Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

First Fruits (Jul – Dec 1995)

Filed under: — @ 4:11 pm and

by John A. Ogren
July – December, 1995

Family Budget

Mortgage 30%
Discretionary 6%
Taxes 20%
Food 11%
Medical 12%
Auto Loans 21%

(Deuteronomy 16:9-12)

The hired reapers with their long sickles and the workers who had gathered, threshed, and winnowed the wheat had been sent home with their shares of the harvest. A few gleaners remained on the edges of the fields, but the sea of golden wheat was now stubble and the bounty of the harvest spilled over rows in the peeled willow baskets, some hastily woven to hold the overflow. Nathanael and Reuben stood alone on the hard-packed earth of the threshing floor.

“Nathanael, why so much? Finally we have a good harvest, thank the gods, and you want to give it all away!”

Nathanael eyed his younger brother and replied quietly, “There is one God, Reuben, and I’m not giving it all away.”

Reuben reached down and grabbed a fistful of grain. “But does it have to be the best of the harvest? Think of our families, our children—shouldn’t we save the best for them?”

Again Nathanael answered calmly. “Did our families send the rain and sunshine at the right times? Did our children cause the wheat to grow?”

“But what will next year be like?” Reuben demanded. “We could sell this grain you have set aside and have money to feed our children when famine comes!”

Is this best for my children? Nathanael wondered. He could remember only one harvest like this, but that was when he was a boy—before the Philistines had burned their village and killed his father. There had been many lean years and few good ones since that harvest. And now there was tribute to pay to the Philistines, besides paying the workers. Maybe I should sell the extra grain and save the money. Who knows what next year will be like?

Then Nathanael remembered the words their father had said, he repeated them aloud. “Yahweh will provide. The One who fed our fathers in the wilderness will not fail us here in this land of plenty.”

“Yahweh!” said Reuben with disgust. “Who is Yahweh? One good harvest will not save Yahweh in my eyes. Where was Yahweh during the years when we lived like beggars and worked in other men’s fields? Where was Yahweh when we nearly starved to death? Where was Yahweh when they murdered our father?”

“He was with us,” said Nathanael. “Reuben, think about what you are saying.”

“You think for once!” shouted Reuben. “Look at who has power! Who builds the cities? Who sails the ships and drives the chariots? Do they worship Yahweh? No, they worship Ba’al! While Yahweh’s people are chasing goats up in the hills, look at who owns the good farmland, whose land is fertile, whose herds thrive—they sacrifice to Asherah, not Yahweh!”

Nathanael burst out, “Our faith is in Yahweh, the God of our fathers!

Your faith is in Yahweh.” Reuben shot back, “and it is blind!”

“What are you saying? Will you abandon the God who brought us out of slavery in Egypt, who parted the sea for his children and drowned Pharaoh’s armies? Will you abandon the God your father worshipped?”

“I don’t remember our father,” said Reuben. His eyes glistened and his voice trembled. “And I don’t remember the sea parting either. I remember fire! And hard work and hunger! The only god with power I’ve seen is Ba’al. He is the god of our neighbors and his shrine is near. You are crazy to take the best of our harvest to strangers up in the hills.”

“They are not strangers. They are our brothers, our people,” replied Nathanael.

“They are not my brothers,” Reuben said grimly.

“Then we are not brothers, Reuben. Nathanael turned away. He stared at the blanket of chaff beyond the threshing floor, his words still ringing in his ears. Will I reject my brother over grain? He looked up and saw before him the hills rising away to where his people lived. He remembered the answer to his question.

Nathanael faced his brother. “I will divide the harvest with you equally—this year. But you will work this land no more. Keep your grain; worship your false gods! We were not there, but we remember Moses and Joshua. We remember Yahweh.” Nathanael scooped up a handful of the ripened grain. “We will give the first fruits of the land. We serve the Lord.”


“Exactly how far behind are we?” Tom asked innocently. He was lying on the sofa, only half awake. Valerie knew the answer, but she rolled the mouse across the pad, pulled down the menu, and clicked on “retirement planner.”

“Three and a half years—and that’s on the bare minimum plan.”

He laughed wearily. “Maybe our kids will be millionaires…how’s the college fund?”

“About the same, honey. All our planning graphs either plateaued or went down from when you lost your job.”

