************ Sermon on Leviticus 23:9-14 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 27, 2003
Leviticus 23:9-14; Deuteronomy 26:1-11
"The Feast of Firstfruits"
Thanksgiving Day 2003
Title: Seven Wonders of the World
A group of students were asked to list what they thought were the present "Seven Wonders of the World." Though there were some disagreements, the following received the most votes:
1. Egypt's Great Pyramids
2. Taj Mahal
3. Grand Canyon
4. Panama Canal
5. Empire State Building
6. St. Peter's Basilica
7. China's Great Wall
While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one student had not finished her paper yet. So she asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, "Yes, a little. I couldn't quite make up my mind because there were so many."
The teacher said, "Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help." The girl hesitated, then read, "I think the 'Seven Wonders of the World' are:
1. To See
2. To Hear
3. To Touch
4. To Taste
5. To Feel
6. To Laugh
7. And to Love."
The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
Isn't it amazing – the things we overlook, the wondrous things we take for granted? For these – and so much more – we are gathered together today to give thanks to God.
I want to focus our minds on giving thanks by looking at the Feast of Firstfruits in Israel.
I The Biblical Observance
A Firstfruits marked the beginning of the cereal grain harvests in Israel. Barley was the first grain to ripen. For Firstfruits, a sheaf of barley was harvested and brought to the Temple as a thanksgiving offering to the Lord for the harvest.
Leviticus 23 also specifies accompanying sacrifices: an unblemished one-year-old male lamb, a drink offering of wine, and a meal offering of the barley flour mixed with olive oil.
The people were forbidden to use any part of the harvest in any way until the firstfruits were offered to the Lord (Lev 23:14). To neglect these firstfruit offerings (or any others) was considered robbery of God (cf Mal 3:8). If this was done today that means the first check we would have to write when we get our paycheck or pension check is the check to the church.
B As I said, Firstfruits took place at the beginning of barley harvest. With each passing week, the weather in Israel turned noticeably warmer. Winter rains had ceased and cloudy days had quickly become few and far between. Looking eastward from the Temple, one could see the breathtaking view of the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley basking in the bright golden rays of the sun. Across the Kidron in an area known as the Ashes Valley, a small, open field of amber barley nestled itself against a background of grassy, green slopes and misty gray olive trees. The ripening grain, swaying gently in the soft breeze, created a relaxing, mesmerizing pattern of warm gold. At one end of the field, several bundles of barley were conspicuously marked and tied together, still uncut, in anticipation of the coming Feast of Firstfruits.
This barley field was a special field, cultivated solely for the national firstfruits offering and kept strictly in accordance with all rabbinic traditions. It had been plowed in the autumn and sown with barley in the winter some seventy days before the Feast. Constant oversight assured that the crop had grown naturally, with no artificial watering or fertilization. In the days leading up to firstfruits, several sheaves were selectively marked and bundled by representatives from the Sanhedrin.
B The night before the Feast, a three-man delegation from the Sanhedrin emerged from the Temple area, accompanied by a multitude of excited observers. The procession made its way down to the barley field to perform the Firstfruits reaping ceremony. With sickles in hand and baskets under arm, the three chosen reapers positioned themselves in readiness before the predetermined bundles of barley. As they did so, a hush fell over the crowd in recognition of the solemness of the moment. Only the soft whisper of the swaying grain could be heard. Suddenly, in unison the voices of the reapers broke the stillness of the evening with a series of questions to the onlookers: "Has the sun set?" "With this sickle?" "Into this basket?" "On this Sabbath?" "Shall I reap (now)?" Having received positive responses, the priests repeated the questions two more times as a safeguard. The marked sheaves were then reaped until two-thirds of a bushel of barley was obtained.
C In the Temple court, the grain was threshed with rods rather than oxen-drawn sledges so that the barley kernels would not be injured. It was then dried over an open flame and winnowed in the wind to remove the chaff. Finally, the barley was milled and put through an intensive sifting process until sifted very fine.
On the morning of the Feast, the firstfruits were presented to the Lord. About five pints of barley flour were mixed with about a pint of olive oil, and a small amount of frankincense was sprinkled upon it. This became the Firstfruits offering. The priest waved it before the Lord in accordance with our Scripture reading from Leviticus 23 and burned a small amount upon the altar. The remainder was given to the Levites.
D Firstfruits was a national observance, but each family also brought its respective Firstfruits offering to the Temple. Each year, Israelite farmers ritually set aside their firstfruits. Throughout the terraced hill country of Ephraim and Judah, and rolling hills of the lowlands, the ritual was frequently repeated. Farmers, followed by skipping children, ventured into the fields to mark the best of their unripened crops. A rush or cord was carefully tied around the selected firstfruits so as not to damage them. These were set apart to the Lord as each farmer declared, "Behold, these are the firstfruits." Excitement mounted daily as the firstfruits ripened and were finally harvested for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
On the morning of Firstfruits, the winding streets of Jerusalem were alive with the smell of baking bread, the sound of laughing children, the excited shouts of a woman, a baby's cry, the distant barking of dogs, the nervous bleating of sheep, and the soft cooing of turtledoves.
Outside the Temple the haunting melody of flutes sped up the hearts of those who arrived, calling forth the traditional joyful cry: "Praise God in His sanctuary" (Ps 150:1). Inside the Temple gates, choirs of Levites led the worship music with Psalm 30: "I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me ..." That scene would continue throughout the day as the Israelite nation flocked to the sanctuary of the Lord.
