Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I have never had or fully looked after a garden and while I have sometimes been able to admire those owned by others, gardening has never been part of my story.
I have visited them and while my day job often required me to visit other people’s gardens, it was never for the purpose of enjoying them: only to see how the properties might be developed.
But the bible has plenty of gardens. There was the Garden of Eden where God has placed Adam and Eve so that they might look after it; and there was Naboth’s vineyard – not really a garden, but coveted by the King whose foreign wife had Naboth killed so that the King might take possession. Then there was Gethsemane where Jesus had a final struggle before submitting to God’s will and undergoing the passion of the cross, and there was the garden where Jesus was a temporary resident before rising from the dead.
Finally there is the garden of the New Jerusalem, watered by a river and with trees producing leaves for the healing of the nations. Paradise is seen above all as a garden more than anything else.
So gardens have an honoured place in the bible. They are there to give pleasure and relaxation, to stimulate work and creativity, to yield flowers, fruit and vegetables.
But they are there to say something about the relationship between God and His people and the earth. Properly designed and managed, they are places of delight and recreation, but abused and abandoned they run wild, attract rubbish, and demand great effort it they are to be restored.
Whereas land can be used for many purposes, and can yield many kinds of fruit, grain, livestock and even minerals, it is the garden that provides the pinnacle of our ambitions rather than the farm or quarry or factory or office.
In the Old Testament, the land yields produce which the people of Israel are to offer in worship, remembering where they came from and how God had delivered them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. They were there because the Lord had given them the land, and the original occupiers had forfeited it by their sin and wickedness. For Israel, the Land was an expression of their being and their faith, and alienation from the Land has been traumatic: both the exile of the Old Testament and the new dispersion following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
Equally, restoration to the land has brought new fertility as settlements were rebuild, fields irrigated and swamps drained.
To honour the land and to offer its produce were a major part of their worship of God.
For Paul, there is no particular reference to the land but he does commend it as part of his general outlook. In their prayers they are to be simple and direct in their requests, trusting God and praising Him anyway.
But in their overall view of life, they are to behold and to meditate upon whatever is honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. The things that degrade and unbalance a person should be avoided while the things that edify and inspire, that inform and delight a person are to be honoured.
And if that is so in their possessions and interests then it must also be part of their relationships and attitudes and ambitions.
That must surely include the use of land and the way it is honoured and managed.
In the gospel there is no particular discussion of the land, but there is a real discussion of the bread it yields. If that bread beings joy and strength to those who eat it, and if it brings fellowship and understanding to those who break and share it together, then it must be good.
But that bread cannot last, and even the bread in the desert of the Exodus went off if kept overnight.
If the use and enjoyment of that bread was limited then Jesus pointed to bread that would neither grow stale nor decay. It would endure for all time and its sharing would bind His disciples together.
This was a bread that was to be taken and broken and given forth: it was to be received with joy and in the communion of other worshippers in one accord and faith.
It was a bread to be honoured a directing His people back to Him and not to be used to foment division or brokenness. It was not a theological toy for the amusement of those who had great knowledge or means of controlling or manipulating others.
The bread that is Jesus is that which he has sanctified personally so that His disciples may be edified and taught, that they may be drawn together into a fellowship that will endure beyond death and yet reach to the furthest corners of the globe.
As we come to Him we will be drawn together and not driven apart. As we honour what He has given, we will find that we also desire to make new offerings of our own – not as a means of matching what is given but in order to respond to it.
But there is something else that we need to see, directly and personally for Jesus says “I am the bread of life”.
It is not just that He gives life but that He is life. It is not just that He gives life but that it is His life that He desires us to live. We are no longer independent agents, going about our own business and then expecting Him to approve of it afterwards.
It is much more that since on our own we can do nothing then it is only in Him, in the power and inspiration of His Holy Spirit, and under the leading of His word that we can hope to prosper.
When Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life” He is both offering Himself to us and commanding us to receive Him as He comes to us.
At Harvest therefore we are doing far more than making an offering of the things we have produced or reflecting on the proper use of land and its gifts: we are also sharing in the earth from which Adam was created and in which Jesus lay.
And our prayer is that this earth may also be for us a garden.