Memories - Joshua 4
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The comedian, Steve Martin suggests this little exercise for those who are 50 and over 1. Place your set of keys in your right hand. 2. With your left hand, phone a friend and invite them around for a meal. 3. Hang up the phone. 4. Now think: where are your keys? If you are about my age then something like that must have happened to you- you are looking for your keys and your wife points out they are actually in your hand. Or perhaps you have had this experience, you go into a room in the house and you know you have gone in there for some purpose but you stand there for a good fifteen minutes trying to remember what on earth you are there for.
But you know forgetfulness can have far more serious consequences than being a painful reminder that we are just growing old, because a failure to remember the past with gratitude leads to hard heartedness in the present. Writing in his Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky says of man: ‘If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful In fact I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.’ Martin Luther used to lay great stress on the Latin proverb, ‘Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude.’ And sadly that is often so isn’t it? Even, it has to be said, of Christian believers. And maybe that is why most societies have institutionalised little acts of remembrance so that we can offset this tendency we all have towards forgetfulness and ingratitude. And so we celebrate birthdays- expressing our thanks for the gift of life. That is why we have wedding anniversaries- so we do not take this sacred institution for granted. And why of course there is Remembrance Sunday- so that future generations will not forget that many of the freedoms they enjoy have been purchased at great personal cost. But now we see all around us just what happens when a society fails to count its blessings and exercises corporate forgetfulness- for what were once considered privileges are soon thought of as rights with the result that gratitude gives way to greed. And this becomes all the more acute when a nation forgets God.
Now this is nothing new of course. Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow countrymen back in 1863, ‘We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.’ And he saw the Civil War as God’s act of judgement upon them for doing so. Solzhenitsyn declared this to be the root problem of the modern world which gave rise to the gulags and death camps, he said this, ‘If we are called upon to identify the principle of the entire 20th century it is this- men have forgotten God.’
Now given this natural propensity we all have for forgetting the goodness of the past, and the one who has shaped that past-God- it comes as no surprise that the theme of remembering with its twin truth of giving thanks, has tremendous emphasis in the Bible. The man or woman of faith is the one who remembers and that in turn makes them into a man or woman of praise. Unbelief on the other hand, has a short and ungrateful memory and praise will not come readily to such lips. Which is why we have Joshua chapter 4 in our Bibles and the making of memories.
First we have the memorial that God commands vv 1-10 and 20-24. So what was that? Well, it is what we are told in verses 1-4 and 8-9 about these two lots of 12 rocks -and that is what we are speaking of not tiddly little stones which the NIV translation suggests, but rocks, real hernia makers as a man from each tribe was to get hold of one of these, heave it on to his shoulder and carry it to the designated place. And there were two locations for these 12 rocks, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The first was within the river Jordan itself -v3which would mean that there would have been times when they would have not been visible to the human eye, but at other times they would have been exposed above the surface when the river was low. The second memorial was to be erected in the first camp site which was at Gilgal-v19. And both of these piles of rock were to serve as perpetual reminders of this very special and significant occasion when hundreds of thousands of Israelites had crossed over the Jordon River which had been miraculously stopped for them to so they could enter the land of promise.
So what is the point of all that? What use were these pile of stones going to be? Why make such a big deal of them? Well, there are at least three major reasons given by the writer.
