I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of weeks. Probably not many have missed it, but I have missed writing. It seems that I should offer an attempt at an explanation. So here goes: I was busy.
Seriously, I was asked to speak at my church on the Sunday before Memorial Day and I don’t multi-task well, so my time was re-allocated from writing the blog to shoving words around into some semblance of a sermon. I am happy to have done it; I am also happy to be finished with it.
A couple of folks (but, not the Lovely Lady) suggested that it might be worthwhile to post the sermon here. Against my better judgment (and possibly hers), I have done that below. Read it at your own risk. It is quite long. But, I believe that God’s Word is worth spending time on. You will also note that it has some personal references which may only be of interest to the folks to whom it was delivered.
I hope to be back with a few new (shorter) posts very soon. You have been warned…
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Today is Memorial Day Too
As we meet today, most of you are aware that this weekend we observe Memorial Day. It is an observance which goes back many years in our country, all the way back to just a few years after the Civil War. In the late 1860’s families and friends began to gather at military cemeteries usually in late April and in May because of the abundance of blooming flowers in this season, to decorate the graves of the Yankee soldiers who gave their lives defending the Union. It was called “Decoration Day,” a name which was used until the middle of the twentieth century. The families and friends of the Confederate dead wished to honor their heroes also and over time the day simply became a day to honor those who had died in battle. After the day became recognized by the government, for many years May 30th was the date for the national observance of this solemn day.
There have been other changes to the day, specifically the selection of a different date upon which it is observed and the official name designation of Memorial Day. The other thing that has changed more recently is the fact that it has largely become a day on which we honor loved ones who have died, not just people in the military who have died in battle. All you have to do is drive past any cemetery this weekend and you’ll see what I mean. I’m sure that there are differing opinions about the changes, but regardless, the last Monday in May is the day when we pause to observe Memorial Day, as well as take a day to celebrate family and the beginning of summer.
A couple of weeks ago Pastor Bruce spoke with us about our church’s vision statement and he suggested that we need to know where we are going. He told of the compasses on lifeboats during WW II and how they pointed the crew of the boats to the shipping lanes, so they would be found. We do need to know where we are going, but I want to suggest today that, without a clear idea of where the sailors had come from, the compasses wouldn’t have been quite as helpful as you might think. Sure, the compass shows north and south, but unless one knows their past route, they would have no idea of which direction to steer to achieve their goals. It is essential to be aware of the past, or we steer blindly into the future.
Since I have the opportunity to speak with you this weekend, I’d like for us to talk a little about memorials and their purpose. More specifically, we’ll focus on a few memorials in the Word.
You may remember that we sang an old hymn in our worship time this morning. I know a few of you noticed some unfamiliar words, didn’t you? The song was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, written by Robert Robinson, a British Baptist pastor, in 1757. I grew up singing those words and this hymn was one of the first things that came to mind when I began considering speaking about memorials a couple of weeks ago. The second verse is a little obscure, isn’t it? It wasn’t obscure at all to many of us who grew up singing the words.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.”
I remember a number of times when the song leader in my home church would stop to explain what “here I raise my Ebenezer” meant before we actually sang the song. Maybe quite a few of you already knew the origin of the phrase before today.
Ebenezer means simply, “Stone of Help”. After God won the battle and allowed the men of Israel to drive the Philistines from the land, Samuel set up the stone, not as an altar to sacrifice upon, but as a testimony of God’s faithfulness. It testified not only to the Israelites, but also as a reminder to the Philistines, of the power that protected God’s people. It wasn’t the power of a magic talisman, as the Israelites had supposed the Ark to be, but it was the power of a God who honors His promises.
The memorial at Ebenezer isn’t really one of the most prominent in the Bible, but I mention it simply to make a point about what it takes to remember something, as well as how we forget some things too.
When we who are performers prepare to take our material before an audience, we all do something. Whether public speakers, or actors, or dancers, or musicians, almost without fail we rehearse. To rehearse means simply to repeat until the desired effect is achieved. The word “rehearse” actually comes from an Anglo-French word which means “to harrow again”. If you know what a harrow is, you know that it is a type of plow which takes the big clods of dirt left behind by the blade plow and breaks them up before smoothing the ground down. You can’t plant a field that has only had a blade used on it, simply because it is too rough and the dirt too hard still. The harrow must do its work first, then the seed may be sown.
If you have ever heard a first run through by any of the music groups I’ve been affiliated with, you will understand the analogy of the rough and uneven ground which needs to be sifted and pulverized again and again. From the lumpy chaotic mountains of upturned dirt, we rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse again, smoothing down until the finished product is soft and pliable soil, prepared for seeds to be sown.
