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What Do These Stones Mean?
The Reverend Sallie Watson
January 29, 2017
Joshua 4:1-7, 19-24; 1 Peter 2:4-10
A Reading from the Old Testament
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.” ’ Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’
The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, “Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.” For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.’
A Reading from the New Testament
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner’,
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Who among those very first worshipers a hundred twenty five years ago would have thought that University Presbyterian Church. would be where it is today? A member of at least three different denominations that I can count, a member of an untold number of presbytery and synod configurations, a survivor of two world wars and a few others along the way, a witness in the face of a shooting off the tower just behind us. And on this day, one hundred and twenty five years later, there’s a rising young preacher on his way to be your new head of staff, a lively ministry with children, youth and adults, a baptismal font that’s bigger than any they could have imagined, a choir (and a choir director) who rock the house, and – a woman in the pulpit and another one on staff?!
I am SURE the church fathers named on the back of your bulletin didn’t imagine that last part, but I hope they’ll get over it.
I need to get a picture of you – not just for Ponderings, but so that I can remember this day. And I hope the church fathers will get over this too! Ready? One-two-three-cheese!
Just think of all the ministry over the years that has already taken place in this building, and all of the ministry that is to come. God must be smiling today.
But what happens tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that? In the haze of weddings and funerals and baptisms and communion services and committee meetings and staff reconfigurations and underfunded budgets and all the day-to-day stuff that goes along with being a vital congregation, will this day still be remembered?
What are you telling your children about this day? And what will they tell their children? Is it going to be something like “They did all this so that they could have a place to worship?” Or will it be more like, “They did all this so that WE could be a worshiping community?”
That’s some of the genius of the Bible, Old Testament and New. It’s all one, complete witness. It tells us the story of God’s faithfulness. It tells us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It teaches us some church history and even some rudimentary church polity. (I even know some folks who say that the apostle Paul was the first General Presbyter!) The Bible accomplishes a lot in a relatively short number of chapters.
But it does all that it does with the future in mind.
At the end of John’s gospel, the writer tells us that Jesus did all these things, and so many more that they couldn’t be recorded in one book – but that these particular stories were written down so that WE might believe,
and that through that believing we might have life in the name of Jesus. It wasn’t all about them, any more than today is all about our forebears in the faith. If our faith is not as lively as those who paved the road toward this day, then we will be letting those forebears down.
That’s part of what is going on in our reading today from Joshua. The Hebrews have just made it through the wilderness into the promised land. And the first thing that they do is to make a memorial so that they will never forget. Twelve smooth stones are brought forward – one stone for each of the tribes of Israel – and they are placed in such a way that not if, but when, children in time to come asked them what the stones meant, they would have reason once again to rehearse the story of God’s deliverance.
And in our reading today from First Peter, the writer takes it one step further. Recalling that scene in their faith history from Joshua, First Peter says that we should let ourselves be built up – did you catch that?
Not build ourselves up, but let ourselves be built up – as living stones into a spiritual memorial – not to stand lifeless in the river, but to together proclaim the mighty acts of God that brought us to this place.
Someday, our children are going to ask us, “What is this picture?” “Where was this taken?” “Who were all these people, and what was it that they were working on?” “What do these stones mean?” We could answer by saying, “Well, this stone represents the very first session, this stone is for the close ties with Austin Seminary, this stone is for the first pastor, this stone is for Bridge to Worship…”
You get the idea. We could do that. But there are far more things than twelve that got us here today. And there are far more people than just the ones in this room that made this day happen.
This day was made possible in part by saints long gone who surveyed the property, and designed the building, and gave money through capital campaigns, and sweated over parking problems, and envisioned a ministry in the University area.
When your children and grandchildren ask you what this day means and what these bricks mean, maybe the best answer might simply be this: “Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. That is why we want you to know about it, children. And that’s why it’s time now for all of us to get to work, proclaiming the deeds of the One who called us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.” It’s that easy, and that life-giving.
Our lives as individuals are to be lived in gratitude for what God in Christ has done for us. And our life together as University Presbyterian Church is to be both a testimony to the life that God has given us, and also an invitation for other living stones to join the building.
And what a glorious building it is!
Oh, the church is nice, alright – but I’m talking about all of you. All of us.
We have let ourselves be built up by God into this glorious community. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. That’s what all this is about.
And now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever.