June 2009

12 stonesRecently I had the privilege of being invited to preach at Eltham Park Baptist Church in SE London on the occasion of their 106th church anniversary. I chose to preach from a passage in Joshua Ch.4, the narrative that recounts the building of a twelve stone monument at Gilgal, constructed at the place where the children of Israel crossed the River Jordan and set foot in the land that God had promised them. The transcript of my sermon is as below and both the reading and the accompanying PPT presentation can be viewed by using the following links.

Reading :  Joshua Ch.4 vs.1-7 & 19-25

PPT :  What do these stones mean ?

SLIDE 1 The reading we have just shared together records for us a very significant moment in the history of the people of Israel. The LORD God had, following the death of Moses, called Joshua to lead the people across the river Jordan in order that they might enter the land that God had promised they would occupy. In the previous chapter the writer records for us the story of that event, a story that came about because of God’s dramatic and miraculous intervention on behalf of His people.

We read these words, SLIDE 2 ‘…when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them … now the Jordan is in flood all during harvest … yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing … so the people crossed over opposite Jericho … the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground …’ (Joshua Ch.3 vs.15-17 partial)

And now, immediately following that event, God instructs Joshua to choose twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to each select a stone in order to build a monument – a memorial to mark the exact place where God’s people had crossed the Jordan and, by so doing, had first set foot in the Promised Land of Canaan.

This morning I’d like for us to spend a few moments thinking about the question that Joshua proposes will be asked by successive future generations when they come across this pile of stones. A simple, yet profound, question – What do these stones mean ? – and we’re going to seek to answer that question by discovering three things about the nature of faith in this story.

Firstly I’d like for us to notice that … SLIDE 3

  • Faith … looks back

One of the key factors that serves to mark out the Christian faith and set it apart from any abstract human philosophical concept is the importance that Christianity places upon recalling and revealing the significance of real-life historical events. Time and time again throughout scripture we discover that God’s people are encouraged to remember, they are told to look back and to recall events from their past, times where God had answered prayer, had revealed His power, and had kept His promises. And that’s true for the verses we have read together this morning, since in order to preserve the story of God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people by the side of the River Jordan, in order to provide a tangible stimulus ensuring the re-telling of that event to future generations – God instructs Joshua to build a memorial of twelve stones. Look again at what we read about the purpose attached to what God was asking Joshua to do, SLIDE 4 – it is, ‘… to serve as a sign among you … these stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel for ever …’ (vs.6-7 partial).

And attaching priority to the historicity of the Christian faith doesn’t stop with the children of Israel because its power is just as vital for us today. SLIDE 5 Paul writing the first of two letters to his friends in Corinth says this, ‘… for what I received I passed on to you as of first importance … that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians Ch.15 vs.3). In other words, Paul deliberately emphasises, as something of, ‘… first importance …’, the great events of the history of God’s dealings with humankind, in this case of course those momentous events concerning God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that in any discussions we might have with those who we may seek to tell about our faith, whilst our own experiences of God are vital elements in the story we have to tell, our story loses all impact unless we reveal it to be a single strand interwoven into a much wider story, the great tapestry of history, the meta-narrative of God’s interaction with humankind – a story that goes back through history, back past Joshua and for many generations before him – the story, that from eternity past is, in reality, always pointing forward towards the person and work of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 6 The theologian and writer Colin Brown talking about why we ought to look back says this, ‘… if we reflect on the character of the Bible it’s not a kind of promise box but in fact it is full of arguments and demonstrations and appeals to history …’

One of the main reasons that we need to have a clear understanding about the place of our faith within the unfolding history of God’s intention for humanity, is that in this post-modern society in which we live there is a natural aversion to anything that links together knowing and believing, or truth and personal faith.

