The Feast of First Fruits Leviticus 23: 9-14 and Malachi 3:8-12

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1 The Feast of First Fruits Leviticus 23: 9-14 and Malachi 3:8-12 First the Passover, then the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and now, right in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God orders his people to hold a one day Festival of First Fruits. So much festivity! This is the feast where God says to his people that on the first day of the spring harvest, the first sheaf of the barley harvest was to be brought to the priest, and he would wave that sheaf before the Lord. Along with that, they had to sacrifice a lamb that was a year old and without blemish, they had to mix together flour and olive oil and burn it as an offering, and bring wine as an offering. All these gifts had to be presented to the Lord. And they were not even allowed to eat until they had given this offering of first fruits to the Lord. And it had to be brought to the Lord on the Sunday, the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath. When I first started looking at the material, it didn t take long to figure out where this was going. It s all part of the tithe that the people of God had to bring to God. And God still asks it of us today. And most ministers do not like preaching a sermon about tithing, about the giving of money and time, about the giving of talents, and that includes me. And I had to ask myself how do you preach a sermon on giving to God what he asks of us, when I have before me a congregation who has been more than generous with their money, with their time, with their gifts and talents. We have spent quite a lot of money on renovations that have brought a dilapidated building back into good repair. We have met all our financial requirements, we have given to various Christian organizations that take care of the poor, and given for Mission work. We hope and pray that, from God s perspective, we have done well and that it may continue. And we know that God has richly blessed us, and may all the glory for that go to him alone. And there are a lot of congregations where a lot of energy is spent on arguing about money, and that is so wrong, because it speaks of a mindset that does not understand God s ways. But, we also know it is human nature to say: I worked hard for my money and I m not about to let someone tell me how to spend it. Or you ve probably heard it said that every time ministers preach about giving, they re looking for more money. And there is another attitude that often surfaces in our life that says, I ll do what I have to, and then I will see what is left over for the church, in other words, for God. Giving God the leftovers, that s what we sometimes do. And so today I m not looking for money; that is between you and God. And whatever guidelines you follow are between you and God. Today, we look at the question of giving, to remind and refresh our memory on the reasons why we give. And it naturally comes up as one of the feasts of God in a series of feasts that God wanted, or wants, his people to celebrate. In those feasts God gives his people an 1

2 education and through that education tells his people that it s not just about what God wants from us, but he reminds us how awesome and great and sovereign and loving God has been, is, and always will be. The teaching of those feasts is an expression of God s love for us. God instituted Passover to remind his people how, through his love, they were given life because the blood of the lamb was on the doorposts of their home and the angel of death passed them by. And we celebrate communion to remember that death has passed us by, because we have been covered by the blood of the Lamb, the Lamb Jesus Christ. The unleavened bread reminded them how quickly they had to get out of Egypt to get their freedom. They had to leave their old yeast behind because they were starting a new life with God. Again, when we celebrate communion, we are celebrating a new life in Christ, Jesus Christ who is the Bread of Life. And yes, we celebrate it because Christ said to do this until he comes again, so that we wouldn t forget. But just as important, we celebrate it as a time of thankfulness for our deliverance from the slavery to sin to a new life. And now the Feast of First Fruits, and then fifty days later, comes the Feast of Harvest, Pentecost, when again the people were required to give back to God. The First Fruits Feast was a harvest festival, a spring festival. It was first celebrated when Israel had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. The Israelites, when they finally entered the land, came in from the east side, from the side that is now the country of Jordan. Now, if you stand on the mountainside overlooking the valley where the River Jordan runs, it is a dry, dusty and unproductive land. The mountains in Jordan are exactly the same. But below lies a valley that is lush and green, with trees that produce dates, figs, olives, grains, and nowadays bananas and oranges. It is beautiful and the contrast is really quite striking because you are forced to remember that God gave them what was down there. But God wasn t going to let them forget that this was what he gave them, not what they earned. The people of Israel, like us, often had memory problems. Yes, this was their land, their crops, but only because God had given it. Yes, they had worked hard to plant it, seed it, water it, fertilize it. But none of that would be possible without God s grace, sunshine, rain, health, strength, farm management, agriculture rules laid out by God for a people that was primarily a nomadic people up to now. During the time of King Ahab, when the people ignored God, God prevented it from raining for a long time. God can make that happen and at times he did. But to the Israelites God had said, first give the first fruits to me, give me only a little of what is all rightfully mine to start with, you would have nothing without me. And God does not say that because he needs what we give back to him. God could do whatever he wanted to bring into existence all the things he wants. But, 2

