Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, John 4:5-42, Romans 5:1-11
Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps. ’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” [Jn 4:35-38]
How often have we all reaped that for which we did not labour? Has there been a time in your life where you got the benefit of someone else’s work? Maybe you were praised at work for doing something well, knowing that if it hadn’t been for your colleague it would have worked out badly. Or perhaps you received a gift for which you were really undeserving.
Our whole society is based on the concept of reaping that for which we do not labour. Just go into Sainsbury’s and see how easy it is to “reap” five pounds of potatoes, a cauliflower or some apples. Someone else has laboured and you have got the benefit.
And, of course, it applies Spiritually too, as Jesus alludes to when he speaks with his disciples. They were being sent to reap the harvest of people’s souls for which they had not toiled.
I think back to my time at University, in St. Aidan’s College, Durham. There was a short time when we saw many many people become believers in Christ. I decided that one thing I wanted to do was to provide Bibles we could give to the new Christians. I would go to the bookshop and buy, maybe, 3 or 5 Bibles at a time, put them in a cupboard, and know that very soon I would be back to buy more. As a group of Christians at the time, we were definitely seeing a harvest. But we knew that the hard work had gone before. It was the work of our predecessors, many of whom we knew had felt led to pray faithfully for the college over many years. They had prepared the way for us; our job was to bring the harvest in.
And so it was here in Sychar in Samaria. The hard work had been done. When Jesus and his followers turned up in town, the people were ready to receive, ready to hear the Good News, ready to turn to God. All that was necessary was to reap that harvest of souls.
And so to the present time and place. To Farnham. To the URC. To 2014. Is this a time of harvest? Or are we called to be sowers?
For as much as some people are lucky to bring in the harvest for which they haven’t sown, this is only possible if others have gone before them and prepared the ground, sown the seed, taken out the weeds, and tended the new growth. It is these people who have the hard work. It is these people who have to stick with it through good times and bad. It is these people who suffer for that harvest.
Fantastic as my time in College was, without the people praying faithfully for the College year in, year out, we would not have seen that harvest.
Paul talks about this in his letter. He tells us to boast in our sufferings. What are our sufferings? Well they are to be believers in a time when the nation is turning away from God. To be a believer at a time when this is seen to be, frankly, a little weird. To be a believer in a shrinking church – maybe, thank God, not in this congregation, but nationally. To be a believer in a time when we are not seeing the fruit of our labours.
But what’s so good about that? Well suffering leads to endurance.
We are here. We are in this failing church. We are in it together. And we choose to stay in it. Even at times when there seems to be no payback. Even at times when we get sick of this whole religion business. We stay in it. We do not walk away. We endure.
So Paul is right: suffering leads to endurance.
And endurance builds character.
We know this. It’s part of our British culture.
Many of us have chosen to send our older children out on grey, wet and miserable days to hike across the moors of Yorkshire, or over a mountain in the Lake District or Snowdonia, map and compass in hand, to reach some destination on the other side, marked only, perhaps, by a six figure grid reference on the map. And, as many of us will testify, it is a long, cold and miserable challenge, a true feat of endurance. Why do we do this? “Because it builds character”.
And so to endure in the church, to keep going when it feels tough and the last thing we want to do is worship, builds character too. For to be counter-cultural over such a long period will make you stubbornly stick to your faith.
Many a time have I felt like giving up on church. How many more hours would I have if I wasn’t in the church? And, quite frankly, could I care if I wasn’t at services? And yet, I can’t. So firmly rooted is that belief in God, is that knowledge that he is there, that I cannot deny him.
One group who didn’t show character were the Israelites in our reading from Exodus. They were getting fed up of suffering. They had had it with enduring. And there was no character in them. They quarrelled with Moses, and complained to him:
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” [Ex 17:3]
This wasn’t just a British complaint, “oh, I’m really sorry, but my chicken appears not to be cooked through” This was full blown anger:
“The people are almost ready to stone me”, cries out Moses to the Lord. [Ex 17:4]
God was not best pleased. He answered their appeal. They got their water. But they got God’s wrath.
I opened the service with some verses from the beginning of Psalm 95, and, indeed, some of our hymns this morning have also been taken from this Psalm. But the last few verses in the Psalm 95 refers to this incident and talks about its outcome.
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’ [Ps 95: 7b-11]
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” [Rom 5:3b-4a]
So, to come back to our first point, there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. We may not be seeing the harvest right now, but we need to be faithful in sowing. We need to be faithful in our witness to Christ. We need to endure in worship and prayer. We must not be disheartened when nobody comes. The time for harvest may not be now. The ground may seem dry. But the time will come, and we should pray that it is soon.
And when the time for harvest comes, let us not ignore it. Let us not be like the disciples with Jesus in Samaria, who did not see it. But let us recognise it. Let us grasp it. Let us make the most of it. For if we miss it, it may be a long time until the next harvest.
And finally, let’s complete that verse from Romans.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us,” [Rom 5:3b-5a]
And he goes on to explain why:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. [Rom 5:6-11]
And now we are full circle, for the source of our hope is in Christ’s suffering and endurance. We are round to the Easter story, our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, even though we were not worthy, so that we might be reconciled with God.
Let us go out and share this joyful message of hope, ever enduring thanking Christ for his suffering, and let us pray for the harvest!