Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 2 October 2022.
• First Reading: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 (Offering of first fruits – to be given to the priest to be set before the Lord)
• Psalm 100
• Epistle: Philippians 4: 4-9 (Do not be anxious about anything but by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Whatever is noble, excellent, right, pure, admirable – anything excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things)
• Gospel: John 6: 25-35 (Whoever comes to Me shall never go hungry. Whoever believes in Me shall never be thirsty)
One of the interesting things about our lessons is that the Old Testament lesson is not about the harvest at all – not the annual harvest that would normally be finally gathered in during the late summer or early autumn.
That is definitely the time when Israel would celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, having first observed the Day of Atonement. It would be the time when the New Year was celebrated and the first rains would be expected.
But no, the lessons do not look backwards to the ingathering of the year’s harvest – they look forward because the this lesson is about offering the first-fruits of the harvest to God in worship.
For the church, the first fruits of harvest are celebrated at Pentecost and this time definitely look forward to the future life of the church.
So this is the first aspect: the Old Testament lesson is about confidence in God and in the further measure of harvest that is yet to come. It is a sacrifice because it only anticipates a future harvest – it is not a thanksgiving for the whole of the harvest already gathered in.
The second aspect of harvest is very clear – it is in the worship of God, the creator of the earth and its fertility and its ability to reproduce itself in every kind of animal and vegetable life.
But it does focus our attention on what is central – the abundance of God’s provision for His people, rather than the human effort and technology which has enabled the produce of the land to so expand that it could support massive urban populations and activities.
It is within this context that we acknowledge the fruitfulness of agricultural technology and in which we also confess that this has also gone wrong with the pollution of much of the land and establishment of unbalanced monocultures.
But our lessons then go on, to deepen the sense of God in our lives.
When they came to Jesus to ask about the works they had to do in order to gain eternal life, the question was ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’
And Jesus’ answer was devastating: there are no works that you can possibly do which would put God under any kind of obligation to you.
You can never possibly put God under any kind of burden towards you – except the burden He has already accepted. But what you can do is to receive from Him what He gives you, and do so thankfully.
In the case of the harvest, we can receive the fruits of the land with gratitude at God’s provision rather than complacency or arrogance at our own technology.
But the real work for salvation is to believe in Jesus. It is as simple and as challenging as that.
To believe in Jesus is to receive the person of God as He comes to us – in the person of Jesus, His own anointed Son. It is to receive His agenda and His way of doing things.
And the work of believing in Him runs through the New Testament like a vein of gold. No part of the gospel story can be approached without that sense of belief in Him and in trusting Him thereafter.
Take away that sense of faith and we are left with the wonders of technology with all the awesome creativeness and all the more terrifying possibilities of mass destruction. Here there is no salvation and no hope – only technique.
But to receive Jesus’ agenda in faith is to open doors to a wholly new kind of life. He promises not only a new relationship with God but a new relationship with ourselves and with each other.
That is why Jesus can say with total frankness: ‘I am the bread of life.’ To receive Him is to receive life more than existence; love rather than transactions. Holiness rather than expediency. Forgiveness and total reconciliation rather than compromise with our own past and present lives.
In this sense also, what Jesus says is about looking forward and not backwards. It anticipates a glory and wonder yet to come and which we could never imagine, let alone contrive to reproduce ourselves.
And so Paul, writing to the Philippians, gives them simple but practical advice. First: rejoice – be joyful in the presence of God and in that state then make your requests known to Him in full confidence of His provision, even when you do not understand let alone control your circumstances.
Then, let the peace of God come and abide in you. You cannot force it but you can receive it – and equally, you can grieve it.
Next, even when the world is beset by tragedy and disaster, there is still much to be grateful for. There are those close relationships, there is the fertility of the land and there are the beauties of art – of music and painting, of gardens and homes.
In days that may well be threatening, we are still encouraged to look up and give thanks. In days where there is war and bloodshed, those who are suffering still need our prayers and these are best founded on grateful and joyful hearts, even in the direst of days.