“What do these stones mean? On the Importance of Memorials”
I delivered this sermon on 11 June 2017 in honor and recognition of our graduates. The wording will be slightly different for ease of reading, but for the most parts the points are consistent. I read an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society by Daniel I. Block entitled, “What Do These Stones Mean” The Riddle of Deuteronomy 27 (JETS, Vol. 56, No. 1, March 2013). About the same time my pastor asked me to preach and prepare for the graduation service, and God reminded me of the importance of memorials, and from this and the passage in Joshua chapters 3-4, the sermon was born.
Begin by reading Joshua 3:7-17,
The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. 8 And as for you, command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'” 9 And Joshua said to the people of Israel, “Come here and listen to the words of the LORD your God.” 10 And Joshua said, “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. 11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. 12 Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. 13 And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.” 14 So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), 16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. 17 Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.
This passage sets the stage for one of the more remarkable events in the history of Israel. Similarly, graduation is a significant accomplishment. It is one of the greatest achievements one can make in one’s life. In Scripture, we see similar accomplishments in the lives of God’s people. We see the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery and we see the crossing of the Jordan River. In both of these amazing events, the Israelites are instructed to construct or observe some type of memorial. In the Exodus the establishment of the Passover meal began, see Exodus 12:14. In Joshua 4, shortly after the crossing over the Jordan river the Israelites were to have twelve leaders (one from each tribe) and build a monument to be a reminder that God had been with them and will continue to be. Perhaps the greatest memorial we observe is Communion, the bread and the cup, where we celebrate the death of Jesus and our deliverance from sin and death, see 1 Corinthians 11. The purpose of these memorials was to remind God’s people of the victory He provides, Exodus 13:8-9.
To begin with, we must note that:
1. An amazing accomplishment has just taken place
The children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, wandering around in a bleak desert.
After the death of Moses, Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, begins to embark on their journey to the Promised Land. The first obstacle they approach is the Jordan River. The timing of this crossing could not have been worse, from a human perspective. Our writer informs us that “the Jordan…overflows all its banks during the entire season of the harvest” (Joshua 3.15). To Israel, it seemed they had reached an impasse.
I imagine that looking back on your schooling you probably thought that graduating was an impasse, a river overflowing its banks, impossible to pass. By the grace of God, even when it seemed you would be washed away, you made it! This goal is seriously one that has taken almost your entire life to complete, and you have finished it. The same thing could be said about our struggles at work, striving for promotions, the accolade we desire.
I want us to think for a moment, what accomplishments have we been a part of? What has God brought you through? What seemingly unconquerable moment has Jesus granted you victory over? You have two spaces to write where God has given you victory. “In you” is where God has provided deliverance from a sin, or helped you progress on your way to deeper intimacy with Him. “Through you” is where God is working in other’s lives through you.
This is a time of celebration! A time of rejoicing! Be excited at the journey, but relish in the victory. Graduation has been reached, this chapter has ended, the goal has been reached, the river has been crossed.
Can you imagine the excitement of Israel as they crossed? Finally, after hearing about this land they are finally entering it. Think about Abraham in Genesis 12:1 where God promised him this land, around 500 years! But before they left the river bed they did something quirky. They had twelve men, one from each tribe; grab a stone on their way out.
2. A special monument is established to help remind us of it
The consistent focus is on God’s Word (Torah). Moses was instructed by God to build a memorial of large stones in Deuteronomy 27.2-3. Joshua fulfilled this in Joshua 8:30 on Mt Ebal. God then instructed Joshua to give himself entirely to the reading and meditating of the Torah (see Joshua 1.8), which would have included this command to build a monument. Now, honestly, after going through that amazing miracle, stopping and building a monument seems a little anti-climactic.
I think, however, if we stop to glean from this it can help you graduates, but also us as a faith family. God is constantly at work in our lives. I love how the author of Hebrews puts it, “May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus our Lord, furnish you with all that is good, that you may do His will. May he carry out in you what is pleasing to him through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” God works in us to bring about good in our world. There are many times that we get caught up in life, in high school, in projects, in kids, in careers, and we, to our own detriment, fail to see God’s work in our lives. Or, on the chance that we do recognize God’s hand, we do not make a note of it (literally or metaphorically) and we easily forget it. One of the reasons God required this monument was to provide future generations of evidences of God’s works (Joshua 4.6-7).
We set aside today to honor our graduates. They have spent years working toward this goal. They have been tested, they have completed exams and projects, and as a result they are bestowed the honors and recognition of completing the high school degree. They ‘graduate’ which comes from the Latin word gradus, meaning step. This step is complete. The river has been crossed, the monument raised. The course is complete, the diploma given.
The monument, though certainly a recognition of a great accomplishment, is not only that. It is also a look forward to what is next.
3. A past reminder with a future look
The stones were not only meant to remind them of a past action. Certainly they reminded the children of those who crossed the Jordan River of this momentous event. But that is not all it was.
Interestingly, these stones were still standing at the time that writer recorded the events that took place in Joshua chapter four. We don’t know how long, but it was still standing to that day.
Now, you may be wondering, how does this reminder give us a look to the future? This is where an event such as the crossing of the Jordan River, or graduation, brings on another level of significance. The goal has been achieved, success is enjoyed, but it is not the end itself. It is a point on an incredible journey in which our lives grow and experience life. The children of Israel would look back at this monument and remember what God had done in their lives. Then, after remembering what he did, they could look forward and press on into the future.
Romans 8:31 “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
I love how the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 3.13-16, “Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. Let us, then, who are perfectly mature adopt this attitude. And if you have a different attitude, this too God will reveal to you. Only, with regard to what we have attained, continue on the same course.”
As graduates, this monumental moment is a testament to your own determination, hard work, and willingness to work toward completing a goal. You know that it took the combined effort of friends, family, and teachers to help complete this task. And so it was with Israel. They worked hard in the desert, and with God’s help they achieved the goal: entrance into the promised land. But they did not stop there. They looked out onto a new horizon, one filled with possibilities and excitement. The monument reminded them of what God had done in the past, and it is from a place of confidence that the children of Israel would march forth into this new frontier.
And so it is with you, graduates, your accomplishments are a monument to what you have accomplished, how far your drive and desire can take you. And it also reminds you that God was with you every step of the way. Looking to this monument, you can take courage and forge ahead into the new field to which God is calling you.
Congregation, your past accomplishments, your victories, are meant to help remind you of what God has done in your own life. They are meant to encourage you to push forward, to stand up to the tasks because you know God has delivered you in the past you will be delivered in the future.
Application and Closing Thoughts:
We honor our graduates today for the achievements they have made. We recognize that the diploma is a monument to their hard work and effort. We have seen in our own lives monuments to God’s work. We rejoice over the victories that God has provided. We, from the view point of history, saw how Israel built monuments.
With Israel, we look and rejoice over our accomplishments, astounded at how God moved and worked in and through us. With a bright hope, the graduates, our faith family, you and I, can look to the future with an expectancy and joy.