First-Fruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

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The people Moses was speaking to in Deuteronomy were not the same that he had led out of Egypt to receive God’s commands at Mount Sinai. That generation had died in the wilderness after failing to trust that God could do what he said he would do. Now, a new generation was about to inherit God’s promises and enter into the Promised Land. Before he handed the leadership of Israel over to Joshua, Moses addressed God’s people to prepare them for their entry into the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy gives us Moses’ last address to the Israelites.

One of the instructions Moses gave to the Israelites was to bring the first produce of the land God was giving them to the place of worship and offer them to him (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Often referred to as a ‘first-fruits’ offering, this was the way in which the Israelites were to thank God for the gift of the land. Thanking someone with words is good, but God wanted his people to show their thanks by offering to him the first and the best of what God had first given them.

We can hear these words of Moses as a rule or command to follow, but we can also understand the first-fruits offering as an act of faith. Through Moses’ words, we can hear God calling us to trust him enough to give him the first and best of what he has given us. Offering to God the first and best of what he has already given us is an act of faith for three reasons.

Firstly, when the Israelites gave back to God the first-fruits of each year’s crops, they showed that they believed that the land was a gift from God. He wanted his people to remember that he had given them the land and that every good thing the Israelites had was a gift from him. God didn’t give the land to them because they deserved it or had somehow earned it. Instead, God’s gift of the land to the people he had chosen was an act of grace, a gift given purely out of his love for his people.

In the same way, God asks us to give back to him the first and best of what he has given us to show that we recognize that every good thing comes from him. It is easy for us to have a sense of entitlement with the things we have. Whether we are talking about our time, energy, abilities, finances or other possessions, we can tend to think that they belong to us and we have the right to do whatever we like with them because we have earned them. God reminds us that all good things come from him, and he asks us to recognize him as the giver of everything in our lives by giving the first and best of what we have back to him.

Secondly, giving their first-fruits to God was an act of faith that God would give them enough to last for the coming year. In an agricultural society where people relied on what the land produced in order to survive, giving the first produce of the land back to God would have been risky because there was no guarantee that the subsequent produce would have been enough to last for the rest of the year. Giving the first produce, instead of hanging on to it until they were sure they had enough for the coming twelve months, was an act of faith that God would provide what they needed.

In the same way, we can often use what we think we need first and then give what’s left over to God. Whether we are talking time, energy, finances or abilities, we are more inclined to do what we think needs to get done first and then give what remains to God. The first-fruits offering challenges us to consider what we can give to God first in the faith that God will provide us with what we need for everything else. This is particularly true with our time. When we have a lot to do and the pressure’s on, we can easily ignore spending time with God by reading his Word, praying to him or worshiping with other believers in our faith community. However, as the source of every good thing we have, God asks us to trust him enough to put him first, to make spending time with him our first priority, in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

Our third reason why giving God our first and best is one that the ancient Israelites didn’t have – God has already given his best for us and to us. When our relationship with God was broken because of sin, God gave his first and best for us in the person of Jesus. The Son of God prioritized us and the need to reconcile us with God so highly that he gave everything for us on the cross. Jesus didn’t spend his life thinking about himself and the things that would make him happy before giving whatever was left over for us. Jesus had the cross in his view right from the start of his ministry and willingly sacrificed everything out of love for us. In Jesus, God literally gave everything for us and to us so we can live in a new relationship with him as his children. Because God has already given his first and his best for us and to us, he asks us to trust him enough to do the same.

Giving the first and best of everything we have to God can mean making some significant changes in our lives. We might need to completely reorganize our priorities as we reorient ourselves towards God and trusting in his grace. Doing that isn’t easy and requires a deep and secure faith that God will provide us with every good thing we need for this life and the next through Jesus.

I wonder, though, what might our lives look like if we were able to make that change through God’s grace and goodness? How might our relationships look different if we prioritized what we could give to others over what we want to get from them? How might our communities, especially our churches, look different if we gave our first and best back to God, trusting in God’s grace-filled love for us? Would it be possible that people might encounter the goodness of God in us and find a God they could trust? If we could trust God enough to give him our first and our best, maybe others might encounter our God who gives everything, even his own life, to us and for us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think is more important in life – what you give to others or what you get from them? Explain why you think that way…
  • In your relationships with people, do you tend to think more about what you can get from them or what you can give to them? Why do you think you do that?
  • What do you think about viewing giving to God as an act of faith? What do you like or not like about the idea?
  • How might you see different aspects of your life differently if you viewed every good think you have, even those things you complain about, as a gift from our God who loves you?
  • How might your life be different if you could be 100% sure that God was always going to provide you with what you needed? Would you live differently? Explain why…
  • What is your reaction to the idea that Jesus gave everything for you on the cross because he loves you that much? Might that help you see yourself differently? Might it help you see your life differently? Explain why…
  • What is one way you can give God your first or best this week: Spending time with him first thing each morning in prayer or reading your Bible? Making worship a higher priority? Giving of yourself to a ministry of your church? Commit to it for a week or two and see what happens…

A Giving Culture (Luke 6:27-38)

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What do you think is more important in life – what you give or what you get?

