocolate biscuit where a young girl charges round the world collecting all the ingredients, the wheat, the sugar canes, the cocoa beans? If nothing else, at the time it certainly helped some people to realise that Chocolate Digestives don’t grow on trees, at least not ready-baked and wrapped up in plastic. But it also raises other questions for children who like to find out how the world they live in really works.
`Where did the wheat come from, Mummy?” `From seeds, dear.’
`What about the sugar canes? `And the cocoa plants?’ `Why, they all come from seeds, of course.’
When they are still young, children are told how the farmer plants seeds. Then when the plants are grown and the crops are ready it is time for the harvest. Every autumn we celebrate that process with our Harvest Festivals.
`But, Mummy. Mummy, where did the seeds come from?’ `From the crops of course.’
`But where did the crops come from?’ `From the seeds.’
`So which came first, Mummy, the seed or the crops?
`Which came first, Mummy, the chicken or the egg?’
`If you don’t want that biscuit I’ll eat it for you!’
When children ask awkward questions, they are often told that they are too young to understand (which really means their parents don’t know). And somehow as they get older they become too inhibited to ask such unanswerable `childish’ questions as `Which came first?’ or `How did everything begin?’. Which is a pity, because these are among the most important questions in the world.
The seed carries the life of the new plant. But the plants produce the seeds. So how did the whole process start? Scientists still have no answer to that mystery. How did life begin? What (or Who?) made plants originally begin to grow, or animals, or people?
In our Harvest Festivals we celebrate the God who sustains the universe and sends the sunshine and the rain to make the crops grow so that we can enjoy an abundance of exciting varieties of foods. But the process of the harvest also raises ultimate questions about our very existence. At Harvest-time, we give thanks to God who created all life in the first place, including you and me.
And then, the process of Harvest itself is a parable with a deep spiritual meaning. For there is a principle at work at Harvest-time which is at once simple and profound. We can call it “the seed principle”. It was summarised in some words of Jesus which are often overlooked.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)
Here is the principle which farmers and gardeners know well. It is only through the lifelessness and apparent death of the seed or the bulb through the winter that new life can come in the spring. We must sacrifice the grain this year if we want a crop next year. We see the same pattern in the butterfly, which emerges to new life only through the death of the caterpillar into the chrysalis. In so many ways the world of nature demonstrates this principle, “through death to life”. In it is revealed part of God’s pattern of working in His world and His design for our living too.
For Jesus, the seed principle was expressed in his self-sacrifice on the cross. It was only because of his death that his resurrection life can come to us also. For us the same principle reminds us of Jesus’s teaching that it is only by dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
We live in a world which devalues self-sacrifice and rewards selfishness, where success is measured by how much we can get and not by how much we give. Harvest-time embodies the seed principle, “through death to life”, and challenges us to live by it too.
Count your blessings. Remember other people less fortunate than we are. And listen to the spiritual messages Harvest brings – remember our Creator, remember the Poor, remember the Seed Principle and remember Jesus our Saviour!