As we give thanks for the bounty of the harvest and God’s blessings in our lives, what might we learn from a wayward youth-turned-pastor about our “modern” holiday of Thanksgiving?
This pastor learned from personal experience of the need for visible reminders of or memorials to God’s work in our lives.
A Story of Transformation
Born into a poor family in England in the middle of the 18th century, Robert Robinson’s father died when he was eight. Angry and bitter, he rebelled in his teenage years, falling in with a gang and spending his time drinking, gambling, and causing trouble.
Kenneth Osbeck writes in 101 Hymn Stories about how one night, Robinson and his friends went to hear the great revivalist preacher George Whitfield with the intent of disrupting the service. But that night, Whitfield preached on a text from Matthew 3:7: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (KJV)
By his own admission, Robinson fell under a great sense of conviction that lasted for several years. At the age of 20, Robinson gave his life to Christ and became a minister studying under John Wesley.
Two years later, Robinson wrote one of the church’s most popular hymns, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.
The second stanza of the song begins with the line: “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” This is not a reference by Robinson to Dickens’s main character in A Christmas Carol, but instead to an event in the Bible, specifically from 1 Samuel 7:12.
Israel Needed the Reminder First
In this Old Testament story, Israelite warriors, fearing for their lives, plead with the prophet Samuel to pray for their impending battle against the Philistines. Samuel offers a sacrifice to the Lord and prays for the Israelite army to be victorious. The result is that the Israelites soundly defeat the Philistines. After the battle, we read,
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12).
Robinson is not suggesting in his hymn that we all go out and build monuments to God. Rather, as he observes in the next stanza, our hearts are prone to wander and we need touchstones in our lives to remind us what God has done for us individually and, by extension, all God’s people “thus far.”
The Feasts: An Experiential Reminder
God knew that his people were prone to wander and needed reminders of his faithfulness. In the Old Testament, God tells Moses to initiate seven “Feasts” during the Exodus:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies’” (Lev. 23:1-2).
These seven feasts were to serve as cultural touchstones, reminders to the Israelite people of God’s bountiful blessings and his help in their lives, in the past, present, and future.
For example, the Feast of Tabernacles, a fall feast, thanked God for the present harvest and historically for the provision for his people in the wilderness. It also looked forward to the ultimate future blessing, the coming of the Messiah.
It was perhaps this Feast of Tabernacles that the Pilgrims used as a model for the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. And while this has become a cultural touchstone for many of us today, it has lost much of the biblical importance it would have held for the Pilgrim Fathers.
As members of the early church in America, the pilgrims believed their true citizenship was in heaven and that they were strangers and aliens in this present age (1 Pet. 2:11-12, Heb. 11:13-16). Yet this did not reduce the importance of the work God had called them to during their lives.
C.S. Lewis commented on this idea in Mere Christianity, suggesting that those Christians serving most effectively in this world are those with an eternal focus:
It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’ aim at earth and you will get neither.
We need to embrace holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter as our cultural Ebenezers, letting them remind us of God’s great blessings in our own lives both in the past and the present. These holidays also help us remember that the ultimate blessing is yet to come, a new age ushered in by the return of Christ—a new age when we will live forever with our Messiah in a new heaven and a new earth.
Robinson’s confession in his hymn penetrates the heart and should resonate with every believer:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Wandering Hearts Encounter Streams of Mercy
Urban legend maintains that Robert Robinson struggled with depression and doubt in his later years, and drifted away from God. One day, while he was traveling in a stagecoach, a young woman tried to encourage Robinson by reading him the lyrics of a song that had been such a great blessing to her—Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.
Robinson, moved to tears, supposedly replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who composed that hymn, many years ago. And I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I then had!”
The woman kindly replied, “Sir, the ‘streams of mercy’ are still flowing.”
He was apparently so deeply touched by the encounter that he repented and his fellowship with the Lord was restored. I can’t confirm that this story is true, but what we do know is that God, through his mercy and grace, pursues wanderers. For this and many other blessings, it is appropriate to praise him and mark these blessings with our “Ebenezers,” be they cultural or otherwise.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!
Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Nov. 22, 2017.
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