Great is Thy Faithfulness
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John 7:37-38
With so much to give thanks for, our Harvest festivals should never be a mere formality or ritual – it will be as the prophets intended, a great and glorious meeting between God and His people.
Old Testament clearly shows that, the Jewish year was interspersed by festivals, also known as the “Feasts of the Lord”. Some were timed to coincide with the changing seasons, reminding the people of God’s constant provision for them and also allowing them to return by way of offering, a token of all that he had given them. Others celebrated some of the great events of Israel’s history, and the ways that God had intervened to help His people when they were in need. All were occasions of joy and celebration reflecting on all the good things that God had given to and done for His people, as well as times where the people could come close to their God and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. We know that, these festivals were never intended for observation out of mere formality and empty ritual. The prophets warned the people against reducing these festivals to that level. It was intended to be a spiritual uplifting experience; a glorious meeting together of God and His people.
Two of these Jewish celebrations from the Old Testament really caught my heart. The first was the “Feast of Weeks”, which we read about in Leviticus 23. Celebrated fifty days after the beginning of Passover, it was essentially an agricultural celebration at which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. The priest offered two loaves of bread made from the new flour, along with animal sacrifices. The festival later became known as Pentecost – from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth” (Greek – πεντηκοστή – pronounced as pentékosté)
The second festival is of the Feast of Ingathering (feast of Booths or Tabernacles), which is an autumn festival held at the end of the fruit harvest. “Sukkot (Hebrew – סוכות)” means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The seven days of Sukkot, each represent a decade of life, seventy years in all, the human life span on this earth. This short lifespan should be considered only as a period of preparation for the everlasting life that comes after life on this earth, a life where material wealth does not count, where only spiritual wealth counts. The stores of grain, wine and oil must be left behind, while only the stores of Torah, mitzvot and Good Deeds can be taken along and put to good advantage in that everlasting life. This is also one of the reasons why it is customary to read the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) during the Festival of Sukkot. In some congregations it is read in the synagogue on Shabbat chol hamoed Sukkot. For the Book of Kohelet, prophetically written by the Wisest of All men, King Solomon, is full of earnest thoughts and reflections on the “vanity of vanities” of this world. It fittingly concludes with the words, “The end of the matter after all is heard, is: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole purpose of man.” In this way, Sukkot for us is the “Festival of Ingathering” in a deeper sense: it teaches us to gather, retain and store up the religious experiences and spiritual uplift which we have acquired during the many and varied festivals, prayers and mitzvot of the month of Tishrei, so that we can draw upon these rich stores throughout the whole year to come.
Celebrations of Sukkot included camping out in gardens and on rooftops, in tents or huts made from the branches of trees. These tents (or booths or tabernacles) were a reminder of the time that the people lived in tents after the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them toward the Promised Land. The festival included a ceremony in which water was poured out and prayers made for good rains for the coming season. It is also suggested that it was during such a ceremony that Jesus stood up and declared “Whosoever is thirsty should come to me and drink. As the scripture says, “Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out from his heart.” (John 7: 37-38).
It is my opinion that somewhere between these two Jewish festivals, the Feasts of Weeks and Tabernacles lays the real significance of Harvest Festival – a deeper spiritual meaning. In this way the offering we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage which decorate our church today can still remind us of all the good things that the Lord has given to us, and for which we can too easily become complacent. And while we are saying thanks for the food we eat, what about the gas and electricity that is used to cook the food, the petrol that gets us to the supermarket, the homes within which we eat – there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for.
But what a mess we humans have made of God’s beautiful world! Pollution, forests wiped out, species of animals extinct because of human actions, a dangerously thin ozone layer, and hundreds of years of tribal warfare still continues today. What a mess we have made of God’s beautiful world. Now although we have messed it up and still mess it up God has not left us alone to get on with it! He sent Jesus into the world to show us how he wants us to behave towards one another. God sent Jesus into the world to show us how much he loves us; and God sent Jesus into the world to show us that he – God – is willing to die for us. God loves us and loves his world that much! That is Good News!
In our Bible Reading from the Old Testament, and from the book of Joel, we are reminded of God’s good intentions for his world. In Joel 2: 12 God calls upon his people to change their wicked ways: “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” God is calling us as individuals, men, women and children, and as a church, and as a town, and as a nation, to stop our wicked ways, to repent of our wicked ways and return to him. Joel 2:13 continue like this: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love”. The feast of Tabernacles was and is for Jewish people a reminder of their reliance upon God. At our Harvest festivals we give thanks for God’s wonderful provision; and yet part of our thankfulness must surely include our commitment to work for the principles of God’s kingdom in our town, in our households, and in his church.
God’s promises are wonderful! Yet I wonder how Christians living in places where it hardly ever rains will hear these words that we’ve just had read to us: Joel 2: 22, “The open pastures are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit.” Joel 2: 26, “You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.” These words are surely not just promises for the future. They are signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our world, and as the body of Christ we are called to welcome in God’s kingdom.
At this harvest festival, let us thank God for all the good things He has given us everyday. Let us say pray as we celebrate the Harvest Festival: O Lord we thank you for all you have done for us, we pray for victims of deadly worldwide attacks, various calamities, global infectious diseases, cancer, financial challenges, and other types of suffering throughout the world and ask the Lord to guide us to live in harmony with one another, respectful of each other’s human rights and dignity. We ask all these in your precious Holy Name. Amen