Unexpected Benefits of Memorials

“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.

desert pic

Can you imagine walking around this for forty years?

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.

How to Love Others More

Have you ever had trouble loving people? Is there a co-worker who just grinds your gears? Or an in-law (or blood relative) that knows how to irritate you beyond comprehension?

We all have been there. I know I have. I remember someone I used to work for, and this individual would purposely do some really hurtful actions. I never murdered this individual, but I can sadly say I had so not-so-fond thoughts.

Most people know some of the Ten Commandments, one of which is, ‘You shall not kill.’ (Exodus 20:13, NAB) I’m working on a sermon that addresses this verse. Initially, I was intrigued. I have spent more than half of my life in church and have heard this command numerous times. The excitement of a new study excited me.

So, I set to work. Initially I began with a note pad and pen (which is my custom). However, about five minutes into my research I realized this job required something bigger. So I borrowed a white board from another room and set to work. In about ten minutes I had recorded most of the important material related to my study.18588963_10208822612382542_2713873779717572604_o

It was during this time of research that I found something incredible, and one that, I hope, will enable me to be more faithful in my love of others.

The word used for killing in Exodus 20:13 is רצח. I began looking for other usages of this, and once completed I summarized it with a basic definition of “to deprive of life.” Now, this is a very basic definition, I know. For in some instances, depriving something of life may save others. Or, it could provide the necessary sustenance for continued life. But for my study, I began to look at life in Scripture. Of course, life began in Genesis 1:20-28 with the creation of animal life and ultimately crowned with humanity. (You can check out my thoughts on the creation of האדם in a previous post.) Life, or נפש, is the key to our appreciation and ultimate love for humanity (and animal life too!).

Humans, however, are different. We were created בעלם אלוהים. And so, because humanity is the image of God, our lives are intrinsically valuable. That is, we matter because God matters. Or, God’s image in us makes humanity intrinsically worthy.

Now, it is possible to simply gloss over that. Chances are, you already did. But in the off chance that you are reading this contemplatively, humanity is intrinsically valuable.

It is not a particular religion, a sexual orientation, or a political party that makes humanity worthy. It is the fact that they are human.

It is not a particular religion, a sexual orientation, or a political paevelyn-paris-33498.jpgrty that makes a human being excellent. It is the fact that they are a human being.

It is not the color of one’s skin, the level of intelligence, or the physical or mental capacity that makes a human being invaluable. It is the fact that they are a human being.

Because “When God created human beings, he made them in the likeness of God; he created them male and female.” (Genesis 5:1b-2a, NAB) That is what makes a human being worthy.lechon-kirb-25696

Now, how does this help us love others more? When we stop looking at people in categories, we start to what is really there: people. She is not a Muslim, she is a human being created in the image of God. He is not queer, he is a human being created in the image of God.

When you and I begin to see God in others, our ability to love them is transformed. That is why Paul could write, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NAB) There is humanity, gloriously and wonderfully bearing God’s image.

Do my words convey my belief that people are created in the image of God? Unfortunately, not always. But I am reminded of the weight of such ill-used words in Matthew 5:21-26. The Rabbis of Jesus’ day had broken the law down to manageable loads. In fact, the commandment regarding killing was boiled down to simple murder. As long as you don’t murder anyone, you’re good! (If these were the true standards, we would be much better off!) But Jesus wouldn’t let that slide. God’s standards are infinitely higher than we could ever imagine. Murder, as expressed in Exodus 20:13, does not involve just the literal taking of life. It goes beyond that to our words, the very basis of our communication to others. Whether it is Raqa or fool, if it does not proceed from the view of love and value, we are in trouble. (By the way, this does not absolve us for confronting errors, for in the next few chapters Jesus does just that, as well as recommending it in Matthew 7:1-5.)

So, are you having trouble loving others? Just see them the way God sees them: image bearers. I am amazed at what I can overlook when I see someone as a person, uniquely, incredibly, and fantastically made בעלם אלוה’ם.

P.S. I do not mean to convey that our own sins and shortcomings do not need to be addressed. When Jesus was speaking with the woman caught in adultery, his words were, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11, ESV) While Jesus saw her humanity, he did not simply condone her sin. Likewise, it would be a mistake in the desire to love others that we would ignore sin in our own lives.

