Last weekend, in the first sermon in our series Off the Top, our series about giving God the best, the first fruits of our lives, Dave began by talking to us about the two primary pathways of life change for those of us who are truly followers of Jesus… the first pathway of change is the pathway of pain, of testing and adversity… it is a pathway we all hope to avoid but which is sadly a part of everyone’s life. Pain does change us… it can, if we face our difficult times with open palms, patience and perseverance, lead to our redemption… make us more like Jesus. The second pathway of redemption is the pathway of training, discipline, practice and setting priorities. It is a pathway of personally taking action to become a different person! And it is this second avenue of change… the pathway of personal-decision- making-to-bring-change that we are focusing on during our Off the Top series.
Now, just as a reminder, we are emphasizing the concept of First Fruits in this series because first fruits is a huge Biblical theme that we believe we must pay attention to – First Fruits is quite literally what it sounds like…the very ‘first fruits’ of a harvest. Throughout the Old Testament we see the Jews, before they ate or sold anything they’d grown, bringing the first and the best of their crop, off the top, to God. They took disciplined action in service to God. And we are convinced that this concept of First Fruits is still in play today. Almost all Jews living in Old Testament times were farmers and so they generally brought the first crops to the Lord. We live in a different world and what is most valuable to us is different. Last week Dave suggested that what we value most is our Time, our Talent and our Treasure. And last week we said this: If we are to continue living into our redemption, changing to be more like Jesus, we must practice giving off the top of our lives to God from what is most important to us: our time, our talents and our treasures. And when we do not only will we be transformed, we will be blessed! We can confidently add ‘we will be blessed’ because in one of the most eye opening statements in the Bible God offers his people a huge challenge – he says “test me in this”…I dare you…give me off the top… give me your best… and let me show you what I will do. Here is exactly what he said in Malichai. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. Malachi 3:10
Last week we looked at our priorities related to our use of time and we were encouraged to ask these questions: What do I need to change in my life related to how I use my time to accelerate my ongoing change? What practices must I commit to that will give me more time with God? What discipline over my use of time must I enact that will allow God to continue to transform me? And Dave challenged us to make changes, commit to new priorities and set aside the best of our day for time with God; time with God in daily communion and time with God in weekly worship: Off the top, untouchable time.
This week we move to giving God the first fruits of our talent. Now, I know that giving God the first fruits of our talents may be hard for some to get their arms around. Some of you will say, “I don’t have any real talents.” Others will say, “What talent I have is so small that God would never want it or need it.” Plus, we tend to think of talents in terms of singing, playing an instrument or speaking and not many of us have those talents. I actually think the better way to describe what God is asking of us is said this way: What God wants from us is a first fruit of our capacities, our abilities and our gifts… no matter what they may be… God wants the best of our passions… God wants the best of the things we live for.
The Bible is full of examples of men and women using their abilities and gifts to live out their calling in the mission of God. It’s everywhere… we could name dozens of people who were clear in their own hearts as to what they were called to do and were first and foremost passionately pursuing accomplishing their calling… giving God their best. But I believe the most exemplary person in all of scripture when it comes to bringing the first fruits, the best of what we have to God in the service of his mission, is Jesus. And there is one particular moment in Jesus’ life where he talks directly about his passion in life. We find this moment in the 4th chapter of John when Jesus was talking with the Samaritan woman at the well. Now, Dave recently talked about this story in our Christmas Eve service but today we’ll be looking at a different aspect of this story, so, I don’t feel guilty taking time to look at this same passage again so soon. Turn to John 4:27
