Let’s do a little remembering, this Thanksgiving. Let’s remember why we celebrate this day. I’m going to begin with a little history first, and use this history as an entry into a Scriptural reflection.
Let’s start with the Pilgrims. Who were they?
They were English Protestants in the early 1600s who sought to worship God in purity. They were Puritans, who wanted to rid the Church of England of human traditions and rituals that weren’t found in the Bible. But they were the most radical of the Puritans. They didn’t think the Church of England could be purified—they felt they could only be faithful to God by leaving it.
They took to heart what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:14ff:
Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? … Wherefore come out from among them, and be separate.
On that level, these Separatists seem a lot like us. But other aspects of their faith would strike us as strange.
They were rigid Calvinists, who believed that God had elected some to salvation and others to damnation.
Their only music was the Psalms.
They believed that each local congregation should be independent—a group of believers in covenant with one another and with God.
Those who founded Plymouth were mostly members of a congregation in Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire. Their leaders were John Robinson and William Brewster. Their actions gradually brought about confrontation with church officials and with the king.
In 1603 King James I took the throne. He wanted uniformity—that’s why some years later he went on to authorize a translation of the Bible, the “Authorized Version,” or “King James Version,” in 1611. The Puritans and Separatists would have nothing to do with it, preferring the Geneva Bible.
King James became finally declared, “I shall harry them out of the land.”
So starting in 1607 they began to flee to Holland, settling in Leiden. It was a safe haven, but not a place they felt was a permanent home. They were English, and wanted their children to grow up as English. They began to think that maybe God was calling them to a new place, America. They entered into negotiations with merchants who were eager to sponsor a new colony, and part of the congregation set off late in the fall of 1620.
William Bradford wrote of their departure: “they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place for near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
It was a dangerous voyage, as Bradford tells us in his book, Of Plimouth Plantation; they made it across the ocean only to discover they had landed far to the north of where they had hoped to settle. It was November, and they had to make new plans quickly, and decided to settle wherever they could find a place with a harbor, good soil, fresh water, and high ground that could be defended.
They were a mixed body of Saints and strangers, of pilgrims and adventurers, and had to come up with a form of government that all would accept. They called it, The Mayflower Compact, and 41 men signed it on November 11, 1620, off of Cape Cod. Some of the names are familiar—some less so. John Carver, chosen as governor; William Bradford; Edward Winslow; William Brewster; Isaac Allerton; Myles Standish; John Alden; John Turner; Francis Eaton; James Chilton and more. Chilton’s name jumps out when I read it—he’s my 11th great-grandfather.
They found a place, an abandoned Indian village called Patuxet, and put up a common building quickly. The first winter was rough—of the 121 who set sail, only 47 were alive.
That spring they signed a peace treaty with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags. The Indians taught them how to grow corn, using fish as fertilizer.
And in the fall of 1621 they came together for three days to celebrate the harvest, praising and thanking God. They didn’t invite the Indians—that was a bit of an accident. The Indians heard gun fire and were a little worried, and went to see what was going on. Massasoit took 90 warriors with him, just in case, and when they saw it was a party, they went and shot five deer and some turkeys. Together with the turkey and deer, they had corn and pumpkin, fish and clams and lobsters—washing it all down with warm homemade beer.
Joy and I visited Plymouth for the first time when we were students at Atlantic Union College. Some years later, when we were living in Vermont, my daughter had to spend some weeks in a hospital in Massachusetts; my wife stayed with her. The day after Thanksgiving my son and I drove over to Plymouth for the day. He was four. We went to the reconstructed ship, the Mayflower II and to Plymouth Plantation. We saw Plymouth Rock, and then walked up the steep Leiden Street. I told him the story of our ancestors, and how they had carved out this settlement on that shore 400 years ago.
No, they weren’t the first English settlers—Jamestown was before Plymouth. But Jamestown was a settlement of men, looking for adventurer. Plymouth was a settlement of families, who came to stay.
No, it wasn’t the most prosperous colony—but they had guts, fortitude, and courage—and they had faith in God. They made the decision to leave the comforts of home; they made the decision to risk a perilous ocean voyage; they made the decision to stay in the wilderness instead of trying to find the land they were told to settle in; they struggled to survive, and learned from the Indians—but in it all they trusted God, and gave him all the credit, and thanked him for his providence.
Those are the things we recall when we think of the Pilgrims and that first thanksgiving.
But it didn’t become an annual celebration for them. Oh, they continued to thank God for his blessings—in good time, and bad. And bad times came.
Though the first generation saw peaceful coexistence with Massasoit, their children experienced dreadful war when his son, known as “King Philip,” unleashed a bloody war that united the tribes of New England against the Puritans. The town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, was especially hard hit. The minister’s wife, Mary Rowlandson, was captured in 1676, and the town was burned. The account of her captivity became a best seller. She called it, “The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed.” That was the Puritan view of life.
But that’s only part of the story behind our celebration of Thanksgiving.
It didn’t become a national celebration until 1863, when, in the middle of a war, President Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving to be held on the last Thursday of November.