Post-modernist thought insists that searching for truth is a useless quest because every individual looks upon things from their own perspective. Belief is reduced to the mantra that, ‘… if it works for me it must be true and therefore I believe it …’. Truth and belief, to the post-modern mind, are never absolute but at best only subjective. But the Bible tells us something different because when we recognise the Sovereignty of God and when we ascribe our existence to His authorship, then we see our place within the cosmos, then we discover that the whole revealed story of the Bible gives purpose and design for life. As we look back in faith we find solid building blocks on which to build our lives since in so doing, we discover God’s character to be one of total dependability.

And this morning, on this Anniversary Sunday, we are being encouraged to look back and recall God’s faithfulness to many generations of worshippers, who over 106 years have met here in this church. And it’s right that we should do so since, like the foundation stones upon which this building rests, our faith is built on rock solid foundations – the secure knowledge of what God has done throughout history.

But not only does faith look back but secondly I’d like you to notice from our story that … SLIDE 7

  • Faith looks up …

As we learned earlier when we looked at those images, memorials and monuments point beyond themselves – they are signs revealing a far deeper significance than the mere physicality of their construction. And the same is true for the pile of stones by the Jordan that we have read about, since not only would this monument serve to remind the people of a past event, but also more importantly, the stones reminded them of God. It was God who had chosen them and had made a special covenant with them, it was God who through his power had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and it was God who had led them through the desert, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Look again at the verses towards the end of Ch.4 and just see how many times the writer emphasises that fact. The stones are there as a reminder to the people to look up in faith, to focus again on God’s care, God’s power and God’s faithfulness. And we know that in the flow of the story of God’s people from this point forward that time and time again they did just that. They returned to Gilgal and to these twelve stones to re-connect with God afresh.

And that’s why holding an anniversary service like this one is important today. But its importance is not found in the physical stones of this building but rather it’s found in the God whose faithfulness this building, this monument, points towards. And our faith, both as individuals and corporately as a faith community is strengthened and encouraged by looking back and looking up.

Our passage reveals three things that become our focus when we look up in faith to God. Firstly … SLIDE 8

  • Looking up … reveals our GRATITUDE

I’m sure that whenever the people returned to Gilgal and saw again those twelve stones they would have been reminded of God’s goodness and of His care and surely they would thank God for what He had done for them. And similarly I’m sure that if I was to speak with any of you here this morning you’d be able to look back on certain events in the history of this church, or recall certain people who for you have been influential in your spiritual journey, and just recalling them – doesn’t it trigger again a sense of gratitude to God ?

One of the ways that we as a church together can regularly look up to God in gratitude is through sharing communion. The very act of communion is a witness to past events that encourages us to look up now. It’s a regular visual reminder that Jesus’ death and resurrection are not simply facts to be consigned to the pages of history but rather they are the basis of our forgiveness today, as well as the basis of our unity, one with another, and the basis of our hope for the future.

I wonder how many of you have in your wallet a picture of one or more of your family members. You know of course that a picture of someone isn’t of itself anywhere near as important as the actual person and that having a picture in your wallet is nothing like the experience of having a loved one with you in person. But the example is similar for symbols like communion in as much as it reminds us of what really matters. The photo reminds us of someone we really care about, it reminds us of a relationship we enjoy and, when we share communion we are, once more, overwhelmingly grateful to God for what He has done for us through the vicarious death of His Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary.

SLIDE 9 Dale Ralph Davis who writes extensively on the OT remarks in one of his books, The Word Became Fresh, that, ‘… the greatest enemy of the Christian faith is forgetfulness …’

But not only are we reminded to look up in gratitude but also we are reminded that … SLIDE 10

  • Looking up … renews our TRUST

In the final verse of Ch.4 we read these words, ‘… God 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 …’ (Joshua Ch.4 vs.24). These stones, marking as they did the events described in Ch.3, became reminders to the people of God’s power, a power that evoked a reverential fear of God. Today’s evangelical spirituality doesn’t tend to dwell much upon the issue of Godly fear, but we ought never to forget that God is a Holy God. To fear God doesn’t mean we are scared of Him, and neither are we to understand this fear as a cringing, cowering type of fear but rather it means the realisation that in both our understanding and our worship it is necessary to have a proper sense of awe and reverence that honours God, recognising who He is. Such a holy fear draws from God’s people a wholehearted loyalty. The people knew they could trust God because He had demonstrated His power on their behalf and had brought them into the Promised Land. These stones speak about a God who can be trusted.

