After our sermon and prayers this morning, the elder will do the customary thing of bringing the collection plates to the front of the church, as we place what we call our firstfruit offerings on God’s altar and pray for his blessing on the ministry that those financial gifts allow us to carry out as an individual congregation here in Brookfield and as a church body in our synod throughout the country and our world. There’s another custom I assume some of you may be familiar with at the time of the offering, It’s a custom that I grew up with as a kid in my home church, and that is that almost every single Sunday, when the offering plates were just about to make their way up the aisle, the organist would start introducing the same song almost every single Sunday — and as soon as the people heard that introduction, they would stand up and get ready to sing. If the organist got it just right, he or she could have the congregation start singing at the very moment the elder handed the plates to the pastor: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be. All that we have is thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from thee. May we thy bounties thus as stewards true receive, And gladly as thou blessest us, To thee our firstfruits give.” I thought that was so cool, especially if the organist – which was usually my mom – would have that last sentence crescendo to its grand conclusion at just the exact moment, “And gladly as thou blessest us, To thee our firstfruits give” — and then the service would go on.
Giving our firstfruit offerings to the Lord is cool, and we are grateful for the privilege to be able to do that as God’s dearly loved children, but in our Lesson for today our Lord is talking about a different kind of firstfruit offerings – God’s Firstfruit Offerings. Our opening verse tells us: “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” Let’s see from the truth of God’s Word what that means and why what that means is so important for us to know as we go forward in life, giving to God in grateful love the offering of our lives.
The word “firstfruit” means the first thing, the best thing, the special thing, the prized thing. One way the Bible uses the word had to do with the firstfruit offierngs of the Children of Israel back in the Old Testament before Jesus came. God required at certain times of the year that the people would come to the temple in Jerusalem and bring along with them the first part of the harvest of grains from their fields and offer it to the Lord – both as their thanks to God for providing for them and as a statement of confidence in God that he would continue to provide for them, even though the first part of their crops – the first fruits — along with all their hard work and satisfaction that all had gone well, was gone and couldn’t be used by them for their daily lives. It now belonged to God and the people at the temple.
When God says that he chose us as his firstfruits, he is saying that each and every single one of us is, in his heart and mind, the first thing, the best thing, the special thing, the prized thing – and that there is more to come in our lives and in the lives of others who down the line will also become his firstfruits in the same way we became his firstfruits – through what he here calls “the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” God did not choose us because we were so chooseable. The truth we believe from God’s Word is that we were born into this world as lost and condemned creatures, people who prove that every single day by constantly choosing to say or to do what is not what the God who made us wants us to say or to do, not to mention the thoughts which enter our minds time and time again about how this is not how I would have chosen things to go in my life, God, if I were the one who chose the way things should go in my life.
But in verse 16 St. Paul tells us the wonderful truth that God “loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope.” Because God is a God of love and grace — which we know we don’t deserve, but we thank God that we have — he chose us to be “sanctified.” Sanctified – a very important word in the Bible. The word means to “set apart from something bad for something good.” Pretend that the people over here are the bad guys, and the people over here are the good guys, and say that you bad guys want to get over by the good guys, but you are nailed to those pews and you just can’t move. That’s something like it was like for all of us before we came to faith. But thankfully God sanctified us – he set us apart – not because of our greatness or strength – we were all nailed to those pews in our sins – but because of his love and mercy — and he brought us over from the bad to the good – to be people who believe that Jesus is their Savior from their sins.
And it wasn’t some hocus-pocus magical thing that God did to accomplish that. St. Paul says in verse 14 that “he called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the key to everything in this lesson and the key to everything in life. The message that God used to sanctify us – the message that God used to make us his firstfruit offerings – was the message of the gospel – the message that the most important offering in life was the offering that our Lord Jesus Christ gave of his life on the cross, because on that cross he nailed our sins that otherwise would have nailed our spiritual coffin. That message itself, in a way beyond our comprehension, had the power, when we heard it, to cause us to believe it, and that message has the power to cause us to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. That means everything that Jesus is and Jesus did we get to share in. As he is the Son of God, so we through his work are children of God. As Jesus in his work won the forgiveness of sins through his perfect life and death, so we are considered by God as having that same holiness and that same perfect innocence in our life that will someday end in death. That is how we share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ right now before then.
And because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in his life and death, after our death someday, we will also be able to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, without any interruption of all these earthly things that bother us in the meantime. The apostle Paul also wrote about that in another of his letters, when he said this about Jesus after he lived and died and was buried. Paul wrote, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those that have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits, then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come…” (1 Cor 15:20, 22-24a). The greatest and most wonderful thing about being God’s firstfruit offering is knowing the glory that awaits us in heaven after we leave the earth because of the firstfruit resurrection of Jesus Christ when he rose from the tomb on Easter Sunday. Since he is the firstfruits, God promises there is more to come – you and me — and God in his love and grace gives us the faith to believe in our hearts what we cannot see with our eyes and what so often seems to not be working out that way in our lives, just as those Old Testament believers long before us had to have that same faith that when they gave away their firstfruits, they really weren’t giving away anything. By faith in that fact, they were gaining something. They were receiving the assurance that, come what may, their God would never leave them or forsake them, as he blessed them in whatever way he saw fit, just as he does for you and me today – and so often in such abundant, magnificent measure.
But we know that is often very tough to keep believing and to keep living. God knows that, too. So, in these words, after telling us that God has made us his firstfruit offerings and reminding us how he did it, he then gives this encouragement in verse 15: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” That expression “hold fast” has the picture of hanging on to something so tightly because you want to keep it for yourself, maybe like hanging on to that special Christmas gift or that special Christmas memory from a few weeks ago that you thought you would never get and seems too good to be true. When we hold fast to the teachings of God’s Word about what he has done for us, we are hanging on to that special Christmas gift that we never could have hoped to have received and which sometimes seems too good to be true, but God assures you and me that it is that very truth that he used to make us his firstfruit offering – his special, prized possession – the one he promises he will hold fast and never let go until he holds us in his arms in the glory above. In response we do say, “We give thee but thine own whate’er the gift may be,” because God has said, “I gave thee all my own – the greatest gift there could ever be” – the firstfruit offering of his one and only Son. That’s how much he loves us – and always will, because that’s the promise of the one who has chosen to make us God’s Firstfruit Offerings! Amen.
So, in the words of the last two verses of our Lesson as our blessing: May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. Amen.