“This was a good year though,” he said hopefully. “I’ve had lots of clients and the business is growing.”

Her eyes left the computer screen and she looked at him lovingly. “It has been a good year, sweetheart, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve still got the rest of Jenni’s medical bills and a pile of other miscellaneous debt.”

“I know,” he sighed, “but let’s go to bed for now, OK?”

“We’ve got to work on the budget, honey,” she insisted.

“What’s the big rush with the budget, anyway?”

His memory lapses were just a fact of life. “This week is pledge Sunday, remember? We’re going forward with our pledge cards. We have the opportunity to express our thanksgiving when we give them to the shepherds.”

“Oh yeah,” he said meditatively, “I need to think about what I’m gonna say.”

“We need to think about how much we’re going to pledge, first. Come over here and look at the numbers.”

He pulled himself up from the sofa and dragged a chair over to her desk. The computer screen was covered with a list of categories, bar graphs, and a pie chart in the middle. He thanked God again for a wife who was more organized than he.

“So where do we stand?” he asked.

“Well, it depends on how we divide up the pie.”

“We don’t have to do the whole budget tonight, do we?” He pulled the keyboard over and started typing. “Let’s just decide on a pledge and go to bed.”

His proposal appeared on the screen. She laughed and tickled him. “Ha, ha…very funny, moneybags.” She reached to take the keyboard.

He held it tight. “Wait a minute! “I’m serious.”

She looked up at him and saw his expression. “Honey, this pledge is for a year.

“I know it is, but God has been so generous with us this year, and I want to be generous with him.”

“I do too,” she answered, putting her hand on his, “but that’s just not realistic.” She started working with the mouse. “Here are our monthly expenses and our income. This doesn’t include trying to catch up on retirement or college plans. We also need to replace some of the savings that got wiped out with Jenni’s problems. We did do well this year and I want to glorify God for that, but we need to start saving in case this year isn’t as good, or something else terrible happens. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”

He was looking out the window. She’s right. Will we ever get ahead enough so that we are free to give? There’s always something else urgent that comes first. From the corner of his eye he saw her cock her head. Her ears were bionic.

“The baby?” he asked.

“I think she’s OK.”

He stood up. “I’ll go stick my head in.” He walked down the hall and into the kids’ room. In the dim glow of the nightlight he stood over his daughter’s crib. He pondered her tiny hands and he felt a lump rise in his throat. Such a vulnerable, priceless little miracle! He gazed for a while and then turned and knelt down by Tommy’s bed. He admired his son’s curly auburn locks, so much like his mother’s. He was smitten by the peace on the boy’s sleeping face and his heart ached with love. Finally he stood, but he lingered in the heavy peace of the room. Does it please God if I don’t take care of my children and their future? Am I making the kids an idol by putting them before God and not trusting him to provide? What does it mean to give him our first and best?

He walked back into the den and found his wife curled up and asleep on the sofa. He sat down beside her and put his hand gently on her arm. “Wake up, Val.”

She stretched, yawned, and then purred, “Take me to bed.”

“What about the budget?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” yawning again, “what do you think?”

“I’m sorry I’ve left so much of the burden of our finances on you. Right now I don’t know how much we should give. I just know this pledge is supposed to reflect the way that God has blessed us, as well as our trust that he will take care of us.”

“You’re right, honey, but we also have to pay the bills. Can we work on it some more after we’ve had some sleep?”

“Good idea,” he said, “last one to bed’s a rotten egg!”


Nathanael was nearly knocked over by his cousin’s muscled, goat-skinned embrace. “Hail, Nathanael! How goes it down on the plain? Quite well, it seems, from the look of your little caravan. Have the Philistines’ taxes been decreasing, or have you managed to cheat them?” He laughed loudly, thumping Nathanael on the back.

“God has given us a good harvest,” Nathanael replied. “How is your family?”

“We’re getting by. It’s a hard life up here, but we don’t pay taxes either. We’re free men! Say, this isn’t all grain is it? Oh good, I see some wineskins there. Well, I won’t keep you. See you at the feasting!” And he was gone.

During the long climb into the hills, Nathanael was silent. He loved the hill country and felt a surging excitement as the air grew cooler and the views more splendid, but his heart was heavy for Reuben‘s absence. Two Canaanite servants led the train of donkeys loaded with grain up the rocky path. Nathanael led his family.

