Sermon preached by Beth Allison, 10 October 2010. Go to the readings...
Harvest Festival for Dundonians
"We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land...."
It's a classic! We've sung those words since Sunday school, but has anybody ever thought they are an odd choice here in Dundee? There aren't, to my knowledge, any farmers in our congregation. Those of you who are green-fingered gardeners may know what this time of year means to working on the land, but for most of us, autumn means fog, cold and the approach of winter.
Growing vegetables is a hobby, not a livelihood: Dundee is not overrun with tractors piled with hay bales, or trucks full of carrots. I do not have a cow tethered on the stairs up to my flat to get milk in the morning, and peas come out of a bag in the freezer. These days, even "seasonal vegetables" are available all year round in Tesco.
So why do we sing those words, "we plough the fields", if few of us have ever driven — or ever will drive — a combine harvester? Why do we celebrate harvest in an urban environment? We celebrate, because we must remember the true source of our blessings.
Our Old Testament reading today calls the people of God to remember that our blessings come from God. It starts with an advertisement for an idyllic land: a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.
I don't know if any of you have ever seen a "visit Scotland" advert. I'm not sure there would be any point in airing them on Scottish TV! But these adverts show beautiful clips of Scottish countryside, breathtaking views from the highlands and stunning shots of Monarch of the Glen style houses and they always end with the simple slogan "visit Scotland".
Here, we have the original "visit Israel" advert. An advert which encompasses the grandeur and beauty of the land they are about to occupy, with the slogan: the good land given to you. Deuteronomy explains this is how life should be from now on, a good land, for which God is praised and thanked for livelihoods and for plenty to eat.
But Deuteronomy also leaves us in no doubt about how we should receive from God. We must not exalt ourselves, we must not say to ourselves "my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth".
We often talk about giving in church, in our day of giving and in our weekly collection, but we need to remember how to receive as well. It is for good reason that our prayer of offering every week is written as a prayer of praise to God. Think about these words:
Blessed be thou, O Lord God, for ever and ever.
Thine, O Lord is the greatness and the glory
and the victory and the majesty:
for all that is in the heaven and the earth is thine:
thine is the Kingdom O Lord,
and thou art exalted as head above all.
All things come of thee
and of thine own do we give unto thee.
We must not exalt ourselves. We must remember it is God we should praise for our blessings.
This is the warning set alongside the promise of the good land. We are reliant on God for the good things in life, and we should not forget him in our prosperity. It was an easy lesson to learn, if a hard one to experience, when the Israelites were in the wilderness. They needed the water and the manna, and it humbled them and it tested them and it did them good to know that. But in prosperity, when our possessions have multiplied and multiplied and multiplied... then, we also need to remember who gave us these blessings. After the test of the wilderness, is this test of prosperity. It is a simple test: we must remain grateful to God.
But it is a test God's people fail. Jesus knew this. It is for good reason that the scripture he quoted when he was tempted by the devil all comes from this passage of Deuteronomy. He knew what God's people had failed to grasp. We cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. We need God's ordinances and God's commands and God's statutes when everything is going well, just as much as when things go wrong.
Because these good things that we have in life are there to confirm his covenant with us, his people. They are to remind us that God's promises are faithful and true, and that he delights in blessing us, and providing for us.
This is why we sing we plough the fields and scatter, because the chorus rings true: all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.
This is why we celebrate harvest when we do not farm. Because we should think of the work that we do do, and how God continues to provide and to reach out to us through it. We should be glad that we live in a country of breathtaking views, of valleys and streams, of education systems and the NHS, of our right to vote. This is why we celebrate harvest. So that now we have eaten our fill and built fine houses and live in them, and now our silver and our gold has multiplied and all that we have has multiplied, we do not forget the Lord our God.
We thank thee then, O Father,
For all things bright and good;
The seed time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food.
No gifts have we to offer
For all thy love imparts
But that which thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.
Old Testament Reading
So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
"Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day."
Deuteronomy 8 vv 6–18
He entered Jericho and was passing through.
And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost."
St Luke 19 vv 1–10