3 there is a totally other side to this. It would be our inclination to divide up our money and then, hope something is left over for God. But there are different things to consider. When the people of Israel gave the first fruits to God, and as we give back to God, a number of things come into play. First there is that element of thankfulness. When you enter the land I am going to give you, he says in Leviticus. That immediately says: it all starts with God. It s first of all, what I give you, it wasn t yours to start with, I will give it to you. That means what you have originated with me and what you return to me is an act of thankfulness. Now it isn t in the passage of this morning, but other passages will show that the Israelites were to give one tenth back to God as an act of thankfulness. It was God s way of preventing his people from becoming arrogant and selfish, of becoming boastful. Look what I have, it s mine, I earned it. No, look how God has blessed me; God is good, God is great. The Lord loves that cheerful giver. The second thing is that it becomes a trust issue. The first things the Israelites had to do, was set apart God s portion. They weren t even allowed to eat until they had set apart God s portion. So they couldn t say: first I m going grocery shopping, I m going to buy this, that and the next thing, buy what I want, pay the bills, and then I will see what is left over. By setting aside God s portion first, that actually puts them in a position of deep trust. When the people of God brought their first fruits to God, it meant they were trusting and depending on God beyond those first fruits. God had brought them into this Promised Land, he had provided for them every day in the desert, he had given them what they needed, not always what they wanted, they were still human and had a tendency to mutter against God. But eventually they trusted God enough, through many trials, that they received the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And trust for us, as sinful humans, is such a difficult issue. As much, and as often as God tells us to trust in him, we still always have within us that bit of skepticism. And it is exactly that skepticism that the world cashes in on, when it continues to bombard us with the message that we need to trust the things of the world, rather than God. Now the Festival of the First Fruits, the policy of tithing and setting aside a portion for the Lord, and the orders that God gave to Moses and his people concerning the care for the poor, the fatherless and the widow, and the alien in the land, all things that were taught to the Old Testament church, they all set the tone for the actions of the New Testament church, the church of which we are part. In our call to worship this morning we find God s words through the prophet Micah. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Embedded into that statement, amongst many other things, is that God s sense of justice dictates that the poor are looked after. That was an issue God so often had with his people. They had become arrogant and 3

4 selfish and forgotten the poor. Attached to that justice is kindness. And walking humbly before God, recognizing that he is the source, his grace is sufficient he told Paul. I believe it is in Peter that we read: humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God and he will lift you up in due time. His hand is mighty. When Mary the mother of Jesus praised God in her song she said: you Lord raise the humble and bring down the arrogant. God called his people to be humble by setting aside the first fruits, and depending on him to supply all their needs according to his riches. Not in a foolish way, but in a way of proper stewardship. Look at the passage we read from Malachi this morning. God s issue with his people was that they were again robbing God. How are we robbing God? You are forgetting about the first fruits. You aren t bringing the whole tithe back to God. You are bringing the leftovers. Stop doing that, because that doesn t show your thankfulness to God, it says you don t trust God to supply the things you need, and it affects the poor and the needy. And then God says something you will not find anywhere else in Scripture. You don t put God to the test, but this is the one passage where God says he may be tested. Bring the first fruits, the whole tithe back to me, and see how I will open the floodgates of heaven for you with blessings you won t even be able to count. Show your trust, your thankfulness, your love and trust for me, and for the marginalized people and just watch what happens. And I know there are so many of you who so understand this concept. The blessings of God have just been so tremendous in this place over the last number of years and we praise God. And as much as we can rejoice, we also may not grow arrogant, but remain humble, and walk humbly before our God. So many of you have shared that as you continue to give back to God in thankfulness and love, what you have received from God has brought such joy to your lives and then, of course, to this congregation. And at the heart of all this, at the heart of the Festival of First Fruits is our thankfulness to a God who has given us so much. He only asks a portion from us, but he gives his everything to us. This week at men s breakfast, the devotional was that the Bible is a word that was written by so many people from so many different times about so much history, so many stories and accounts. Yet they all gel together to point to the same trustworthy message and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was early in the history of God s people, right in the time of Abraham that God made his covenant with us. He would bring us to a Promised Land where the promised Savior would be born to rescue all his people. Early in that history, God set aside Passover to celebrate the short-term rescue and the eventual long term rescue. All that symbolism, that is so meaningful. He set aside the Festival of First Fruits so that his people could celebrate God s grace and give back to God. Christ was sacrificed for us on Passover, and God gave him back on to us on what 4

5 we call Easter Sunday, but more correctly it was on the day of the Festival of First Fruits. It was not a day when God gave only a portion of himself back to us, but he gave his everything back to us, so that we may be received into the Promised Land. Thanks be to God. 5

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