First of all they are a means of instruction as we read in verses 4-7 and 21-23, let us read vv 4-7 ‘So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, 5and said to them, "Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, 6to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, `What do these stones mean?' 7tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever." Do you see what he is saying? He is laying it down that telling people of the mighty, rescuing acts of God is a duty and a delight. So when Daddy Cohen and Mrs Cohen are out on a weekend picnic with little kiddy Cohen in Gilgal Centre Park and kiddy Cohen points and says, ‘Dad, that seems to be a strange place for someone to leave a pile of rocks, what are they doing there?’ then you are to tell them this story. You are to recount what a great God it is whom we worship, a God who is unlimited in power- who managed to get a whole nation across a river as if it were dry land; a God who is faithful to his promises who 500 years or so beforehand promised a childless pensioner from Iraq called Abram that his descendents would be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore and would possess this land and this is how it happened; and that this is the God who is to be served and adored- that is what you tell your children. And you know it is still the primary duty of parents to do that kind of thing today-not the church. Sure we have great children’s groups and just as parents would not dream of neglecting their common education by letting their children skip school because their future career would be at stake, then Christian parents should make those Sunday and midweek groups an absolute priority since their children’s eternal well being is at stake- the difference between heaven and hell. But that does not mean that parents can simply hand over the spiritual welfare to the professionals as it were- they are to do it themselves. And you start from the cradle- praying over the child, singing Christian songs to them, reading bible stories to them, showing by your own life and commitment that this means something to you. That will impress them- if church and the things of God are seen to be little more than an optional hobby to you then don’t be surprised if your children follow suit. If you are a Christian parent you have a responsibility as great as any King, President or Prime Minister- for God has entrusted you with the spiritual well being of his little ones, his little lambs he calls them, of whom he is very, very jealous, so not only make sure that you do not harm them, you make sure that you give them the best Christian upbringing which is within your power. Now, of course, we as a church will do all that we can to support you in this - but you are the ones who have to do it. And may I say that this is particularly important today when there is so little Christian memory in society at large. You know, at one time in our schools children would be made aware of Bible stories- even by non-Christian teachers. That is no longer the case and as a result biblical illiteracy is rife. So if society won’t do it then who will? Well, the answer is here- it is down to Christian parents.
In the second place such memorials are a means for devotion – we see this at the end of v 24, ‘so that you might (the Israelites) always fear the Lord your God.’ Now why does he have to say that? Surely, given what has happened, the great Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the law at Sinai, the miracles, the crossing of the Jordan- provision after provision after provision where God’s hand has been displayed in ways no one can deny are miraculous- surely you are going to remember that aren’t you? Well, sadly the answer is –no, unless somehow our memories are stirred up and faith is kept alive and fresh. You see, with the passing of time our conversion can become a distant fading memory with the result that our spiritual life becomes desiccated and a dry especially if life has been good. Almost imperceptibly we change allegiance without admitting it so that trust in God switches to trust in things. It happened to Israel, How did the prophet Hosea put it? ‘They were filled, and, being filled, grew proud; and so they forgot me.’ It happened to the active church in Ephesus in the Book of Revelation- they lost their first love. Do not tell me it doesn’t happen- I have seen it far too many times to deny it. When you have been a Christian a while you can soon forget what it was like before you became a Christian- how different the world looked and how different life was lived. You then become a little blasé, complacent taking the Christian faith for granted and even the blessings God gives like having a good church to belong to you become so familiar with that it borders on contempt. And so what we need is for our memories to be jogged from time to time- to remember the ‘what if’ of faith- where would I be now if Christ had not found me? What would I be doing with my life had the Gospel never been shared with me? To be frank when I ponder that question I shudder. Even as a Christian I know the sinfulness of my own heart so that I know exactly where I would be and it is not a pleasant thought. But I tell you this, it does make me pause and offer a word of thanks to God. I may not be what I should be, I may not be all that I could be, but I thank God I am not what I once was. And it is when we get down on our knees at that communion table and lift up empty hands, and gaze at that crimson liquid and take it to our lips-that is when from deep within we should say ‘Thank you. Thank you Lord for saving me. Thank you for this physical reminder so that my faith can be kept fresh and I can still be gripped by reality of your love–the reality of your Holy Spirit as he applies to my soul the benefits of Christ’s death.’ Is that what you do?
But thirdly, it is a means of mission- v24, ‘He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.". Now we know from what we saw a few weeks ago that pagans like Rahab had heard of Yahweh- the LORD- and what he had done- with the result that they were quaking in their sandals. And so the idea here is that when pagans come across these rocks, they too will also ask, what do these piles of rocks mean, and so there is a heaven sent opportunity to witness. Now I am no great lover of church buildings- I am a bit of a Philistine in that area, but you know, there is still something powerful and significant as you travel around our country seeing churches with spires silhouetted on the horizon reaching up to the heavens, tall and strong- as if to make a defiant protest saying, ‘Look, we at least were a Christian country of sorts and we have not given up the fight yet- we are still here, for God is seated on his throne and the Gospel is still going out- our presence in terms of stone and mortar is a reminder of that fact.’ And I tell you this, that kind of memorial is going to be even more poignant as we see more and more mosques springing up in our land. Who is going to be Lord- Jesus or Allah? The reality of course is that it is and will always be Jesus- but in people’s consciousness, in the national consciousness what will it be? So I am still grateful for church bells ringing out on a Sunday rather than it being the Imam’s call to prayer. But, as with these pile of stones in Joshua 4, they are but dumb symbols – they remain just another pile of rock- unless they are accompanied with verbal explanations. That is there has to be proclamation- the Gospel has to be explained to people. So why not use the martyr’s memorial in Oxford to explain the Protestant faith to visiting tourists- that is the Gospel? Let us take the opportunity to explain Christmas while we are still allowed to have it before it gives way to ‘Winterval’. In other words, be mission minded-making and taking every opportunity to tell people of Christ- even memorial bricks like church buildings.
