What Do These Stones Mean?

Joshua 4

March 14, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground’” (Joshua 4:21-22).

Rocks aren’t hard to find in the Holy Land. You can’t miss the rocks—they’re everywhere. There are huge stones and boulders, and smaller rocks and pebbles that fill the streams. From the Negev Desert in the south to the verdant fields of Galilee in the north, you see rocks everywhere you look. And not just rocks but piles of stones, just like the one described in Joshua 4. Let’s set the scene for a moment. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the people of God have at long last entered the Promised Land. Just as it took a miracle to get them out of Egypt, it took a miracle to get them into Canaan. Just as God parted the Red Sea for Moses, he parted the Jordan River for Joshua. Both miracles happened so that each generation would know the Lord was with them in their time of need. The Red Sea miracle met the need of the older generation; the Jordan River miracle met the need of the younger generation. And the same God performed both miracles.

Joshua 3 tells us that the Jordan River was at flood stage, which meant it was far too deep and far too swift for several million Jews and their livestock to safely cross over. So this is how it happened. Joshua told the priests to lift the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulder and step out into the water. The moment their feet touched the swirling muddy water, the river stopped flowing and the ground beneath their feet dried up. The whole nation passed in front of the priests and the Ark, crossing on dry ground into the Promised Land.

It was a mighty miracle of God—a moment to be remembered forever. But Joshua knew that even mighty miracles could be forgotten unless we do something to remember them. So he instructed 12 men—one from each tribe—to take a large stone from the middle of the riverbed where the priests were standing with the Ark of the Covenant. Each man was to take one large stone, put it on his shoulder, and carry it to the place where the Israelites would camp that night—a place called Gilgal. As soon as the men had carried the stones from the Jordan River, the priests followed them. The moment the priests stepped on the west bank, the water started flowing again.

When the men got to Gilgal, Joshua had them build a monument—a memorial—from those 12 stones. He had two things in mind: First, it was a teaching tool for future generations. Joshua knew that the children would look at that pile of stones and say, “What’s this all about?” And their fathers would say, “Those stones came from the Jordan River on the day God worked a miracle so our people could walk across on dry ground.” Second, it was a testimony to the watching world. Verse 24 says, “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful.” Those 12 stones reminded the nation of what God had done. They were visual evidence that in the moment of crisis, God had brought his people safely across the Jordan River. They testified to God’s faithfulness in the past so that future generations would know that they too could trust the Lord. When the pagans saw those stones, they would know that the God of Israel was a mighty God.

Dads, Pay Attention!

There is a lesson here if we will receive it. We have a sacred responsibility to take the truth of God and see that it is passed down to the next generation. Psalm 102:18 says, “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD.” Those who are older have a special obligation to pass on the stories of what God did for them. “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18). As Joshua makes clear, parents bear the first responsibility to teaching their children—and not just parents in general, but fathers in particular. Dads, God holds you accountable for the spiritual development of your children. Your sons and daughters look to you for answers. When they ask you, “What do these stones mean?” what will you say? The Christian movement is always only one generation from extinction. And every church is only one generation away from closing. If we do not pass along the faith to the rising generation, we have failed at our most important task. We must tell them what God has done for us—and then we must tell them again and again until the stories are tattooed on their souls. Tell your children how God answered your prayers in times of trouble. Tell them how Jesus rescued you from a life of sin. Tell them how you saw God do amazing things—tell the stories and then tell them again. Every generation needs its own stories. The older generation had the Red Sea, the younger generation had the Jordan River. Joshua wasn’t concerned about his generation—they had seen the mighty works of God. Though he was past middle age, he was looking to the future, thinking about the legacy of faith he would pass on to the next generation.

We come today to do much the same thing that Joshua and his people did 3,500 years ago. And we have stones, too. They are large granite stones, exactly like the ones the Presbyterians used when they built this church 102 years ago. During the fall many of us watched with fascination as the stonemasons did their work. Day by day, slowly, carefully, with painstaking precision, the workers found the right stones, cut them at exactly the right places, and placed them one upon the other so that in the end, the stones of the new portico look like they’ve been there for 102 years. That’s more than construction—that’s true craftsmanship.

