Harvest...Prof W Clegg

Thank you Bill for allowing me to print your sermon, preached on 16 September 2007

I feel very privileged to stand here and speak this morning. The services in which I’ve been asked to preach or lead during 2007 have included some very special occasions – Good Friday, Pentecost, and now our Harvest Thanksgiving. One advantage of such occasions for a preacher is that the theme for the service is usually rather easy to decide: the cross of Jesus on Good Friday, the person and work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And Harvest? Well, when I realised that this was to be part of our new series on Sunday mornings, looking at Promises of God, I thought it was obvious which promise to take for our focus this morning: that last verse of Genesis chapter 8, the promise made by God at the end of the great flood, when Noah came out of the ark and made his thanksgiving offering for God’s provision of safety. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

We’re going to look at some aspects of this promise and what it means for us today. But, since this is only the second service in the new series, and the first one to consider a specific promise, I also want to put it in the context of God’s promises generally, and build a little more on the introductory foundation Roger gave us last week. We’re going to find over the next 3–4 months that the Bible has a wide variety of promises made by God, to different people, at different times, in a range of circumstances, and not always with the same purpose. If we want to see how these promises might apply to us, we need to ask some questions about these factors, and not just read the words of the promises themselves. Some of God’s promises are for just one particular occasion, though we can still learn something from them, while others apply more generally, including for us today.

So what questions should we ask, and in the case of today’s particular promise, what answers do we find?

First, to whom does God make his promise? Sometimes it is to one specific person – Abraham, David, Mary, Paul. At other times it is to a group of people – the family of Jacob, the people of Israel after they escape from Egypt, the exiles in Babylon, the disciples, the church in Ephesus. And some promises are made to everyone, or at least to everyone who receives them. So for whom is this particular promise made? Perhaps you will say “to Noah and his family” – after all, they were the only people around at the time, everyone else having perished in the flood. But if you read the context, the whole passage around this verse, I think you’ll agree that this is a promise for everyone. And in fact, not only for all human beings but for the whole of God’s creation. This is truly a universal promise, and no-one is excluded from it.

The second question is this: what’s the timescale of the promise? When, for how long, does it apply? Some of God’s promises are for a specific single occasion – the promise of a child, a particular sign or miracle, a battle or a journey. Others last for a period of time – one person’s life, the time of the exodus or the exile, or until a particular job is complete. But some of God’s promises are for all time without limit – often they begin with “whenever” or some other words to show that the promise never ends. That’s the case with our promise here: “As long as the earth endures…” – that means until the world as we know it comes to an end, when Jesus returns and God creates a new heaven and a new earth – something we thought about in our service on the last day of 2006, with the theme of “the coming of the Lord”. This promise is for all time.

And the third question we need to ask is this: what are the circumstances or the conditions that apply to the promise? Some of God’s promises have an “if” attached to them – if you obey me (or if you disobey me!), if you go somewhere, to him who overcomes, to those who seek – while others are unconditional – God will do what he says whatever happens. You probably won’t be surprised to realise that the promise we’re considering today, in Genesis chapter 8, as well as being made by God to all creation, for all time, also applies under all circumstances – it is totally unconditional. We don’t have to do anything to make it happen; it just does. It’s what theologians call part of common grace, as opposed to special grace, which is God’s favour shown only to some particular people. I don’t know if you’ve heard the little rhyme:

“God’s rain falls on the just,

and on the unjust fellah –

but more upon the just,

because the unjust stole the just’s umbrella”

– but the first line sums it up for us.

So why should God bother to make a promise like this, if nothing we do affects whether it happens or not? For two reasons, I think. First, to show us what he is like – good, generous, reliable, faithful, dependable. And second, so that we can react to that demonstration and let it change our own attitude and behaviour towards him. As I’m sure we will see through this series of services, God’s promises demand a response, not necessarily for the promise to be fulfilled – this promise, remember, is unconditional – but as a result of our receiving the promise. In making promises, God voluntarily commits himself to us, he binds himself to do something, and he never breaks his promises, as we heard from Roger last week. One purpose is to prompt from us a commitment in return, a commitment of trust, of obedience, of wanting to know better the God who is making that incredible knowledge possible for us.

Just look at the setting of this promise in the first reading we had this morning. God makes this huge, universal promise, he gives Noah and his family a job to do, and he provides a dramatic visual reminder of these things for the future.

The job is to multiply and fill the earth, to use it and look after it, respecting the gift of life that God has provided and has so dramatically protected through the flood. The interesting thing is that this is just the same job as God originally gave to the first human beings, right at the beginning of Genesis, several chapters earlier. Things are different now from then, because men and women have demonstrated only too clearly that they are fallible and unreliable; they have consistently disobeyed God and let him down. “Every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood” as God bluntly puts it in 8:21. And yet it is despite this that he makes his amazing promise in the very next verse. “You’ve let me down, and I know you will again and again in the future, but I’m never going to let you down,” he says. So he renews his original commission to humankind, now in the reality of a fallen world; he says “I want you to get on and do this job for me, and I’m going to make sure the conditions are favourable for you to be able to do it. So trust me.” I’m sure you’ll agree that, when we look at it in this way, this promise is just as important, as valid, as encouraging, and as demanding of a response for us today as it was for Noah thousands of years ago.