Let me set this story up for us. Jesus and his disciples were traveling home to Galilee from Jerusalem. They had the choice of two routes: a shorter, more direct route through Samaria and the longer, safer route around the Sea of Galilee that avoided Samaria altogether. And there were good reasons for avoiding Samaria. Saying that Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along is an understatement. They hated one another and there was a 400 year history behind this hatred that included deception, murder, invasion, the destruction of holy sites. And even though they had somewhat similar religious beliefs, Jews and Samaritans thought the other group was completely misguided and they had as little to do with one another as possible. Jesus choosing to take the road to Galilee through Samaria was probably a shock to his disciples; it was dangerous; you had to stick together and be on your guard. As chapter 4 of John begins it is about noon and Jesus and his disciples are about 6 hours into their journey. It’s very hot and they’re all tired and hungry. Jesus has sent his disciples into a Samaritan village to find food that Jews could eat while he rested beside a well. The fact that Jesus stayed back alone was unusual but truth is the disciples were in more danger from Samaritan hostility going into a village than Jesus was out at this well. You see, this well was a half mile outside of town and nobody, well, actually, no women, since only women carried water, came out to wells during the heat of the day; they came out together early in the morning… that is unless they had some reason for wanting to avoid others. And as you probably know Jesus had an interaction with a Samaritan woman who’d come to get water around noon because she wanted to avoid others… for a good reason: she was considered a fallen woman. But Jesus would not let this woman avoid him or avoid having a deeply meaningful, spiritual conversation with him. During their conversation he’d offered her new life and then he proven to her through his prophetic knowledge of some of the private details of her life that he was the Christ. And we take up the story in verse 27 just as his conversation with the woman was ending. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” John 4:27. They were shocked to find Jesus talking to a woman because Jewish men, especially rabbis, tried not to talk to women generally; talking to a Samaritan woman would have been out of the question. Still, they kept quiet; they didn’t want to show any public disrespect to Jesus. John then tells us this in verse 28. ‘Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him. Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” My bet is that they wanted him to regain his strength so they could get on the road and get out of Samaria. But look at Jesus’ reply in verse 32. But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Now, the disciples weren’t thinking metaphorically right then. They’d been walking for over 6 hours. It was really hot and they still had another day and a half, at least, of walking ahead of them. What Jesus had said sounded like he had his own food. It makes perfect sense that they asked one another “Could someone have brought him food?” Then Jesus answered their questions by speaking directly about his passion… his mission… the very reason he’d come to Samaria. ‘“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”’ Jesus wasn’t talking about physical food. He was talking about the kind of food that fed his soul. And what gave Jesus’ soul true nourishment was doing the will of his Father… finishing God’s work. And having talked so directly to this woman about the truth and offering her new life had clearly been God’s work. Jesus explained this further in verse 35. He said, ‘Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? This phrase was like saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ It meant, ‘We have plenty of time so let’s take it easy before we start working again.’ But Jesus wasn’t having that. He says, I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Actually, Jesus didn’t say, ‘They are ripe for the harvest.’ He said, ‘They are white for the harvest.’ Truth is though, there wasn’t a ready-to-harvest crop at that time of the year and if there had been it would have been golden not white. So, what did Jesus mean when he said, ‘the fields are white for harvest?’ Well, do you remember what it said just a little bit ago in verse 30 that once the woman had told everyone in town about Jesus that they made their way toward him? We do know that Samaritans generally wore white linen robes in the heat of the day. And just as Jesus was saying this to his disciples he could probably see the town’s people making their way out to see him. He must have pointed off in the distance to the coming white crowd and said “Open your eyes and look at the fields. They are white for the harvest.” Jesus’ passion was doing God’s will… finishing God’s work and he knew that God’s will was offering new life to everyone… even a village of Samaritans and he and the disciples needed to get busy with it right then! There was no time to wait! And his soul was so fulfilled by this coming harvest of people that had been so far from God that he’d forgotten all about his physical hunger. His passion was fulfilling God’s mission… and he was giving God his best even if it meant going against the grain of everything that made sense in his world. He was offering new life to the lost… to Samaritans... and it was food to his soul. He’d given God his best; his first fruit.