So it is with memorials, if they are to be remembered. They must be rehearsed. The question, “What do these stones mean?” must be answered again and again, reminding each generation what happened at that spot. We mention Ebenezer this morning simply to make the point that because a few in my generation got tired of rehearsing the story of Samuel and the God who was with the Israelites, we took the mention out of the song, and it has been largely lost on more than one generation since. It is still a great hymn that shares a great message, just not the reminder of God’s faithfulness in that instance. This is not a complaint about changing old established songs, but an object lesson of what happens when we forget to rehearse the story of the memorial.
Perhaps a different example a little closer to home will help. Today is my father’s birthday. He was born on May 26, 1930. I remember the day. I haven’t forgotten it once in the last forty years. Now, I happen to know that Tuesday is also Jim Pearson’s birthday. He was born on May 28, 1933. My apologies to Jim, but I will most likely forget when his birthday is next year. “Why is that?” you may ask. The fact is that I’ve had a lot of rehearsals of my father’s birthday, dating back to my early childhood. There were a few years when I couldn’t remember the date back then, but I was reminded again and again. We celebrated the day every year with Dad and little by little, the date was fixed in my mind. I’ve never celebrated Jim’s birthday before. I only know that it is his birthday because someone mentioned it to me a couple of weeks ago. I’ll remember the day this year, because my attention has been drawn to it. Next year, who knows? But, I will not forget my Dad’s birthday next year and the year after that. When we rehearse events, they become fixtures in our memories and indeed, in our lives.
Just so, it is essential that we rehearse the memorials in the Word, so that they are fixed in our hearts and minds. Let’s talk about why.
Memorials speak of God’s promises and faithfulness
Let’s walk back from Samuel and his Ebenezer, about 230 years
in the Word of God, back to Joshua 4
. In the interest of saving time, we’ll skip some repetitive sections. We’re reading verses 4-9 and verses 15-24.
God gave very specific instructions to Joshua. They were instructions designed to leave no doubt in the people’s minds as to who was responsible for their salvation. Specifically, God’s chosen people were to use these stones as an object lesson to instruct their own children, and they would teach their children, and they theirs. The memorial was of God’s faithfulness. He had never forgotten a single one of His promises to His people and the stones shouted that to them.
(A small rock is laid down on floor behind speaker) We’re going to set a small stone right there at the crossing of the Jordan River. God keeps His promises.
Do you notice that right in the middle of his lesson to the Children of Israel, Joshua points back from this memorial, this monument to God’s faithfulness, directly to another one, erected a mere forty years before? Verse 23 says, “As the Lord your God did to the Red sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over.” I say it was mere 40 years before, but most of these folks couldn’t remember back that far. Their parents, who had witnessed and lived through the Passover, and the trek across the Red Sea on dry ground, were dead because of their own wickedness. (Notice the different person that Joshua used when he speaks of the Red Sea crossing. The Jordan River was God doing it for you and the Red Sea crossing was Him doing it for us. This was a rehearsal of an event which the group to which he is speaking hadn’t experienced themselves.)
Joshua points back to the memorial of the Passover, in a straight line from this one at Gilgal. Back then, Moses had told them, “Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place.” Yet another significant memorial, not one in stones, but one that was to endure to generation after generation. We’ll talk about this memorial again later.
(Another small rock is placed down slightly behind the first one) We’ll set another stone there to commemorate the Passover and the release from bondage. It shows God’s faithfulness in action.
Go back another 500 years and Jacob ( who would be known as Israel) is raising a stone at Bethel (the House of God) where he had his famous dream of the stairway leading up to heaven and God said to him, “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also, your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
(Another rock is placed on the floor a greater distance back) This is a stone erected to remind men of God’s promise for the future.
And again, another 180 years or so before that, Abram, soon to be Abraham, stood in Shechem and heard God tell him that He would give to Abram’s descendants all the land that he could see, forever. And Abram built an altar to his faithful God at Shechem. Again, it was a stone of promise, looking forward to the day that a faithful God would fulfill His word.
(A rock is laid down, further behind the previous one) Another stone that spoke clearly to all who saw it of God’s promise.
Go way back, another 1000 years or so and we see Noah building an altar to the God who had saved him and the God who said that never again would such a cataclysm come upon mankind. The stones were lost eons ago, but the sign of the covenant can still be seen when the sun comes out after the rain. The gorgeous rainbow has been relegated to a lucky sign, one at the end of which you may discover a pot of gold. I think that possibly God’s promise to us is worth infinitely more than some imaginary pot of gold. “Parents tell your children…”
(Far behind the others, a stone is laid down)
But, Noah’s altar also brings us to the next thing we need to realize about memorials:
Memorials remind us of man’s weakness and faithlessness.
