Unseen Altars

 Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He 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 4)

Much of Scripture is about remembering. And much of worship, in both Jewish and Christian contexts, is also about remembering.

Passover is about remembering the miraculous hand of God in freeing Jewish slaves from Egyptian oppression. The Jewish Feast of Pentecost is about remembering God’s faithfulness in bringing the harvest year after year. The Feasts of Purim and Succoth look back upon events in the history of the Jewish people and how God intervened for their protection in the times of Esther and during the wilderness wanderings. Even the celebration of the Sabbath is remembrance of God’s creation and His rest on the seventh day.

Christians gather for worship on the first day of the week in remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. And the ritual of Eucharist is a celebration of remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples.

So let us consider Joshua 4 (I would encourage you to read the whole short chapter.) and the above text and do so immersed in the notion of remembering–remembering what God has done. One of the ways that the Hebrew people enabled this remembering was by building altars:

  • Noah
  • Abraham, at Shechem and at Bethel
  • Jacob at Bethel
  • Moses
  • Joshua
  • Samuel at Mizpeh
  • all told, 356 times in the O.T.

“What do these stones mean?” What is interesting here in Joshua is that these stones–although not called an altar–were to represent. First of all they were to remember the word of the Lord. “What the Lord said” is used often in this chapter for what the Lord says is important and we should pay attention to it.

We are in the midst of a political campaign for the presidency. We all know the power of words and the effects that they can have to wound or heal, instruct or disinform. These days words are being printed and spoken in such volume and in such a way that people are beginning to wonder if words have any value at all. Not so God, when, Jehovah speaks, it is never just words. For it is by the power of God’s word that life and creation comes forth. And remember, Jesus Himself is called “the Word” by John in his gospel.

So be reminded of the importance of the Word of God and recall what it is that God has instructed us to do in “His Word.”

“What do these stones mean?” They mean to remember the word of God and remember the results of obedience.

Obedience always merits the blessings of God. Obedience allows us to navigate the turbulent waters of difficult circumstances and “cross over on dry ground.” Obedience allows us to possess the Promised Land: ‘possessing the Promised Land’ is an Old Testament “type” of holiness, experiencing spiritual milk and honey even though surrounded by the forces of evil. And obedience to God prepares us to wage battle against the forces of darkness in this world.

Remember, “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22) God delights in the faithful obedience of His children.

“What do these words mean?” They mean to remember the faithfulness of God.

The salvation of the people of Israel–and indeed our salvation–owes entirely to the mercy of God in providing for our escape from bondage. Israel crossed the Jordan and the Red sea on dry ground because “the Lord your God” did something miraculous for your salvation.

How could we not recall, during these days of Lent, the extent of the miraculous endurance of Christ for our salvation!

Remember that we could no more secure our own salvation from sin than Israel could have crossed the Jordan without God’s intervention.

Remember that God, who is faithful in our salvation, is as faithful in caring for us as He was faithful in providing for Israel.

Once, on a day, was Christ led forth to die,
And with the crowd that pressed on him joined I.
Slowly they led him, led him to the tree,
And I beheld his hands no more were free.
Bound fast with cords, and this was his distress,
That men denied those hands outstretched to bless.
Sacred hands of Jesus, they were bound for me;
Wounded hands of Jesus, stretched upon a tree,
Ever interceding, mercy is their plea.
Their effectual pleading brings grace to me,
Redeeming grace to me.

(Song 129, Salvation Army Song Book)

“What do these stones mean?” They mean to remember–remember the Word of the Lord; remember the results of obedience; and remember the faithfulness of our Heavenly Father.

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