The Blessing of the First Things

April 14, 2013

The Blessing of First Things
(Many of the concepts in this message come from Robert
Morris’s book “The Blessed Life”)
Well, here we are week two of Money Month.  If you are visiting or new to Cornerstone
each year we take the month of April to teach the theology of giving.   Almost a dozen years ago I decided that
instead of simply preaching in response to any given financial crisis in the
church that I would take the time to teach those who call Cornerstone their church
home why giving is a proper response to the love and Grace of God.  You understand, God doesn’t need you to give
for His sake. God is God, the entire universe is his.  So if he doesn’t need us to give for his sake
than it must be that he wants us to give for our sake.   Our
giving shapes our response to God.
Last week I looked at the fact that God wants to bless us,
thus the theme of this year “The Blessed Life.” 
We saw how the concept of God’s blessing is seen in the first chapter of
the first book of the bible, in the last chapter of the last book of the bible
and scattered throughout the bible.
And that blessing comes when we are faithful with what God
has given us and we are obedient to the commands of Christ.  And that shouldn’t surprise us.  And while the bible talks about the many
blessings that God gives to his people it certainly doesn’t shy away from
financial blessings.  But the blessed
life doesn’t mean the blessed cheque book it means the blessed life, a life
lived in obedience in the presence of God. 
This week I want to look at the Blessing of the First
Things.  Which brings us to the scripture
that was read for us today.
At first it seems like one of those weird Old Testament
things.  You know the ones, they leave
you scratching your head and thinking. . . huh? 
And there are a few of those, things and stories we don’t understand
lessons that were for people who lived in a different land and a different
culture. 
And sometimes it’s hard for us to get our head around things
that happened in a desert 3,000 years ago.  
For that matter think back to the sixties and seventies and there are
things that are difficult to understand from fifty years ago.
But if we actually take the
time to work through this one, we get an explanation.
Exodus 13 begins with these
words:  Exodus
13:1-2
Then the LORD said to Moses,
“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be
born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  And then God explains to Moses why he
requires the dedication of the first born. 
As a part of that explanation God establishes the Passover Celebration
so the people wouldn’t forget their deliverance.
This story in Exodus happens
right after the Exodus, that is right after the people of Israel have been
delivered by God from the slavery of Egypt. 
It is here that he establishes the celebration of the Passover so that
his people would never forget what He had done for them.  And the Passover is still celebrated around
the world by Jews for the same reason that it was instituted 3000 years ago.
But after God gives Moses
direction about the Passover Celebration He returns to the original theme.  That is the passage that was read for us this
morning, Exodus 13:11-12 “This is what you must do when the LORD fulfills the promise
he swore to you and to your ancestors. When he gives you the land where the
Canaanites now live, you must present all firstborn sons and firstborn male
animals to the LORD, for they belong to him.
It is here that God decrees
that the first of all things born to his people belonged to him.  And so this was the law, if your first born
was a son then he was dedicated to God and a sacrifice was made: not the child,
just to make that clear.    The child was
symbolically given back to the Lord, we kind of do that with baby dedications
today.  And then the parent’s presented a
sacrifice that was them purchasing the child back from God.  Remember from the Christmas story Luke 2:22-23 Then it was time for their
purification offering, as required by the law of Moses after the birth of a
child; so his parents took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The law
of the Lord says, “If a woman’s first child is a boy, he must be dedicated to
the LORD.”
In the case of acceptable
animals, that is those which could be eaten under Jewish law the first born was
presented to the Priests for sacrifice, the idea of animal sacrifice seems
weird to us today and somehow unbecoming but we aren’t talking about today it
was 3000 years ago.  The animal was
killed and a portion was offered to God and the remainder was used to care for
the Priests and their families. 
In the case of an unclean
animal, one that was not permitted to be eaten under the law, a clean animal
was offered.  So, something unclean could
be redeemed through the sacrifice of something that was clean, that’s the
entire gospel message right there.
And so we are told in Exodus 13:13 A firstborn donkey may be bought
back from the LORD by presenting a lamb or young goat in its place.  And then it goes on to say But if you do not buy it back, you
must break its neck. However, you must buy back every firstborn son.
Did you catch that?  If you didn’t give the animal back to the
Lord you were going to lose it anyway. 
There is probably a full sermon there. 
Personally I have never benefited from any of God’s money that I
kept.  I discovered years ago if I didn’t
give God what was his I gave it to someone. 
A mechanic, carpenter but I certainly didn’t get to keep it. 
And maybe you are still
wondering: Why?  And maybe that would
have been the same question that the children of the Israelites would have
asked.  Perhaps when the oldest child got
to be old enough to understand what was happening around the farm he would have
asked his father: Dad, I don’t understand, we are supposed to be in the farming
business but every time one of our animals has their first offspring you give
it away to be sacrificed.   Isn’t that
counter intuitive? Aren’t we are giving away our profits?
And that would provide the
opportunity for the father to tell his son; 
Son we weren’t always farmers, there was a time that we were slaves.
It’s spelled out in Exodus
13:14-15
“And in
the future, your children will ask you, ‘What does all this mean?’ Then you
will tell them, ‘With the power of his mighty hand, the LORD brought us out of
Egypt, the place of our slavery. Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, so
the LORD killed all the firstborn males throughout the land of Egypt, both
people and animals. That is why I now sacrifice all the firstborn males to the
LORD—except that the firstborn sons are always bought back.’
The First Born Was Given In Remembrance 
And so when you write your cheque for your tithe, or put cash in
your envelope, or look at your monthly bank statement and see your debit for
Cornerstone it isn’t out of obligation, it isn’t because Denn guilted you into
giving. 
You give because your remember
that you weren’t always free that once you were a slave.  You give because you remember the grace and
forgiveness that made you a new person. 
You give because you remember that it wasn’t because of  anything you did and it was because of
everything God did. And I think that everyone of us should let our kids know
what we give and then use that as an opportunity to tell our children why we
give, what our God has done for us.
But it wasn’t just the first
born that God asked for.    
 Later in the book of Exodus we read Exodus 23:19 “As you
harvest your crops, bring the very best of the first harvest to the house of
the LORD your God.  In some
translations this is referred to as the first fruit.  This was the very first portion of the
harvest that was gathered.  The law
didn’t require that you collect the entire harvest and then decide what you
would give to God.  This was a statement
of faith.
The first part of your harvest,
the first grain that was cut the first fruit that was picked, the first
vegetables that were harvested belonged to God. 
And remember there was no
guarantee that there would be more.  The
first harvest could be followed by a drought, or a flood.  But the giving of the first fruits was a
statement of faith. 
The first story of giving is
recorded very early in the bible.  It is
the story of two of Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel.  Maybe you remember the story.  It is recorded in Genesis chapter four.  It would appear that Cain was a farmer and
Abel was a shepherd because the older brother we are told presented crops while
the younger brother presented a lamb. 
And the bible tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected
Cain’s.  And some people say they don’t understand
why one was acceptable and one wasn’t.   But we should figure it out, because if there
are acceptable offering and unacceptable ones I want to give what is
acceptable. 
The answer is in the original
account of the story.  Genesis 4:3-4 When it was time for the harvest,
Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the LORD. Abel also brought a
gift—the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. Did you catch
that?  “ain presented “some of his crops”
and Abel gave “The best of the firstborn lambs” 
When we give to God, notice I
didn’t say if we give to God.  When we
give to God do we give him the first or the last?  When you get paid is the first cheque
written, the first online transaction performed your offering to God? 
You see if giving the first
born is a remembrance of all that God has done for us The First Fruit was given in recognition.  Recognition that all we have comes from
God.  We talked about this last week, how
easy it is to remove God from the equation, to say “I work hard for my Money”.  But who gives us the ability and opportunity
to be able to earn that money?   
