Harvest is a special time of thanksgiving in the church calendar. We give thanks for those who work the land so that we have so much good food to enjoy, but ultimately, it’s about giving thanks to God, who makes it all possible. As the hymn goes: “He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.”
Thanksgiving is an integral part of worship and so celebrating Harvest is as much about worship as it is about thanksgiving.
A Catechism is a way of teaching church doctrine by a series of questions and answers. One of the most famous catechisms was produced by the Presbyterians in 1648 and it was called ‘The Westminster Shorter Catechism” to differentiate itself from ‘The Westminster Larger Catechism”. Out of all 107 questions, the first question in the ‘The Westminster Shorter Catechism” is the most well known and most quoted, and the question is:
What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
In other words, we were created to worship God. And the story of humanity is therefore interwoven with the story of worship. And the story of worship takes us on a journey from a Garden to a City, from Genesis to Revelation, from Eden to the New Jerusalem, from Creation to re-Creation, from Fall to Restoration.
There’s an old children’s hymn that goes like this:
God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for his people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.
In the Bible, the garden of Eden is a place where God is especially present and the humans who live in it enjoy a close and intimate relationship with him. Some writers suggest that the command to ‘‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ meant that God had in mind an expansion plan for the Garden of Eden, so that Adam & Eve’s descendants would enlarge the garden into the surrounding wilderness so that God’s special presence would eventually fill the whole earth.
But we all know what happened. They are kicked out of the garden and the land becomes subject to a curse and Adam’s work becomes much harder than it was in the garden – it takes much more effort to produce food.
And then we have Cain who murders his brother and now he’s under a curse which means that he can’t grow anything. God tells him that he is to be a restless wanderer but still under God’s care and protection. But instead, what does he do? He leaves God’s presence, goes to live in the land of Nod and builds a city. Of course it was nothing like a city as we would recognise it today, but this is hugely significant. He creates the first rural/urban divide.
The rural lifestyle that Adam & Eve adopted after leaving Eden was a significant downgrade both in terms of the work required but also in terms of their relationship with God. They lost the glory that they had been crowned with, and much of the intimacy that they enjoyed. But they were still living off the land, working in a rural environment, let’s call it a village, that was geographically shaped by God and dependent on Him for rain and sunshine and security. In a sense, they were still working in partnership with God and His creation to make a living, albeit at a spiritual distance.
Cain, on the other hand, builds a city. The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him, but he didn’t trust in God’s security. He built a city to try to create his own security. He built a city and shaped it the way he wanted, so that he was in control, not God.
There’s an interesting contrast between the village and the city. In the village, everyone knows each other. In a city, despite there being far more people, you can be completely alone. The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that means that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. It’s much harder to create that same environment in a city.
From Genesis 4, the story of the city really picks up in Genesis 11. It tells us that the people who are supposed to be spreading throughout the earth get to the Plains of Shinar and are settled there. They begin to build a city. In fact, they wanted to build a tower that would take them up to God. They wanted to make a name for themselves.
This is the spirit of the city of man: I don’t need God, I don’t need his glory. I’ll just make my own glory. Of course, we know what happens. This city becomes the city called Babel, and throughout the Bible, Babel—that very nature of a city that’s all about human strength and human glory—evolves into what becomes Babylon: the city that is set against God and set against God’s people.
The story of worship takes an important turn with the giving of the Law through Moses and the worship institution that the Law established. God gave them a very specific set of instructions that included a building (Tabernacle/Temple), a priesthood, a sacrificial system and an ethical code. There is huge symbolism in this and we’ll touch on this later.
In contrast to Babylon, there’s another city established: the city of Jerusalem. It is chosen by God to be the place of His dwelling among his people. It was the focal point of Israel’s worship, especially at festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when all Jews were incumbent to gather in Jerusalem.
But the story doesn’t end well. Despite having God’s presence, Jerusalem’s leaders don’t walk in God’s ways most of the time and sometimes the Temple is honoured, and sometimes it is filled with sacrilegious images. It is eventually destroyed, then rebuilt, then destroyed again. When God himself comes to dwell on earth in the person of Jesus, it’s in Jerusalem where He is rejected and crucified. It’s in Jerusalem where the veil of the temple which cut off the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world is torn in two.
And Jerusalem is the scene of Pentecost, the birth of the church as the Spirit is poured out on all and the true worshipers can now worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. So Jerusalem is a city of contrasts in the story of worship. With the birth of the New Testament church, it loses its centrality and influence in the worship of God but that’s where the story of the heavenly Jerusalem—the New Jerusalem—picks up.
In John’s vision in the book of Revelation, there is a heavenly city which is the fulfilment of all the promise of Eden. Heaven, the dwelling place of God, comes to earth, the dwelling place of humanity. The people of the city enjoy the presence of God in full measure.
There is no temple in the city, because the city is effectively one massive temple.
There are important links between the New Jerusalem and Old Testament worship. For example, the Holy of Holies in the heart of the Temple was a perfect cube, as is the New Jerusalem in John’s vision. The desert tabernacle Holy of Holies was 10 square cubits (about 15ft square) and in Solomon’s temple it was 20 square cubits (30ft square). The New Jerusalem is 1,400 square miles. The Holy of Holies only needed to be big enough for the Ark of the Covenant and the High Priest whereas the New Jerusalem has to be big enough to fit all of redeemed humanity.
The role of the cherubim (divine beings) in the story of worship is also worth a mention. At the end of the Eden story, cherubim are placed as guards to stop humans gaining access to the tree of life. Two carved cherubim sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant (an earthly representation of the throne room of heaven) - protecting the very throne of God in the Holy of Holies. They could only be seen by the high priest once a year but in John’s vision, the cherubim surround God's heavenly throne in Revelation 4 and all God's people can see both them and the one who is enthroned among them.
And best of all, this is what awaits us! We get so caught up in daily annoyances and petty disagreements, and yet our destiny is a Holy City where we will worship and serve a Holy God and live in His awesome presence for eternity! As God’s people today, the story of worship is our story. We can trace our history back to the Garden of Creation but we can look forward to our future in the City of re-Creation. Heaven is a place where God’s people worship and serve Him continually. And so, in the meantime, we should get in some practice!