What’s the point of harvest festivals? Why should we celebrate them? How should we mark harvest and what are the problems with the ways that we often do mark it?
This sermon was inspired by the fact that I knew that the booth (pictured) built for Experience Harvest would still be up. It was helped greatly by David Kennedy’s sermon on The Feast of Tabernacles, not least his linking of the festival with Isaiah 32 (which seems to be missed by quite a few commentators). Tanya Marlow’s provocative argument that Harvest should be a lament also got me thinking.
Harvest; Reading: Deuteronomy 16:13-20
I just want to start by saying that, unlike last week, I have no intention whatsoever of mentioning the rugby. If you don’t know why, please don’t ask!
So, because I’m feeling a bit grumpy, I want to say that I have a problem with harvest festivals. One of my problems with harvest festivals is the songs. Not the ones that we’re singing this morning, but the ones with fluffy cauliflowers and refuelling jetplanes. Not least, because I don’t like cauliflowers and I’ve never seen jetplanes refuelling in midair. But, mainly because they are fuzzily nostalgic and generically thankful to someone-or-other about something-or-other.
So, what’s the point of harvest festivals? Well, that’s exactly what Deuteronomy 16 tells us. Deuteronomy 16 sets out the 3 major festivals that God’s people were to celebrate. Passover, celebrating the escape from slavery in Egypt. Pentecost, celebrating the first fruits of the harvest. And Tabernacles, at the end of the harvest, celebrating the harvest and remembering the time the Israelites spent living in the wilderness.
Actually, Booths or Shelters is a better translation than Tabernacles. Because, as we heard at the start of this service, an important part of the festival was making and living in shelters with roofs of leaves (Leviticus 23:33-43), as a reminder and participation in the wandering through the desert for 40 years that Israelites had to do, due to their sin in not relying on God.
Taking part in what their ancestors did by doing it again, experiencing it, is an important principle in the Old Testament. It’s the same at Passover, remembering and experiencing the last meal before the escape from Egypt. And it’s the same for us, as we celebrate and experience the Last Supper through the bread and wine of communion.
So, the Israelites took part in the wandering through the desert, giving up their comfortable, permanent homes for temporary, vulnerable shelters. But, the festival was a festival of joy. A festival of joy that God had not left his people in those temporary shelters, but had brought them into the Promised Land. It was a celebration of the good land that God had given them, the blessings that they had been given. As it says in the reading: “the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”
A festival of fruitfulness and joy. Joy that they were finally in the promised land. And, by living in those shelters, a reminder of the hard lessons of following God and trusting in him, of God’s faithfulness despite human failure. A reminder of the importance of celebrating all the good things that God has given us, and a reminder of the fact that we are, and are called to be, dependent upon God. Those shelters, this shelter, is a reminder that although we like to think that things are permanent and stable, they are not. And so we need to cling to God when times are hard, and we need to cling to God when times are good.
A festival of fruitfulness and joy, of reminder, and also of promise. Isaiah 32 warns that, because of Israel’s failure to trust in God and follow him, because of Israel’s failure, the harvest will fail. The harvest, celebrated at the Festival of Booths will fail. Until, Isaiah says (32:15-18):
till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
his righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
Until the Spirit comes. Until there is justice and righteousness.
The Festival of Booths is also the festival that we heard about last week in John 7, the festival at which water was poured out as an offering, as a reminder of the water that is so necessary for life, and for the living water from God. The festival at which Jesus stood up on the last and great day and said that he was the source of the living water, by which he meant the Spirit. Which of course links back to Isaiah 32, where we’re told that the Spirit will be poured out from on high, bringing about the fruitfulness that leads to the Festival of Booths.
A festival of fruitfulness and joy, of reminder and promise. And also waiting and lament.
The Spirit has come, has flowed into us and is transforming the world. But God’s kingdom has not yet come in all its fullness. We are still waiting for the fullness of Isaiah’s prophecy to come true. God’s justice and righteousness are still not fully dwelling in our land. Jesus’ death and rising to new life have given us the firstfruits of the Spirit, the firstfruits of the new kingdom. But, we’re still waiting. We’re still waiting for the fullness of the harvest to come.
And that is where lament comes in. We can, and should, joyfully celebrate all the good things that God has given us. We can and should be reminded of God’s love and God’s promises to us, both in the past and in the future. But, here and now, we also need to recognise that we are waiting and that as we are waiting we need to lament.
We can be joyful and celebrate the harvest offering that we have brought. We need to lament that this harvest offering is needed. Needed for a foodbank here in Swadlincote where, between January and August this year 487 adults and 217 children were helped by 403 parcels. We can rejoice that we are able to help and lament that we are in any way needing to help people in one of the richest countries in the world.
We need to lament that there are millions of people starving and displaced around the world. We need to lament that harvests are failing as drought and floods devastate whole regions. We need to lament that this is happening not least because of climate changing that we are causing due to our ignorance and greed and lack of leadership. The massive current issue of migration is being driven by climate change, directly and indirectly.
It’s no coincidence that in Deuteronomy we move straight from the festivals, the times of celebration, to a call for justice. “Follow justice and justice alone” we’re told. And Isaiah picks up on the same theme. God’s Spirit is poured out and God’s justice and righteousness come to dwell in the land.
That’s why it’s good that we’re celebrating communion as part of our harvest celebration. It’s a reminder that we are invited to celebrate with God the fact that Jesus brought about his kingdom, and opened up the way for us to come to him. It’s a way of taking part in God’s saving plan and being invited to join in too.
Because part of our harvest celebrations can be a reminder and a challenge to us to make use of the good gifts that God has given us. And that includes our talents and skills. What God-given gifts do we have and how are we making use of them? What harvest offering of ourselves can we make and are we making? That might be here in church, it might be in our hobbies or jobs, in our lives with our families and friends, or in some or all of them.
There are also things that we can do ourselves on both of the issues of foodbanks and climate change. Prayer and lament are important and meaningful. Acting and seeking justice are important too. Supporting our local foodbank throughout the year, letting our MP know that we are concerned about this. Seeking to lessen our carbon footprint through how we live our lives is also important.
And, this November governments from around the world will meet in Paris to discuss their response to climate change. We have an opportunity to influence that by praying, by calling others to prayer and lament, and by seeking justice. We can let our leaders know that this is an important issue for us. And one way that I’d encourage us to do this is by signing this petition.
It’s being organised by Christian Aid and calls on our government to show leadership on climate change by moving investment away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. It’s a great opportunity to show our concern for those most affected by the effects of climate change.
Because, this harvest we have an opportunity to celebrate the fruitfulness and joy that God brings. We have an opportunity to be reminded of the many good things that God has given us. And we have opportunity to celebrate the promises that God has given us as well. We have an opportunity to wait on God, to seek more of the good things that he longs to give us. And we have an opportunity to lament, to weep with those who weep, to recognise that not all is yet fruitful, that justice and righteousness are not yet fully here. And to celebrate that God is faithful and loving and is with us in our tears and in our joy. Amen