A couple of brief words are called for here from the viewpoint of a scientist, which most of you will know I am in my professional life. One is about the rainbow, the dramatic visual reminder of God’s promise that I mentioned earlier. Of course, we have a complete explanation of the origin and nature of a rainbow these days in terms of the differential refraction of light of different wavelengths; sunlight is split into different colours as it passes through droplets of water because the colours are bent by different amounts. In one service here some years ago, I generated a rainbow for the children, with a slide projector lamp and a glass prism. Now I don’t believe that there were never any rainbows before the day Noah left the ark at the end of the flood; I’m sure the physics of light refraction were just the same before that as they are now. But God took an existing natural phenomenon, one that was his own invention, of course, along with the rest of nature, and gave it a new meaning and significance as a reminder of his great promise. He has done the same many times through the ages, giving new significance to ordinary things such as water, a cross of wood, and a simple meal of bread and wine. And even though I know there’s a scientific explanation for a rainbow, I still enjoy and marvel at every one I see, and let it remind me that God is good and reliable. I hope you do too.

The other scientific point is something about the nature of the universe itself. God’s promise about the reliability and predictability of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, is actually just a small reflection of the general reliability of the whole universe, which in turn bears the mark of the dependable and faithful character of God himself, its creator. Nature is like that, because God made it that way, because of who and what and how he is. And because that is so, science has a valid basis; research is sensible and worthwhile – an experiment we do today should give the same result as it did yesterday, provided we do it the same way and under the same conditions – which rules out the British weather or the performance of Newcastle United as appropriate subjects for scientific research! This is what we mean when we talk of the Laws of Nature, and this understanding, based on a belief in the reliability of God and his creation, was a major factor in the development of modern science, particularly in the period around the seventeenth century. All science today continues to be based on this fundamental rationality of God’s creation, even though many people don’t actually see it that way. Remember – this promise of God is absolutely universal. It applies to everyone, believer, agnostic and outright atheist alike.

Now, before we come to a conclusion and ask what difference all this should make to our lives in practical terms rather than just in our heads, I do have to tackle a possible objection someone may raise, and I admit that I don’t find this an easy one. Here our bad penny turns up again – the problem of suffering in a world made by a God of love. This promise says seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. Fair enough with day and night – we don’t expect the earth’s rotation to go wrong. But the pattern of seasons and weather is surely not reliable everywhere, and news these days often refers to climate change and its consequences. The harvest isn’t dependable for everyone; what about year after year of poor harvests in Ethiopia recently, and the reports only this week of torrential rainfall across many parts of Africa, to say nothing of the impact of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis around the world? Has God broken his promise? Is it worth anything? To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a completely satisfying answer. With due respect to Douglas Adams, the answer to life, the universe and everything isn’t as simple as 42. If anyone has any insights or understanding of this problem, I’ll be pleased to hear from you afterwards. But I do want to say two things that are related. The first is a comment on this verse by a man I learnt to respect for his wisdom many years ago when I got to know him a little, an Old Testament scholar called Derek Kidner, who writes “The assurance… does not abolish disasters, but it does localize them, so that the human family may overcome them by forethought such as Joseph’s and by compassion such as Paul’s” – referring to other events in the Bible. On the scale of the world as a whole, disturbances of the regular pattern of seasons, weather and nature are relatively small. Of course, they have huge impact on many people. But that impact could be massively eased and even prevented in many cases by the resources we human beings have available, if only we were less selfish and set our minds and hearts to the task. And the second is that many of these problems are the consequences of human action or inaction in the first place, or are made worse by it. It has often been said, and Harvest can be a particular reminder of it, that the earth has more than enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

Which brings us to the question of practical application, without which we’re wasting our time here this morning. If God’s promises demand a response, what should be ours in the light of this particular promise of God’s faithfulness, reliability and generosity? I’d like to suggest three things, briefly to finish with.

The first refers to the task God gave Noah and his family alongside this promise – to fill, use and take care of the world in which they lived. That responsibility, together with the promise, has never been taken away. It is still the task of people today, including ourselves. I don’t really need to say anything more about this, because we’ve considered aspects of it quite thoroughly in at least two services in the last few months: one in the series of issues facing Christians, where we thought about the environment, and one about the clause in our church’s Vision Statement that talks about being good stewards of all resources and caring for God’s creation. This needs ongoing constant attention and action from each of us.

The second arises from the question of suffering that I mentioned. We know perfectly well that this world is riddled with inequality and unfairness. Some of it is the result of natural disasters, much of it is caused by bad political and economic systems such as unfair trade and modern forms of slavery, some is brought on people by their own faults. But whatever the cause, it needs to be tackled by a range of remedies including, as Derek Kidner says, compassion, and all of us are able to provide that even if we can’t do anything else. We’re doing it today through our gifts to the Salvation Army, and we do it through our church’s annual charitable giving exercise. But it can be done both corporately and individually, and at any time. It can include giving of money and other material resources, but also time, kind words, and prayer. Little ways in which you can all help today include sponsoring Roger’s involvement in the Great North Run, or someone else’s, making a point of saying something encouraging to someone here after the service, and marking a time when you will commit yourself to pray for the church and others during this month’s Prayer Day on Wednesday.

And the third recognises that the Bible, and particularly Jesus’ own teaching, speaks of not only physical but also spiritual forms of harvest, the desire of God that people should come into his kingdom and get to know him. For Christians, working for this harvest is both a responsibility and a privilege. We thought about this in our July Broadband service, and we’ll be looking at it quite a bit more in the coming months as we head towards the major challenges and opportunities of next year’s nationwide outreach and community service events, under the heading of Hope 2008. For now, today, in this context, let me invite you to do two things specifically. Please pray for Kathy and me, Sheila and Bob Hamil, as we work with Dave Elkington and others in a mission weekend from next Thursday to Sunday at the church of St John Lee near Hexham. And please also make sure you yourself are part of God’s harvest, a member of his kingdom, trusting him personally and committed to him in response to the fantastic promise we’ve been looking at this morning. There are plenty of people who would be pleased to talk with you about that if you want; just have a word with Roger or myself in the foyer after the service.

“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”