Bible Readings: Joel 2:21-27 & Matthew 6:25-34

Harvest Stories

Where has this year gone? It only seems a little while since we had our Rogation service here, as we dedicated the cleaned and conserved windows, and prayed over the land and the seed, asking for a fruitful year. I seem to remember that it was the first dry day after a period of incessant rain, and so most of the farm folk were out actually planting the seed that weekend. That might have been the last of the proper rain for a while – it soon got sunny, and in the midst of that sunshine was the Eyton History day – with displays, tractor rides and a legendary cream tea. One of the things I really appreciated about that day was the age range of the guests – from babies to great grandparents, all sharing the stories of Eyton – the villagers, the land, and the church all woven together.

As we move into November, there will be more memories shared, as we look back at the end of the Great War, remember the fallen, and commit ourselves to work for peace.

I wonder what stories you share as families when you get together. The time that Uncle Jimmy did that, or Mum said the other. One of my wife’s favourite things is making photo and video montages for the significant birthdays of the wider family. She’ll collect together material from all over the place and compile them into photo books, telling the stories of their life, prompting the memories and the reminiscences. Shared stories, passing on memories, reminding each other where we’ve come from, reinforcing our values, helping us to understand the world, giving us hope for the future – these are all such human traits. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. We are a storied species.

This was as true for the people of Joel’s day as it is for us. They may have lived several hundred years ago (we’re not sure exactly when) and several thousand miles away, in and around Jerusalem, but they were people just like us. They had their stories, and the book of Joel captures one of them, with its looking back to the past, its explanation of the present, and its hope for the future.

The section we’ve just heard read is bang in the middle of the story, we’ve jumped in to the resolution, the happy ending to the troubles of the first part of the story. There really should have been a spoiler alert before we read it. It’s the punchline without the set up, so to make any sense of it, we have to go back and find out what the set up was. So let’s go back to the beginning of the book of Joel, to chapter 1 verses 2 and 3.

“Hear this you aged men, give ear all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.”

We still don’t know exactly what has happened, but it’s obviously something significant. Something that will make a story that should be told and retold. Something that will have meaning for generations to come. This is a story that was first told maybe 2,500 years ago, and is still being told. Our forebears told it to us, and we are telling it today, and it will be told tomorrow. We are a storied species.

But what is this story, what has happened? Chapter 1 still, verse 4

“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten. What the hopping locust has left, the destroying locust has eaten.”

Now, I’m no farmer, but that sounds like pretty comprehensive destruction. Whether this is four different kinds of locust, locusts in different life stages, or just a poetic description of the different ways in which a swarm of locusts annihilates all vegetation, it is a catastrophe for a rural farming community. But that’s not the end of it.

Verse 12 says:

“The vine withers, the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are withered”

Not only have the locusts eaten everything, the rains have failed, and there is drought. Such a severe drought that even the trees are showing the signs of it. We did have quite a lot of sun this summer, and my lawn turned a bit brown, and the apples on my apple trees are a bit smaller than last year, but the trees haven’t withered. How dry would it have to be for how long for even the trees to wither? But that’s not the end of it:

Verse 19 says:

“Unto thee, O Lord, I cry for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field.”

The drought went on for so long any vegetation left by the locusts dried up until the land was a proverbial tinder box. It was only a matter of time before the wild fires began. No water toting helicopters to tackle those blazes, they raged until they burnt out, leaving the land blackened and scarred.

Locusts, drought, and fire. An unholy trinity leaving the people and their flocks hungry and desperate.

Remember how bad it was. Remember how desperate we were. Remember that we were at the end of ourselves. Remember the darkest of times.

That is the beginning of the story, Act 1, if you like. It sets the background, the context. A rural community at the end of their tether because of a sequence of natural disasters. What happens next?

Things beyond their control have overcome them, they are at a loss, they need help, so they turn to God. They gather together, they fast and pray. They grieve and mourn, they show their grief by putting on sackcloth – rough and uncomfortable. They encouraged each other with words like those in Chapter 2, verse 12:

“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love, and repents of evil.”

Remember what we did. Remember we called a fast, we cried out to God, we brought our pain and distress to God. Remember we trusted in God’s character.

So that brings us up to the part we read, the resolution, the redemption, the salvation. God has heard the cry of the people and has rescued them. The fires have burned out, the early and abundant rains have revived the trees, and that which the locusts had eaten have been restored. It is a time of plenty, of abundance, of celebration.

Remember the full sheaves, remember the overflowing vats of oil and wine, remember the parties. Remember how richly we were blessed. Remember what God did for us.

A story of the past and of the present. But it doesn’t stop there, in the next section it looks into the future.

In chapter 2, verse 28,

“And it shall come to pass afterwards….”

What will come to pass afterwards? Well, for the full story you’re going to have to go home and read it, but in summary, God promises that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people, a promise fulfilled at Pentecost (incidentally another harvest festival). Then God declares that there will be a day, the day of the Lord, when a final harvest will be taken, when time will be drawn to a close, and there will be a judgement, described in chapter 3, verse 14:

“Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”

For those who first heard these words, and retold this story, it pointed forward to a time when God would send a rescuer, God’s chosen one, the Messiah, to restore the people of God.

Remember that we live with a future before us. Remember that one day we will each stand before God. Remember that we have all fallen short of God’s requirements of us, none of us has loved God or loved our neighbour in the way that we have been commanded to. Remember that the only way we can stand on that judgement day is if we rely on the Messiah.

A shared story, a story of past, present and future. I wonder where in this story you are living today?

Perhaps you are surrounded by locusts, dried up, and burning. In the middle of all that all you can do is weep and cry out in distress. It might be impossible to imagine, but my conviction is that there is hope. In the end, this too will pass, but in the mean time we will sit with you in grief and mourning.

Perhaps you are in a fruitful time of life. The fig tree is budding, the vine’s bearing fruit. The harvest is plentiful and things are good. Share the blessing, remember where it’s come from. Sit easy to it, and don’t hold on too tight. Enjoy it.

Perhaps you are looking forward to the end of things, you see your last days on the horizon, when you will encounter the Lord face to face. Don’t be afraid. We know the next chapter to this story. We know that in Jesus, God did send the Messiah, God’s own Son, to die the death that we deserve and who was raised to life as a demonstration that we too can live. Trusting in Jesus we can look forward with confidence to the day of the Lord, knowing that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us, and witnesses to our hearts that we are safe in God’s hands.

If this story is not yet your story, then perhaps today this place is the valley of decision for you.

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