“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”. John 6:27
Harvest time on my grandfather’s farm meant work. The binder, pulled by a grey Massey Ferguson tractor, would go slowly up and down through fields of wheat—one man would drive the tractor and another would be sitting on the binder to operate it. The sheaves left behind by the binder would be stood into stooks—clusters of perhaps eight sheaves, by someone following the binder. The stooks remained until the sheaves were collected by tractor and trailer; someone would drive the tractor, two men would be on the trailer to stack the sheaves, and a further two or three were required to pitch the sheaves up onto the trailer with long–handled, two pronged pitchforks. They were taken back to the barn, where they would be unloaded and stacked by hand.
Harvest time meant work that could not be interrupted. One morning, a belt or chain slipped on the binder and it stopped working. Getting the thing to run again, my grandfather ripped open his hand on the reaper blades. Blood poured from the palm of his hand. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his hand and then wound twine around his hand to hold the handkerchief in place. He worked through the day. That evening, he was persuaded to go to the doctor’s surgery, where the doctor used fourteen stitches to close over the wound. There was a need to always keep moving. When the twine around the sheaves would sometimes snap, he would be quick at twisting straw together to bind the sheaves. No matter how I tried, my attempts at binding anything with no more than a few stalks of straw came to nothing.
Threshing time was a great occasion. The threshing machine was a huge and unsightly thing; it made a terrible din and sent out clouds of dust that could instantly bring on asthma in a frail, small boy. The machine was driven by a belt attached to a huge green Fordson tractor, the sort of vehicle that now appears at vintage engine rallies. Threshing demanded as many men as harvesting and had to be completed quickly because the thresher would be due at another farm.
The grain would pour into hessian sacks that would have been lying in a storehouse until the threshing machine came. Inevitably, the odd one would have been chewed by rats. The rat holes sometimes only became apparent as the sack filled out; suddenly grain would come streaming from the side. My grandfather seemed remarkably adept at plugging holes in the hundredweight sacks with no more than a twist of straw. There was no time to stop; everything must keep moving.
His great ability seemed to be in making something from nothing. The straw he used to plug the sacks would have come from that which lay on the floor. He was a master of recycling before the word was invented. Everything was stored away, nothing was wasted; nothing was disposed of without thought. His neighbouring farmers were as frugal in their ways; every bit of machinery was fixed and re-fixed and coaxed along years after its reasonable life expectancy.
The farming life was hard and unrelenting, but it was a life lived in a community where hardships were shared and where there was a common understanding of what daily life was about. Life depended upon the harvest; the harvest meant work; therefore life meant work.
Without work, there would have been no harvest. Without the sowing and the caring and the long and the hot days in the fields in August, the barns would have been empty. Not to have worked would have been foolishness; what future would there have been in just sitting and doing nothing?
If the harvest of the land demands work, then so does the spiritual harvest. Look at what Jesus says in John Chapter 6, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”. It’s easy to miss that word ‘work’. The eternal things, the things that last beyond this world, are things that demand effort. It’s not me saying that; it’s Jesus who says it. Yet it’s easy to be spiritually lazy; it’s easy not to take our faith with the sort of seriousness with which we go about our daily work.
There was no substitute for plain hard work on my Grandad’s farm; thinking and talking were fine, but they weren’t going to produce any harvest. Likewise, in our Christian lives, there is no substitute for effort, for applying ourselves to what it is we say we believe.
It is a lesson I have been learning in recent months, a lesson about going back to the basic things in parish work and getting on with them; a lesson that the spiritual harvest demands effort, it demands getting the head down and getting on with things.
In our church in Borris-in-Ossory we began a Wednesday evening service at the beginning of July. The numbers aren’t big—between a dozen and two dozen come along for the service—but it has been a good experience and a chance to really think about things. We looked at people’s favourite hymns over the summer and on the first Wednesday in September we thought about William Rees’ hymn, ‘Here is love, vast as the ocean’. It was an extraordinary hymn; it was the hymn of the Welsh Revival of 1904; one of the greatest spiritual harvests of modern times.
A century later, the Rev Roy Jenkins of the BBC described it in this way,
“Just after eleven o’clock on a Wednesday evening in 1904, a solo voice rang out with the hymn, “Here is love, vast as the ocean”. Maybe a thousand people were in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Abertillery at the time, leaning over the galleries, packing every pew and squeezing into every spare corner. They’d been here for more than four hours, in a service of intense emotion.
Meetings like it were taking place across Wales night after night, with fervent prayer and passionate singing – and similar disregard for the clock. They both excited and appalled, left many puzzled and some frightened, but it was reckoned that in little over a year a hundred thousand people had made a new commitment to Jesus Christ.
For a period whole communities changed, as men and women found themselves drawn into a powerful experience of God; and sparks from their awakening were soon to ignite fires in more than a dozen other countries.”
It was said in the press that Evan Roberts, the leader of the Revival, for a moment held the nation in the palm of his hand. Yet what Evan Roberts preached was very simple; it was about effort. It came down to four points:
1. Confess all your sins
2. Remove all doubtful things from your life.
3. Submit to the Spirit.
4. Publicly stand and confess Christ.
We know that there will be no harvest from our land without effort on our part and Evan Roberts’ message to us would be that there will be no spiritual harvest without effort on our part. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”, says Jesus. Do we take Jesus seriously?
Hardly a harvest service passes without us singing, ’Come, ye thankful people, come’, and do we ever look at the words of the last verse?
“Even so, Lord, quickly come,
to thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels come,
raise the glorious harvest home”.
“Gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin”; words that ask of us the very same things that Roberts preached—confessing our sins, changing our lives, living God’s way, speaking of what we believe.
Sometimes the problem with being a Christian is not that it is too complicated; it is that it is too simple. It is much easier to avoid something complicated; it is much harder to avoid the simple message that our faith demands work and effort. If we want to see a spiritual harvest, we cannot look around for it to happen; it depends on us.
At evening time, my Grandad would sit alone at the kitchen table with his cup of tea and just stare out of the window. Tired at the end of the day, another day’s work awaited him in the morning. Many people will know how he felt.
Are we prepared to work for a spiritual harvest with that degree of effort? That is what Jesus wants from us.
“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”.