As I write this, summer is coming to its end. We’re moving into autumn. Very soon the church here will be holding our Harvest Thanksgiving services. And I imagine that many of your churches will be doing something similar even if Covid precautions mean that it will be more low-key than in the past.
Notice, I don’t call the event here a ‘Harvest Festival’. A ‘Harvest Festival’ traditionally meant something rather different. That label was used for the enthusiastic celebrations that once marked harvest-time in the English countryside – and which usually had little to do with Christianity or church.
If you want a graphic picture of a traditional ‘Harvest Festival’ in Victorian England, you could find it in Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874. Here’s what Hardy’s hero finds when he enters the barn where the harvesters have gathered.
‘This was the night which had been selected… for giving the harvest supper and dance. As Oak approached the building the sound of violins and a tambourine, and the regular jigging of many feet, grew more distinct. He came close to the large doors, one of which stood slightly ajar, and looked in.
‘The central space, together with the recess at one end, was emptied of all incumbrances, and this area, covering about two-thirds of the whole, was appropriated for the gathering, the remaining end, which was piled to the ceiling with oats, being screened off with sail-cloth.
‘Tufts and garlands of green foliage decorated the walls, beams, and extemporized chandeliers, and immediately opposite to Oak a rostrum had been erected, bearing a table and chairs.
‘Here sat three fiddlers, and beside them stood a frantic man with his hair on end, perspiration streaming down his cheeks, and a tambourine quivering in his hand. The dance ended, and on the black oak floor in the midst a new row of couples formed for another…’
In Hardy’s story, the night ends in disaster when fire breaks out on the farm and the harvesters, senseless with drink, are incapable of rousing themselves to put it out.
When did harvest services begin?
Churches in England rarely held special services to mark the harvest. There were no special services for harvest included in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. As far as I can gather, the first Anglican church to hold special harvest services was in the Cornish parish of Morwenstow. The vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker, introduced them there in an attempt to woo his parishioners away from the wilder celebrations they were used to.
Hawker (grandson of evangelical Robert Hawker who authored The Poor Man’s Commentary) was both eccentric and very high church in his stance. He gave his parishioners a fortnight’s notice of his first harvest service with a notice in the church building:
‘Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.’
The first services were held on the 1st October 1843; grain from the first sheaf of corn cut at the harvest was used to make bread for the communion services held on that day.
The idea of church harvest thanksgiving services spread very quickly not only within the Church of England (and its schools), but within ‘other denominations’ too. Hymns written for the new-fangled harvest services soon found a place among ‘the hymns everyone knows’. Harvest joined Christmas and Easter among the non-negotiable elements in the Christian calendar.
Ever since Victorian times, churches up and down the land have decorated their buildings with fruit and vegetables once a year; sung We plough the fields and scatter (translated from the German in 1861) and Come, ye thankful people, come (first published in 1864); and taken up special collections to provide help for the hungry at home and abroad.
The church I pastor has bought into that tradition. We hold harvest thanksgiving services each year. We’ve made that decision freely. The Bible nowhere says that New Testament churches must hold annual harvest thanksgiving services. Nor is there any denominational body that decrees that we must.
We are an independent church, free to order our meetings and activities as we see fit. We’ve held harvest services for one reason only: because we’ve judged that it’s a good and God-honouring thing to do. We’re not committed to doing it indefinitely. If we decided one year that it was unhelpful to hold harvest services, we would abandon them. But this year, we’ve decided again to go ahead. And I’m glad.
Why? Why have we felt it’s good to hold these special thanksgiving services?
1. It’s right to give thanks
That’s the first and most obvious reason. It is always right to give thanks. And without such special services, we might easily forget to give thanks to God for providing us with food and drink.
It is so easy to take for granted the gifts we receive every day. When the Lord gives us an unusual gift or helps us in some special way, we are quick to give thanks. But we can easily overlook the things he does for us every hour, every day, every week, every year.
We’re like children who give thanks for the special treats they receive on their birthdays, but never bother to thank mum for the way she cares for them day in and day out.
Planning special harvest services means that there is at least one Sunday each year when we do thank God for our daily bread. Yes, as individual believers we should do that every day of our lives and at every meal. But we can make sure that we do it together at harvest-time.
2. Give us our daily bread
A second reason for holding thanksgiving services is this: at those thanksgiving services, we remind ourselves that our food and drink does not arrive by some automatic and inevitable process.
Secular Brits talk about ‘the laws of nature’ or ‘the agricultural cycle’ or ‘the global economy’. We talk about God: the God who makes the grass grow, who sends the rain and the sun, who brings lambs and calves to birth, who guards the ships that carry food from one country to another. God did not just create the world and then step back and leave it to tick on by ‘natural processes’.
He personally directs every single event that happens in his world – the germination of a single seed, the falling of a single raindrop. Read Psalm 104 and see how the psalmist rejoices in God’s personal control over all ‘nature’.
‘From your lofty abode you water the mountains. The earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart… The earth is full of your creatures… These all look to you, to give them food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die’ (Psalm 104:13-29).
The church I pastor is a city church and most of us are city people. We buy our food in supermarkets or ready-cooked from takeouts and restaurants. We could go for a year without seeing wheat growing in fields or cows being milked. We so easily forget that none of these things happens apart from God’s providence.
Perhaps we need an annual reminder even more than our brothers who live in agricultural communities in the UK or overseas. Christian farmers, whether in rural Britain or in Kenya, know that there is nothing automatic about rain or sunshine. They pray for rain knowing that if God doesn’t send it, there will be no harvest. We need that same awareness that food is provided in God’s sovereignty and by his mercy.
3. A key anniversary
We believe it’s right to mark anniversaries, don’t we? We have birthday celebrations. We mark wedding anniversaries. We have Remembrance Day each year to commemorate the end of the 1st World War.
