Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
November 12, 2017
There was once a Chinese rice farmer whose paddies were high on a hill overlooking the ocean. One day during harvest, there was an earthquake. He looked around and noticed the ocean had drawn back and was lurching like an animal ready to pounce. He knew this meant one thing, a tidal wave, a tsunami. Down below, in the lower levels, other farmers were also gathering their harvest, unaware of the danger. With no time to run down to warn them, he set fire to his drying sheaves of rice, sending up a plume of smoke. His neighbors, seeing the smoke, assumed his field had caught fire and rushed up the mountain to help him save his harvest. As they arrived, they look back down and saw the ocean sweep over their fields. He sacrificed his crop for their safety. They knew what it meant to be saved, and its cost. Today, we’ll learn about the importance of sacrifice and sheaves of grain.
The 23rd Chapter of Leviticus sets up the various festivals and feast observed in ancient Israel. The chapter begins with the Sabbath, a day of rest. Then it reminds them of the Passover. In our reading this morning, we will hear about the Festival of the First Fruits. The chapter circles around the year with the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths.
For each of the festivals as well as for the Sabbath, they were to stop working. This was a gift, not only to the Hebrews, but to their slaves. By taking these days off, they demonstrated their trust in God. The Lord was in charge. The Lord watched over them and their crops on the Sabbaths, and during the festivals. You know, we make holidays about us. On Thanksgiving, we pig out with friends and family. At Christmas we give gifts. Even Easter is a time for new clothes and a ham dinner. And while the festivals in Scripture gave the people time to rest and to enjoy certain foods, the purpose of festivals was to point the individual to the God who provides. We will see this especially in the Festival of the First Fruits. We should do the same. Read Leviticus 23:9-14.
Thanks to my wife’s intuitive and hard work, we have a plot in the community garden. Last spring, when we were setting it up and planting, I couldn’t wait to start harvesting tomatoes. A large vine-ripened tomato is about as close to heaven as we’ll come to in this life. Planting the tomatoes, I could tasted them. I took care to wrap a piece of paper around the stalks of the young plants when I transplanted them, to deter cutworms. I watered them and watched the plants grown, envisioning a hefty ripe beefsteak tomato. I’d carefully peel the tomato, then slice it at least an inch thick. Next, I’d take some soft bread, lathering it up with mayonnaise, adding a good bit of freshly ground black pepper and make a sandwich. I’m a simple man. A good tomato sandwich is hard to beat. To bite into such a sandwich and have a little tomato juice run from the corners of my mouth, which has to be wiped away with a napkin, is to experience true joy.
We had a good harvest of tomatoes last summer. The best ones, especially early in the harvest, I saved for sandwiches. Then I kept a bunch which I made into salsa and canned for winter. But the tomatoes kept coming and I was heading out of town. There wasn’t an opportunity for another canning session, so I brought a box of tomatoes to church and gave them away. According to Leviticus, I did all this backwards. Those first tomatoes, the big juicy red ones should have gone to God…
The Israelites were to bring their first fruit to the Lord. Me, I gave away what was left! Now, granted, the text doesn’t say anything about tomatoes (it mentions grain, lamb, olive oil and wine). I can only assume that tomatoes were unknown in the Promised Land during ancient times.
In a parallel passage in Exodus, we’re told to bring “our best first fruits” to the Lord. There goes that juicy tomato. I might have to wait a day or two to enjoy that first tomato sandwich of the year.
Bringing our first fruit to God seems like a heavy demand. After all, why shouldn’t we tend to our own needs and desires first? You know, in our training as a firefighter, we’re always taught that our number one responsibility is to take care of our self… There is a reason behind this madness. If we are in trouble, then we are in no position to help anyone and furthermore we become part of the problem (and resources have to be focused on us, instead of the other victims or the fire). That makes sense, because we are not God! It’s when we get to the point to think we’re God that we have a problem.
Let’s look at this from another angle. What about the future? Shouldn’t our first action be to harvest seed in order to make sure we’ll have a crop next year? I mean, should we save some of that first seed before we give any away? That’s hedging our bets! But it’s not allowed, according to this passage.
The tradition of giving to God first serves to remind us from where our blessings flow. It’s a discipline that helps us trust in God, not in ourselves. When we give to God first, we are training ourselves to trust. We are admitting our limitations; we can’t do everything ourselves.
In ancient Israel, when the harvest was ready, a sheaf, or an armful, of the first grain (probably barley as it ripen before wheat) was brought to the temple. That, along with a perfect lamb, some flour and olive oil, was offered to God. Then the farmer was allowed to enjoy the benefits of his harvest.
There are two thing we should understand about this practice today. First of all, thanks to the marvels of industrialization, there are fewer farmers today than back then. Although a few of us may have gardens, whether vegetables or flowers, none of us to my knowledge are raising grain. So literally obeying the commands of Leviticus 23 is not applicable. However, we can meet the spirit of the text by providing flowers for church or giving vegetables to a homeless shelter (as the community garden does, but then its backwards as what’s given is excess, not first fruits).
Furthermore, Jesus Christ has made the sacrifice for our sin, once and for all. For this reason, we’re no longer bound by such commands such as bringing the first-fruit into the temple. Maybe I can still enjoy that first tomato, after all. Today, when we give, we do so out of gratitude. We should realize all God has done for us and we be thankful and gracious.
We should ask ourselves why God has given us so much compared to others in the world. (At the same time, we should be praying daily, as I suggested last week, “God, How would you use me to further the kingdom of Jesus Christ?). David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (of which I saw a few copies in the book exchange), asks, “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so that we could give more?”
We’re not legally bound to the law we read in this passage and don’t need to worry about literally bringing an armful of grain to worship. However, we should learn from this text and use it as a guide. We give God first, out of thanksgiving, acknowledging that all we have comes from the Almighty.
When I was a child, I was given an allowance on Saturday, with a reminder that before spending it, I should give to God first. A dime from every dollar was to go into the offering plate. Giving to God first is a good habit for us to develop. In doing so, we grow in our faith and become an example for others. It’s a habit we should also instill in our children and grandchildren. This year, as you consider what you are giving to God’s work through the church, ask yourself, “Am I giving to God first? Or am I giving God the leftovers?” Amen.
 Adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn in Thesaurus of Anecdotes (Edmund Fuller, editor, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1942) and included in God’s Treasury of Virtues (Tulsa OK: Honor Books, 1995), 285.
 Exodus 34:26.
 Hebrews 10:1-18.
 David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Mulnomah Books, 2010), 127.
 This was easy to do for there were no stores close to us and I wouldn’t have an opportunity to spend it all before Sunday.