The little caravan began to meet other worshippers journeying to the shrine of Yahweh. At last they reached the mountain village and followed its rutted street until they came to the shrine. Crowds of worshippers clustered nearby and, one by one or family by family, they approached the altar with their offerings and made their vows to the priest. Nathanael recognized more relatives and friends as he and the servants unloaded the donkeys. Then he waited while others presented their first fruits. Finally the priest motioned to Nathanael. He stepped forward carrying a basket of golden wheat. His family and servants stood with him.

Nathanael‘s voice rang clear as he addressed the priest. “Today I declare to the Lord our God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give to us.” He gave the basket to the priest, who set it before the altar of the Lord. Nathanael looked at his Canaanite servants, his wife, his daughter and his sons. Oh Lord, let the words given to me live in my family, let my sons always remember who they are.

He continued his confession: “A wandering Aramaean was my father. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors. The Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders, and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, Oh Lord, have given me.” Then Nathanael, with his family and servants, bowed down before the Lord.

That night, villagers and pilgrims, including men and women servants, Levites, and strangers passing through, celebrated Yahweh’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, his gift of the land, and his faithfulness in the harvest. There was feasting and dancing and singing. Even Nathanael danced. And under the stars of the promised land he sang the hallel and shouted praise to the God of his father, the Lord of the harvest.


They missed Bible class, but they managed to get the kids ready in time for worship. They had stayed up late praying and working through their budget. When they finally reached a decision about their pledge, they were exhausted, but in the process of laying out their lives before God, their decision had become an act of worship. They sang songs of praise together—softly so they wouldn’t wake the kids—and then shuffled off to bed.

He had feared that pledge Sunday itself would be anticlimactic after their time of private struggle and surrender, but the songs of thanksgiving and praise were packed with new meaning. The congregation was singing, 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. Then it was time for the offering. One of the shepherds spoke a prayer of gratitude and praise. Then the other shepherds came to the front and began to receive the pledges. Row by row, his friends stood and walked forward. After they presented their pledges, they stood behind the shepherds, receiving with them the rest of the pledges. The people shared their thanksgivings and gave their testimonies of God’s provision and deliverance. As he faced a growing community of givers, he realized how much his life and family were bound up with these people by the faithfulness of God. Their faces and voices told stories and those stories broke over him like waves as he met their tear-filled and smiling eyes.

Finally Tom and his family were facing one of the shepherds and most of their faith community. Valerie’s statement was prepared. She spoke eloquently and with passion, but he didn’t exactly hear her. She was so beautiful. He looked from her to Tommy and Jenni. Then there was an awkward pause before he realized that everyone was looking at tim.

His mental notes had evaporated. He stammered. I had something I was going to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was. The thought that overwhelms me now, as you look at me and my family, is that we are not what we appear. I’m sure we seem moderately successful. We’ve got it fairly well together…new minivan…kids who wear cute clothes. We’ve probably got something to offer God.

But it’s an illusion. I remember when Satan had his claws in my heart and was dragging me down into an abyss of anger, bitterness, and self-hate. I couldn’t see a future anymore. I had lost all faith in myself. Then God got hold of me. He showed me what Jesus had done for me—that I wasn’t condemned, but the sin in me was condemned. He healed my heart and he gave me a spirit of sanity and peace. I am here today only because of the compassion and power of God.

Valerie, Tommy, and Jenni are also here only by God’s incredible mercies. They are not “my” family, but He has entrusted them to me. And all of you also belong to Him. Each of you is a precious gift from the One who redeemed you—your love, your gifts, even your pain are signs of the faithful work of God in your lives. So, because he has delivered us from death, because he has brought us into this community of life and love, because he has given us everything that we have, we offer our first and our best, knowing that everything belongs to him.

When all the pledges had been made, the congregation knelt together and sang:

We lift our voices, we lift our hands,
We lift our lives up to you, we are an offering.
Lord, use our voices, Lord use our hands,
Lord, use our lives, they are yours, we are an offering.
All that we have, all that we are,
All that we hope to be, we give to you, we give to you.
We lift our voices, we lift our hands,
We lift our lives up to you, we are an offering,
we are an offering.

Wineskins Magazine

John Ogren

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