Thanksgiving First fruits

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Thanks be to thee, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which thou hast given us, for all the pains and insults which thou hast borne for us.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly. Amen.
Some of you may have recognized the closing lines of this prayer from a song that was popular in the early 1970s. The song was “Day by Day,” and it came from the musical Godspell, but the prayer that the song came from was written by Richard of Chichester, a bishop in the Catholic Church in England during the 13th century.
If I could project this prayer onto the screen, you would see that it breaks naturally into two stanzas. The first stanza is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
Thanks be to thee, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which thou hast given us, for all the pains and insults which thou hast borne for us.
When we really begin to understand what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, and when we really begin to understand the cost of the salvation that we so often take for granted, simple words of praise and thanksgiving seem an insufficient response.
We who were born dead in our sins — and that’s all of us — were utterly incapable of having a relationship with the God who created us for relationship with Him. No good deed — no mountain of good works — could ever earn us a place with Him. We were destined for eternal separation from Him because of our sins.
But He loved us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty that each of us deserves because of our rebellion — because each of us has failed to represent the perfect holiness, the perfect goodness, of the God in whose image we were created.
And Jesus, who is the very image of the invisible God, took on the nature of man so that He could represent mankind in His sacrifice on the cross.
He who had lived a sinless life was crucified for our transgressions. God made Him who knew no sin to BE sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
He died so that we might live. The innocent gave His life for the guilty.
And then He was raised from the dead on the third day to prove that God has power over death and to demonstrate that God had accepted His Son’s sacrifice on our behalf.
In His resurrection, Jesus became the firstfruits of the resurrection, the sign to show that He would keep the promise He had made of eternal life for those who follow Him in faith.
That promise was made to every man, woman and child who will ever be born, and it is a promise that you can claim as your own if you will admit you are a sinner, believe that Jesus died to pay the penalty that you owe for your sins, and confess Him as your Lord and Savior.
And when we really stop and think about this plan of salvation — when we really stop and consider what it meant for God to step into human flesh and offer Himself as a sacrifice for those who hate Him and those who mock Him and those who live as if He doesn’t exist — I wonder sometimes how our worship services can be such quiet affairs, how our faces can register so little joy, how our thanksgiving can seem so subdued.
Indeed, mere words of thanksgiving are hardly enough when we consider the rich blessings of God’s grace that we gain through salvation.
And that’s where the second stanza of this prayer of Richard of Chichester comes into play.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.
You see, thanksgiving isn’t supposed to be simply a feeling we have in our hearts, any more than love or faith.
Biblical love is something that shows itself in action. Biblical faith is something that shows itself in action. And biblical thanksgiving is something that shows itself in action.
We heard that in the Psalm that I read earlier, Psalm 30.
“I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, And have not let my enemies rejoice over me.”
God had given David victory over His enemies, and so David promised to extol Him, to praise God enthusiastically and publicly.
I don’t think David was a quiet worshiper. In fact, Scripture tells us that He sang and shouted and even danced during worship.
“Sing praise to the Lord, you His godly ones,” he wrote. “And give thanks to His holy name.... Weeping may last for the night, but a SHOUT of joy comes in the morning.”
Somebody shout hallelujah!
The writer of the Book of Hebrews describes several ways that Jesus is greater than all that the Jewish people had understood about God before.
Jesus is greater than Moses, having delivered His followers out of their bondage to sin.
Jesus is greater than Aaron, having become the high priest who sits at the very right hand of God, always making intercession for His people.
Jesus is greater than the sacrificial lambs, because He is the Lamb of God whose sacrifice was once for all.
And because of the supremacy of His sacrifice, we who follow Jesus in faith have the promise of eternal life in an eternal city, the New Jerusalem that will come down from heaven when Jesus has finally vanquished sin and death and Satan and has removed all evil from this earth.
So, listen, now, to what the writer of Hebrews says we should do because of these blessings:
Hebrews 13:15–16 NIV
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Our gratefulness should cause us to offer a sacrifice — the sacrifice of praise, “the fruit of lips that openly profess His name.”
Our gratefulness for God’s blessings upon us should never end with a simple, quiet prayer of thanksgiving. If you’re grateful for your salvation, then you should be telling others about it. You have not been given the light of Jesus Christ so that you can simply hide it under a bushel. His light is meant to shine through you into the dark world, to be a beacon to the lost.
But notice that what the writer says next: “Don’t forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
We are blessed so that we can bless others. This is true of the blessing of salvation, and it is true of every blessing that you receive from the Giver of all good gifts.
This was something that the Jewish readers of this letter would have understood from years of study of what we call the Old Testament and from a lifetime of worship in the temple.
From the time their forefathers had wandered in the wilderness after God had delivered them out of Egypt, the Jewish people had been taught that thanksgiving included sacrifice, that their thankfulness must be not simply a matter of feeling grateful but must also be manifested in faithful giving, what the Torah called first fruits offerings.
Turn with me to Deuteronomy chapter 26, and let’s look at one of the Old Testament references to this practice of giving first fruits as part of thanksgiving.
