Harvest is one of my most favourite Sundays in the year. The special songs, the display, the food donated to be used as food parcels for people in need of food through the year.
The ancient Israelites were fortunate in that God had commanded them to have not one, but three harvest festivals a year. The first was right at the beginning of the grain harvest time, the second at the end of the grain harvest, when it was all in, and the third marked the grape harvest. Although they were all connected with the harvest in someway, they all had different emphases and reminded the people of different things. This afternoon we are going to look at the first of these three annual celebrations, the Feast of Firstfruits.
The Feast of Firstfruits took place at the very beginning of the barley harvest. Barley was the first crop to become ripe and ready for harvest in the year, so the beginning of the barley harvest was the beginning of the whole harvest. Barley was a cereal crop. It was one of the two main grains grown by the Israelites (the other was wheat) and much of their bread and other food was made from it. The very first sheath of barley to be harvested, instead of being used for food, was taken to the priest, who waved it in front of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, symbolically offering it to God. This normally happened on the day after the Feast of the Passover. Although we are not a farming community and God does not require us to keep us this ceremony today, I believe that it has much to teach us as 21st century Christians. We will look at three of them this afternoon.
The first thing to note is that it completely differs from the agricultural festivals and rituals of the false religions surrounding Israel. The religion of the Canaanites was the worship of the false god baal, who, they believed, was the god of fertility. They believed that he had to have his arm twisted and to be manipulated into giving them good harvests by fertility rituals, by what is called sympathetic magic, that is by making him do what they wanted by acting it out. It was all a waste of time, of course, because baal does not exist, and certainly does not control the harvest. When we come to the worship of the one, and only, true God, there are no fertility rituals. Our God, who is truly the Lord of the harvest, does not need to be reminded, or forced, into giving what his people need. Instead of begging or cajoling, the mood is one of thanksgiving. He gives the harvest out of his own goodness, because it is in his own nature to do it.
Nowadays we don’t perform fertility dances in an attempt to secure good harvests, but we can sometimes be guilty of an attitude that sees good as being reluctant tp give us what is best for us, or a god whose power can be manipulated or controlled by us. We sometimes think that if we do a certain thing, or pray in a certain way, then God will have no option but to bless us. The absence of fertility rituals in the God-given worship system of the Israelites shows just how wrong this way of thinking is.
A second thing that the Feast of Firstfruits teaches us is that God has first call on everything. The sheath that was waved in front of the veil was not any old sheath from the harvest, not one that was picked out after the harvest had been gathered in for human consumption as something of an afterthought, but, instead, the very first sheath to be cut. Before the farmers cut anything for themselves, they cut to offer to God. The offering of the first sheath symbolised that the whole of the harvest belonged to God, it was from him, given by his power. The land produced nothing as a result of human power or cleverness, but all of God. Psalm 24 teaches us:-
’The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein’ Ps 24:1
He claims first place in our lives, has first claim on everything that we are, think, say or do. We are called daily to offer everything in our lives, holding nothing back, to him to use in the way that he would chose.
The third point that I would like us to look at this afternoon is the divine promise that lies in the Feast of Firstfruits. It is a promise that is not actually stated, but is certainly implied. The fact that it was specifically the FIRST sheath that was waved contains the promise that there was to be more to come. There were to be many more sheaves to be reaped and brought in from the fields. The first sheath was the guarantee that there would be a full harvest.
The Feast of the Firstfruits is part of the Old Testament law. Jesus stated that he had come, not to get rid of the law, but to fulfil it. The law was given, not just as a worship manual, or a list of instructions on how to behave, but to point to the coming of Jesus and all that he would do. The Feast of the Firstfruits has been wonderfully fulfilled. At the beginning of this sermon it was mentioned that the Firstfruits were waved in the temple on the day after Passover. That was the very day that Jesus rose from the dead.1 Corinthians 15:20 tells us that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was ‘the Firstfruits’ of them that sleep. In other words the resurrection of Jesus is a sign and a guarantee that those of us who belong to him will also be raised from the dead. Like the first sheath of barley of the year being waved in front of the veil in the temple, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a sign that there would be many more to come. That countless people would also be raised from the dead because of what he has done.
If we belong to him, we will be among those who are raised. We will be among those who will be given eternal life through Jesus. This world will not be the end for us. There are much better things to come.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that at the moment Jesus died the veil in the temple was torn in two, as a symbol of the division between God and man being torn down. That year the first sheath of barley was waved in the temple in front of a torn veil.
There are three things that the first Old Testament harvest festival of the year teaches us, firstly that God is good and gives to us not because he has to, because we have performed some special ritual or have manipulated in his power in some way, but because of his character, because he wants to, secondly that everything belongs to him, and he has first claim on our lives, thirdly that the resurrection Jesus is a guarantee that we will also be raised from the dead. That death is not the end for those of us who belong to Christ, but only the beginning.