The First of All the Fruit
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.
“A Firm Belief In Our Values”. This was the idealistic title of the September 2013 document released by Quebec’s Parti Quebecois’ for promoting the establishment of Quebec’s Charter of Values. Under the rubric of “Affirming Quebec values” the document declared: “Contributions by Quebecers of all origins have enabled us to build an open society that shares fundamental values. These values defining Quebec society and constituting a form of social contract are, among others, equality between men and women, religious neutrality of Quebec’s public institutions, and recognition of a common historic heritage.”
This proposal to amend the (Quebec) Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms “to entrench the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of public institutions” has sparked a wide ranging debate. My question for you is this: do you believe in commonly held “values”? The assumption of this whole project is that insistence on a set of “defining values” will “maintain social peace and promote harmony”; “clear rules on religious accommodations will contribute to integration and social cohesion.”
Do you believe in “values”? If we simply could find the values common to us all and lift them up above everything else will this make for social harmony? It would appear that the framers of Quebec’s Values Charter think so. This is not to suggest that values are unimportant; but ought we to believe in them.
1. “… you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” Entrenched into the law that governed the life of God’s people Israel was an annual feast known as the feast of first fruits; it was a feast of thanksgiving to God. This feast of thanksgiving—an act of worship, to be sure—embedded into the rhythm of Jewish life arises out of the reality in which the whole of their existence takes place. The observance of this feast tells the story of the nature of life as it unfolds. It isn’t to be relegated to some category called “religious” and therefore insignificant; rather it is an observance that arises out of the very ground of existence itself.
When they presented their first fruit offering to the priest a story was recited; a story that was the framework for their life—a story that described what they believed about how life was grounded. Life was so much more than the daily work of planting, tending, and harvesting crops. These daily activities took their meaning in a reality much deeper. Listen again to the story they recited. Listen for the way this story shapes what they believed about the nature of the life they lived.
‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’
Please note that it isn’t a common value that grounds their existence as if “thanksgiving” was a value that in and of itself could hold life together. The story they told is underpinned by the truth that their life is grounded in God. It was to the Lord they cried; it was the Lord who heard their voice and saws their affliction; it was the Lord who delivered them from slavery; it was the Lord who gave them everything they needed for life. The act of thanksgiving implies a relationship; a relationship with God.
I find curious much of the cultural discussion about the annual celebration of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, in much of our media, is spoken of as a depersonalized disposition or demeanour; it is never said to whom we ought to be expressing such gratitude. It is as if thanksgiving was merely a posture of heart or attitude of the mind to be adopted; in it secularized version thanksgiving operates as a reflective pause from our self-absorption. But doesn’t thanks by its very nature imply personal relationship of some sort. I say “thank you” to the person who made me a cup of coffee; I don’t say thank you to the cup of coffee for being coffee. (Unless it is a particularly stressful day).
Thanksgiving implies personal relationship; that someone has done for someone else. “I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” Thanksgiving by its very nature bespeaks an “I” and a “you”. A person says “thank you” to their spouse for preparing a meal; one would be ill-advised to thank the plate for the meal that has appeared on it. Apart from an “I” and a “you” in relationship thanksgiving has lost its meaning.
Every year, as the Jewish person made this offering of first fruit, the story of their existence was recited; a story that described the nature of life itself. It was a life lived in relationship to God. Every aspect of life was included in this relationship. I read things like Quebec’s charter of values that sets to one side as divisive beliefs about God; such charters view life very differently from the gospel. Values are given pre-eminence. This vision of life guided by belief-in-values, sets a direction for how life is understood and lived on a very different trajectory than does this vision of a life guided by thanksgiving to God that is imbedded in the gospel story.
The modern world operates on a myth that needs to be exposed—that a person can jettison any faith in God and rest only on science or reason or self-authentication and still have meaning in life, a basis for human dignity, moral consensus, shared values, and a strong community. Quebec, as a case on point, having jettisoned God from state institutions now finds the need to legislate shared values.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans the Apostle spells out the guilt of humankind before God that “though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:20-21) Thanklessness to God is a key sign of broken relationship with God; it is the initial outworking of corrupted hearts. The Apostle would also write: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) Just as in the recitation during the first fruit offering Paul would have made year by year, Paul reminds us that thanksgiving to God is our proper response in all of life.
2. The gospel is embedded in this story confessed at the offering of first fruits. The story speaks of God who makes the first move. In the story of God’s encounter with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob it was God who makes the first move towards them; it was God who made incursion into their lives. As the worshipper brought her offering to God she understood she made this confession to “the Lord your God,” meaning her God. The worshipper remembers this story because it is the present reality of the worshipper’s life; as God had made incursion into the lives of these ancestors so too God was making incursion into the worshipper’s life. The reality of God presence was the same.
