Grain and grapes. Bread and wine. Simple, homely, things that appear again and again throughout the Bible. Everyday things that are used to illustrate, to symbolise, to help us get hold of deep and significant truths about God and our place in the world. Grain and grapes. Bread and wine. I’d like to invite you to join me as we explore just a few examples of this, and reflect on what they might mean for our lives as we celebrate harvest together.
In our reading from John’s eyewitness account of the good news of Jesus’ life, we hear reference to one of the defining stories of the Jewish faith. It tells of how God provided for them in the desert. In Exodus we read about how Moses had led the people of God out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and out into the desert. They were headed for the land that God had promised to Abraham all those years ago. Before long, however, they ran out of food, and started to grumble to Moses.
They looked back to Egypt with rose-tinted glasses, hungry for the food they had had there, and forgetting the slavery. In response to this, God miraculously provides food for them. They wake up in the morning to find the ground covered with manna. From the description, the closest thing I can think is that it was a bit like Frosties – crisp and sweet and thin. And this continued for day after day, for as long as they were in the desert. They had to collect it fresh each day, they weren’t allowed to store it, they had to go to bed each day trusting that God would provide on the next day.
Hundreds of years later, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he gets baptised by John the Baptist, and then the Holy Spirit leads him out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer to prepare him for his public ministry. Whilst he is in the desert, the accuser, Satan, comes to tempt him. The first temptation is this. “If you were the son of God, you could command these stones to become bread”
Jesus is hungry, no mistake – but he is also more interested in obeying God than in proving himself, or meeting his physical needs. He replies to Satan, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. If the Exodus story tells us that God provides for our physical needs, then this shows us that God provides for our emotional and spiritual needs as well.
Our identity isn’t defined by whether we can make bread or not, but in who we are in God’s eyes.
At the beginning of the chapter of John that we’ve heard read tonight, we can read one of the accounts of the feeding of the 5,000. In a couple of the other accounts of this miracle, we are told that Jesus was in a deserted place when the crowd came to him to be taught. They’d come so far from the towns, and it had got so late as they were caught up in his teaching, that they didn’t have the food they needed.
They find out that a boy has brought a packed lunch – five rolls and two fish. They were small – barely enough to satisfy a growing lad’s hunger. Yet, he trusts Jesus with them, Jesus prays and his friends distribute them to the crowd, feeding over 5,000 people. Again, we see God, in the desert, providing miraculously for the physical needs of the people.
And now, the day after this miracle, the crowd have chased Jesus around the lake, and they want to see more of this power, they want more of this provision. But Jesus challenges them on their priorities. He tells them not to work for food that spoils, but to devote their lives and energies to that which will sustain them for all eternity. He’s very clear about what that work is.
Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t a great big to-do list of religious duties, no church attendance requirement, or fasting, or Bible reading plan that needs to be completed. It’s not about labouring hard at work to provide for your family or saving for retirement. In fact, the work that Jesus tells his followers is necessary might not sound much like work at all. What is it he says the work is?
“to believe in the one God has sent.” It’s as easy and difficult as that – it’s the decision of a moment and the work of a lifetime. But the rewards are out of this world. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That sounds like something worth working for to me.
And my experience is that it does take work. If you want a harvest, you need to work the land, plant the seed, tend the crop. The reality is that followers of Jesus get physically hungry and thirsty, just like Jesus did. We also get spiritually and emotionally hungry and thirsty. The work comes in the daily decision to trust in the provision of God, even when when we are in the desert, and it seems a long way off. I have seen God provide in so many different ways for so many different people – materially, spiritually, emotionally over the years. I’ve also sat with those who are still waiting, and finding life tough. I don’t have all the answers, but I remain convinced that trusting Jesus, and believing in his promises will, in the end, be the key to all our hungers and thirsts being satisfied.
So, that’s grain. What about the grapes? Well, the images that grapes and wine are associated with through the Bible are more mixed. There are positive images, such as the massive bunches of grapes that symbolise the fruitfulness of the promised land when the people of God get there, and the turning of the water into wine by Jesus at the wedding at Cana. But there is also a more difficult, challenging strand, that picks up on the idea of the grapes being crushed when they come to be made into wine. God’s messenger, the prophet Joel, is typical of this when he writes,
“Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow— so great is their wickedness!””
This idea overlaps with the image of the people of God as a vine in a vineyard. Sometimes this is positive, in passages where we read of God carefully planting the people into a new place, tending them, and looking after them. In other places we read of the vine having run wild, not bearing good grapes, and the vineyard having been overrun. Jesus himself picks up this theme when, towards the end of John’s book, he talks about himself as the true vine. Jesus is the one that gives us life. When we are connected to Jesus, when we abide in him, our lives are fruitful and good. Here, also though, we get the warning -if we are not fruitful then the we run the risk of being pruned away from the vine.
This association between grapes, wine, and judgement can be clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the last night before the crucifixion, Jesus goes to the Garden to pray. He is in anguish at the thought of what’s coming, and so he asks his Father if he really has to go through it all. He prays, “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.”
The cup that Jesus is facing is the cup of judgement, the wine that flows from the rebellion and sinfulness of humanity. The wickedness that Joel calls out, and that will be pressed out at the end of time, as we read in Revelation. This is the cup that Jesus faced drinking as he went to the cross. He prayed that it might pass from him, but he was also willing to drink it if that meant that we didn’t have to.
Grain and grape. Bread and Wine. God’s provision and God’s judgement. These meet on the table when we gather to celebrate communion. As we eat and drink we remember the cross, the provision of Jesus the bread of life, the true vine, whose spilt blood satisfies the judgement that we would otherwise face.
We’re here today to celebrate the harvest of the fields and vineyards, the stock yards and the woods, the seas and the rivers. As we do, it is good to reflect on the harvest of our lives. Are we being fruitful in God’s eyes?
Are we ready for the time at which our lives will be harvested? Are we trusting God’s provision, accepting God’s judgement, and believing in Jesus, the one he sent? If we are, then we can celebrate that, be joyful in it, and ask for God’s help to continue in that way for another year. If we know that we aren’t, then we have the opportunity to pause, to repent, to be forgiven, and to trust God for the coming year and years that we may experience the good things that God has for us, and that we might see the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives more and more.