Lammastide. We are going a little off piste this morning. It feels important to mark the start of the harvest season, given the difficulty of the weather during the farming year. This is also true on a global scale with the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine and grain exports. There is famine in Africa and Yemen.
History lesson on Lammastide. Lammas means ‘loaf-mass’ in Old English and was originally an Anglo-Saxon festival. Lammas Day (August 1st) celebrated the first harvest of the year. The first grain was milled and baked into bread that was brought to the Church to be blessed. It corresponds with the Hebrew Festival of Weeks when a sheaf from the barley harvest was offered.
This is what Moses was being instructed to prepare for in our Leviticus reading; the offering of the first fruits. This is an important biblical concept that we will take some time to consider this morning. First fruits is used two ways in the English Bible. The first simply describes the first portion of the produce of the land. Secondly it refers to the specific ceremonies related to the first portion of the harvest. The offering of first fruits acknowledged God’s sovereignty and ownership of all things.
In response to this and a token of stewardship, Israel has to acknowledge that the first issue of human, beast and soil belonged to God. God had delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and they were never to forget this.
The Feast of Weeks, celebrated 50 days after Pentecost, was a straightforward agricultural feast. It was to celebrate the first fruits of the wheat harvest. The barley harvest would have already come in; the wheat harvest was more important. Now a full celebration of God’s goodness could be celebrated. It was only celebrated on a single day as it was impractical to party for seven days in the middle of the harvest.
If God, creator of all, gave everything for our benefit, why does he want some back? Like the early Israelites, our memories can be short! We can so easily forget all that God has done for us when the bounty runs out. Firstfruits also helps to keep our humility in check when tempted to believe that we do it all ourselves.
In giving away the firstfruits, which would be very tempting to keep especially if a farmer was starving, we demonstrate our dependence on God. We learn to trust that God will continue to provide for us.
The first concept of first fruits goes back to Genesis chapter four and the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil. If you remember the story, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil but Abel brought portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked in favour of Abel and his offering but not on Cain. Cain then became angry at God. God told Cain that he should have done what was right and his offering would have been accepted. Cain was also instructed to fight against sin that was lurking at his door.
Cain’s response was to kill his brother Abel. We have the first recorded murder. Cain then lived the rest of his life outside the presence of God. Entitlement got in his way; thinking that he could give God whatever and that should be enough. Greed also plays here, Cain wanted to keep the first fruits for himself. The punishment was severe. There are consequences to ignoring God, it always leads to sin.
Fortunately there is always a way out if we want to take it. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus shows the disciples and the crowd what can be done with a small offering. Note that there are two feeding stories in Matthew’s Gospel. The first has five thousand people being fed with five loaves and two fish. The second, this one, has four thousand people being fed with seven loaves and a few small fish. A little Bible trivia for you, all four Gospels have the story of the feeding of the five thousand but only John mentions the small boy providing the loaves and fish.
Matthew’s recording indicates that the disciples had with them what was needed to feed the massive crowds. They came to the picnic with food in their hamper. It was not very much and would not have fed 12 grown men. They did not offer it until Jesus asked them how many loaves they had. Maybe offering their meagre rations felt embarrassing or insignificant in the face of the need in front of them. Maybe they wanted to keep it for themselves.
Whatever the reason for holding it back, Jesus draws it out of them. Then to their amazement, Jesus gave thanks for it, broke it and every single person had enough to eat. More than enough as there were leftovers. Seven full baskets.
Seven is a significant number in the New Testament; it is the number of perfection. Seven loaves turned into seven full baskets. Jesus turned scarcity into abundance. He still does that. He will take the perceived smallness of our offering and make it magnificent.
We should give our first fruits to God, the best of ourselves, our attitudes, our money and time. As frightening or impractical as that may seem! There is always more than enough with God. He is the creator and sustainer of the cattle on a thousand hills. He knows the number of hairs on our heads and when sparrows fall to the ground.
Our giving to God should reflect our thanks for all He has done for us; not from a place of begrudging obligation or guilt or historical duty. Remember Cain, attitude matters.
In this season of Lammastide, as we look to the fields around us, let us remember the bounty of God and pray for those who work the fields. When tempted to hoard from fear of scarcity, remember those who will have nothing to eat today. Let us bring to God what we have and let him bless it to bless others.