Are we afraid that if we give
God the first part then there won’t be anything left for us?  That God will allow our children to starve
because we are faithful to Him?  When we
recognize that what we have isn’t ours it should make it easier to return it to
the one it comes from.  
I know it’s weird I empty my
pockets before I preach.  And seriously I
don’t know why.  It’s just something I
do, I take my keys and wallet out before I leave my office, I know it’s just
weird.
  Now suppose I got as far as the sound booth
and realized that I still had my wallet with me and so I gave it to Mike to
hold for me.  You still with me?  After the service I would expect Mike to give
me back my wallet, and he shouldn’t be resentful, after all it isn’t his wallet
it is my wallet, he was just holding it for me.
Last week we looked at the
parable of the talents and talked about how everything we have, our talents,
our abilities our resources have been given to us by God and he expects us to
use them wisely and faithfully.   And we
talked about how you would never be held accountable for what God had given me
and I would never be accountable for what God has given you.   In the same way you should be willing to do
your part, return to God the first fruit and be willing to believe that he will
honour that and that you won’t be in need because of  your faithfulness.  Solomon wrote in Proverbs 3:9-10 Honour the LORD with your wealth and with the best
part of everything you produce. Then he will fill your barns with grain, and
your vats will overflow with good wine.
So what do we have, We are to give the first born in
remembrance of what God has done for us. 
And we are to give the first fruit in recognition of the fact that all
we have comes from God.  But it doesn’t
finish there. 
There is a cool story in the book of 2 Chronicles.  It involves a King by the name of
Hezekiah.  Now I would assume that not
everyone here is familiar with Hezekiah. 
Remember after Solomon died Israel split into a Northern Kingdom and a
Southern Kingdom?  And each kingdom had
its own King.  Some were good but most
were bad.  Goes back to the old adage
that first coined by Lord Acton, the British historian, “Power tends
to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Hezekiah was one of the good Kings.
We are told this about him in 2 Chronicles 29:2 He did what was pleasing in the LORD’s sight, just as his ancestor David
had done.
Part of what he did was to
reject the false gods that were being worshipped in the Kingdom and led the
people back to worshiping the true God and restored the temple. 
And Hezekiah knew if that was
going to happen that it would require sacrifice.   And so let’s pick up the story.  In 2 Chronicles chapter 31 we see the initial
process of re-instituting the temple worship in Jerusalem.  2 Chronicles 31:2-3
Hezekiah then organized the priests and
Levites into divisions to offer the burnt offerings and peace offerings, and to
worship and give thanks and praise to the LORD at the gates of the Temple. The
king also made a personal contribution of animals for the daily morning and
evening burnt offerings, the weekly Sabbath festivals, the monthly new moon
festivals, and the annual festivals as prescribed in the Law of the LORD.
The very first part of his plan
involved equipping and empowering the priests and Levites.  These were the men who did what had to be
done on a daily basis to keep the temple running and making sure that
everything was in place for the people to offer sacrifices and worship.  And Hezekiah knew that this wasn’t only a
spiritual exercise it was also a practical exercise. 
He knew that if this was going
to become a reality that it would involve giving.  In verse three it tells us that “The king
also made a personal contribution. . .”  
So the giving started at the very top but that isn’t where it ended, so
let’s move into Verse 4
2
Chronicles 31:4
In addition, he required the
people in Jerusalem to bring a portion of their goods to the priests and
Levites, so they could devote themselves fully to the Law of the LORD.
The next verse records the
response of the people.  2 Chronicles 31:5 The people of Israel responded
immediately and generously by bringing the first of their crops and grain, new
wine, olive oil, honey, and all the produce of their fields. They brought a
large quantity—a tithe of all they produced.   Did you catch the last part of that
verse They brought a large quantity —– a tithe of all they produced.  Tithe is just a spiritual term for a
tenth.  The people were required to bring
a portion and the portion they brought was ten percent, we’ll talk more about
that next week. 