The altar that Noah built was a testament of God’s faithfulness in the face of man’s depravity. God himself says, “…although the imagination of man’s hearts is evil from his youth;” The memorial to the faithfulness of God is a testimony against the sin of man.
Moving forward, the memorial of the Passover was itself a remembrance of a sentence of death to the firstborn children of evil men who refused to bow before God. The Passover not only testified to the power of God to save the slaves in Egypt, it pointed to a greater Passover still to come, made necessary because of the sin of all men.
Again, the passage in Joshua testifies, not only of the power and fealty of Jehovah, it pointed to the sin of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. Did you notice as we read earlier, that there were actually two memorials built on that day when Joshua told God’s people to tell their children? You might want to re-read Joshua 4:9
. I’ve always wondered about the purpose of this smaller mound of stones, built specifically in a place where no one would see it. I don’t think there is any other mention ever made in scripture about this monument that Joshua himself built without the help of anyone else. I have an idea about its purpose though. I can almost see Joshua picking up twelve stones from the east side of the Jordan River, maybe even a little furtively. In the place where the twelve men representing the twelve tribes removed the huge stones which had to be hoisted onto their shoulders to be carried, Joshua drops these twelve stones. The huge stones are placed on the western banks at Gilgal, in a place where Joshua calls their attention to the Great God who brought them out of Egypt and through the desert, into the land which he had promised to Abram (later Abraham) and to Jacob (later Israel), and to their parents and grandparents. The smaller stones disappear from sight as soon as the feet of the Levites carrying the ark touch the western boundary of the Jordan. I believe that these stones represent the time of captivity in Egypt, the murmuring in the desert, the golden calf, and the refusal to go into the land that God had promised, along with the forty years of wandering. Symbolically, all washed away behind them, the faithfulness of God standing before them, to be remembered forever.
Man fails again and again. God is faithful still, without fail.
We’ve got to look at one more memorial in God’s Word, the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness and demonstration of His infinite love for mankind. I said we’d talk about the Passover again.
The last major point to be made about memorials this morning is this:
Memorials point in a straight line to the future, while giving testimony of the past.
So, let’s talk about the Passover. More specifically, let’s talk about OUR Passover.
(A final rock is laid down on the communion table in front of the speaker, on the floor level of the sanctuary.)
We rehearsed the story of that memorial again last week, right here at this table. Our Savior took the memorial of the Passover, instituted some 1500 years before and rehearsed by the Chosen People for generation after generation since…He took that memorial and made it into a new one. This memorial stands right at the foot of the cross; it is the stone upon which our salvation depends. The wine represents His blood, which was shed for us, to pay for our sins. The bread represents His body, which was broken for us. As He set this stone into place, He reminded us to rehearse it as we gather. The rehearsal tells the story powerfully, every time we meet at the table.
But, we don’t get to live around the stone. We can’t stay here constantly. You see, if you stand right here in front of the table and look at that most important memorial which we celebrate and rehearse as a fellowship, you can’t help but lift up your eyes and see that each one of those other memorials pointed in a straight line to the cross. However, as you consider it, you realize that they also point past the cross. Joined with the other stones of God’s faithfully kept promises, together they all point in a straight line to the future, to the place where we walk and talk, and live today. I think that it may be no coincidence that in this place they point, not to any prayer closet, not to any conference room or fellowship hall, but straight outside into the world. In here may be where we rehearse the story of the memorials, but it is out there that the stones are being laid still.
Because, you see, as important as that great stone, the stone of Christ’s sacrifice was, it is not the last stone which has been or will be laid. To be sure, the Apostles and the early Church set up more, but all throughout history, God’s people have laid down memorials, stones of words, stones of actions, stones of lives given in sacrifice to Him. All of them have pointed, not to the people themselves, but to God and His faithfulness, set in a straight line from those that came before.
Paul made it clear that the stones were not the stones of personal conquests or of prideful exploits. In Philippians 3, he names his own successes (really failures) in that area, “circumcised the 8th day; of the stock of Israel; of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless;”.
(A small trophy is set off to the side of the communion table.)
He had set up his own little altar, a trophy shelf stocked with items of personal pride. “Look at me!” they proclaimed. But you will note, won’t you, that they took their own little tangent away from the stones of proclamation. At his coming to Christ, he suddenly became aware that they were out of line with God’s direction, just as little appendage off to the side, leading to nowhere.