Glancing into the Court of the Priests, one could see orange flames on the sacrificial altar leaping toward heaven as a column of steam and blue smoke drifted slowly toward the east. A host of priests were present there: some tending the fires, some slaughtering the sacrifices, some pouring the drink offerings, and some waving the Firstfruits offerings before the Lord.
In the Court of the Israelites, a steady stream of men could be seen on the fifteen steps of the Gate, solemnly presenting their offering to the priests under its impressive archway. Many led a small white lamb on a rope. Each, in turn, stepped forward and said with great feeling, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." As they did so, they would hand the priest the lamb – or turtledoves – as a sin offering. As the priest held the sin offering, the worshiper would say a prayer to God, confessing his sin. When the sin offering was laid upon the sacrificial fire each man would stand face-to-face with the priest and repeat in Hebrew the familiar Firstfruits prayer:
(Deut 26:3) "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."Then the basket of Firstfruits barley was handed over. The priest placed his hands under the basket and slowly waved it before the Lord as the worshiper continued his prayer by saying:
(Deut 26:5,9-10) "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 ... (9) He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; (10) and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me."
With the thanksgiving prayer complete, the priest set the basket in front of the altar and cast a handful of the grain upon the altar. The worshiper fell on his face to worship the Lord, then returned to the outer courts to rejoin his family.
E What was the purpose of all this ritual and ceremony? Our text tells us:
(Deut 26:11) 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.Firstfruits was a national time of celebration – something like our Thanksgiving Day. The Israelite farmer recognized that everything came from the Lord – the milk, the honey, the grain, the lambs, the sheep, the goats, the olives, the wine. So, with his fellow Israelites he rejoiced in all the good things the Lord had given him.
Subtopic: Exhortations to
Title: Hebrew Joy
Kaufmann Kohler states in the "Jewish Encyclopedia" that no language has as many words for joy and rejoicing as does Hebrew. In the Old Testament thirteen Hebrew roots, found in twenty-seven different words, are used primarily for some aspect of joy or joyful participation in religious worship. Hebrew religious ritual demonstrates God as the source of joy. In contrast to the rituals of other faiths of the East, Israelite worship was essentially a joyous proclamation and celebration. The good Israelite regarded the act of thanking God as the supreme joy of his life. Pure joy is joy in God as both its source and object.
You are here this morning because you also recognize that all the blessings of life come from the hands of the Lord. Like the Israelite farmer, you rejoice in all the good things the Lord God has given to you and your household. And, like the Israelite farmer, you also want to present a thank offering to the Lord.
II The Application
A Though the Feast of Firstfruits dealt with the barley harvest the concept of firstfruits is much wider than the feast itself. God declared that the firstfruits of all agricultural produce belonged to Him, from grain, to wine, to oil, to fleece (Ex 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Deut 18:4; 26:2). This included all seven of the major crops of the land: barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The firstfruits of the bread dough also belonged to Him (Num 15:20-21). Furthermore, the firstborn males of all animals (Ex 22:30; Lev 27:26) and, indeed, even the firstborn of the Israelites themselves belonged to the Lord (Ex 13:2,12-15; 34:19-20; Num 3:13; 18:15-16).
According to the law of Moses, each firstborn male was to be presented to the priest at one month of age (Num 18:16). In His mercy, the Lord made provision for the firstborn son to be redeemed and thus freed from lifetime service to God. At this ceremony, it was possible to redeem the son out of full-time service through the payment of five pieces of silver to the priest (Num 18:16).
If you remember, at one month of age Jesus was also taken to the Temple for this redeeming ceremony. Mary and Joseph presented Him to the Lord:
(Lk 2:23) (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord")Significantly, it was on this occasion that Jesus was first publicly declared to be the Messiah. The godly Simeon took the Child in his arms and blessed God saying, "my eyes have seen your salvation" (Lk 2:30).
The Lord first claimed the firstborn when He struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. At that time all firstborn were under the curse of death and judgment. Escape – redemption – was possible only for those who by faith sprinkled the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes. Today, we recognize that it is not just the firstborn but every person that is under the curse of death and in need of redemption. Escape is possible only for those who have faith in the blood of the Lamb of God. On this Thanksgiving Day we would be guilty of neglect if we did not thank God for this redemption.
B In a very real way, according to the New Testament, Christians are firstfruits (Rom 16:5; James 1:18). The indwelling of Christ's Spirit transforms us sinners into the born-again people of God, the firstfruits of the entire creation which waits with longing to also be renewed. We are firstfruits. This means that we are living sacrifices meant to be waved before the Lord in joyful thanksgiving.
C However, it is Jesus Who is especially the firstfruits. The Apostle Paul can write,
(1Cor 15:20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.He is the first to be raised from the dead, never to die again. He is the first of the eternal harvest to be presented to the Father. He, more than any other, has become an offering of thanks to the Lord.
With the children of Israel we want to rejoice in all the good things the Lord our God has given to us. We rejoice in the good things of life. We rejoice in redemption. We rejoice in being born again by the Spirit of Christ. We rejoice in Christ, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
With the children of Israel we want to present a joyful firstfruits offering of thanks to the Lord.
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