My wife, Cheryl, and I had an opportunity in 2004 to spend a week in New Brunswick. We started in St. John, spent a couple of days in the Kingston Peninsula, drove up through Moncton into the north-west corner of the province, stayed several nights on a remote lake, crossed over into the state of Maine and drove down to the coast, crossed back into New Brunswick, spent several days at St. Andrews on the Sea, and then returned to St. John for our departure for home.
We did all of this in the month of October. I love British Columbia and have yet to see anyplace that rivals its natural beauty, but New Brunswick in October comes scarily close. The trees were what most transfixed us. The forests were wild mosaics—kaleidoscopes of brilliant, vibrant color. I would round another bend of the northern highway and be so mesmerized by the grandeur of yet another hill draped in a tapestry of flaming beauty, that I nearly wrecked the car several times.
Coming from BC, I thought fall meant that leaves turned yellow-brown, fell, and then came winter. But New Brunswick showed me fall in its coat of many colors, and like Joseph's jealous brothers, I sulked because the Father hadn't given me one, too.
The significance of fall
I got over it. But for the first time, I was utterly captivated by the season of fall. Biblically, fall is captivating for a different reason: fall is harvest time. In an agrarian society, the harvest is a reckoning. The window between a bumper crop and a famine is an eye of a needle—as narrow sometimes as a single day. A good crop is cause for great rejoicing; a blighted crop, for great distress.
The harvest has a theological dimension to it. In its most simple and basic form, harvest time is an occasion for thanksgiving—a time to acknowledge God as the giver of all good gifts. The season proves, yet again, God's faithfulness, and it demonstrates our utmost dependency on him.
In the Old Testament, harvest time takes on an even deeper theological significance, though that deeper significance only becomes fully apparent in the New Testament. To put it starkly, harvest is when we reap what we've sown in order to store it away. In other words not only do we reap what we sow, but we store up what we reap.
The New Testament talks about several harvests—crops we can reap, providing we pay heed to what we sow and how we sow it. I'll speak quickly about the first harvest and spend the most time on the second.
A harvest of souls
There are two keys texts for us to consider: Luke 10:1-24 and John 4:35-38. The passage in Luke 10 finds Jesus sending out his disciples to do kingdom work. He tells them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers few." We have way more people ready to come into a loving, saving, transforming relationship with Jesus than we have people ready to help them. In the John 4 passage, Jesus points his disciples to the Samaritans, a people group with whom they want nothing to do, and says, "The fields are ripe for harvest."
In this case the sowing has already taken place. God himself has done it, though he may have used us here and there to plant or tend. But God's Spirit is active in the world, scattering the seed of the Word, quickening it to life, nurturing it toward ripeness. The Evil One is active too, trying to pluck that seed up, choke it out, dry it up, sow weeds among it. But God prevails, and he asks us to harvest—to finish what he started. This is amazing; he asks us.
According to these two passages, there are three things we need to do to finish what God began. First, we must open our eyes and look. Jesus says in John 4:35, "Do not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest.' I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields. They are ripe for harvest." Pay attention. Do you know how hungry people are for God? They might be skittish, too, but they are hungry, longing for God knows what. So many feel empty and know that all the things they've done to take that emptiness away have failed. Look! Open your eyes to see these people.
Then, Jesus says, pray. Pray that God would send workers into the harvest—that God would send people who are willing to join in this kingdom work. Pray to God that this great moment isn't missed and that the little window of opportunity isn't squandered.
There's a third part: Go. You be the answer to your own prayer. Listen to what Jesus says in the remainder of our passage from John 4:
Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.
Even now. Even now, you can reap what you haven't sown, and yet have the unearned privilege of rejoicing alongside the one who did the sowing. I want to pause for a moment and have you pray: God, help me to open my eyes and look. Call me to pray about what I see. Then, send me. Even now.
A harvest of righteousness
The other harvest is the harvest of righteousness. To put it succinctly, righteousness is Christ-likeness—where your thoughts, your desires, your attitudes, your actions, your character is more and more conformed to his. This harvest includes the other; you cannot be growing in Christ-likeness without growing a heart for the lost.
To reap the harvest of righteousness, sow to please the Spirit. There are two biblical refinements or elaborations of what that means. Sowing to the Spirit means you submit to God's discipline, and you seek God's peace.
First of all, submit to God's discipline. The text for this is Hebrews 12:4-13. God disciplines his children as a sign of his fatherly love for us. The discipline is often painful and misery-producing; it makes us want to quit or run away. But submit to it because, "No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
Look at verse 7: "Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons." Endure hardship as discipline. What I take that to mean is that hardships, in whatever form they come, are all opportunities to grow, but only if we allow God to use them that way. We need to treat them as opportunities to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. This exceptionally painful trial you are going through in your life—your marriage, finances, work, family, health—see it as something God can and wants to use to make you more like Jesus. Zig Ziggler said that a child who is not disciplined in love by his little world—meaning, the child's parents—will be disciplined without love by the big world. Hardships are an inevitable part of life. Endure them as discipline; God is training you as his child. In your small world, he is disciplining you with love. This doesn't mean it won't be painful—no discipline is pleasant at the time—but it does mean that something good will come out of it: a harvest of righteousness and peace. James 3:18 says: "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."
You will reap what you sow, and store up what you reap. It's a life principle; it's a spiritual principle. The autumn of the heart is meant to be a season of joy in the key of fulfillment, where what you have sown to please the Spirit you now can reap as righteousness.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.