This week, our nation will once again celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  We will do so through countless family gatherings in which turkey, stuffing, potatoes, squash, and pies will be consumed in great quantities.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was one of four family meals in which grace was offered and wine was served, even to the kids.

          I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  So, it was easy to remember the origin of the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, as historians had attributed the day to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.  We were taught in school that in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated with a huge feast their thankfulness to God for the provision of sufficient food.  There is some truth to tradition.  The Pilgrims did hold a large feast, lasting upwards of three days, in the fall of 1621 to celebrate the bounty of the harvest.  But the more traditional way the Pilgrims made their appeals to God known and celebrated God was through fasting not feasting.  I suspect a National Day of Fasting would not catch on very well in our country.  There was, as far as I could tell, only one such day.  That was on March 30, 1863, at the call of then President Abraham Lincoln. Since there is no money to be made in fasting, it is hard to get corporate sponsors.  And so, in some ways we have written an obituary for the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation to read simply as “Founders of the Thanksgiving Day Feast.” In some ways it would be like having my own obituary read, “He liked blueberry pie.”  I would hope there is more to the story than what we liked to eat.

          There was more to the Pilgrims than just a feast in 1621.  While we do not need to make heroes of the Pilgrims, we might see another dimension to these people that would be more profitable to us. There are two dimensions I would like us to explore today.  The first deals with the desire to know the Word of God.  And the second was to see themselves living out the Word of God.

          As to the first, coming to know the Word of God, we should understand the culture of the times for the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims lived in the late 1500’s where the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs did not exist.  The state, the king, set the religion for all the people.  That was your choice.  In England, where the Pilgrims largely came from the state religion changed at times between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal or Anglican Church.  The change occurred whenever the new king or queen so decided.  We might think of it this way.  After a presidential election in the United States, the one authorized religion of the country could change.  It might switch from Roman Catholic to Baptist to Presbyterian depending upon who was elected.

          This is the situation in which these would be Pilgrims grew up.  But in there growing up one thing distinguished this group of people.  They wanted to know God’s Word.  There was a deep desire to know what God said.  Bibles printed in English were hard to come by.  That seems strange to us because we can go online and read a couple dozen translations in English, for free.  The Pilgrims had to work hard, save money, and forgo necessities of life to buy an English language Bible.  This was the nature of these people.  They were hungry to know what God said.  They read the Bible daily.

          We, in our culture, read the Bible.  A recent survey showed that 50% of all Americans read the Bible on their own or outside of a worship service.  Yes, we are faithful in reading the Bible but there is a footnote to that 50% statistic.  Regular reading of the Bible was defined in this survey as three or four times in one year. Only about 10% of all Americans read the Bible on their own outside or outside the worship service on a daily or near daily basis.

          The truth is:

  • All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  • Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
  • But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
  • For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The Bible, God’s instruction for our life, matters but if God’s Word remains unread, it will not impact our lives.  The Pilgrims were fond of reading the Bible and found relevance to themselves, particularly in the passages of New Testament book entitled, Hebrews.

That brings us to our second point of learning from the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims saw themselves as living out the Word of God.  Let’s look at the opening to Chapter 11 of Hebrews that had such meaning to the Pilgrims.

          Hebrews, Chapter 11, begins, “1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). Faith, to live a life in faith, is a life of confidence lived without seeing, without holding, without possessing the very thing we want the most but believing it will be ours some day. Living by faith reshapes our thinking and our expectations from having control over every element of our destiny in which we worry constantly about losing whatever we hold tightly. Instead, we depend upon promises of what has not yet been received in full.  The Apostle Paul wrote more about faith than any of the New Testament writers.  Paul offered words about faith in well over 100 different verses.  Faith, living out God’s Word, was fundamental to Paul’s existence.  Faith was an acknowledgment of what God had promised and accomplished, giving reason for confidence in the promises not yet fulfilled.

