Text: Joshua 4:1-7, 20-24
Over the course of my studies in college, I completed a major in history. The study of history is the study of collective memory – or at least how the writers of history have collected it and recorded it. It is important to study our history so that we can remember our past, learn from it, and use it for our future. You see, our histories define us. And our histories are simply collections of what has been our experience. In other words, history is a sum of our memories.
Over the course of a lifetime, with only our memory to rely on, we learn skills and facts that help us to interpret and understand the world in which we live. Everything from our name, address, and telephone number to the multiplication table and alphabet to how to properly hammer a nail, change a flat tire, or get from our driveway to the grocery store rely on the memories that get stored in our brain. We learn how our nation and world developed to help make sense of why things are the way they are now, how they have improved over time, and what is important that we do next.
One of the more famous quotes regarding history says, “People who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The memory of events – both individual events and corporate events – that we have experienced has perhaps the most profound effect on our lives. Good experiences teach us to aim high, to shoot for the stars, to expect that we can accomplish more good things. Bad experiences teach us to fear and tread carefully, because we can expect danger to lurk around the corner. Experiences shape us and help us to chart a course for the rest of today and all of the tomorrows that we are granted, but they only do so based on how we remember them. Our tomorrows are only as good as the lessons we carry from our yesterdays.
Consider an Alzheimer’s patient. Over the course of their life, they built up an entire history of relationships and honed expertise in this area and that area. Faces are transformed into names, and combined together with the memory of events that have transpired in common, they form what amounts to a relationship. But as Alzheimer’s reverses the course of a lifetime of development of those things, suddenly life is altered. The loss of memory is a thing to be feared. We rightfully dread the prospect of not being able to keep those things that make us who we are and help us relate to and interact with the world around us.
And yet, there’s another side to memories, as well. Some months ago, I was watching a documentary about savants. Savants are people who have extraordinarily incredible abilities in one area or another. There might be a musical savant who is able to play the piano from a very early age – perhaps even 18 months old, as one case showed. Or there are savants who can look at a pile of matches or paper clips on a table and with one glance accurately recite a precise count of how many are on a table. But the savant that particularly struck me in this episode is the one who had a special kind of photographic memory.
Those people with photographic memories can remember slight details about photographs or images or certain events. But the woman in the documentary had a unique ability that puts her photographic memory into a savant status. You see, she literally remembers everything from a very young age of about 7 or 8. And I mean everything. She can tell you what she had for breakfast on a particular date in 1976. She can recite the weather forecast – and the actual occurrence of weather – for any random date in 1985 and all of the years since (and some before). She recalls every outfit she has ever worn and precisely what dates she wore them. She doesn’t forget anything.
And for her, the not forgetting is a debilitating thing. Imagine not being able to erase the memory of a painful injury. Not being able to let the images of 9/11 fade into a fuzzy memory that can be sharpened with effort, but can also be left in its dusty file bin. For this poor woman, everything in the past is the same as right now. She has forgotten the ability to forget. And forgetting is a very important part of memory. Imagine if God was unable to not just forgive our sins, but also to literally forget them. Salvation would look different.
Memory – and the proper use of it – is an important thing for us. We use our memory of the past – whether we lived it, read about it, or studied it – to interpret the present and shape the future. And being able to both remember and forget is also important, so that the terrible things of the past do not hamper our ability to step into the future.
For the next several weeks, I want us to think about memory. I want to consider what we do with it and how it can move us individually, and equally as important, move us as a church.
Joshua 3 and 4 give us an inspiring account of the importance of making memories. It does so in its telling of Israel’s collection of stones. Israel had made it out of Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years after the generation who were adults at the Exodus refused to go and occupy the land that God was giving them. That entire generation died off in the wilderness. Besides Caleb and Joshua, there was not an Israelite left who was older than 58. And only those who were older than about 45 had any recollection of the events of the Exodus.
As that generation had experienced the crossing of the Red Sea, now this generation was about to cross the Jordan in a similar fashion. Before we get too far, take a minute to understand what they were about to do. The Jordan flows through the deepest valley on earth and empties into the Dead Sea, which is nearly 1300 feet below sea level. The valley it flows through is marked by the surrounding mountains, steep cliffs, and sharp precipices. It is a sight to behold at any time of year. But when the Israelites finally approached it in Joshua 3 and 4, it was also harvest season, and the Jordan was at flood stage along its length, overflowing all of its banks.