That year had been a bloody one: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga—the three bloodiest battles of the war—were fought in that year, with combined casualties of 115,000.
And yet in the midst of war, Lincoln could thank God. Let me read his proclamation:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
He noted that despite being “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” no foreign nation took advantage of our weakness. In the cities outside of the war zone, “order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed.”
Despite having to divert energy and resources for the war effort, this had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.” The nation continued to expand, mines yielded their treasures, harvests were plentiful, population increased.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
Because of this, he continued,
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
Lincoln saw that even in the best of times we get caught up in life and forget to thank God. In time of suffering, we think so much of our loss that we sometimes seek to blame God instead of thanking him. But it is especially at such times that we need to come together in humility. Especially at such times, we need to remember that we are in his hands.
Notice there is no blame in Lincoln’s decree. He didn’t blame the South. He didn’t accuse the South of rebellion. He spoke of the war as a judgment of God for our sins, for “our national perverseness and disobedience.” It wasn’t something to celebrate. It wasn’t something to revel in. But that judgment was tempered with mercy, and God still proved himself to be good.
And now, let’s turn to our Scripture reading. It’s from Numbers 11, and it shows that the children of Israel could be forgetful, too.
That’s hard to fathom, if you think about it. They should have gotten the point that God could be trusted. I can understand them being a little skeptical when Moses first went to them. After all, 430 years in bondage and now he says God is going to work miracles and get them out?
But they saw miracle after miracle. Ten plagues came and went, and Pharaoh said they could go. God opened the red sea, and they walked through.
They should have gotten the point that God could be trusted.
But within a few weeks they forgot all about what God had done for them and began complaining. Exodus 16 says it was the 15th day of the second month after they’d gone out.
“Oh, that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
God didn’t rebuke them. Instead, he opened up the storehouses of heaven and said, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” You’ll get it for six days—on the sixth day, you’ll get a double portion, to last over the seventh.
And on top of that he gave them meat, enough quail for everyone.
But even then, some didn’t listen. Some tried to keep the manna overnight, but it rotted. Some went out on the Sabbath to look for it—but it wasn’t there. That’s when God starts getting a little frustrated. “Just do what I told you to do!”
In Numbers 11, the story is repeated, but some time has passed. They’re in their second year of freedom. They’ve seen the miracle day after day all this time—but it doesn’t impress them anymore. The extraordinary has become the ordinary. The miracles are old hat now, and they begin to long for the “good old days.” Verse 4:
“Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!”
At this point, God has had enough. It doesn’t say what he said to Moses. It just says, “God was displeased.” Now Moses does some complaining—and he says it’s God’s fault. He, too, has ceased to trust God. He was the instrument through which God worked. He had spoken with God on the mountain. But now he’s burned out from listening to the complaining. He’s thinking it all lies on his shoulders. Verse 11.
“Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!”
God does two things.
First, he gives Moses help. The spirit falls upon 70 elders, who are to assist Moses.
Second, he sends the people quail again, and as they greedily gather it up, never once pausing to thank him or to praise him or to apologize for their complaints, “while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague.”
What did God expect? Simply what Scripture says in Proverbs 3: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
They didn’t trust him. They didn’t even acknowledge him. They turned from complaining in the bad times to gorging in the good times. In both, they acted as if God didn’t exist.
And things go from bad to worse. In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam turn against Moses because of his wife. In Numbers 13, Moses sends spies into Canaan—but the people, instead of rejoicing, only complain more. So God shuts the gates to the promised land and swears that he’s had enough. None of that generation would go in. They would wander for 40 years.
At the end, God would remind them, Deuteronomy 8,
… that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
That’s what God asks of us. That we might know that “man shall not live by bread alone; but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.”
That’s the point we’ve been studying this quarter in our Sabbath School lessons. God lets us experience trials that our faith might be purified, that we might ever more lean on him, that we might praise him and thank him at all times.
That’s the lesson the Pilgrims give us. They believed in providence. They believed that we are in God’s hands. They praised him in times of plenty and in times of famine; they praised him in time of war and in time of peace.
That’s the lesson Lincoln gives us, too, in his proclamation. He, too, believed in providence. And in the midst of war, the most cruel and devastating war to hit our homeland, he called on the nation to join in giving God thanks.
The pilgrims and Lincoln both knew the scriptures. I think Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, beginning with verse 4, conveys this same point:
Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. … Be careful for nothing; [Don’t be anxious about anything] but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Paul tells them that he has experienced want, but he says,
“I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
That’s what God wanted the children of Israel to learn, too. Trust him. Believe his word. Know that he will do what is best. Be content.
He wanted to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but Scripture tells us they wouldn’t go in. He had delivered them with might—but they were afraid. He had fed them in the desert—but they were afraid. He had given them meat—but they were afraid. He showed them the land—but they were afraid. They wouldn’t go in.
Will you go in?
Will you enter the land the Lord wants to give you?
Will you dwell in this state of peace that he wants for you?
Then open your eyes. See the miracles that are around you. Look up from the problems of life, the stress and the worries, to the Father who holds you in his hands. Acknowledge him, and today, and all days, give him thanks and praise, through Christ Jesus our Lord.