We often hear and use that old wise saying, “You reap what you sow.” From a popular perspective, has there ever been a Western film made that failed to use it? To be sure, I believe this saying is sound wisdom for a number of reasons, especially given its biblical basis.
Paul tells us in Galatians 6:7 that God isn’t to be mocked, and we ought be sure that we will reap what we sow. Paul was likely referencing the wisdom he had received in places like Job 4:8 that if we plow iniquity and sow trouble, we will receive the same. I think Scripture is clear that God has endowed us with the faculties of reason, will and discernment. These are gifts, and we ignore them at our peril when we disobey God’s commands.
On another level, we understand and accept the wisdom of reaping and sowing based on our everyday experience. To a farmer, you certainly can’t reap a wheat harvest without preparing the fields and sowing the seed. For those of us caught up in the workaday rhythms of life, we are intimately aware that we must plan and execute any number of plans if we want to reap the benefits. Plan or execute poorly, sow bad “seed,” and we will not prosper.
However, talk to that farmer for more than five minutes, and he or she will tell you that the story is more complicated. Many a farmer has done their best to sow at particular times only to come up disappointed at harvest. Droughts come and go, maybe the seed wasn’t great, or as some are discovering in California these days, there aren’t enough hands to bring in the harvest, and bounty spoils in the fields. Many of us have had similar experiences in various professions. Things don’t always pan out the way we planned despite our attention to detail.
I guess I am suggesting that there are limits to the application of the wisdom that we reap what we sow. Read Paul more closely, and you will see that he quotes biblical wisdom to a church in Galatia that has a specific problem. They have been sowing “to the flesh” by insisting on circumcision. (Gal. 6:8) The point Paul is making is that by reverting to the requirements of the Mosaic covenant while ignoring the new found freedom in the Spirit that gives life to both Jew and Gentile, the community is excluding itself from the Spirit’s work in those who are not natural born Jews. (Eph. 2:11-13)
In our case, the farmer’s and Paul’s, the limits of the application of the wisdom of sowing and reaping are the limits set upon us by our own frail power in a world of contingency. To frame that biblically (simply?), our power only takes us so far; sometimes God has other plans. If we are smart, we will follow the direction in which the Spirit is blowing. (John 3:8) Try as we might, our dilemma is that we are part of a world that is groaning in travail, awaiting the full revelation of God’s plans and purposes. (Romans 8:22-24)
In short, the harvest we truly seek — the harvest of righteousness and the indwelt presence of God that empowers us to be God’s witnesses in the world — is utterly dependent upon what God has in store for us. It is for this reason that Paul can write that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:15) To that church in Galatia, he wants the believers to take their eyes of their own efforts to belong to God and wholeheartedly place their hope in the cross of Christ alone that promises new creation on the third day. (6:14)
It is from this vantage point we must look upon the story of Pentecost captured in Acts:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ -Acts 2:1-21
These poor, befuddled disciples sit in the upper room (we suppose, given 1:13) and wait on the things Christ promised them before he ascended. They pray and prepare themselves for what is to come, though they are unsure of what God has in mind for them. Like all of us, they find themselves between the promise and God’s mighty works (Acts 2:11); in that place where, sow as they might, they must await God’s harvesting will. Simply put, the people of God must always await transformation so as to become the children God has always intended us to be.
Genesis 11:1-9’s story of the Tower of Babel illustrates this point for us as both a warning about relying upon our own power rather than God’s redemptive purposes, and a parable of God’s deep purposes in history. When human beings rely on their own ingenuity to make a “name” for themselves and prop themselves up as gods worthy of their own self-devotion, God scatters, confuses and confounds human purposes. However, while God scattered humanity in endless divisions of language, culture and abundant division, God did so as a farmer scatters seed upon the ground, awaiting the right time to reap a harvest of redemption for the world.
This harvest/rescue plan involved calling a family, Abraham’s, to be a covenant people through whom this plan would be enacted, blessing all the nations of the earth. (Genesis 12:3b) In time, God would lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and make them a rich heritage for Abraham and for the world in giving them the Promised Land. Throughout the unfolding of this redemptive purpose, the people were scattered and gathered back up, leavening every place they went with some inkling of a knowledge of God. Yet, even in the seed of these promises, the people of God have always longed for the full harvest.
It is for this reason that they celebrate Pentecost (Shavu’ot; Festival of Weeks) every year. Pentecost is the second of three major festivals in Judaism, alongside Passover and Sukkot (Booths). Its significance is two-fold. First, its is a period of fifty days (7 weeks plus the fiftieth day of celebration) in which the people both harvest their own fields and bring the first fruits to the Temple to dedicate them to the Lord. Second, it is within the context of this harvest that they celebrate the giving of Torah. Both of these purposes celebrate God’s steadfast faithfulness towards the people in delivering them from bondage and establishing them in justice, all the while anticipating God’s final act of harvest that will establish God’s reign with Israel as the first-fruits of a new creation.