Crossing the Jordan River is not as simple as finding the right path of stones to take. This is a raging torrent, and Joshua commands by God that the Israelites are to carry the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders into these flood waters. Even at flood stage, there were places where it was possible to cross the Jordan, but Israel was not going to take any of those. In Joshua 3:4, God’s advises the people to follow the ark carefully – for “you have not passed this way before.” They were going to take a new path.Take a minute and picture an image from the news or the Weather Channel of a flooding and raging river and you might have a little more appreciation of the fear that might have gone into those Levites assigned to that task, not to mention the rest of the people. The river would have been an intimidating sight, made more so by the Israelite’s 3-day lingering by the side of it.
In any event, the Levites do step into the water with the Ark on their shoulders, and the flow of water immediately stops. The Bible says that the waters heap up at the town up river of them, leaving the river bed dry – when the river is flooding! The Levites went to what should have been the middle of the river and stand there on dry ground while the rest of the Israelites crossed to the other side.
That in itself makes this a remarkable story. But God commands Joshua to do an unusual thing: from the middle of the river bed, one man representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel was to take a stone. In Joshua 4, we already read this morning how those stones were then used to build a memorial of this remarkable event. And we also read why God wanted this memorial built: these stones, taken from the middle of the Jordan River, would testify to all of the children of the children of the children of the children of these Israelites what God did for them when he dried up a swollen and flooded river so that the Israelites could safely cross over into the land that God was giving to them to possess.
In other words, God wanted Israel to remember this thing that He had done for them. He wanted it etched, as it were, in stone – in a heap of twelve particular stones that had no way of being where they were because they should have been ever at the bottom of the Jordan River. And yet, for all of the future, they would stand as a marker of the miracle that God had performed in order to provide for His people. And if God had done that, what was it that God could not do?
This is the importance of memories. They remind us of what has happened so that we can reliably create an expectation of the future. When we mix memory with faith, we realize that we can expect God to act in the future precisely because we have seen and experienced how He has acted in the past.
But we have to follow a process with these memories, the way that Israel followed a particular process with the stones from the bottom of the Jordan River. We must first identify how, when, and where God has acted for us. This was easy for Israel: He was doing it right then and there. We need to choose markers – stones – from each event. We need to do something to memorialize those markers. And we need to talk about them. This same process needs to happen in our own individual lives. It needs to happen in our families. And it needs to happen in our church. If we are to step forward, if we are to step forward together, we need to be able to see what has happened so that we can trust what the future can bring.
And the first thing we need to do is identify those memories. Reach into the past and look around. Dust off those file boxes in your brain and peek into them. Where has God been active? Think about your personal life’s story. What are your significant memories? What about our congregation’s stories? We must identify those memories as the first order. I have a few clear ones from my own past. One is an evening in my parent’s bedroom when we lived in Slidell, Louisiana. I accepted Christ that night. Another is in January 1997, in Houston, TX. I was walking up and down the sidewalk in front of our house, college applications in my room. That’s when I clearly sensed and surrendered to God’s call on my life. In the fall of 2000, I received a rejection letter for a scholarship I was depending on to be able to attend my first choice of seminary. I wound up going to my second choice, where I went on to meet Emily. April 2004, when I asked Emily to marry me – for many reasons a miraculous act of God. The Spring of 2006, when I nearly gave up on the idea of working in ministry, thinking that I had been mishearing God for the previous ten years. These are crossing-the-Jordan type occurrences in my personal life, when I can clearly see God dropping his finger into my life and doing a work that could only be him.
What dates and events come to your mind? Certainly God is always active in our lives, but we also have these significant moments, as when Israel crossed the Jordan, that are high marks. We have them personally. We have them in our families. We have them as a church. For the past number of weeks I have asked for your favorite memories of the church, when you found God to be the most active. These are the moments we need to identify and hang on to. These are the moments that square us and prepare us for the future.