Now, what’s going on in this portion of Scripture is that Moses is giving the people the laws they must follow to set themselves apart from the pagan culture that they will be entering when they go into the Promised Land.
The idea is that God has sanctified them — He has made them a kingdom of priests, a holy people who are to represent God’s Kingdom in this new place.
They were to live differently than the people who were already in that land. They were to live differently to honor God, and they were to live differently so they could be effective witnesses in that place about the holy God they had been chosen to represent.
So let’s read verses 1 through 11, and then I’ll make a few points about this passage.
READ Deut 26 1-11
Now, I want to direct your attention first to verses 3 through 9.
What’s going on there?
When the people have brought their offering to the priest, Moses tells them, they are to remember what God has done for them.
He had brought them into the land that He had promised Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
He had made them a great, mighty and populous nation.
He had heard their prayers when the Egyptians conscripted them into forced labor, and then He had delivered them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with great terror and with signs and wonders.
And He had brought them across the wilderness and into a land where they would reap what they had not sown, where they would live in houses they had not built and drink wine from grapes they had not crushed.
Moses was telling the people that when they made this offering of first fruits, it should be part of a grand service of praise to God. They would make a sacrifice of praise to God in thanksgiving for His many blessings.
But that’s not the end of the matter.
The whole context of this praise service was in the making of an even greater sacrifice, that of the first fruits.
Look at verse 10:
Deuteronomy 26:10 NASB95
‘Now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which You, O Lord have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God;
The word that’s translated as “first” here can mean either that which came earliest or that which was the best, or it can mean both.
So what’s going on here is that the people participating in this beautiful ceremony of worship are bringing to God the first and best of all their crops, of all their produce.
And doing so would have tested their faith in God. Would they be able to harvest anything after the firstfruits?
To give you some perspective on the faith that would have been required, let’s look at a parallel passage from the Book of Leviticus, and then we’ll talk about meteorology and agriculture for a minute.
Leviticus 23:9-14 describes this same offering.
Leviticus 23:9–14 NASB95
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. ‘He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord for you to be accepted; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. ‘Now on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb one year old without defect for a burnt offering to the Lord. ‘Its grain offering shall then be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire to the Lord for a soothing aroma, with its drink offering, a fourth of a hin of wine. ‘Until this same day, until you have brought in the offering of your God, you shall eat neither bread nor roasted grain nor new growth. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.
Now in Israel, the harvest of its most important crops during biblical times took place between Passover and the Feast of Weeks, which we know as Pentecost.
Barley would have just begun to mature by the first Sunday after Passover, and this passage from Leviticus describes the wave offering of barley that would have been sacrificed during the Feast of Unleavened Bread on that day.
The Jewish people called the next 50 days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread the “Seven Weeks of Trepidation and Prayer,” because the success of Israel’s seven most important crops — wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olives and dates — was determined during that time.
During that time, “the blossoms of the grape, pomegranate, olive and date open and develop, and the undeveloped figs continue to mature. During that same time period, the kernels of grain—the barley and the wheat—fill with starch.” [R. O. Rigsby, “Firstfruits,” ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 314.]
The thing is that these 50 days offer the most unpredictable weather of the year in Israel.
The weather is “so characterized by contrasts that one cannot anticipate whether the days will be wet or dry, cold or hot, windy or calm. The first part of this period requires northern winds, cold and rain for proper development of barley, wheat and figs. Rain in the latter portion of this period, however, is disastrous.” [R. O. Rigsby, “Firstfruits,” ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 314.]
So, then, by giving God the first and best of their produce, the people of Israel would be taking the risk that they would have nothing for themselves — or at least not enough to survive until the next growing season.
Now, back in today’s passage from Deuteronomy, we see Moses tell the people to give God thanks for His blessings by offering Him public praise and by giving Him in faith the first and best of their crops.
Was this risky? From the world’s point of view, it would have been. Certainly from the point of view of the pagan people of Canaan, who knew the weather patterns of that region and who knew the agricultural challenges there, it would have seemed risky, and maybe even crazy.
But God had set His people apart to honor Him and to be a witness to His great mercy and grace. And He had promised them that if they honored Him, He would provide for their needs and, indeed, that they would flourish in the land He had given them.
Part of honoring Him was to be thankful for their blessings. And thankfulness wasn’t to be simply a matter of the heart. It was to be a vocal act. And it was to be an act of giving back in faith to Him who had given to them.
As we find ourselves today in this season of thanksgiving, I want to challenge you to do two things.
First, I want to challenge you to make your thankfulness a vocal act. Be public in your thanksgiving, both here within the walls of this building and wherever you go outside of here. Make sure to tell people that you are thankful TO somebody for the blessings you have. Make sure you tell them that every good thing you have is a gift of God’s amazing grace.
And second, I want to challenge you to bring your firstfruits — your first and best — to God. Don’t give Him what’s left over after you’ve paid your bills. Plan now to give to God first, to give back to Him the best portion of the blessing He has given you.
Show your thanks in your giving. And show your thanks in your doing for Him.
You will be amazed at how He blesses you.
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