And I’m certain that if we are followers of Jesus… if we are his disciples… we are supposed to be as focused on the things of God, as passionate about doing God’s will, as Jesus. At least the trajectory of our lives should be moving toward being more and more like Jesus… that’s redemption. He said his spiritual food, that which sustained him and gave him life, was doing God’s will and finishing God’s work… and, yes, it should be the same for us. I know that many of us struggle with knowing what God’s will is, knowing what the work that he wants us to finish is. Well, we have thought a lot about this and after spending a lot of time pouring over the scripture and asking God’s Spirit for clarity and guidance, we have come to the conclusion that what God’s will is, what his work is, is repairing the six broken places in the world first and foremost, people are separated from God and they need redemption… we need to be about repairing this. Plus, there is pain, isolation, hatred, decay and injustice in the world. And we absolutely believe that God is calling all of his disciples to see the repair of these broken places as their number one passion. We know that many of you are living out this passion every day; you have made it a priority to give God the first fruits of your capacities, your abilities and your gifts to the mission of repairing the world’s broken places. But we also know how easy it is to be pulled aside by this passion and that passion; to be first and foremost living for something other than God’s kingdom and using your talents in ways that aren’t necessarily bad, but have little if any true kingdom return and aren’t truly food for your soul. We also know there are dark passions, passions such as greed, sexuality, power and prestige that can take over our lives, rob us of our energy and leave us with nothing at all to give to God. Plus, we also know that it takes action on our parts…we have to make hard decisions and be disciplined to make the kinds of changes in life that reflect God’s priorities. We have to be focused and purposeful about changing. We know this is hard work that demands action on our part. And as an aside, please don’t confuse our call to action on God’s behalf with our stand on how one becomes a disciple of Jesus. We are brought into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nothing we do outside of that step of faith brings us salvation from the consequences of sin. We can’t earn anything through hard work. But once we step into that faith we believe there is work to do and it takes a new passion and new priorities to focus on that work. Jesus’ entire life reflected what that work is to be and I don’t think it’s out of bounds to assume that this work should also be important enough to us to change our priorities and the direction of our lives. The question is how do we get there?
Last week Dave introduced a coming 90 day ‘Test God; see if he doesn’t bless you’ challenge: a challenge that will begin next weekend and end on Easter. His part of the challenge related to our use of time: 10 minutes a day alone with God and one worship service a week for 90 days. I have another part to add to this challenge related to our giving the best of our talents to God: The challenge is serving and using your abilities and gifts in God’s mission of repairing his broken world: 10 hours a month (2 ½ hours a week) of serving in some way that furthers God’s kingdom mission for 90 days. And I’ll say it again: Test God and see if he doesn’t bless you.
Now, some of you are saying, ‘Are you asking me to cut back?’ No, I’m not challenging those of you that are already engaged. I’m talking to those of you who either know what you are passionate about, you know what your talents are, but you’re not giving God your best or to those of you that haven’t a clue as to what God is calling you to give as a first fruit to his kingdom. Here is what we want you to do if you fall into one of these categories. Take the challenge and spend 2 ½ hours of the first weeks looking into what there is that needs doing, checking out the myriad of opportunities there are through Grace or our partner ministries to find a fit for you to be doing God’s work. There is so much need. Every single ministry here at Grace needs volunteers and they need people who can do all sorts of things. And every single one of our partner ministries, and there are over 40 of them, need help in some way… And I can’t think of a better way to spend time during the next 3 months than seriously searching for God’s specific will for your life, looking for ways your talent, your expertise, your knowledge, your experience, your natural gifting can be a first fruit gift to God through serving and then getting to work rubbing shoulders with others who are also giving their best in order to repair our broken world. I promise this will change you.
I have a friend, Duane Brooks. He plays the guitar. He’s pretty passionate about it and he knows a lot of old-time gospel songs. Duane gathered a couple of other likeminded musicians and they go to nursing homes as often as they can and play and sing for the people there and tell them about Jesus. He’s found a white field and knows the harvest is ready. It’s his first fruit gift to God.
I am a cyclist. There is a whole community of cyclist here at Grace. We cyclists can be pretty passionate about cycling; ridiculously so. But a number of the cyclists here at Grace realized that their passion for bikes could be channeled into something more in line with God’s kingdom when they learned that there are a lot of people in Indianapolis who need bikes for transportation. And so these riders started gathering unwanted and unused bikes, fixing them up and giving them to people that really needed them. They’ve taken their passion and given the first fruit, their best to God.
There are tons of stories like this: stories of individuals who have made the decision to act to further their own ongoing redemption. And if you’re not already engaged in God’s mission, it’s time to take the challenge: for 90 days for 10 hours a month seek out your opportunity to return to God the best of your talent; your first fruits. You will most likely have to once again ask the following questions: What do I need to do in my life to accelerate my ongoing change? What practices must I commit to that will enable me to give God the best of my capacities, abilities and gifts? What disciplines must I enact that will allow God to continue to transform me? But take my word for it if you make these changes he will bless you beyond your greatest imaginations. He will give you food for your soul and will fill your life with the meaning and purpose and satisfaction that only God can give. Take the challenge starting next weekend; give him your first fruits of service for just 2 1/2 hours a week for 90 days and see if he doesn’t open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there isn’t enough room to store it.