Well, each time we hold our annual harvest thanksgiving service, we are commemorating one of the great days of history. We’re celebrating the day when God made a covenant with all living creatures on earth including ourselves.
Human sin had brought about the Great Flood. God had withdrawn his protection from the earth and brought the flood waters sweeping over all the dry land. If God had not preserved Noah in the ark along with his family and a remnant of the animals, all life on earth would have perished.
But he had a gracious purpose for man and the earth. So he brought Noah and the creatures under his protection safely through. And then ‘the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”’ (Genesis 8:21-22).
That was God’s gracious determination. And he sealed it with a covenant – a binding pact. ‘Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth”’ (Genesis 9:8-13).
Why is the earth preserved from day to day and from week to week? Why is there stability in nature, seedtimes and harvest, summers and winters, days and nights? Answer: because of the promise and the covenant God made on that momentous day. God remembers it – and sets the rainbow in the clouds to be a reminder to himself of what he has promised (v. 15).
Isn’t it right, then, that we should make sure that we have a regular reminder of the covenant and our part in it? Our harvest services give us that reminder. In those services we celebrate the mercy that made the covenant, the faithfulness that has kept it, and the responsibilities that the covenant lays upon us.
4. Man’s guilty blindness
Paul tells us in Romans 1 that mankind’s original and universal sin is ungodliness – man’s refusal to recognise what God has clearly shown to us about himself.
Human beings suppress the truth about God: ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:19-20).
They fail to acknowledge God’s reality and attributes and they fail to respond to him in worship and thanksgiving: ‘So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…’ (vv. 20–21).
Paul tells us that that sin lies at the root of all other sins. If we as believers are to call people to repentance, that is the sin that we must expose and rebuke most insistently and most earnestly.
One of the most obvious ways in which that sin manifests itself is the way that godless people refuse to see God’s hand in upholding the world and in providing food for his creatures. The great majority of people around us never ‘honour him as God or give thanks’ for the daily miracle of food and drink, the annual miracle of seedtime and harvest. They are blind to God’s reality. But their blindness is a guilty blindness – they refuse to open their eyes and see what God is doing around them and for them constantly.
When Paul came to Lystra, he indicted the people of that town for their refusal to acknowledge the true God who had revealed himself in creation: ‘You should turn from these vain things [the false gods they worshipped] to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them…’ (Acts 14:15).
But he did not only speak about God’s work of creation. He went on to speak about God’s ongoing work of providence – and especially his kindness in sending harvests each year: ‘He did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness’ (v. 17).
Paul was determined to expose the sin of people who refused to honour God as God or give thanks to him – and he focused especially on their sin in refusing to see God’s hand in ‘rains from heaven and fruitful seasons’.
Shouldn’t we be following Paul’s lead at this point? When we invite our friends and neighbours to our harvest thanksgiving services, our goal is to set before them God’s power, faithfulness, and kindness made visible in every apple, carrot, or tin of sardines in our harvest display.
We want to show them how horribly they have sinned against God by their failure to honour him as God or to be thankful. Our prayer is that God will remove their guilty blindness and that they will repent. Our harvest services can become a preparation for godless people to hear the good news of forgiveness and peace through Jesus Christ.
5. God’s great plan
And here’s my final reason to hold harvest thanksgiving services. They are a reminder of the great plan that God is carrying through for his world. God has built into life on earth the principle that each year there should be a harvest. The harvest brings to fulfilment the work that the farmer has been doing throughout the year, sowing, watering, weeding, and finally reaping.
And the Bible teaches that God’s whole plan works according to that principle. Jesus said that God himself is like a farmer, who sows and then patiently waits until the time for harvest comes. And then he goes out and reaps his fields, gathers in the grain, and burns the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).
What did Jesus mean? The seed Jesus spoke about is the gospel – the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. God is spreading it like seed throughout the world. And it’s growing now. Every person who believes the message and turns to Christ is the ‘fruit’ that grows from that seed.
When Jesus Christ returns and brings history to its end, God is going to ‘harvest’ those people – he is going to gather them into his house to be safe evermore. They are God’s reward for all the patient work he has been doing throughout history.
He’s held back the forces of destruction in the world, he’s given his Son to die for the world, he’s sent his Spirit to work in the world, he’s sent his message throughout the world, and when his harvest time comes, he will have his reward – people saved from the world, holy and happy forever.
We sing about it every year in one of our favourite harvest hymns:
For the Lord our God shall come
And shall take his harvest home;
From his field shall in that day
All offences purge away;
Give his angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In his garner evermore.
Even so, Lord, quickly come
To thy final harvest home,
Gather thou thy people in
Free from sorrow, free from sin;
There for ever purified
In thy presence to abide;
Come with all thine angels, come,
Raise the glorious harvest home!
So whenever we hold our harvest thanksgiving services, we’re giving thanks not just for the harvest human beings have gathered on earth. We’re also giving thanks for the harvest God is going to gather in when this world ends. Our harvest thanksgiving is just a foretaste of the great harvest celebration that will happen then!
A reason for praise
The Israelites in Old Testament times held a harvest festival each year. In fact they held two: one at the beginning of the harvest (the Festival of First-Fruits) and one when the harvest was complete (the Festival of In-gathering or Tabernacles). We still have some of the hymns they sang at those festivals. They’re there in our book of Psalms. Here’s Psalm 65:
‘Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed… You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’
And here’s Psalm 67: ‘Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!’
God’s people in Old Testament times knew they should praise him for the harvest. Shouldn’t we, too? In fact, shouldn’t we praise him with more enthusiasm and delight than they did? After all, we’re closer to the great harvest – and that’s something to celebrate!
Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001
This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.