Every year at Thanksgiving I share this passage with people from our one of our favorite leaders, Joshua. This is the sermon text of what I believe is one of my dad’s best (Rick Sessoms). As you read it imagine someone telling this story as if he were there.
Stones of Remembrance
We are reading from Joshua chapter 4. In the previous chapter we are pursuing the history of the Hebrew people as they were crossing over a dry Jordan, one of the greatest days in all of history! A great day of miracles, person after person crossing over with their gaze fixed on the Ark of the Covenant, this gold box that represented the very presence of God perched high on the shoulders of the priests. They must have understood in that moment that their God can do anything. Surely they would never forget- would they? Now all these Jews are standing on the west bank of the Jordan River and have entered the land. The priests are still standing out there with the Ark on their shoulders. It’s been hours, and God turns toward Joshua and says, “before we wrap this one up for the record books, just one more little detail…” (Read Joshua chapter 4)
Memorials- everyone has at least one. So many people, great people make their splash in the pool of history, but when it’s all said and done it amounts to little more than a tombstone- it’s a sad story that’s told over and over.
But God- the God of Israel- has something else in mind. For he calls his people as he did in the 4th chapter of Joshua to look back with different kinds of stones. One from each of the 12 tribes of nations was to go back to the middle of the Jordan, pry large stones from the bottom and carry it back to the west bank across the plain to Gilgal. These rocks were a visible illustration to their deliverance! So, when they arrived in Gilgal, twelve men stacked these rocks into a small mound- not very impressive, not very pretty I suppose, but a memorial- these rocks stood as a memorial to the God of Israel who can do anything.
When the last priest stepped on the other side, the waters came crashing down- they saw this miracle from God unfold before their eyes. They had waited centuries for his day, and again and again they would tell this story for months to come. They had to pinch themselves to believe it all- “Are we really here!?! After all this time!!?” God was with them, God had displayed his power, and they would never forget- would they?
Well, the next days and weeks brought new challenges. Months ahead would find them face to face with Jericho. This was Promised Land, yes, but not paradise. You can almost hear them saying “Look, I’m tired of it all! Every move we make, every place we go we draw fire, it’s a war! Enough, already! I just want to raise my family and settle down, I never wanted this.” And in those moments life back on the east side of the Jordan looked pretty good and they might have been tempted at times to head back toward the river. But as they started to head back, guess what they had to pass. They had to pass by Gilgal and those 12 stones,-not very impressive, not very pretty, but a memorial to a God who can do anything. God had parted the waters.
Do you have stones of remembrance?
[Michelle’s own insert]: I have stones of remembrance. It was my senior year of college and in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City I led a team to Ground Zero in the spring. I remember working the all-night shift and talking to firefighters and praying for them at Ground Zero and thinking about the opportunities we miss with the world around us in tragedies such as this one. There was a guy on my team and that week all he was talking about was the opportunity he had to teach English in China. China had never been on my radar. Africa was, but not China, yet that still, small Voice led me to apply to my current organization as soon as I got home from New York. Two weeks later I was committing to life in China. It happened that quickly and while it didn’t make any sense at the time to anybody, through a quiet obedience He has provided every step of the way these past nine years. To me that’s a memorial.
Several years later I met one of my teammates, Ekren, and we would work together for two years in south central China. Throughout our time together all he talked about was the Uighur people of Central Asia. He encouraged me to make a trip out there in 2005 and when I returned he said he had never seen me with so much joy. That’s a memorial to me. Maybe not very impressive to others, but to me it’s a memorial. Then the three-year process of getting out to Kashgar, often faced with closed doors, passing a Chinese test, and arriving there in 2008 with no visa and just a little bit of faith. Somebody pulled me aside that first Sunday there and said, “Michelle, you’re not alone!” And walking into that visa office, seeing the visa man so happy as he handed me my visa. It was nothing short of a miracle during a year that so many people were being turned away. I was finally allowed to stay! When it seemed impossible at the time God had parted the waters! And I was humbled.
A year later I had to go home. Facing the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, I had to leave the people that were so dear to me. Painful as that was, I knew somehow that God had a plan before me. He moved me to Beijing. Reluctantly I dragged my feet to go to the city I vowed I would never live in because it was so big and scary. It also had fellowships all over the place, they don’t need me, and I was thinking, “why in the world am I here and not there?” Yet, God knew. I met my teammate Rachel and we would embark on the most fruitful year I’ve had in nine years. God knew. And that’s a memorial to me. Then I was able to come on staff and be involved in projects that really speak to my passions and giftings. God knew that this is exactly where he needed me to be. You see, that’s a memorial.
[Continuing the sermon}: So over the years Hebrew moms and dads would take their children to visit Gilgal and little Betty would ask “Dad, what do these stones mean?” and Dad would retell that story and because of those stones the children would begin to relate to God in a way they had never known before and say, “you know- if that really did happen back then, if God did miracles like that before, he can do miracles like that today.”
God wants his people to build memorials along the way to his greatness- in fact, he commanded it. This wasn’t Joshua’s idea- God commanded it because he knows how important remembering these great things is to our own spiritual health.
Sometimes we forget the great things God has done. Many tend to build memorials along the way to the bad things that happen. But the good things that God has done- sometimes through others, the kindnesses and the satisfactions, and, yes, even the miracles-how do they slip away? That’s why God says to make it our business, make it our duty to remember, to deliberately go back to the riverbed and build memorials along the way to his greatness and his goodness because of the danger that comes from forgetting.
That memorial to the pain of your past, don’t let it remain and take root and poison your life- instead, cut it down and plant in its place memorials to God’s greatness and goodness. Stones of remembrance to the God who parted the waters.
So, in the future when your children ask you, “Dad, Mom, what do these stones mean?” “Oh, these stones, these stones- this is where we crossed the Jordan on dry ground.” And if God did great things before, He can do great things today.
What are your stones of remembrance?