Give the best - Deuteronomy 26:1-15

This is a sermon by Graham Sayer from the evening service on 23rd July 2006.

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‘I know my daddy is with Jesus, but I miss him and I wish he would come down and play with me once in a while’

‘Please God, help me to be both mummy and daddy’

These prayers and many others like them punctuated the aftermath of what happened on January 8th 1956 on a remote beach in Ecuador, South America.

5 missionary men had been killed by the Auca Indians they had been trying to reach with the good news about Jesus… it was a report that shocked the western world.

But even though it was terribly sad for the families of those men… there was a peace and assurance among them all…

No doubt among them at all… these husbands and fathers were with Christ.

These families, long before this immense loss had come to hold with conviction their answer to this question that Jesus Christ asked his followers…

Mark 8:34-36

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?  

These are words that cause problems today aren’t they? Anyone, including Christians, living at a time like ours, in a society that is always looking to the next thing to give pleasure, security, comfort, satisfaction and much more… these words don’t fit with that… they grate… they are a problem…

Jesus is thinking ‘What good is it to get, get, get… in this life and miss out on the life that really matters? What is the point of accumulating things and experiences in this 80 years …and then losing the life to come?’

And the trouble is that people today can’t see beyond those 80 years. Maybe you’re the same? Certainly the temptation to go with that particular flow is a strong one… but to do so waters down the breathtaking – radical – liberated nature of what it is to follow Jesus Christ.

And it puts us in danger of giving the wrong answer… if not from our mouths… then from the testimony of our lives…

For the world and our sinful nature cry out to shout ‘You get the whole world! …maybe even NOW! It’s certainly worth going for isn’t it?’

And Jesus warns quietly ‘But what about your soul?’ Your eternal soul?

Well, believe it or not… how we answer that question will show whether we understand what Deuteronomy 26 is all about?

2 ceremonies make up our passage… 2 religious ritual observances… 2 descriptions of activities that as we read them, probably did not take your breath away, because that’s really how we view this sort of Bible passage isn’t it?… and many others like it. Dry. Dense details aimed at a bunch of people living, it seems to us, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away! But unlike Star Wars there don’t seem to be any special effects that rivet our attention…

            …which is why we need to hold in our minds what Jesus said. He is the special effect that makes the whole Bible a ‘must see’, ‘must hear’ blockbuster!

In that light, Deut 26 actually correlates very closely to what we should be doing right now as the church of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! It informs our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ – it adds richness… it embellishes our understanding of what God has done for his people.

With the distinctive note of thankfulness & celebration for God’s grace …and in the light of that, also a challenge to respond appropriately, in declaring obedience to God we have arguably the 2 central themes of the whole book – entirely appropriate to those people as they looked toward the fulfilment of God’s promises then, …but no less so for us tonight…  

These are 2 huge things, then, that God’s people in all times must remember, whether they lived 3500 years ago or right here and now. Firstly then…

Remember God’s grace

            God’s perfect promise v1-4

26:1 When you have entered the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it,

2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land that the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name

3 and say to the priest in office at the time,

"I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land that the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."

4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.

Look at the land in these verses…the LORD is ‘giving’ you v1, v2, the LORD swore …to ‘give’ us v3.

This is the land of Canaan, just over from where these people were listening to Moses. The promised land – not like the promises we make in which there is always a possibility of failure… certainty is everywhere in these verses… It isn’t ‘if’ you get to the promised land but ‘when’ you get it and have taken possession of it.

And with that in mind there is a special significance of this first particular ceremony of the firstfruits here… it would be a first for God’s people… never before had they inhabited their own land and been able to enjoy its fruits!… as a nation they had known only slavery and oppression… certainly working the land but under a curse that would not easily be forgotten - etched into their collective memory by pain and suffering and constant crying out for freedom. But then there was God’s promise… in the future was the promised land.

Something so alien to their experience that it would be breathtaking to think about …let alone contemplate actually possessing such a place.