When I posed this question to our congregation last Sunday, people replied in a variety of ways. One person said that while we know the ‘right’ answer is that giving is more important that getting, life isn’t always that simple. When we start thinking about ‘giving’ or ‘getting’ things can get a little complicated and the balance isn’t always easy to find.

This is an important question for me because I tend to hear more talk around the church about what we get than what we give. For example, I hear people asking how we can ‘get’ more people into vacant leadership roles, or ‘get’ people to fill the empty spaces on our rosters, or ‘get’ people to increase their financial giving. I regularly hear parents or grandparents whose children or grandchildren have disconnected from church asking how we can ‘get’ them back to worship. Even when we do talk about giving, it seems that the conversations are largely about what we’re expecting people to give to the church!
There is a big difference between these conversations and the teachings of Jesus. When we listen to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading (Luke 6:27-38) for example, I hear Jesus talking a lot more about giving rather than getting. He teaches us to give:

  • the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a to people with whom we are in conflict
  • good things to the people who hate us
  • blessings to people who might curse us, or say bad things about us or to us
  • prayers for those who hurt us
  • the other cheek if people slap us across the face
  • our shirt if someone demands our coat
  • to anyone who asks anything of us, and to not try to get back what people take from us

Jesus continues in verses 32-34 by saying that if we love people who love us and only do good to people who do good to us then we are no different from anyone else. Then, in case we missed it the first time, Jesus goes on to teach us to give:

  • love and good things to our enemies (again!)
  • loans without expecting to be repaid
  • compassion and mercy in the same way that God gives us his compassion and mercy
  • freedom from judgement and condemnation
  • forgiveness to those who wrong us

Jesus concludes this part of his teaching by saying that when we give to others, our gift will return to us so that we receive a lot more than we gave out.

If we read these teachings of Jesus through a ‘getting or giving’ filter, Jesus seems to be a lot more concerned with what we give than what we get. Each of these describe an outward flow of grace from the person who is ‘willing to listen’ (v27) to Jesus and live in the way he teaches. Whether the gift we are offering is love, goodness, blessing, prayer, compassion, physical possessions or forgiveness, Jesus is challenging us to see the needs of the people around us and be ready to give to others whatever their need may be.
Adopting this other-focussed, giving attitude does not come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is more towards what we get than what we give. For us to prioritise what we give over what we get is something that God’s Holy Spirit needs to be working in us as we come into relationship with the giving God and receive everything we need from him through faith.

We can see this in Jesus’ teachings in places like verse 35 where he says that when we give without expecting a reward, then we ‘will truly be acting as children of the Most High for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’ (NLT). Jesus points us to the nature of God who gives generously to all people, whether they deserve it or not. God gives us what we physically need as our Creator. (I know this opens up the question about people around the world who are in need. There are no easy answers to this problem, but I need to ask if problems like poverty are God’s fault or humanity’s for not sharing what God has given us with those in need?) God gives us his life through Jesus as our Redeemer so we can have a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God gives us the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier so we can live in union with God in the life of the crucified and risen Christ. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can see that God’s nature is to give everything he has and everything he is to us as a pure gift with no strings attached.

What amazes me is that God doesn’t give to us expecting anything in return. Instead, God asks us to live out our identity as his children and give witness to his giving nature by giving what he has given us to others. When we trust that God will give us everything we need for life in this world and the next, and when we believe in the extreme generosity God has shown us especially in the gift of Jesus’ life for us on the cross, then giving to others will just come naturally. Giving to others grows out of the faith that we have a God who gives everything to us and promises to give to us more than we need for the sake of Jesus.

There are times in our church when people talk about ‘getting’ others to do things or things from others when I’ll ask them to rethink that from a ‘giving’ perspective. Some might say that I’m just playing with words, but I believe that the language we use goes a long way in communicating what’s at our heart. If we are to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, it’s important that we use the language of ‘giving’ much more than the language of ‘getting’.