In the Hebrew mind remembering is never merely a calling to mind; it is not just a mental exercise; never merely ideation. Remembering is to bring to life in the present the past reality. When Jesus gave us his supper as a sacrament for our ongoing sustenance in the faith he told us to do this for the remembrance of him. This is never merely an exercise to call Jesus to mind. When we share communion it is to know that he is present with us now as he was present with those first disciples; it is to apprehend that we are in his presence and receive the elements of bread and wine from his hand. As Jesus was the reality of the lives of those first followers so too he his ours.
Our Hebrew fore-parents lived in the knowledge that it was God who made the first move towards them. We too live out of this gospel story; profoundly grateful that the Lord Jesus sought us out and made us his own. He came seeking and rescuing we who were lost.
Our Hebrew fore-parents also knew they were a rescued people—rescued from bondage. We too tell the gospel story of being freed from sin. Now the category of sin is not one commonly used in our society. Perhaps we can consider Jesus’ rescue of us from another angel of vision; by speaking of the corruption of human hearts. How is it that I can imagine hurtful things to be done to other people; how is it that I can want harm to those who do hurtful things to me? Why do I lash out at the ones I say I love the most? How is it that out of the same heart that can imagine doing wonderful good for another, bitterness can bubble up and imagine hateful acts to do to others? Jesus rescues from the penalty and power of that corruption; that we are no longer held by its power but freed to walk in company with him.
At this offering of first fruit the worshipper also knew he had been rescued by the power of God with a terrifying display of power. We too know that terrifying display of power at the cross when it appeared to us that God was his most powerless; hanging limp[ on a cross. Yet here the gospel assures us he was most powerful; it was here that all sin, and wrong, and hurt was reconciled. It was here that the evil one was defeated and God’s great rescue plan to reconcile all things to himself was set in motion.
The gift of Jesus Christ is inexpressible just because it is the one gift, the only gift anywhere in life, which isn't marred by the Fall. This gift has no downside, no qualification, no reservation, isn’t impaired in any way. In giving us what is dearest to him—his eternal Son—God has given us himself. At what cost we can only glimpse dimly, yet glimpse enough to know that the cost is as inestimable as the gift is inexpressible.
The Apostle Paul exclaimed "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" (2 Corinthians. 9:16) His exclamation is effusive—"inexpressible gift!”—just because the apostle's experience of the gift is so rich. He knew that as the risen Lord stole into his heart the myriad confusions and contradictions in his life disappeared. No longer did he think it was God-honouring to persecute Christians. No longer did he think that only his ethnic group made up the people of God. No longer did he think that favourable standing with God was something he had to achieve, could achieve, or had achieved. He knew himself gathered up in an embrace that freed him to give up his misguided frenzy.
God great gift can't be expressed, but can be held in one's heart, can become the truth which quietly transforms us and informs us for the rest of our lives, can become the foundational certainty which sustains us in our living and will see us through our dying. "He loved me, and gave himself for me."
3. Please also note the order in this first fruits confession. It is at the end of the confession that the worshiper would say, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” God was first known as the saviour, as the rescuer from bondage, as the hearer of prayer and then is confessed as the God who gives the fruit of the ground. We know God first as Saviour and then understand that this God who loves us so much he gave himself for us is also our creator. He is also the one who gives life to plants and their increase to the stage of fruitfulness out of which our lives are sustained. God knows that without bread we don’t live at all.
So rich is the creation, so marvellously diverse, that the universe is wonder upon wonder without end. Vast and rich as the creation is, the Creator himself can only be vaster and richer. Today, on Thanksgiving Sunday, I am led to wonder and gratitude and adoration as I consider the universe which has come from God's hand.
Take sea birds, for example, the are the best navigators (not needing GPS). Best of all is the shearwater. One of them, taken from its nest and transported 3,200 miles away, returned to its nest 12.5 days later. In other words, the bird had flown, on average, 10.5 miles per hour, 24 hours per day, 12.5 days, and had found its way to the nest from which it had been taken.
Think about the sun for a moment. The sun is gas, pure hydrogen gas, held together by gravity. While we usually think of gas as light and airy, the hydrogen gas of the sun is heavy, so dense that there isn't a person here who could carry a four-litre milk bag of it—since a milk bag of the sun's hydrogen gas weighs 400 pounds.
When we Christians come to worship on Thanksgiving Sunday we come confessing this gospel story we have outlined a moment ago. Our Saviour Jesus Christ who gave himself for us—a self-giving so profound as to be inexpressible in wonder—yet can be embraced and received in our lives. This same Lord Jesus Christ is our creator and sustainer of life. As Canada celebrates Thanksgiving tomorrow it seems to me that Christians ought to be the most excited.
Happy Thanksgiving! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.