What a Memorial!
February 4, 2009
Joshua 4:7c: "These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."
He was only 70 and that day, when his daughter, Julie, went to visit him, Jim was in a very happy mood. Not so Julie who, when she burst out, "Daddy!" her father replied, "Who is this calling me daddy? I don't know you!" Alzheimer's had done its ugly work. John was no longer remembering the people he always knew – not his wife, not his daughter. Have you ever thought of the wonderful gift that memory is?
Perhaps we don't quite appreciate the value of memory until we get into the examination room or, later in life, when memory begins to fade! It is quite okay to forget some things, but not to remember others can have very serious consequences. Not surprisingly, people often put down markers to aid the process of remembering. And isn't this what we see happening in the story we read in Joshua 4? Certainly, this is a story about the importance of memory. And when we think about it, we must be careful to discern the various aspects of memory itself.
No doubt, you know the story very well. The long journey through the desert had come to an end. The river Jordan was the last hurdle, and the people of Israel had crossed over the river – God being with them. Now there was something Joshua was to do. The command he received was clear. From the river, twelve stones were to be retrieved and these were to be set up for a certain reason. In the future, when your children ask, "What do these stones mean?" they would hear a story that was vitally important to a proper understanding of their heritage and the community of which they were a part. The people needed a monument to an unforgettable experience. They needed a monument not for their sakes alone, but for the sake of future generations. On the mind of every Israelite, the power and the promise of the grand entry into the Promised Land must be permanently imprinted. Take twelve stones and build a monument – a monument to fix in a people's memory what God had done for them. A monument that would ensure that, when those alive completed their earthly pilgrimage, others coming behind them would have something to jolt them to remember formative moments in their history, major events marking their heritage. The memory of these events would have the potential to convert the people's present, when viewed in the light of the past. And the memory would also provide a firm foundation for a future filled with hope. A story from the past would ring with efficacy in the present and set the heart on fire for a future to hope for. "These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."
A memorial: what a powerful word! And we may suggest as one way of understanding the significance of this memorial is to interpret it in the perspective of the Hebrew zikkaron and its Greek counterpart anamnesis. In this perspective, memorial has a three-fold perspective.
First of all, it is a trek down the corridors to the past in search of some reality that we are in danger of forgetting. Memorial is a critical process of mental recollection. There are some things we must be careful not to forget!
Secondly, memorial is also the process of making present that which happened in the past, but which still has significance for the present. The memory is not only a process of gazing into the past and drawing from it that which is valuable and important. It is a process of effectively proclaiming the truth about ourselves, our heritage and our faith. It is the faithful declaration of those blessings, values and virtues once revealed in the past, but still helping to form us into the people of God with purpose. It is the declaration that helps to mould us into a people on mission – called by the Father, sent by the Son and accompanied and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
And there is a third dimension to the memorial. It is a revisiting of the past. It is a celebration of the present that is shaped by the past. It is also an anticipation of the future in the light of the past and the present. In other words, memorial comprehends the whole span of time–we remember the past, we celebrate the present, and we anticipate the future with the firm and unshakeable awareness of God's remarkable faithfulness. The one who promises keeps his word. The journey may be long and the trials may be hard to bear, but the word of the Lord stands forever. The memorial helps us to look back, to look around us, and to set our sights on the future of our faith, life and witness in the perpetual care of the one who watches over us.
A Memorial to Baptists
This year, Baptists of the world remember. We remember how some 400 years ago, working through people and events, God called a movement into being - the movement we call Baptist.
We remember the growing awareness our founding fathers and mothers developed of the church as a gathered community of believers in Jesus Christ, a special community of those called out from the world to live in the world for Christ's sake.
We remember how, aided by the Holy Spirit, our forbears came to appropriate biblical teaching concerning the meaning of baptism.
They came to recognize baptism as a sign of God drawing human beings to divinity and enabling us to respond in faith.
The Spirit helped them understand baptism as a dramatic act whereby we are commissioned as Christ's disciples with responsibilities in church and world to the glory of the triune God.
God opened their eyes to the realization that baptism is a revolutionary sign of our identification with Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection.
And, thank God, our forbears came to recognize baptism as a glorious statement of our belonging in a new community whose commanding features are not affected by the distinctions that divide humankind into races, classes, and parties.
Christians form a new community of love and justice – an alternative community that invites the world to experience a new way of being and of belonging. And they do this by coming to know the God who has power to transform human life.
For all Baptists now is a time for remembering. We remember the passion that burned brightly among the earliest Baptists who experienced the miracle and marvel of God's grace – the grace that calls human beings to decision and enables them to respond in faith. Our forbearers may not rightly be accused of suggesting that following Christ is a matter of mere human choice. They were deeply aware of the power of the divine initiative that draws to faith, and upholds in faith, those who come to believe the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (cf. John 17:23).
For all Baptists now is a time for remembering. We remember how the hearts of the early Baptists burned brightly with zeal for evangelism. The believers cared that their neighbors should come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and they did something about it.
For all Baptist Christians now is a time for remembering. We remember the perpetual flame lit in honor of human freedom. Were not the early Baptists able to catch a vision of God's design for human dignity and human liberty written in creation and demanding recognition by all? This was the liberty not only of Christians, but of each and every single person made in the image of God. Because we are each made and loved by God, each person has a dignity that is inviolable, and each has a right to the enjoyment of freedom of conscience.
Was it not Thomas Helwys who said, "… men's religion … is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures."1
And did not Helwys, who argued the case so clearly for human freedom from the oppression of state power, place his life on the line for it! He died a martyr in Newgate Prison and we remember him.
And there are so many other aspects of our history we could now call to mind which would bless us richly.
"These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever" (Joshua 4:7). We all need memorials and during this year, we are in a glad season for memorials.
But, as I have suggested, memorials have to do with the past, the present, and the future. These help us to recall past events. We plug into the past and recall its glories. Memorials are also about making contemporaneous the riches of the past. And they are also about proclaiming effectively the truth discovered that we might live in its light toward the future.
Bearing this in mind, as we remember and as we celebrate, there are many urgent questions we have to answer–the sort of questions all Christians whatever their tribe have also to answer when they remember formative events defining the character of the living tradition we each identify in our various confessional groupings.
Must we not ask whether we are faithful to the vision our forbears have bequeathed us?
Must we not say whether we have retained the concern for all people to know the marvel of the grace of God?
Have we been persistent in our advocacy for respect of the dignity and liberty of all human beings?
Religious refugees set up some stones in the Netherlands 400 years ago. Do these stones still speak with power and clarity?
The monuments erected in the past, reminding us of great and towering figures, telling marvelous stories, and pointing to the rich heritage bequeathed us, must still speak in our age. We must ensure that these monuments, not cast in wood or stone, point to a memorial firmly etched into our way of living.
We must remember it, celebrate it and live in its light as we look toward the future. Today, the eternal values, discovered in the past, and enriched in our understanding over the course of history, must shine brightly. Our lives must convey the clear message that fills the present with purpose and marks the future with hope.
May God, in grace, shower divine favor upon us so that, mindful of the various dimensions of this memorial, we will not only treasure the past, but also make its greatness visible today and fill with hope the pathway to the future. Amen.
1 Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611/1612), edited and introduced by Richard Groves (Mercer, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998), p. 53