But as Israel’s story illustrates (as well as the disciples’ shut up in the upper room), the world awaits — we must wait for — the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, revealing God’s deep, redemptive purposes to echo forth to the ends of the earth. (Acts: 17-21) Caught in a web on confusion and sin at every level of human interaction, we await God’s decisive act to send us out in power to work the harvest. It is on the eve of this harvest that we ought to read the story of Pentecost and the founding of the church.
God’s first act in this harvest is to send the Holy Spirit in power as a “rush of a violent wind.” (Acts 2:2) Echoing the creation narrative itself, the wind/breath/spirit of God (Heb. ruach) that brought the world into being (Genesis 1:2) and breathed the spark of life (Heb. nishmat hayyim) into the first human being (Genesis 2:7) gusts in and fills the place where the disciples have assembled. To be sure, this is not friendly visit! God’s full power to pull the world back from the brink and establish God’s purposes is put on display here, and is not something with which one ought to trifle.
Over their heads appear “divided tongues, as of fire” (v.3), and as those tongues rest over them, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and are given the ability to proclaim the good news in other languages. (v. 4) While there is much debate on what these tongues as of or like fire represent, Scripture is replete with references to fire in connection with the presence of God’s Spirit. The breath of life given to the first human (Heb. nishmat hayyim) is, by definition, the “spark” of life. God first speaks to Moses and reveals God’s name, Yahweh (I am that I am) from a fiery bush that does not consume. (Exod. 3:2) God shields Israel from Pharaoh’s army from atop a pillar of fire. (Exod. 14:24) God’s presence on Mt. Sinai on which God gave God’s commands and entered into covenant with the people is one of fire and smoke. (Exod. 19:8) As God led Israel through the wilderness, God’s presence rested upon the tabernacle in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, and of fire by night. (Exod. 40:38) When John the Baptist prophesies the coming presence of the Lord, his presence will be heralded by a baptism of the Spirit and of fire that both purifies and testifies to God’s presence with them. (Luke 3:16) The list could go on…
The overall point here, I think, it that God’s real and mighty presence spoken of in the Law and Prophets and given flesh in Jesus has arrived in full force to transform his followers. It will be in these disciples of Jesus that God’s eternal purposes will be worked out anew in the church, Christ’s body here on earth. It will be through the church, the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16), that the tragedy of Babel is reversed, and people from all over the world who are assembled in Jerusalem for the festival are able to apprehend the mighty acts of God and hear the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the fulfillment of the covenant promises of God. (vv. 5- 13)
What God scattered from the foundations of history is now being gathered up for a harvest of global proportions. They key to this harvest is the name of Jesus (v. 21), and the workers are the simple disciples who have being made his witnesses. What makes this story even more compelling is that this “first batch” of the harvest aren’t the first-fruits, or upper crust of the society from which they come. No, they are simple Galileans who lack refinement and culture. (v. 7) Yet, by God’s power, these simpletons undergo a holy metamorphosis that will empower them to eventually shake the very foundations of the known world. Today, that harvest continues, and we have reaped the benefit of God’s harvesting work begun long ago.
I think the take away from this story for Christians today isn’t that God’s presence must be preceded by “fireworks,” so to speak, nor is it a matter of our own spiritual “firepower.” God’s presence can be heralded by such things, but to focus on them alone is to miss ought on the deeper revelation. It is on this point that I think many Pentecostals make a grave error. The insistence that speaking in tongues is the sole indicator of God’s Spirit dwelling in a person reduces God’s presence in and purposes for our lives to a simple exhibition of power. This, as I read Acts 2, was never the point.
The point is transformation so that we might come to proclaim the name above every name to the ends of the earth, regardless of cultural, linguistic or ethnic barrier. Just as each person who heard the proclamation of the disciples in their own tongue (idia dialekto hemon, v. 8), God is at work in us, and through us, the world, to bring the Good News of Christ in every “idiom” there is so that the hearer might participate in God’s redemptive harvest. To this end, the great news is that God can even use us, imperfect vessels that we are, because each of us has a particular gift to bring to the table in achieving this holy purpose.
That said, we must always remember that the harvest is God’s, not ours. We do not reap what we have sown. No! We enjoy a harvest of God’s making, a harvest in which we are given the privilege to labor for God’s glory. Therefore, since it does not belong to us, nor is it dependent upon our feeble power, this holy harvest to which we belong is solely a matter of grace.