This is a copy of a talk I gave on Sunday 2 October 2022 at the 8.30 am service at Emmanuel, Billericay. The Bible Reading was Deuteronomy 16:13-17.
How many of you grow fruit and vegetables in your garden? Not many. Just as I expected. Why then, should we continue celebrating an agricultural festival when so few people grow their own fruit and vegetables?
I want to look back at the origins of the Harvest Festival, from Deuteronomy 16:13-17, to see if it still has any meaning for us today.
The earliest name of the Feast of Tabernacles was the Feast of Ingathering. It was held in the seventh month of Tishri, which is equivalent to mid-September/mid-October. In fact, it is celebrated on 9 October this year. It was one of the three great feasts of the Jewish people (along with Passover and Pentecost). In fact, at the time of Jesus, a Jewish historian called Josephus described the Feast of Ingathering as: “The holiest and the greatest of Hebrew feasts.” I think there are six things we can learn from this passage.
1) It was a time of Rejoicing
The people were told to rejoice at the feast (Deuteronomy 16:14) and they needed no encouragement to do so. We all like a party! The festival was timed to mark the end of the harvest when all the corn had been harvested, and when the grapes and the olives had been picked. After many long, hard working, tiring days when they had little rest and no pleasure, they now made the most of their celebration.
The festivities were interwoven with worship and lasted eight days. They would go to worship, carrying fruit in one hand and a branch in the other, dancing as they went. They were not only glad the work was over, but they were also glad that there had been a harvest to reap. Now there would be enough food to see them through the winter.
Harvest is a time to rejoice at the wonders of God’s creation; at God’s provision of food; at God’s goodness.
2) It was a time of Thanksgiving
The people expressed their gratitude to God by bringing their sacrifices to worship. These were “according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:17). So those who received more, gave more. They offered all sorts of things to express their relationship and gratitude to God. They were very much aware of God’s presence in the whole of life: the sun came from him and the rain and their health and their families; everything they needed came from Him.
Next time you go shopping, remember to say a prayer for those farmers who sow and reap and harvest, for the food we eat. And remember to say thank you to God for the food he has blessed us with.
3. It was a time of Remembering
As time went by, the Feast of Ingathering became known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, when the Israelites were supposed to live for seven days in little shelters made of branches and mud. This was a reminder of the time their forefathers wandered in the wilderness after leaving slavery in Egypt. Can you remember how many years they wandered? Forty years – and not because the journey was that long, it was because they were disobedient, and God caused them to walk around in circles!! Who knows how long the journey really was? 11 days! Deut 1:2
So, the Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder to be faithful and obedient to God. It reminded them of how God had rescued them, provided for them and brought them to the Promised Land in which they now lived. It was a celebration of God’s mighty saving acts.
For us, it can also be a time for remembering how Jesus rescued us from a kind of slavery. Through Jesus we have been loved and called to be his people. We have been offered forgiveness and invited to follow him into that Promised Land beyond this life.
4. It was a time of Seeking
It was a time when the Israelites sought God’s blessing upon them. As well as asking for forgiveness, they also prayed for health and wealth. They prayed for sun and rain and growth for their crops next year. They prayed with a deep heart-felt longing that God would bless them, and their offerings showed they meant business with God.
It was during this procession of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus stood in the Temple and said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). He gave this invitation to all who were seeking not merely a drink of water, but a thirst quenching, satisfying drink of life itself. The one thing most people want in life is a sense of meaning, and fulfilment, and joy, and satisfaction; yet we do everything and look everywhere except to the one who offers it to us!
For us, as for the Israelites of old, this is a time of seeking, a time of praying, a time to seek God as we long for a richer, deeper life.
5. It was a time of Sharing
Harvest was a time when God reminded the people of their responsibility to the needy. The poorest at that time were the widows, the orphans and the foreigners who had no home or rights in the country – sounds familiar doesn’t it? God laid down certain provisions: the fruit that fell from the trees was to be left for the poor. The olive pickers were only allowed one pick of the trees, anything left was for the poor. This applied to the grapes as well. And the well-loved story of Ruth shows us that the gleanings of the corn fields were also left for the poor, both that which the reapers dropped and the edges of the fields.
For ourselves, this is also a time when we remember our responsibility to the poor, of this country and of the world at large. Such as supporting Operation Christmas Child and the families we support in the Philippines through the Purple Community Fund and today as we collect items for the Billericay Foodbank.
6. It was a time of Gathering
This Feast of Tabernacles was one of three occasions when all the people were asked to meet together. It was a strengthening of the bonds between them. A time of identification and commitment as these people from different tribes reaffirmed their national unity and renewed friendships.
Should we continue to observe harvest, even though our culture is very different from the people of the Bible? Should we continue Harvest Festivals when they are now very different from many people around the world? Of course, the answer is a great big yes!
And it can be a significant time for everyone one of us if it is: a time of rejoicing, a time of thanksgiving, a time of remembering, a time of seeking, a time of sharing, and a time of gathering together.