Rabbinical Insights into Inspiration

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I have begun the task of reading the Babylonian Talmud. It is a monumental work spanning several centuries years and written in at least two languages.i Its importance to Judaism will never be overstated. To our interests as believers in the Messiah, it draws on a “long period of oral tradition ca. 450 B.C.E. To 200 C.E.”ii

I have been incredibly blessed by reading this work. Most of it is rather boring reading, to be honest. This rabbi says this, another says the opposite. And then three to four paragraphs of attempts to justify each rabbi’s position.

But hidden within the earth of wordiness are little gems such as I am going to share with you now. In a section covering the time necessary to recite the Shema (see Deuteronomy 6.4-6) I found this:

“Did David really know exactly when it was midnight? Now Moses, our master, did not know, for it is written, ‘At about midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt’ (Ex. 11.4). What is the sense of ‘at about midnight’ cited in the preceding verse? If I should say that that is language which the Holy One, blessed be he, said to him, that is, ‘At about midnight,’ is it possible that before Heaven there is such a doubt [as to the exact time of night? That is impossible.] Rather, [God] said to him, ‘At midnight,’ but Moses is the one who came along and said, ‘At about midnight.’ It follows that he was in doubt as to exactly when it was midnight. Could David then have known exactly when it was?”iii

I find several points of interest here. To begin with, in regards to the matter of inspiration, we find that God allows the individual author to shine through. When Moses wrote ‘at about midnight’ it seems that God allowed some freedom of expression. As the Rabbis conferred, if God should choose to be more specific he would have had Moses express it that way.

Another point that I find fascinating is that there is some ambiguity in the Scriptures. There are numerous times when estimations are given rather than exact numbers (Exodus 32.28; Joshua 7.4; Judges 15.11; 16.27; and Acts 2.41). This, in turn, can be applied to the rest of Scripture. It is important not to force exactness when exactness is not intended. We can find ourselves in much trouble when we attempt to force something that is intended to be taken loosely.

The last point that I get from this is to be comfortable with not having all the answers. In the context the Rabbis were discussing whether Moses knew when midnight was.iv But they were comfortable acknowledging that Moses didn’t know (or it was at the very least a possibility), and they were fine with that. There may some issues, some matters, that believers never fully grasp. Are we comfortable with not having all the answers? Are we honest to admit that we don’t know everything?

So the rabbis have much to teach us, if we would simply have ears to hear and eyes to see.

iJacob Neusener, The Babylonian Talmud, Volume I Tractate Berakhot (Peabody, Hendrickson: 2011), xv.

iiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, xxv.

iiiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, 10-11.

ivIt may seem such a trivial matter to discuss when exactly midnight is, particularly when we know when midnight is. But to the ardent follower of Judaism preciseness is a non-negotiable, specifically when regarding the recitation of the Shema.

Helpful Tips from the Banner of Truth

I am a subscriber to the Banner of Truth magazine. It is a great blessing, as many of the articles come from sermons preached. They challenge my thinking, warm my heart, and draw my attention and focus to God.

While catching up on my reading of them, I thoroughly enjoyed the July 2016 copy, issue 634. The article is titled, “Evangelising [sic] Muslims: Five Points of Entry” by Peter Barnes.[1] I do not want to review the article; rather, I want to share some of the insights that I gained. I also would like to draw attention to some of the ideas that I have been pondering but have yet to put to paper.

The introduction to the article was perhaps the best portion. Barnes writes, “In seeking to make the gospel known to Muslims, we will struggle if we simply follow the guidelines in the book of Acts.”[2] In my opinion, some Christians overemphasize the Scriptures. Now, before you write me off as a heretic please read my explanation. It is possible to follow the Scripture to such an extreme that it violates proper interpretation. For example, the Bible teaches that witches should be executed (Exodus 22.18). Some people attempt to place this command to the nation of Israel on followers of God today. Of course there is a lengthy discussion that should take place on why believers do not follow this practice, but many pick and choose what to follow from the Tanakh. Some people follow marriage advice from the Torah (such as the teaching on divorce and remarriage- see Exodus 24.1-4), or dressing advice (specifically the Scripture that commands men not to dress like women and women not to dress like men- see Deuteronomy 22.5), but they fail to follow the command to execute witches. On the same line, some people desire to strictly follow the teachings of the New Testament on the church. An example of this can be found in the first chapter of C. Douglas Weaver’s book In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story.[3]

In accordance with this desire to be Bible-based and Scripture-laced, people want to follow the ‘New Testament guide’. While I definitely believe that Scripture is the foundation of faith and is to be sought and practiced, I also see the truth that it is a book with historical grounding in a specific time and culture. This has profound implications on what we practice and how we practice. Zuck clarifies this thought when he writes, “In approaching the Bible it is a self-evident truth that the Bible is a book. Like other books it is written in languages spoken by people for the purpose of communicating ideas from the writers to the readers.”[4] This seems to have been forgotten by many individuals in the church today.

