In Genesis 50:24 Joseph, on his deathbed, tells his brothers what God will do with them far into the future.
Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob."
And so continued the hope of the descendants of Abraham to one day arrive and possess the "Promised Land." A place where there would be freedom from their oppressors; abundance of food; opportunities to build better homes and futures; and where they could worship their God in peace and security.
This ancient Biblical people had a dream and promise that is quite familiar.
In 1920 Luigi and Rosa Mazzalongo and their four sons, Luc their eldest, Domenico, Angelo, and Raffaele left Bergami, in Italy and travelled across the Atlantic by boat heading for a new place called, Canada. They were leaving a Europe that had been ravaged by 4 years of war where millions of people had died, and the economy was in ruins. The Mazzalongo family made their way to Montreal and lived in what is called "Little Italy" around St. Domenique and St. Lawrence Blvd. This is where their 5th son, Paris was born, in the year they immigrated here.
Luigi was forty years old when he arrived in Montreal with a wife, and now 5 sons. He eventually got a job with the CPR railway and began making that "better" life for himself and his family in what was for him...the "Promised Land" of Canada. The boys, aged from 1-11, learned the language, started school. Eventually Dominc, Angelo, and Paris followed their father into the CPR to work in the railway yards. Raphael died when he was only 17 (no records of how). And Luc, the eldest son, who was now called by his nickname, Tony became a boxer.
He had 25 professional fights and retired after he had his nose broken twice. He then opened a dance studio and that's where he met my mother Jane Rose Verner. After I was born in 1947 they wanted to start a new life so that I could have better opportunities. Tony only had grade school education and my mother some high school - they wanted more for me. One day they opened a map of Canada and closed their eyes and stuck a pin into the map. The pin pointed to a city in Ontario called Windsor. For Tony and Jane, Windsor Ontario was to be their Promised Land, a place to start over.
After all, in 1949 a French Canadian single mom and an Italian divorcee who earned his living through boxing, dancing, and gambling - were not well received by their families as well as their communities. And so they moved into a tiny basement apartment with Jane's little boy, who was now Tony's little boy and started their life in Windsor - the new Promised Land. They, together, had no children. They're all gone now: Luigi, Rosa and all of their boys.
Tony died at 53 and Jane, never remarrying, died 43 years later still a widow at 85. They were only together for 14 years. I am the only son of Tony and the only grandson of Luigi and Rosa. Of their 5 sons, only Tony had children and of these only one was a boy, even if he was an adopted son. In the end, both Luigi and Tony's dream for a better life in the promised land was finally fulfilled in me.
I was the first to speak English and French without an old world accent. I was the first to graduate from university. The first to work as a professional. The first to own a house. The first to have citizenship in both the US and Canada. All their dreams, all their hopes, all their sacrifices were rewarded in my generation, in my family.
The lessons from the Promised Land.
Ok, you may be wondering why I'm telling you this story? Well, one reason is that for the majority of you - this is your story too! Oh, the names, dates, activities, places, may be different. But the essential story is the same. The desire for a better life. The hope that your children will have greater opportunity. The striving for a new beginning. The sacrifices like leaving family and a familiar place or the struggle to adapt to a new way of speaking, working, etc. It could even be the loss of prestige, respect, position from our former work and places in the society back home.
This is your story or the story of your parents as it was the story of my parents and grandparents. So I am telling you this story so you will realize that in this congregation it is the story of 2/3 of our total members. And it will probably continue this way as we grow and expand.
Knowing this should help us be more sensitive, more understanding, to the needs and challenges that so many of our members have to face each day. I believe that one of the reasons for our success is that when we are here together, the boundaries of culture and class melt away into the common language and spirit of Jesus Christ.
When we are here, we are Christians first and foremost, and whatever else we are is less important. Let's keep that spirit and make newcomers welcome in the Lord. The other reason I've told you this story is to draw some important lessons that the search for the Promised Land taught not only the Jews but the Mazzalongo's as well:
Lesson #1 - The Promised Land is not about land it's about faith.
400 years after Joseph spoke to his brothers, Moses led the people to the Promised Land and Joshua brought them in and settled it. And it lived up to the promise: It was abundant, the Jews prospered and grew. They also became wealthy, comfortable and independent. But in this luxury they forgot all about the one who gave them the land and the ability to enjoy it - God.
The Old Testament records their sad history of war, strife, and descent into poverty and loss eventually being enslaved in a foreign land all over again. They lost the Promised Land, not because the land couldn't support them - no, they lost it because they lost their faith in God who was the one who provided for them in the Promised Land. It's the same story with us today, it's not our sacrifice or education that gives us the blessings in our new Promised Land - it's God. We should be careful not to make an idol out of our new country and worship the land instead of the Lord.
Lesson #2 - The best thing about Canada is Christ.
I want you to consider my life for a moment. My life is exactly what my parents and grandparents dreamed of when they set sail for the Promised Land: education, comfortable lifestyle, home/family, respect, opportunities and freedom. I have what each of you who have come from other countries would want for your own children, what you sacrifice for. But I want to tell you that until I knew Jesus Christ, until I became His disciple - all these other things which I had access to meant very little to me.
Because success, homes, acceptance and freedom cannot create the peace of mind and joyful heart that are produced by the forgiveness of sins and spirit filled living only available in Christ Jesus. The sacrifice of your life may produce a better standard of living for your children, but Christ's sacrifice produces an entirely new life and experience for them that is far superior. I'm not saying that it's wrong to want a better life for ourselves and our children.
Lise and I want our children to have less obstacles and more success than we have - like all parents. But we've understood that in order for our children to have the best life possible here in Canada or anywhere else for that matter - they need to put Christ first. If your children have Christ they can live anywhere happily; but without Christ even the riches of Canada will not satisfy them.
Lesson #3 - We are still pilgrims.
Once the Jews settled their land they grew comfortable in it not realizing that this land was not their final home. In speaking of those who endured hardship in this world because of faith the Hebrew writer said:
But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection.
- Hebrews 11:35b
There is still a Promised Land calling Christians. It's not a place on this earth. Its promise is not of jobs or opportunities, wealth or position. It is the kingdom of Heaven and it is where Christ is:
- It offers the crown of eternal life, and an existence free from striving and sin and death.
- It provides light and truth and love and wisdom.
- It promises a never ending intimate relationship with God without fear or shame.
If such a place existed here on earth would you not sell all you have to move there? Would you not want your children to be part of this place? This will be the end of our journey, we who follow Christ.
- We who remain faithful.
- We who serve.
- We, and our children if, by faith and perseverance and example, we bring with us.
This is the Promised Land we are called to by Christ our Lord.
So let's not make the 2 most common mistakes made concerning the Promised Land.
1. The Jewish Mistake - thinking that you've found it here and becoming so settled that you can't leave this earthly Promised Land. When Jesus came, the Jews couldn't imagine living anywhere else - they're still fighting over the same piece of land 2000 years later.
2. The Mazzalongo Mistake - thinking that the Promised Land is just one "move" away. My grandfather moved to Canada in search of it. My father moved to Ontario and then back to Quebec in search of it. In the 61 years of my life I moved over 50 times, in the desire to fulfill one hope or another. In the end, learning that only a life devoted to Christ can satisfy one's hope for a better life - not a new place or situation.
My prayer for you this morning whether you are newly arrived or 5th generation is that you will seek and find Jesus and allow Him to lead you to His Promised Land where all searching will end.
My prayer for my family is that you and the generations that come after you will be faithful so that our family will still be calling on the Lord, even on the day when He returns.