Now that is the bulk of what this chapter is about – cultivating a godly memory, how we are to remember God, who he is and what he has done and will do.
The second point, however, is that God remembers us which comes out in the date God marks-v 19 ‘On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho.’ Now this date is not incidental it is one of those dates like November the 5th or 9/11 which is brimful with significance because when we turn back in our Bibles to Exodus chapter 12 we discover that it was on this date- the tenth day of the first month-that the Lord gave orders to Israel to select lambs for the Passover and were to keep them around the house until the 14th day when they were sacrificed and their blood daubed on the door posts so that they would be spared the judgement when the angel of death passed over Egypt killing the first born sons. And so here we are back at that same day, the anniversary, if you like, of the beginning of God’s great act of redemption of his people. Here is another tenth day of the first month which marks the completion of what God began way back then forty odd years ago. You were slaves, but now you are free. You were no people, now you are God’s people. Do you see what God is saying? He is declaring his fidelity, that he is a God who makes promises and keeps them. What he has started he will finish. And here is a date which reminds them of this fact. Tell me, do you ever wonder whether God is going to see your salvation through? Whether he is going to ensure that you make it to heaven in the end? There are times aren’t there when it is very difficult to resist that sort of nagging doubt. It may be that disappointment has crossed your path. That the relationship you had hoped for has not materialised, that the career you had longed for has not been so satisfying, or that even the Christian life seems more mundane than you had expected. But I guess that what causes that question to arise in our minds more than anything else is the sense of our own sin and failure. Sometimes we feel so weak. For some it is a fear of the future, wondering if we would ever cope if we found ourselves as a persecuted minority. What if we do become a Muslim state in the future and sharia law was introduced and my family was threatened? You don’t have to be a Christian for that long before those sorts of fears cast their icy fingers around your heart. But Israel had to face similar fears. How would they size up to the Canaanites- their armies, their idolatries? They needed some sort of reassurance- and God gave it to them in the form of a red letter day on a calendar. Look at the date! And we can look at another date can’t we? We call it Good Friday. That was the date the true Passover lamb was sacrificed. That was the date Jesus cried out in victory, not despair ‘It is finished’ the transaction has been completed- my people’s sin has been atoned for and now they are going to be safe with me into all eternity. ‘Today’ he said to the penitent thief, ‘You will be with me in paradise’ no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’. In other words, no one who puts their trust in him will fall through the cracks. Sure we have to make use of the means of grace, as these people did- note the memorial at Gilgal, pass on the Gospel message to the next generation, ponder the red letter days and what they mean- Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost, meet with God’s people as much as you can so keeping the faith alive and fresh. God wants us to have assurance. But the way we will get it is by the same way these people got it- trusting God in the circumstances of life and seeing his hand at work. John Newton put it like this: ‘Would you have assurance? The true solid assurance is to be obtained no other way. When young Christians are greatly comforted with the Lord’s love and presence, their doubts and fears are for that season at an end. But this is not assurance; so soon as the Lord hides his face, they are troubled. Assurance grows by repeated conflict, by our repeated experimental proof of the Lord’s power and goodness to save; when we have been brought low and helped, sorely wounded and healed, cast down and raised again, have given up all hope, and been suddenly snatched from danger and placed in safety; and when these things have been repeated to us and in us a thousand times over, we begin to learn to trust simply to the word and power of God, beyond and against appearances; and this trust, when habitual and strong, bears the name of assurance.’
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