But God reminds them through Moses that the promise is good… and that must be remembered. Not simply ‘calling to mind’ -  something which might remain passive… No, remembrance in God’s wise provision involved regular active participation… here in giving of some of the firstfruits.

So it would be so poignant! …and they’d have to resist the urge to gorge themselves on the fruit of the land in order to remember God’s grace… his promise made good.

It would be like a harvest festival as each individual would bring the first-fruits and make a solemn declaration to the priest, in v3 before God…

"I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land that the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."

What a great day that would be for them! With their hands full of God’s blessing to them in the fulfilment of his covenant promises!

Can you see what encouragement it was to the people that Moses gives these instructions when he did… in the certainty of God’s promise… in spite of battle ahead – ‘with God’ there would be conquest and rest, and ‘with God’, although there would be the hard work of farming, there would be abundant fruit too! And all of it from the riches of God’s grace. All of it because God made a promise that he would keep perfectly!

But what about us?

What difference does it make that our promised land is ‘the new heavens and the new earth?’ What difference does it make to us right now that our future is secure in the promise of God? Does it have any effect at all? The problem facing Christian’s such as ourselves today is that we entertain the thought that this is, or could be the promised land… or functionally we live as if we need to make here and now into the promised land… into the place of rest… into the place of bliss…

but when we entertain those thoughts… do you see what we are doing?  

We are trusting a different promise… and an imperfect one at that. We need to hear Jesus again ‘Whoever wants to save his life… will lose it’. We must recognise this land for what it is. We’re surrounded daily by the slavery to sin which used to rule us… and which will offer every opportunity for our sinful natures to gorge themselves… and what we need to do to reach the promised land is to remember the promise of God…

            Our promised land is the new heavens and the new earth… yet to come in fullness but here now in part as we enter the kingdom of God… and so we can join Paul in Philippians, confident that ‘our citizenship is in heaven!’

Part of remembering God’s grace is holding on to the promise of God… which is certain. But we also need to remember…

            Our humbling history v5-9

5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God:

 "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.

6 But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labour.

7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.

8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.

9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;

You can’t miss the contrast here can you? On the one hand the miserable suffering and impotence of God’s people… and on the other hand, the omnipotence – the awesome power of the LORD. Themes that form the content of another solemn declaration before the LORD in v5, have a look at it.

It’s a declaration of identity. That the person who declares it is accepting certain facts and a certain heritage… the story so far of the people of God…

But it’s also a declaration of human weakness… the story of God’s people in all times and places…

So it’s also a declaration of dependence… It is the LORD alone who has exercised his divine power in judgment and rescue…the upshot of which is that v9 ‘He brought us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

This isn’t the arrogant, proud boast of the independent, self sufficient survivor! There is no hint of ‘well, me ancestors had it tough but they got through it alright in the end! – fightin’ quality! …that’s what we got in our genes!’

This is humility. It has to be humility. Nothing else fits their experience. This is recognition of reality. This is proof of receipt of God’s grace, through remembering the facts.

That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s supper… communion… and that’s why we say prayers like the prayer of humble access… it helps us to remember the facts… and those facts lead us to a humble plea for God to give us more grace.

Remember God’s grace… His perfect promise and our humbling history. And if you don’t remember those… then you’ll have no chance with our second point…

Remember your obedience

What should people who have remembered God’s grace look like? What should they do? Will they be any different from anyone else?

Can you take the forgiveness that God offers us all in Jesus Christ, come along to church, receive God’s word and direction, solemnly remember Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf in communion…confess that Jesus is Lord of your life…

…and then grab back the reins of your life the moment you walk out the door… off for another week living like the pagans do! Living for self… no room for God… and with an idea of grace that makes it something not to be humbly accepted, but selfishly exploited…Can you do that?

Of course you can! People did when Paul was around. Remember Romans 6 ‘Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?’ Shall we? Of course you can…. But you mustn’t!