Over the past couple of weeks the issue of trust has been headline news in the media as stories of the abuse of the expenses systems for our elected MPs have continued to make the headlines. I’m reminded of the story about a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, who decided to stand for election to the Danish parliament. He had a very interesting set of manifesto promises on which he based his campaign. He promised, better weather, a following wind for all cyclists and shorter queues at checkouts in supermarkets. At election time Haugaard attracted 24,000 votes and was duly elected to represent his constituency in the national parliament. Haugaard was interviewed soon after the election and he confessed that his whole campaign had been a practical joke. SLIDE 11 When asked by the interviewer why he thought people had voted for him he said, ‘… I can only assume that people voted for me because they thought my election promises were as likely to happen as those promises made by other candidates from more conventional political parties …’

Yet these stone spoke eloquently of a God who could be trusted a God who keeps His promises. And it’s surely the same for us as we look back over our lives, as we think back over the many years that this church building has stood, as we think back over the centuries back to the cross at Calvary we are reminded that God has rescued us and that the very act of remembrance draws from us a renewed desire to trust Him for today and for the future.

The third thing that we learn is that … SLIDE 12

  • Looking up … refreshes our WITNESS

Intriguingly from our passage we notice that not only were the stones to be a reminder to the people of Israel of God’s covenant relationship with them and all the benefits that brought, but also these stones provided a witness to God’s power to those outside of the covenant community. Joshua makes that clear in the final verse of Ch.4, a verse that forms a bridge into Ch.5. SLIDE 13 The verses when read together say this, ‘… God 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 when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites …’ (Joshua Ch.4 vs.24 to Ch.5 vs.1).

It wasn’t just the people of God that bore witness to God’s power but other nations could see for themselves the character of the God the people of Israel served. The same was true for the NT church as well. Luke writes at the end of Acts Ch.2, in a section describing the activity of the fledgling church in Jerusalem that, SLIDE 14 ‘… every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts … they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people …’ (Acts Ch.2 vs.46-47a). The people around saw what God was doing in these new communities and it was to prove to be a positive witness.

The same is true for the church that has met in this building for 106 years. As successive generations have looked in from the outside they have seen something for themselves of the character of God through the activity of the people of God. And through all of your continued passion, to be the kind of community that reflects God’s love and care for those around and about this neighbourhood may it continue to be true that those outside will get to encounter God for themselves through your witness.

Then lastly, not only does faith look back to remember the solid foundations upon which it is built, not only does faith look up recognising the character of God, but also … SLIDE 15

  • Faith … looks forward

I guess in general terms memorials, monuments and anniversaries can have one of two effects. They can either bind people to the past or they can encourage people forward into the future. Earlier we reminded ourselves of the important fact that faith looks back – and whilst that’s true and necessary, for the reasons we discussed, there is a problem if we are only ever looking backwards. If we’re not careful there is the danger of becoming so committed to tradition that it’s possible to enter a form of institutional maintenance rather than a wholehearted dedication to the mission of God, which is always moving forward.

David Watson tells, in one of his books, of a visit he made to a church one Sunday. He was greeted at the door by the Church Warden and as the conversation developed Watson realised that this man had clearly been at the church for some years. So he asked him, ‘… how long have you been working here at this church ? …’, and the man replied, ‘… over fifty years …’, Watson replied, ‘… that’s fantastic, you must have seen many changes in this church over those fifty years …’, to which the man replied, ‘… yes, I have, and I’ve resisted every single one of them …’.