So what was the tithe required
for here?  The King was under no illusion
that resuming worship in the temple would be free or even cheap.  And He knew that if he simply assumed that
people would give, they probably wouldn’t or wouldn’t give enough. 
Because my sermon preparation
involves spending a fair amount of time with the people of the past I am continually
amazed at how little people have changed through the years. People’s passions,
motives and thought process were very much the same three thousand years ago as
they are today.  
And so I would suspect that
Hezekiah was probably well aware of the potential for people to either
underestimate what it costs for the temple or overestimate how much others
would give to support the temple and things haven’t changed.  Through the years I continue to be amazed
that   people either underestimate what
it costs for the church or overestimate how much others will give to support
the church.
In the first case I don’t think
it is a matter of neglect as much as a matter of ignorance.  People either don’t think about it at all or
they don’t do the math. 
I didn’t.  Until I started pastoring it never crossed my
mind.  The church was there when I
arrived to worship, it was warm, the lights were on, the building was clean,
the pastor was there and he preached the water was turned on and never once did
it cross my mind:  “I wonder how they pay
for this?”  and if that thought had of
crossed my mind I’m not sure that I would have been bright enough to have
connected the dots and figured out how much it cost. 
And Hezekiah knew that if the
people of God were going to resume worship in the temple than there were
expenses that would be involved. 
So if the first born was given
in remembrance and the first fruit was given in recognition, then The First Tithe Was Brought In Obedience   I need you to notice something here, the
tithe was not given, it was brought.  And
maybe you are thinking “What’s the difference?” 
the difference is you can’t give someone what already belongs to
them.   
Imagine if it was a beautiful
spring day, I said you would have to use your imagination here, and Pastor
Jason came to me and asked if he could use my Smart Car for the day so he could
put down the roof and he and Marla could drive out to Peggy’s cove and have a
picnic.  And I said “yes”, remember this
in only an illustration.
At the end of the day if Pastor
Jason came to me and said “Denn, Marla and I would like to bless you by giving
you this Smart Car convertible”   I would
say, in love “You are an idiot!  You
can’t give me what already belongs to me, you are simply bringing it to
me.” 
You can’t give what doesn’t
belong to you and so you can’t give your tithe to God, you can only bring it to
Him.  Nowhere in the Bible does it tell
us to give our tithe to God, it always tells us to bring our tithe to God’s
house.  In the Old Testament that was the
temple, in the New Testament it was the local church, not a university, not the
United Way not a Television Ministry, the local church. 
No listen to how this story
ends.  2
Chronicles 31:5-7
The people of Israel
responded immediately and generously by bringing the first of their crops and
grain, new wine, olive oil, honey, and all the produce of their fields. They
brought a large quantity—a tithe of all they produced. The people who had moved
to Judah from Israel, and the people of Judah themselves, brought in the tithes
of their cattle, sheep, and goats and a tithe of the things that had been
dedicated to the LORD their God, and they piled them up in great heaps. They
began piling them up in late spring, and the heaps continued to grow until
early autumn. Heaps is the technical term.
Well the King came to see how
things were going and saw the heaps of stuff that had been brought to the
temple.  And he was a little concerned
that he had been misunderstood and that people were giving more than they
needed to or perhaps more than they could afford and so he asked the priests
“where did all this come from?”  and they
response is recorded in 2
Chronicles 31:10
And
Azariah the high priest, from the family of Zadok, replied, “Since the people
began bringing their gifts to the LORD’s Temple, we have had enough to eat and
plenty to spare. The LORD has blessed his people, and all this is left over.”
They brought what they were
required to bring and the Lord blessed them. 
You gotta love that. 
So what do you do with the
first of everything you get?
You realize of course that you
honour who give to first.  Is it
God?  Or is it the cable company, or visa
or dinner out?   When asked about the
tithe people are usually told that it is 10% of what they make, the reality
according to scripture is that it is the first 10% of what we make.  If you make a thousand dollars a week, the
tithe is the first hundred dollars that you spend of that thousand.  So the question is who’s getting the tithe?
Let’s pray.