….‘By no means!’. How could you think such a thing!

And the same for these people… for all the solemn declarations they make… and for all their ‘remembering’ of God’s grace… it would be the worst sort of ‘going through the motions’ without active obedience…

            …obedience shown in…

Our right response v10-14

10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me."

Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him.

11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

13 Then say to the LORD your God:

"I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.

14 I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me.

These people, ‘when’ they were ‘given’ the promised land, they were to ‘bring the firstfruits of the soil that you O LORD have given me’ v10. 

An act which would, in a poignant and moving way,  endorse the declarations they would make.

The obedience here is not to ‘pay for’ or ‘merit’ or ‘deserve’ God’s grace in some way… because that is the breathtaking beauty of grace – it is by definition underserved. No, it is the obedience that recognises that grace is the bedrock of a personal relationship with God… and so the motivation is not one of self justifying…

It is one of devotedness and thankfulness and just look at the outcome in v11 – no religious drudgery there! No coercion there! Joy sparked by the riches of God’s grace because of so much given and so much humbly received!

Now just before we move on from the firstfruits it’s very interesting what you find regarding ‘offering of firstfruits’ in the NT! Best of all is this I think!... Here is Revelation 14 and in v4 the talk is about Christian’s

Revelation 14:4

...they were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.

So whereas in Deuteronomy, God’s people were instructed to offer first-fruits to God as the right response to his promise fulfilled about Canaan…in the NT it is God’s people themselves who are offered to God and to the Lamb as the firstfruits… as those who have been ‘purchased through the blood of Christ’.

So never mind you and I bringing the firstfruits… you and I are the firstfruits – the tangible reminder of the goodness of God’s promise… is YOU Christian – did you know that?

So no wonder Paul urges us in Romans 12v1 ‘to offer our bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God… Why? In view of God’s ‘mercy’… offer the firstfruits… in remembrance of His perfect promise …offer the firstfruits… in view of our humbling history of human weakness and God’s saving power… offer the firstfruits… offer yourselves… that is how we offer the firstfruits! That is what might be called ‘graceful obedience’ and it is the right response for Christians.

Is that your response? Our title tonight is ‘Give the best’. A church I went when at university used to put little quotes and devotional ditties on its news sheets… I’ll never forget one of them… ‘Do you give what is right or what is left?’ It’s a bit cheesy but the more you think about it the more challenging it becomes…

… is yours the right response or the tight response? Are you still calculating 10% of your time and money to 3 decimal places… and rounding down… instead of offering everything that you are and everything that you can do in graceful obedience to your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

That brings us nicely on to the tithe… or more precisely the ‘triennial tithe’ which was a 10% collection from everyone every 3 years which was given to those without land… namely the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow. It adds another facet to our right response to God’s grace, look at v12-14. Two quick points here…

…firstly, that in remembering our obedience to God, God’s people are bound to be remembering other people in care and compassion… especially, as here, those who are particularly vulnerable and who have no entitlement by right or circumstance to meet basic physical needs. It would be particularly crass if those who in the past knew the bitterness and deprivation of slavery in Egypt, through neglect allow their own people to experience the same or similar in God’s promised land!

It is a mark of our obedience that we see people as God sees them… and we act accordingly… The 10% here in this tithe is a specific requirement to cover specific and known situations. It did not release God’s people from the responsibility to ‘love their neighbour as they love themselves’. No use saying I’ve paid my 10! So tough!      Just as we must not say ‘I’ve paid my taxes into the welfare state’ and walk past someone in genuine desperate straits on the other side of the road!

The key issue was always the meeting of needs and the solution to those needs is always the obedience of God’s people! The early chapters of Acts that we looked at last week show the way for this to happen in the church. Keyword was ‘generosity’. Giving what is right not what is left!

