The original Americans who started the American tradition of Thanksgiving were dissenters in Europe, and they went on a pilgrimage of faith to the New World, America, and thus became known as Pilgrims. They arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620, and had their first Thanksgiving service one year later, 1621. Plymouth Rock is still there – some of us have seen it, and so is this tradition of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks to God, despite our modern secular humanism and atheism in our society and government.
The Pilgrims dissented, or disagreed, with the official religions of their governments: most of that original group of Pilgrims came from England and they disagreed with the English government and its Anglican church. As time went by, others came to America who were also dissenters: they were not Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox or Anglican Christians, although some of them, too, came. They made life decisions for themselves and their families because of their faith, not because of governmental dictates.
The tension in them by governmental dictates led them to meditate and pray, and then act. They acted by choosing not to subordinate their faith to their lives, but the other way around: by choice, they subordinated their lives to their faith. They really lived out the admonition of Paul to the Church in Rome, Romans 12:2, And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Rather than choosing to be conformed to the requirements of their governments, regarding their free exercise of their faith in Jesus Christ, they chose the transformation of the renewing of their minds in and by Jesus Christ, even as that meant that they chose the translocation of their bodies, of their lives, all the way to America, to the Free World. They had dealt with religious oppression in Europe, and many of them had become driven underground there for worship, even for life, or had been forced to leave their native lands, their historic family lands, their businesses and farms, their families in order to worship somewhere else in Europe according to their own choices. They had already made hard choices, made and executed out of deep convictions and faith, and fear of God much more deeply-seated than any fear of man or environment.
In America, we have come to call this freedom from religious requirement simply “religious freedom”, and so this concept is now known all around the world. Like all of our personal freedoms in America, our rights to exercise them, in America, stop where they prevent someone else from exercising their own personal freedoms. Of course, that is the current, festering problem with Sharia law, with Islam by-the- book, which abides no religion on earth but their own and mandates the earthly punishment and death to those who fail to convert to Islam. Our early Pilgrims in the 1620’s did not have to deal with that Islam issue then, but, every day, even here in America, they still found trouble enough for each day, of its own.
Today, as we stand at the front edge of Thanksgiving week 2011, we are all mindful of, and know, that we Americans have much to be thankful for: health resources, jobs, food, shelter, clothing, warmth, most of the time, by electricity or natural gas in our homes, automobiles and a relatively-peaceful and secure nation in which to live. It takes no sermon of preaching to bring such things to mind. Those first Pilgrim “Thanksgivers” had, to the contrary, been blessed with almost none of those things during that first year.
Let’s take another look at this issue of Thanksgiving, then at the beginning, and today. I believe that those first Thanksgivers celebrated their religious freedom to publicly worship Jesus Christ; they celebrated their physical enclave, their new City for Christ, in the New World, and they celebrated the opportunity to bear fruit by evangelism in the New World.
A very large percentage of their group was lost to disease alone in the first year, but they still counted their blessings, sitting at the table of First Thanksgiving, even as family members remembered the days in Europe when all of them were alive and, on that First Thanksgiving date, those unfilled chairs, and those hearts aching for the loved ones who had already died in America, had to have been most vivid and difficult. Yet, they gave thanks then, Thanksgiving, to our God, to their God, to our Jesus, to their Jesus, to our Holy Spirit, to their Holy Spirit, worshipping Him freely as they chose, not as some government dictated. Hallelujah!
The comfort components of our lives can well be summed up today in Matthew 6, which says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, all the things that we need, physically, for our comfort will be added to us (eating, drinking and clothing).
Today, in comfortable America, the Holy Spirit wants us to move beyond thanksgiving for our mere creature comforts (you know, like ice cream and Dark Chocolate Peanut M&M’s), although we have no right to take them for granted, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see and know and make choices on the basis of something deeper than the latest Steve Jobs Apple something-or-other, or the coolest new song, or the coolest new Ford F350 Dually Truck!
The Holy Spirit, today, leads us to another Scripture that we need to grasp in order to have great insight into that first Thanksgiving. This Scripture passage describes what really was going on, back then, and what they had all been through, in order to be free Christians in the New World of America. This Scripture passage is I Peter 2:19-25, For this is commendable (KJV, “thankworthy”), if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (see Isaiah 53:9); who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness, by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going away, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
These Pilgrims, were no more perfect in all their ways than you and I are, have been or will be. But, they chose to live for righteousness, for God’s approval and not for the approval of their former government and its national religion! And, they paid the consequences: money for passage over the Atlantic, arrival here in an inhospitable place (no Holiday Inn Express, no local hospital, no grocery store, no Best Buy, not even a Wal*Mart!). In this place, they scraped out a physical existence, while so many of them fell ill and died, right off the boat, in that fateful first year. To them, the physical existence was secondary to their spiritual existence, and in that they reveled and excelled and were exceedingly fulfilled.
How could they be so happy in the midst of such physical difficulty, with so many fresh graves in their new cemetery? They, I am sure, were not so very happy, but they were filled with joy, and that is a whole different thing than happy.
Happiness is an emotional state. Joy is a spiritual state. There is a long distance between the two, for most people, most of the time. Sometimes those two states are, and thank you God when it is so, united in one person at the same time. When the Pilgrims considered their cemetery, and yet feasted at their first Thanksgiving celebration, they could not have been emotionally happy, but they were obviously full of Joy. Praise God!
Not only were the Pilgrims celebrating their Joy at their freedom of worship of Jesus Christ, in which they had invested their money, their time, their energy, their blood. They had also created this outpost of Christianity – boots on the ground, if you will – in the New World of America. This occasion of Thanksgiving the First, was an occasion of dedication of their place, their enclave, in America. So, we see here this second basis for Thanksgiving in America.
In the Old Testament, we find a similar occasion of Thanksgiving, in the dedication of the Jews’ place, of their enclave in Jerusalem, as set out in Nehemiah 12:27, when the wall, providing security and protection to the City of Jerusalem, had been rebuilt under the leadership of the governor, Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 2:5-6; 10:1), Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites (the priests) in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps.
So, now, let us look at the third basis for Thanksgiving in America, thanksgiving for the opportunity to bear fruit, spiritually — through evangelism and discipleship – in America. In II Corinthians 9: 10-13, Paul wrote, Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God. For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God, while, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing with them and with all men.
History indicates that these early Thanksgivers had guests, locals/Native American Indians, with whom they shared liberally, not only their food, but also their Christ. The real fruit of those Pilgrims’s righteousness was not that God provided them food, but that they shared Christ with all men – and the only other ones around were their newfound friends, the local Indians.
These three salient aspects of that first Thanksgiving should give us pause today, in our prayers and meditations, as we prepare for our Thanksgiving week of celebration: What are you thankful for? I hope it is for those basics of Matthew 6, yes, and for the “goodies” of our astonishing creature comforts, but that does not scratch the surface. The Pilgrims had all the right things of Joy for which to be thankful: religious freedom in their persons, and in their place, and in their privilege to share Christ, to share that religious freedom, with their neighbors! Now, that is something, some set of three main things, for which to be thankful.
In this Thanksgiving 2011, pay attention to Thanksgiving 1621.