To bring this circle to a close, let us return to Barnes’ statement in his opening paragraph. “In seeking to make the gospel known to Muslims, we will struggle if we simply follow the guidelines in the book of Acts.”[5] It is helpful to remember that the main method of spreading the Gospel initially (see Acts 2-9) was primarily to and through Jewish individuals. Thus the preaching focused on the Messiah and the teaching of his suffering and death.[6] If we were to strictly follow the practice of the early believers found in Acts, our evangelistic efforts, specifically to the Muslim people, will be borderline impossible. My point is not to delve into the methods of evangelism to the people of Islam. Other writers have done an excellent job at this.[7] My point has more to deal with the need for creative and a freedom for believers to engage in different methods of evangelism. Barnes notes Paul’s various methods as referenced in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23.[8] We need to rely on God’s Word for everything. But we also need to realize that there is freedom within that.

Another part of the article that really impressed me was Barnes’ call for peace in discussions. He writes, “We must be kindly interest in them. We ought not begin with a frontal assault on the character of Muhammad or the integrity of the Qur’an.”[9] Since 11 September 2001 the treatment of Muslims has been poor at best and borderline hate crime at worst. And while Barnes’ article focuses on interactions with the Muslim community, the application can be made broader. People of different faiths, genders, sexual orientations, etc., are all treated with contempt and degradation. Paul encourages us to address people “in love”.[10] We commanded to love one another.[11]

Believers should be incredibly careful in their discourse, both personally and digitally. Disagreeing on an issue is not the problem, it is our demeanor. It is no wonder that people do not have a positive view of Christianity when its adherents are so demeaning, arrogant, and rude. Here are some helpful suggestions that I have utilized and have found to be helpful.

  • Never be rude- while this may seem simple, it is profound. I have seen posts referring to those who are voting for Hilary Clinton suggesting that they raise their hands and slap themselves because they are idiots. How in the world is this helpful? Does one actually think that a supporter of Hilary Clinton will see that and suddenly change his or her views? That is almost as ludicrous as posting such a mean-spirited image.
  • Ask questions- generally speaking, questions are much more helpful in interactive dialogue than statements. Of course, it is possible to be rude when asking questions. But assuming we are starting from that point, questions help further mutual understanding. It implies incomplete understanding, and it takes humility to acknowledge that. It also encourages questions from the opposite party, and thus differences and misunderstandings are greatly reduced.
  • Treat that person like you would Jesus- I do not mean bow down and worship them. I do mean that each person you interact with, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, race, age, height, weight, favorite band, and so on, is created in the image of God. That means that every human being you interact with in person or digitally is an image bearer of God Almighty. Treat them that way. Oh, and by the way, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. That is a hefty pill to swallow.
  • Study other people, faiths, etc.- Ignorance means “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education.”[12] Ignorance is forgivable, but only for a time. If you are attempting to dialogue with another individual, learn as much as you can from that individual’s perspective. If you want to learn more about the Democratic Party, do not go to Fox News. Look into the original sources. Educating yourself on issues, beliefs, and practices will help you understand where the individual is coming from and will help to alleviate misunderstandings.

[1] Peter Barnes. “Evangelising Muslims: Five Points of Entry.” The Banner of Truth, Volume 7, Issue 634, 2016, 7-15.

[2] Barnes, 7.

[3] https://books.google.com/books?id=shbpTq7wqAIC&pg=PA9&dq=new+testament+churches&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjssOya0P3PAhVCGz4KHSugAY8Q6AEIRzAI#v=onepage&q=new%20testament%20churches&f=false. Accessed 28/10/2016.

[4] Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs, Cook Communications: 1991), 59.

[5] Barnes, 7.

[6] Simply peruse through the chapters referenced above and it will become painfully obvious what materials the early evangelists used to spread the good news.

[7] See Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids, Baker: 2002) and Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press: 2012).

[8] I preached a message on this titled “Pauline Advice on Blessing Your Block”. You can access that here under that title: http://tnova.org/media.php?pageID=22. Accessed 28/10/2016.

[9] Barnes, 8.

[10] Ephesians 4.15, NIV

[11] 1 John 4.7-21

[12] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ignorance. Accessed 28/10/2016.