…secondly, though, God’s people, having remembered his grace, and seeking to be obedient …don’t then forget who God is…

So v13 ‘I have not turned aside from your commands, nor have I forgotten any of them’. There is a determination to respect God’s holiness by being obedient here… which comes out at the end like this, v14 ‘I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me.’

I wonder if you can say that that is your aim as a Christian? You see the trouble is that where obedience is concerned or rather commanded, we suddenly fancy we can sniff a hint of legalism… obedience that we might seek to justify ourselves with… that we are good and God should recognise that!... at least other people should! So with a spiritual reflex, knee jerk reaction we supposedly jump into the deep pool of God’s grace …often at the expense of obedience…

            …but friends, if that is you then you have a distorted view of following Jesus… you are thinking of obedience in terms of religion and religious observance. Religiosity. But to get the right view you need to be thinking relationship. That is what following Jesus is all about and that is the setting for Christian obedience.

This is my third sermon in 3 weeks… and in every single one we have come back to relationship… subjects have been ‘testing prophecy’, ‘The Praise of God’ and now ‘give the best’ and they all contain the fundamental element of relationship – it’s so, so fundamental to our understanding of the Christian life! 

Where religious legalism says ‘Do, Do, Do’ you’re not good enough yet!…grace says ‘Done.’ You are forgiven!’ And then its discipline, rather than legalism – that steps in with the right response, because all has been forgiven in Christ. DONE… therefore the right response is of course …obey!

It is self-discipline, framed by my wife’s love for me, that motivates me to love her… and remain true to her… even if I haven’t done everything she commanded me!

End of v14 ‘I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me.’ That is a personal relational, willing obedience.

So what about you? How is your obedience? To give the best we must give what is right… not legalistic piety… but loving, graceful obedience.

One thing we can’t say is that obedience doesn’t matter can we? It is crystal clear how much you love and respect someone by the way you respond to their likes, dislikes and the rest of it.

And it is crystal clear also what you think of God by the way you respond to God’s likes and dislikes. Remember your obedience… because it is the right response…

…but finally Remember your obedience because it secures…

            God’s boundless blessing v15

15 Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling-place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey."

As you ‘remember God’s grace’ and you ‘remember your obedience’ you do it because you have begun to understand what you’ve received in God’s grace and why the only appropriate response is obedience to God… you’ve begun to understand what being in relationship with God is all about…

You’ve understood who God is, what he has done, what he will do in the future as his promise extends forward to the day of its complete fulfilment.

You’ve understood, very simply, that to be living in right relationship with God is to put yourself in the way of God’s blessing…

For Israel in Deuteronomy it would be blessing on the land and the people… from God who is in heaven.

But for us, it causes us to look forward to our land, promised by word and by blood, …to look forward to the time when we will see God face to face in the eyes of Jesus, as we enjoy the new heavens and the new earth… but until then we ask that he will look down from heaven and bless his people and help us to remember his grace and to remember our obedience until we get there!

And if you think you know what blessing is now… and all Christians should regularly read Ephesians 1 - as we were at the central meeting - to be reminded that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ NOW… and many of us here can testify to that after perhaps many years of living the Christian life… but if we are blessed now …just wait until then! We’ll get to know what boundless means!

Jim Elliot was one of those slaughtered on that remote south American beach in 1956… he knew all about God’s grace… and he knew all about obedience… His most famous words were these ‘He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose…

            …was he right?

Just ask the wife who mourned him, and eventually saw the day that his murderers were saved through the gospel of Christ… the same gospel Jim had given his life for… she’ll say YES!

And just listen to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who said…

Mark 8:35

… whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

It doesn’t mean that you will be killed on a remote beach… although it doesn’t mean that you won’t.

It does mean that following Christ is a total commitment… which you as the blood bought firstfruits are to display… in remembrance of God’s grace …and by remembering your obedience…

And it does mean that it is definitely worth it!

Brothers and Sisters, ‘Give God what is right… not what is left…’ Joyfully and thankfully give him the best!

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