          The writer of Hebrews, many think it was Paul, continued, “3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).  “By faith,” means that while we were not witnesses to the creation of the universe nor can we prove the origin of the universe, by faith in God, we accept as truth that the world was formed at God’s command.  This simple statement means that God has always existed, God chose to create that which exists for His purposes, and God remains outside His creation.  The statement, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command,” is simple and yet foundational to our view of the world.

          We see that having that foundational level of faith is important as our journey in faith continued.  Hebrews continued, “4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he [Abel] was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his [Abel’s] offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” Hebrews 11:4).  By faith Abel brought God an offering and Abel’s offering was better than Cain’s offering.  By faith, with confidence in God’s presence and existence, Abel returned to God the best of his flock as an expression of gratitude to God.  Cain lacked faith and that lack of faith appeared as a meager offering, as though, Cain gave a “Just in case God does not exist I want to keep the best for myself, offering.”  Because of faith, Abel was judged by God as righteous because Abel was seeking God to be first in his life.  Abel lived out his life in faith that God created the universe, and that God was not just present in Abel’s life but that God was accessible to Abel.

That faith journey continued.  “5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he [Enoch] was taken, he [Enoch] was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:5-6).  Enoch had faith that living a righteous life would be rewarded by God, not in wealth and health but in continuous life with God even when life on earth was completed.  Enoch built upon the faith of Abel who believed God existed and that we could use our lives to bring honor to God for all time.

The writer of Hebrews continued with, “7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith” (Hebrews 11:7).  By faith, with confidence, Noah understood that God had limits to the sinfulness of humanity.  When that limit had been reached, Noah understood, had faith, that God would address unrepentant sin and save the righteous people.  Noah built upon the expressions of faith of Abel and Enoch acknowledging the existence of God, the accessibility of God in the present, the reward that would be given to the righteous, and the punishment of the unrighteous in their sins.

We are beginning to see that faith can be viewed as building upon the progressive relation of God.  We see next that, “8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she [Sarah] considered him [God] faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Hebrews 11:8-12).  Abraham went where God asked him to go because Abraham had confidence that God existed, that God was trustworthy, that God was present, God was accessible, God could be pleased, God would fulfill his promises no matter how improbable they might seem, and God would lead those who are faithful into a life beyond what they could see.

The Pilgrims understood and accepted that faith came in layers and that we can be encouraged in our faith by the testimony of others.  The Pilgrims, in reading the Bible, wanted to live and experience God in the same manner as their predecessors.  The Pilgrims wanted to express their faith in the purity of the manner of the Bible and not through the commands of some churchman whether Catholic or Episcopal.  The Pilgrims saw that opportunity in America and so the Pilgrims chartered two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to carry them in faith across the ocean.  Twice the Speedwell almost sank and needed repairs.  The Pilgrims decided to take as many of their group on the Mayflower and travel alone.

The Pilgrims were acutely aware that the book of Hebrews that spoke of faith by Abel, Enoch, and Abraham also said, “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16). The Pilgrims saw that the heroes of faith never realized the ultimate satisfaction of the promised life in this lifetime.  That did not matter to the ancients of faith.  For them, to know the ultimate promise of God existed was sufficient for their faith. And so, the Pilgrims left their country of origin for a new land with its opportunity to know and live out God’s word.  The Pilgrims understood their city was not Plymouth or any other man-made system, it was ultimately to live righteously as strangers in this world and be united with God in that heavenly city.  This was the essence of knowing God’s word and living in accordance with it.  This is the legacy of the Pilgrims.

What is your legacy?  Will your legacy be like the one I joked about earlier, “He liked blueberry pie?” Or will your legacy be more like the real pilgrims?  Will our legacy, together be, that we walked in faith as strangers to the world because we sought to walk in the righteousness of God?  What will be the response to others as we gather on Thanksgiving Day? How will people respond to our presence? Will they see in us a love of God’s Word and a desire to live it out?  What is the legacy we are building on this journey?  I want to encourage all of us to examine ourselves and see where we stand on this faith journey.  We can then ask ourselves, “Am I a Pilgrim on a journey of faith?”  If not, it is not too late to jump aboard the ship and set sail anew.  Amen and Amen.