Summary: The first harvest festival of the Jewish year teaches us that God will give good things to us because of his nature, not because he has been manipulated, that he has first claim on everything and the resurrection of Christ is a promise that we too will be
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.