Whilst the monument of twelve stones that Joshua was instructed by God to build at Gilgal did have, as part of it’s significance this idea of looking back, the reality of the story for the people of Israel was that the great battles of Jericho and Ai were all in the future. The task of occupying the Promised Land, the ground upon which they now stood for the first time, was going to be extremely demanding. If you know anything of the continuing story of the book of Joshua you will be aware that Gilgal became a special place for the people, a place they returned to time and time again. But Gilgal wasn’t to become a place that rooted the people in the past, but rather, it was a place that acted as an encouragement to move forward again, with God. These twelve stones weren’t millstones, that held the people of Israel back, but rather, they were stepping stones that propelled them forward.

So the twelve stones didn’t just speak about what God had done in the past but they also reminded the people of what He had promised to do for them in future. And there’s an important lesson for all of us to understand this morning because whilst in an anniversary service like this one we would want to say thank-you to God for the good things that He has done in building and preserving a Christian witness in this place over 106 years we must never allow ourselves the luxury of complacency. The longer I’ve been travelling on the Christian path, the more I’m convinced that God isn’t so much concerned about where I’ve been as He is about where I’m going.

Let’s finish this morning by reminding ourselves of a well-known NT passage which I trust we can all appropriate for ourselves, whether as individuals, or corporately, as a church as it moves forward into its 107th year. SLIDE 16 Paul writes these words to encourage his fellow-believers to keep on keeping on, ‘… I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead … not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … brothers and sisters I’d not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it … but one thing I do … forgetting what is behind (that is, his failures) and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus …’ (Philippians Ch.3 vs.10-14)

May we continue to look back in faith to see what God has done for us, may we look up and see God afresh and alive in every aspect of our lives and may we both look and move forward both as individuals and corporately as a community of faith here in this place.

A Certain Rumour coverSometimes you just need to be reminded of the basics of the Christian message of hope – no detailed evaluations, leading questions or intellectual dissection, just simply a reminder of the hope that our faith in Jesus Christ brings, regardless of circumstance. If you’re tired of the demands of your life, frustrated by the tyranny of routine and weary of the overworked inlellectualised debates on issues of faith, then it’s probably time to take a step back, lift your gaze from the ground around you and look up.

In A Certain Rumour Russell Rook expounds upon the theme of hope, as seen through the eyes of Cleopas as he journeys, along with his companion, to Emmaus shortly after the events of the first Easter.

Luke Ch.24 vs.13-35 is a relatively small portion of scripture to base a whole book on, but Rook has put a great deal of thought into it’s importance and meaning. The passage is shown to be not merely a narrative describing a physical journey that leads to the enlightenment of a few disciples of the early church, but rather, more importantly, it should be viewed as representative of the faith journey of all Christians as they travel from death to life. Furthermore, this short story is shown to be a summary of humankind’s metanarrative and of God’s ultimate plan for redemption.

Each chapter of Rook’s book mirrors the series of events recounted in Luke. Starting by looking at Jesus Christ’s death; then moving onto the possibility of life after death in the rumours of Jesus’ resurrection. The stranger on this journey to Emmaus responds to Cleopas’ distress by taking him and his companion on a journey through the ages, and the chapters follow suit – looking at God’s hope for humankind from creation through the exodus. Finally we see the breaking of bread and the hope mitigated through fellowship and through that we are drawn to see our future hope as members of His body, the church.

The Christian faith is about hope – both God’s hope for us, his children, and His hope for the world in which He has placed us. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us appears to be in danger of tumbling down and yet, too often, hope becomes buried in the munadities of life or lost under a stack of papers. Rook invites us to encourage the presence of this eternal hope amid the multiplicilty of daily details.

Stylistically A Certain Rumour is very readable with lots of stories for the journey and little, if any, confusing technical language. Rooks writing moves effortlessly from readable anecdotes through to thoughtful theological insights completely seemlesly. But don’t be fooled by it’s engaging simplicity into thinking that there’s no depth of insight because there is, an incredible amount, and it’s certain a book I’ll be turning to again and again.