The personal trophies weren’t anything to brag about! They were actually negatives – He calls them “loss”. Paul understood that his own righteousness, gained apart from his life in Christ, was less than nothing. In verse 13, when he says, “…forgetting those things which are behind…” he is pointing straight at those personal trophies. They’re not even something he wants to recall any longer. Those personal victories and advantages are simply a tangent away from the line of promise, the line of memorials that make the construction of who we are in Christ. Paul leaves them behind without a backward glance and, aligning himself with the faithfulness of God, reaches forward to the goal.
We must do the same, kicking over our little hand built memorials to ourselves in the process. The memorials of the past still stand, giving us direction for the future. I realize that I’m skipping many stones to get to the present day, but time dictates that I must do that. There are stones still being placed. This church is founded on such stones. We have the foundational stones, but those have been built on again and again. I think of the Pittman family, who were founding members here and gave the property upon which our buildings stand, before serving the church for many, many years themselves. Marvin and Wanda Eck gave years of selfless service, building and teaching. The Hoods gave tirelessly. I see John Hood in my mind’s eye, standing in an evening service, reminding us that it was time for our music program to move past his generation’s music and on to the future. “I’ve had my day…” I still hear his voice, even though he’s been gone many years. Stones to remember how we got to this place.
I walked through the cemetery the other day and my eye was caught by a stone with the names of Wayne and Betty Brown. My mind went back thirty-six years as Wayne and Betty worked selflessly to keep New Life Ranch’s facilities working smoothly, cleaning toilets and doing whatever else needed to be done to enable the camp to reach children for God. When they moved into town, they went to work at JBU, cleaning toilets and anything else that had to be cleaned, to help the university train leaders for ministry in the world. Throughout, they got up every morning before dawn to meet with their God and start the day in communion with Him. They raised a daughter who was a missionary in Haiti for many years, and a son who is a Bible translator, and a daughter, Keri…who envisioned and heads up the Right Lead program out at the Ranch today, serving alongside many of you, while rescuing children who are at risk in this world. Wayne and Betty laid lasting stones to point, not to them, but to a faithful God who saves us still today.
The list goes on, including living builders. Leo and Sona Setian, Leroy and Wilma Reese (Grandma Reese to many children who grew up in this church), Jim and Barb Caldwell with their rope to keep the Sunday School class in one place while they rehearse the memorials to the two and three year-olds we entrust to them. There’s a whole sermon in that rope, I think. The names are too numerous to list, but the names really don’t matter. The stones don’t point to the people, but to a faithful God who does what He says He will do.
I’d like for us to look at just one more monument today. I first saw this stone in the fall of 1977. My sister-in-law asked me to go to the cemetery with her. My brother was in a class, but she heard that the stone had been placed and she just had to see it immediately. I went and stood at the stone and wept with her. I didn’t know Maudie and Dale, but they left behind a monument. If you’ve ever been in the north edge of the cemetery up along the side near John Brown University, you’ve probably seen this stone. It doesn’t look like it belongs in a graveyard. About five feet long and two and a half feet high, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It did way back then, too. In 1977, the words were cut into a board. The family must have figured out over the years that stone stands up to the elements a little better than wood, so the marker is now of granite.
Maudie and Dale were married before that very stone…Fifteen days before they stood in heaven. They were killed in a car wreck a short two weeks after they became man and wife. They didn’t have long to set many stones in this life. But, “They, being dead, still speak.”
Here’s the inscription on the marker over the big stone:
“’For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Romans 6:23
“By faith, Dale and Maudie had accepted that gift. Through death, the gift was unwrapped for them and its splendor revealed.
“On August 13, 1977 they stood before this old rock and were married. Just 15 days later they stood before Jesus Christ, the One who gave His precious blood to pay for that gift of eternal life.
“Look at these graves and face the reality of life’s brevity and the certainty of judgment. Sinner, don’t turn your back on Jesus; to do so is hell forever. Christian, let’s get the Gospel out. You may not have known Dale and Maudie. They were great kids. When we get to heaven I will take you over to their place and maybe Maudie will fix supper for us.
“God is Good and He makes no mistakes.”
The past stretches behind, the stones piled up to remind us of God’s promises and the ways He keeps them. The future lies before us, waiting to see what stones we will leave as we walk through it. What are the markers that will testify of who we are? Personal successes, even good deeds done for personal glory, point only to ourselves and are of no benefit whatsoever. If our memorials point back clearly to who God is and the great good news of His salvation for all men, others will be able to follow the markers to a future with Him.
It’s time to place some stones along the way, ourselves. It’s time for us to make every day Memorial Day.
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.