As you can see from the decorations on the pillars, we had a good time last week at Messy Church thinking about the seasons of the year. Our pictures reflect some of the joys of each – winter with snowflakes, spring with its promise of new life, summer with the shining glittery sun, and autumn with its profusion of wonderful textures, colours and smells. We thought about which season was our favourite - I wonder which is yours?
Whichever season is your favourite, the fact is that they’re all vital. We may not like the bleak, dreary days of February, but that period of cold, when the plants are dormant, is just as important for them as the glory days of April and May when they are growing apace. Without the dormancy, the growth couldn’t happen. The autumn leaves which descend into a sodden mass on the ground feed the soil. Without the death that is part of this season of the year, the earth on which we depend would soon become sterile.
Ancient civilisations knew this well. They were in tune with the passing seasons in the lands where they lived. They had to be. They knew that their lives depended very directly on what they could grow. If the crops failed in their fields, starvation was a real and immediate possibility, as it still is for many around the world today.
That’s why the ending of the story of Noah which we heard this morning, was so important to them. It finishes with God’s promise that the seasons would be restored after the flood. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” God hadn’t forgotten them as they floated in the ark on that endless ocean, even though it might have felt like that. He had never let them out of his sight, and now they could start afresh and life could begin again.
Most of us are probably far less in tune with the passing seasons than our ancestors were. We can put on the central heating, buy food flown halfway round the world, freeze our surpluses to keep us going, but in the long run we still depend on the rain and sun, cold and warmth coming when it should. The food in our supermarkets doesn’t get there by magic. It still has to come from somewhere on this one earth we live on. Eventually we will go hungry too if it stops producing its bounty. There is no Planet B, as the saying goes. That’s why the threat of human made climate change is so frightening and urgent; it may not have affected us much yet, it has affected others in the world, and their stories should be a warning to us.
One of the things I have noticed over the years we’ve been supporting the Diocesan Poverty and Hope appeal is that climate change increasingly rears its head in the stories of the projects it supports. This year is no exception. There’s a project in Burkina Faso, helping communities learn to grow crops which will do better in the droughts that are increasingly blighting their lives. In Rochester’s twin Diocese of Kondoa in Tanzania, our money will help build a vocational centre to train local people in different trades because they’ve realised that they can’t rely on agriculture any more as the climate grows less predictable. Another project supports communities in Argentina working to prevent deforestation. Felling trees, the lungs of our planet, makes climate change worse. What might it mean to these communities to hear God’s promise that “as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter…shall not cease” ? How can that promise be fulfilled for them? Part of the answer lies in our hands. We have the political and financial power to make or break their communities, often without even knowing it. We can help to save them from the flood or allow them to be swept away by it. We may not yet be suffering as they do, but we will be in time – we are all in one ark together.
So there is a very direct and obvious message for us as we celebrate Harvest today in this story of the flood and its aftermath. It’s a message about the real, practical action we need to take to make sure that “seedtime and harvest” endure for all of us, and especially for the most vulnerable people in the world. We are called to “work together with God,” as St Paul puts it.
But that work can sometimes seem impossible. It’s hard to hold onto hope when the challenges are so great. That’s why it matters that we understand that this story of Noah isn’t just about literal seedtimes and harvests. It can speak to us in other ways too.
The story of a cataclysmic flood is found in many ancient civilisations. There’s an ancient Greek version, a Mesopotamian version, a Viking version, a Mayan version from Central America and others from the original inhabitants of North America too, as well as the one we know. The details differ but they all tell of a catastrophe which swept away the world as they knew it. Experts argue about why this story is so widespread, but some think that it may reflect an ancient memory of the end of the last Ice Age, when melt water caused devastating floods across the world in a very short space of time around 6000 years before Christ. We know that the land bridge which originally connected Britain to continental Europe broke suddenly – geologists have found the evidence all along the south coast of a layer of rocks which were obviously deposited in one cataclysmic flood event . The Mediterranean was formed around the same time, when the Atlantic broke through at what is now the straits of Gibraltar, probably in a matter of months. What would it have been like to live through something like that? Imagine the scale of it and the impact on societies that had no knowledge of what lay beyond their own area? No wonder the stories talk of the world being washed away; it must have seemed like that.
We’ll never know for sure whether that’s what sparked off these flood myths, but the stories continued to resonate with people, as they do with us, because you don’t have to be on the receiving end of Ice Age meltwater to understand what it feels like to be out of your depth and drowning.
The Biblical story of Noah was written down in the form we know it while the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. There wasn’t any water involved in that disaster, but it certainly felt like a flood had closed over them. Their city of Jerusalem with its beautiful Temple had been destroyed. Their whole society and way of life had come to an end, submerged by the might of the Babylonian empire.
But this story reminded them that however deep and stormy the waters, God wouldn’t forget or abandon his creation. However great the destruction, they weren’t alone and they would, one day, begin again. This story helped them acknowledge the awful reality they’d been through, but it also spoke of hope, of the possibility of a new start.
God is with us, it said, in all the things that happen to us, whether we know it or not at the time. Open your eyes and you will see him. Open your ears and you will hear his voice, calling you to hang on in there.
St Paul had found that to be true too. He endured many storms, as the reading we heard reminded us. There were times of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots labours, sleepless nights, hunger.” His determination to tell people of the love of Chrsit constantly brought him into danger. Often it must have looked as if it was all pointless. But in all these times he’d learned to look out for God’s presence, to trust that he was there. And because of that he’d found that he could be “dying; and see - we are alive…punished and yet not killed, …sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;… poor, yet making many rich, …having nothing, yet possessing everything.” The flood may have swept away everything he had, but he couldn’t lose God, and that was what mattered most.
God’s presence may not always be obvious, but like the seeds in Jesus’ parables, the fact that you can’t see something doesn’t mean there is nothing there. When a seed is first sown it looks for all the world as if it has died and gone, but from it can grow a mighty tree, with room for all in its branches. What looks like death is actually the start of new life. Winter is full of the promise of spring, if only we have eyes – and faith - to see it.
So today, whatever season it is in our lives, we’re invited to look for God’s presence in it, to open our eyes to see him at work, and to work with him too. We can do that through our giving to Poverty and Hope, helping others to find spring in what look like hopeless, wintry situations. We can do that closer to home in our own community, in the loving service we are called to for others. But holding onto hope for others is impossible unless we have first discovered it for ourselves. That’s why we also need to learn to look for God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of what the landscape in us looks like. Is it winter, dark and cold in us? Are there fragile shoots of springtime which need nurturing and protecting? Are we thirsting in the hot summer, in desperate need of living water to refresh us? Or is it autumn, a time to give thanks for what we have, but also to learn to let go of the things which belong to the past, like the leaves which the tree must release back to the ground?
Whatever the season in our lives, God is with us. In summer and winter, in springtime and autumn, in life and in death, today and tomorrow, and no flood can sweep his love away. That’s the hope that will take us through whatever life throws at us, and overflow to others to give them hope as well.