I remember it. I was being held in the arms of one of my parents; I don’t remember which, but they carried me across. And I remember seeing this wall of water being held at bay as I glimpsed our leader, Moses, holding up his staff leading us to safety. I remember the screams and the shouts as that wall of water collapsed and our captors, the Egyptians, were washed away never to threaten or enslave us again.
Then we wandered. For forty years. My parents are gone. Moses and Aaron are gone. But God is still with us guiding us, his presence always among us in the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. And that Ark is now before us leading the way; we’re about to finally enter the promised land, by crossing the Jordan River.
The priests carrying that Ark reached the water’s edge and it happened: the same miracle that led us out of Egypt was now used to lead us to our new home. The waters parted. Dry ground! We all crossed. Yet, as I crossed I heard a voice; our God, “take up twelve stones.” Joshua our new leader came over to me, “You”, he said, “take up a stone near the Ark, put it on your shoulder. Carry it over with you. It will serve as a sign among you.” “A sign of what?” I asked. “What if someone asks what these stones mean?” Joshua looked at me and said, “Tell them…”
You and I can only imagine the emotions and the feelings of that day described in our lesson from the book of Joshua, but isn’t it the feelings and the emotions that would be passed on to those who wondered what these 12 stones meant? Think of what one of those 12 men would say to their son or daughter who asked about the stones. Certainly, they would say what Joshua said that, “the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD” and that “these stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” But would that be all they would say or would they tell more?
Have you ever taken someone to visit a grave of a relative or loved one? Have you ever been taken to visit a grave? In either situation, you likely told or heard about that person who is now dead. What that person did for a living. That person’s kindness and all the fond memories about him or her. And, as you tell or as you are told about that person lying buried beneath the earth, what is often left out? Often the bad, right? When we remember someone, we may think of some of their faults, sure, but more often, we remember the good. But here, I don’t think the bad would be left out. I think it would be included. Don’t you? Why?
Because doesn’t the bad history of the wandering Israelites make this moment in their current history, this crossing of the Jordan by a miracle, even more powerful? What had these Israelites done for the last forty years? Why did it take them so long to reach the promised land? Do you know the distance they had to travel after the crossing of the Red Sea to this moment, the crossing of the Jordan? Depending on where the Israelites crossed, the distance between the Red Sea and the Jordan is about 800 miles. The average person can walk 800 miles in about 12 days. It took forty years.
Do you know why it took forty years? God tells us in the book of Numbers, ““Because they (the Israelites) have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” It took forty years for those twenty or older to die off. They weren’t allowed to enter the promised land because of their sin, because of their failure to listen and follow God wholeheartedly. They wandered because their faith wandered.
But now here sit twelve stones… “Tell them!”…”Tell them what they mean!” Sin and grace. Repentance and forgiveness. Patience and perseverance. A promise. Twelve stones that mean so much. Twelve stones that tell so much. “Tell them.”
They were a lasting memorial for the Israelites. As parents would explain these stones to their children, they would have to explain why their grandparents never made it into the promise land, they would have to explain their sin; their failure to trust in God above all things. That would be a sad lesson, surely many tears would be shed. Yet connected right to that shameful sin is God’s never-ending grace.
Those same parents could speak of God’s forgiveness and how he kept his word, preserving his people, bringing them safely to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And they could tell them this too, God did this because he promised to Abraham one more thing: From his family would come the Savior of the World, their Savior. A memorial, twelve stones. “What does this mean?” The promise of a new life. The promise of eternal life. “Tell them.” “Tell them what God has done, but don’t stop there, tell them what they now have…. what we now have.” “Tell them!”
These twelve stones are an everlasting memorial of God’s work. At first you and I might look at these stones and think, “So what?” But then we see, then we know, this is a history of God’s people, our brothers and sisters through the ages, this is a history of us. And our history is all the same, sin and grace.
We’re sinners, you, and I, and we come from a long line of sinners. Born into sin, living in sin, dying in sin. And the Bible clearly tells us those “sins have separated us from God.” That is our history: a present, future, and eternal separation from God. You know it’s true. I know it’s true. By nature, our bodies ache to live how we want. By nature, our bodies scream to have what we want. Our bodies demand to be our own god, master of our own lives. By nature, we wander aimlessly in the wilderness of sin until parched and weak we fall dead.
Yet, poured down our parched throats is a living water, a water that refreshes and restores, a water that washes away the dirt and grime of sin that covers us, water that changes our history: the waters of baptism. Before us today, doesn’t stand a memorial of twelve stones, certainly we could create such a memorial, but, no, instead we have a font that reminds us of our new history, a history filled with God’s grace as we are born again with water and the Word. This is the history you and I live in today. A history that has another memorial that hangs before us today, a cross.
There we see what? What we now have, a Savior. This cross isn’t some artsy modern decorative piece, rather it is a reminder of a death. One death. Jesus’s death. This cross reminds us of the work God did on behalf of all people as he sent his son to die for all people. Here is our new history, here is what we now have, God’s grace. God has preserved his Word and his Church since the beginning brining souls lost and dead in the wilderness of sin back to life refreshed, forgiven, and saved. We are God’s children.
And do you know the greatest part about our history as God’s children? It’s this: We will fail. The Israelites failed. You will fail. The temptations of our sinful flesh and of the devil will deny and seek to rob us of our new history in Christ. And often we will give in. We might hide our Christian values to avoid the awkward questions and conversations at work or school. We might turn from prayer and God’s Word as success feeds our ego or sorrow feeds our doubt. But even as we fail and fall in sin, God prevails. He lifts us up. He tells us through his Word that no sin is too great and no wounds to deep for the healing balm of his forgiveness. He tells us so we can tell them. “Tell them!”
He tells us this because he loves us – he loves us! You are part of the history of God’s people. You have salvation. You know this because God placed in your heart a faith that is rooted firmly not in a pile of rocks, a basin of water, or a wooden cross, but rooted firmly in Christ crucified. And it’s our time, it’s your time, to tell others what this means. To tell the world that our history is built not on our failures as sinners, but on our Savior. “Tell them!”
Look at what we have to share with the world! Look at what we have to share with our children and grandchildren, our relatives, friends and neighbors. Look at what we have to share with each other. A history of God’s protection. A history of God’s preservation. A history built on the one Peter proclaimed to be “Christ, the Son of the Living, God.” You can share with them this history that you are part of, a history of sin and grace.
Yes, yes, twelve stones served as a memorial of God’s work. Yes, today, a font, a cross, a church, and many other things do the same, but, finally, it is us, it is you and me sitting here today who are an everlasting memorial of God’s Work. We are living, breathing, miracles, children of the heavenly Father.
And when you and I die and a monument is erected over our graves, as a tombstone is placed over our bodies, and with tear filled eyes a young relative asks, “what does this mean?” may they be told, “this door of death is where our Lord safely led another faithful soul from earth into heaven. Here lies one who entered the promised land, here lies one who lives.” And how, how will others know this to be true? Because you told them. Amen.