But it’s not just enough to identify them. We need to choose markers from them. The Israelites picked up twelve stones from the bottom of the Jordan, from the very place where the Levites stood with the Ark, as a specific reminder of exactly what God had done for them. My stones include several framed certificates, a number of pictures, a couple of journal entries, and some cards and letters from friends and family along the way. When I look at them or read through them, they remind me of what was going on in my life, and specifically, they remind me of how God was working in ways that I could not then see.
For the Israelites crossing the Jordan, stones were an obvious choice. They came from a location that could only have been reached during the miracle. The people knew what to do with stones. Creating something memorable out of the stones would be relatively easy for them. It fit their culture. In recent years, scrapbooking has been the rage: creating memorable photo albums with all kinds of extra stamps, stickers, and highlights. More recently, internet-based blogs and photo- or video-sharing sites have become much more important in creating and preserving memories, particularly for those from the youngest generations. As a result, photos and videos are fast becoming primary sources for markers. But you might have others. Anything that will last can serve as a marker. And the markers will likely vary based on the event they are marking.
Once we’ve identified the memories and chosen the markers, then we need to memorialize them. The Israelites literally built a stone monument out of the twelve stones they gathered from the bottom of the river. In that way, every time they passed by, the literal presence of the carefully piled rocks would serve as a reminder. Genesis records several very similar events: Noah built an altar after getting off of the ark. Abram built several altars: one in Genesis 12 after God showed him the land of Canaan and another ten chapters later on which he was to offer Isaac, his only son. Jacob created monuments at a place he named Beth-el, the House of God, where God came down to him on several occasions. Gideon built one in Judges 6. And Peter described all of us as living stones that God is building into a living house in 1 Peter 2:5.
The point is that once we have our markers, we need to do something with them and place them where they would be seen. There was no hiding the monument that the Israelites built after crossing the Jordan. It was on public display specifically so that it would be seen. We need to display our trophies prominently and proudly. We need to frame our photos and hang them on the wall. We need to keep those journal entries in a place where we will come across them often. We need to have constant reminders of the great things that God has done in our lives lest we forget His active presence in guarding, guiding, providing, and protecting us. We need to create a highly visible memorial out of the markers that will remind us of the memory that we have identified.
Finally, it is not enough just to identify them, choose our stones, and then create a monument for them. If we just did that, it wouldn’t take long before the whole reason for the monument became lost: it wouldn’t survive our death – or the death of our memory. The most important thing we can do with these memories is to talk about them. And that is precisely what I want us as a church to start doing with the memories we have of Monte Vista. It is not appropriate or healthy just to assume that everyone knows how we got to where we are. We need to hear the stories. We need to hear them again and again. Even with all of the monuments scattered around the Promised Land, the people of Israel would prove to easily forget the what, how, and why of what God had done for them. They turned aside and went astray again and again.
But if we talk to our friends, our family, and especially our children about the stories, then we all can know how God has loved us and acted within, among, and on behalf of us. These stories need to be told. We need to be able to see what God has and is doing. We need it so that we know how we can trust Him to act tomorrow. It will give us footing and strong hope in facing whatever challenges may yet lay ahead of us. We can see how God has responded – helping us cross our own Jordans – and know that if He can do that, then we are in good hands indeed.
As you have seen throughout the service this morning, we have our own “stone wall” of stories that some of you have already shared about the life of our church. I encourage you to come and read them. Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you came in through the foyer into the sanctuary, then you have already seen that I have a blank “stone wall” just ready to be filled with more of the stories that you have to share, more of the memories that will ignite and inspire us to greater days ahead than we have yet seen. Feel free to take some time in the coming weeks to claim one of the stones to record for us what you have seen God do in our church. Because of these stories, I expect that in the future we will be stronger witnesses. We will be bolder disciples. We will be more fervent pray-ers. We will be more dedicated servants. All because we will have seen and remembered what God has already done for and through us. But we have to know what He’s done. We have to mark them. We have to create our monuments. And, above all, we have to share what God has done.
I encourage you, while we are doing this together as a congregation in the weeks and months ahead (and hopefully perpetually after that!), I encourage you to do the same thing personally and in your families. Find your marks, claim your stones, display them prominently, and tell each other and those around you all about them.
Romans 10:14 says, “How will they call on Him in who they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” We are the very mouths of God. It is through us that His story is told to a world that desperately needs to hear about Him. We need to get talking.