So I wonder, to whom could we be giving this week? I have found it very helpful to read this passage slowly, asking myself who are my enemies to whom I can give love, who hates me to whom I can give good, who might be cursing me that I can bless, or who has hurt me for whom I can give prayers, and so on. When we are connected with the giving nature of God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, then being giving people, living in mutually giving relationships as a giving community will show in everything we do and say.

Generous Grace (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

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What do you believe is more important: what you get or what you give?

I suspect that most of us would think the correct answer is that giving is more important than getting. We applaud and admire people who are generous with what they have, such as Bill Gates who donates a significant percentage of his fortune to those in need. I think that most of us would agree that it’s better to give than to get.

However, that’s not always the reality in our day to day life. In our consumer-driven culture, what we get can often end up being more important to us than what we give. For example, we can see this in relationships which break down because one person isn’t getting what they want from another. We can see it in our work where we look for greater job satisfaction or personal meaning out of what we do. We can also see it in the church, where people’s involvement with a community of faith depends on whether or not they are getting something out of it.

I actually hear the language of ‘getting’ a lot around the church. I hear it from people who want to ‘get’ something meaningful, relevant or enjoyable out of their experience of church. I hear it when we want to ‘get’ people more involved, ‘get’ them on positions of leadership, ‘get’ them on a roster or serving in some way, or ‘get’ people to give more money. I also regularly hear it from parents or grandparents who want to ‘get’ their children or grandchildren back to church.

In contrast, Paul wanted Christian congregations to be giving, not getting, communities. When he wrote his second letter to the church in Corinth, he talked about money he was collecting for Christians in Jerusalem who were in need. The Corinthian Christians had previously offered to give some money and Paul was encouraging them to fulfil their commitment. He wanted to test the sincerity of their love for Jesus by comparing their giving with what other congregations were contributing. Paul’s point is that Christian communities are meant to be places where people encounter the grace of Jesus through the giving of God’s people. God wants us to be giving communities, not getting communities.

Paul argues that giving is an act of faith. He gives two reasons for this. The first is that when we are willing to give to others in their need, we are trusting that God will give to us when we are in need through the people around us. Paul writes,

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
(v14 NLT)

When we trust that God will give us what we need through others, we participate with God in his grace by being the means by which he provides for others. Believing that God will always give us what we need makes us more willing to give to others. This means that we also need to learn how to receive from others. We have opportunities to participate in God’s grace through what we both give and receive. In this way, the equality Paul talks about is realized as we live in mutually giving relationships and communities. Grace isn’t just about how much you give. It’s also about the ability to receive God’s grace through others.

The second reason why Paul talks about giving as an act of faith points us to Jesus. Paul uses a financial transaction as a picture of how Jesus won salvation for us when he writes,

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.
(v9 NLT)

As the eternal Son of God, all of creation belonged to Jesus because he made it with the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up for our sake. He literally became poor when he was born in a manger. Jesus depended on the generosity of others throughout the three years of his earthly ministry. He died as a penniless pauper on the cross as the soldiers divided his clothes, Jesus’ only earthly possessions, between them. Jesus did all that so that we could become rich in the grace and love of God.

Imagine what it would be like for the richest person in the world to give everything he owned to you because he thinks you are worth it. That kind of generosity might be hard for us to comprehend, but it is a picture of the generosity of God’s grace to us in Jesus. He totally emptied himself of everything he had by going to the cross, and he gives all of himself to us as an extravagant act of selfless love. This is Paul’s understanding of grace: Jesus giving everything up so that we can live in the riches that come with being children of God whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased!

How do we grow as a community which reflects this kind of generous grace? How do we participate in the giving nature of Jesus so that others can encounter and experience Jesus’ generous grace in their relationship with us? My hope is that we might grow as a church which is known for its giving heart. There are so many opportunities to give our energy, our time, and our money so others can encounter God’s grace through us. Our congregation can only exist and do what we do because of the generous grace people show through your gifts of time, effort and money. On behalf of the congregational leadership, thanks to everyone who contributes to the life of our church for what you give!

We all give to our families, friends, work, social groups and others in many different ways. My intention is not to ask you to give to our church at their expense. Instead, Paul’s words are a reminder that we are called to be a giving community so people can experience God’s grace in relationship with us. There are many opportunities to give our congregation, from cleaning the church or serving morning tea after worship, to contributing to our financial commitments, to learning to live in the way of Jesus together in small groups. As our faith in God’s generous grace to us in Jesus grows, we will also grow in our willingness to give what God has first given us so everyone who connects with our church can experience the generous grace of God in community with us.

What is one way you might be able to ‘excel also in this gracious act of giving’?