After the Exodus—that is, after being delivered from bondage in Egypt (probably about 3300 years ago)—Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness. It’s not because they were lost. It was according to God’s design. God determined that the chosen people were not yet ready to enter the land that had been promised to them. This was because they kept remembering Egypt and wanting to go back to what they had there. Though slavery was a horrible thing, they had decided to forget the bad part and only remember the good. Egypt had food and plenty of water. They lived in permanent dwellings. Their lives there were as dependable as the Nile—the river that made life possible in the first place.
Because they chose to forget the bad part of bondage, God didn’t want a generation of people entering the new land remembering what a wonderful place Egypt was. The real danger wasn’t the comfort. The real danger was the source of the comfort. When Israel remembered what they called the fleshpots of Egypt [Exod. 16:3], they were also tempted to give credit to the gods of the Egyptians. And when they gave credit to those other gods, they forgot their own God—the one God who delivered them from bondage by leading them dry-shod through the sea.
By the time we get to the fifth book of the Bible (the Book of Deuteronomy), the siren call of the Egyptian gods has been quieted. This new generation of Israelites has pretty much forgotten them. And so Moses is finally preparing the people to enter the Promised Land. And we heard a big part of that preparation in today’s scripture reading:
God is bringing you to a wonderful place, but this blessings is actually a danger to you. You’ll be so fat and happy that you might forget the source of all the things you’re going to have. You’re might start to think you came by these things because of your own hard work and your own ingenuity. It won’t be long before you begin to forget your pilgrimage, with the water from the rock and the manna from the sky. So remember God—the One who not only gives you success, but who gives you the power to be successful.
—Deut. 8:7-18 paraphrase
We think of Israel as being unique. And, of course, in many ways they were. But in reality, there have been many peoples in the history of the world who looked to God for deliverance and protection, and then forgot who it was that had blessed them with what they had, or had gotten them to where they were.
I want to talk for a little while about a subject that I preached on this past summer during my Pilgrim Church Heritage Sermon Series. I want to talk about the people who actually gave us our name—the Pilgrims. It might not seem like it, but I see parallels between them and Israel.
We’ll start in Scrooby. Not all the Pilgrims were from this tiny village in Nottinghamshire. But several were—including Scrooby’s postmaster, William Brewster, a leader of this little group. The people that he helped lead were called Brownists, or Separatists. They didn’t just want to reform the Church of England, they wanted to separate from it completely. And because, in that day and age, this was seen as a threat to the common good, they were persecuted and imprisoned because of their beliefs. And so they fled to Holland. If their persecution in England was their Egyptian bondage, then Holland was their time in the wilderness.
They finally got permission to start a new colony in America, and they arrived here on the Mayflower. Times were hard in the beginning, but they didn’t forget who they were or under whose guidance they had arrived at this new place.
Who they were wasn’t all that different from anyone else, really. They were simple Reformed Christians who didn’t go in for any of the bells and whistles of the established church. And though a lot of misconceptions (and even falsehoods) have developed about how they arrived here, they actually came in peace. They didn’t bring epidemics. Unfortunately, those had preceded them. And because of those epidemics, the indigenous people in the Plymouth area had been nearly wiped out.
The Pilgrims didn’t know this, of course. All they knew was that they were very few in number, and the people they encountered were also few in number. The two groups needed each other. The Pilgrims were not interested in converting the native Wampanoag people. They wanted to learn from them and trade with them. As long as the original Pilgrims lived, they didn’t steal land or engage in warfare.
Few people are willing to acknowledge this these days. And so we no longer honor what we call the First Thanksgiving—a meal shared between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. It was actually a blueprint for what could have been—what should have been: Two peoples from two different worlds, gathering in peace and mutual respect and breaking bread. The Europeans didn’t want to eliminate the native peoples, and the native peoples didn’t resent the Europeans. They needed each other. And as long as that generation continued, they benefited from living side-by-side.
Then along come the grandkids, and apparently they forgot who they were, why they were where they were, and who it was that got them there. Fifty years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims were no longer a faithful remnant of God’s people, they were entrepreneurs. They no longer looked to God to be their Rock and their Redeemer, but to the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They began taking land that didn’t belong to them. They began converting the native peoples to their religion. And they made war upon those who didn’t become Christians.
The Pilgrims and the Wompanoag showed us how to live together in peace. Their grandchildren show us what not to do. In a couple of generations, we moved from the First Thanksgiving to the first war. And as far as the percentage of the total population effected, it was the worst war in American history.
Israel and the Pilgrims—their stories are usually just that to us: stories. But meditating on them can help us find ourselves. The movement from bondage to wilderness to freedom is something that’s repeated in many of our lives. And no matter where we are on life’s journey, it’s important to remember who we are and whose we are.
We search for God when we are lost. We sense God’s presence in our pilgrimage. And we acknowledge God when we finally find ourselves or our purpose, when we feel blessed. To forget God in our bondage is to be without hope. To forget God in our wandering is to feel lost. And to forget God when we reach our goals is to be disconnected from reality, for how can we possibly think that we reached accomplished all this without help?
So as we gather round our tables this Thursday, let’s remember our own struggles and spare a thought for those who are still lost. Let’s give thanks that God has been by our side through our wanderings. And let’s acknowledge that the feast that is set before us, the people who surround us, and the roof over our heads are gifts of the One whose steadfast love endures forever.
—©2023 Sam Greening