A Letter to the Future

You may remember that at the Groundbreaking Sunday in June, we brought out the old cornerstone from the church building on Madison Street that burned down in 1977. The cornerstone survived the fire and for many years it was lost to us. But a few years ago God allowed us to find it, resting in the mud of a driveway not far from the old church. We rescued it and propped it against the outside wall of the west wing behind some bushes, hoping that some day we could do something with it. That’s where it stayed for five or six years until we began the renovation. When I showed you the old cornerstone in June, I had no idea how we would incorporate it into the new construction. In early November the workers put the old cornerstone into the outside wall of the new portico near the entrance to the sanctuary. John Sredl found the metal container that held various items placed inside the cornerstone in 1921. The container has burn marks from the 1977 fire. We’ve put the original contents (the ones we have) back in the metal box along with a few contemporary mementoes and some historical notes about Calvary. The workers resealed the box in the cornerstone—to be opened in maybe 100 years or so. As you exit the sanctuary and enter the portico, you’ll see the cornerstone on your right. It reads “Madison Street Church AD 1921.” We ordered a new limestone cover that is exactly the height and width of the 1921 cornerstone. The new one is only three inches thick. It is attached to the back of the old cornerstone so from Lake Street, it reads “Calvary Memorial Church 2003.” It’s nice to know the cornerstone has a permanent home again—27 years after the big fire. Bruce Lavenau wrote a letter that we placed inside the cornerstone. This is part of what he wrote:

November 11, 2003

To: Future Generations

From: Pastors and Elders of Calvary Memorial Church

As representatives of Calvary Memorial Church, we express our love and affection to you who follow after us. We thank the Lord for His multitude of blessings. We share the thoughts of the psalmist: “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations” (Psalm 145:13 KJV). There is a day coming when we will all—past, present, and future—be united with Him. Until then, we pray that you will continue to proclaim faithfully the “Good News” of salvation through Jesus Christ and Him alone. We pray that this will be done both here in Oak Park and around the world. For many years, the building on Madison Street featured the following verse behind the pulpit: “That in all things He might have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18b KJV). It is our prayer that this will always be the case.

Bruce wrote a paragraph describing the history of the church, and then describes the additional documents we placed inside the cornerstone:

1) An Anchor for the Soul.

2) A church history booklet written for the church’s 75th anniversary in 1990.

3) Our Statement of Faith. “We are grateful to God for keeping us faithful to the truth during our history. The doctrinal foundation of Calvary has remained constant since 1915.”

4) Sample bulletins.

5) A Legacy Campaign brochure.

6) Sermon tape. “Each week we recorded the sermons on an audio cassette tape. We expect our technology will seem quite antiquated by the time you read this!”

Then there is a paragraph tracing the amazing advances in all fields of human endeavor since the founding of the church in 1915, and a record of the wars that have engulfed the world in the last 89 years. Then there is this paragraph that could only be written by someone from Chicago: “On a lighter note, certain things do remain constant, such as the fact that neither Chicago baseball team has won a World Series since our church was founded. Maybe that will have changed by the time you read this.” We certainly hope so.

The document ends with a benediction often used by Dr. Lloyd Perry who served as interim pastor in the 1970s between the pastorates of Bob Gray and Don Gerig. Bruce writes, “It was true then, it is true today, and we know it will be true whenever this box is opened.” Then the benediction: “May a dying Savior’s love, a risen Savior’s power, an ascended Savior’s prayer, and a coming Savior’s glory be the abundant portion of all those who have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. May the peace of God be our portion; may the God of peace be our partner both now and until we meet again.”

(By the way, you can read Bruce’s entire letter on my weblog. I posted it early this morning. Just go to www.keepbelieving.com and you’ll find the text of the letter there.)

Touch the Stones

In a few minutes, we will invite the entire congregation to walk through the new portico and begin your tour of the renovations. You’ll get to see the new ABF classrooms, the new nursery, the newly-renovated gym where we will have the very first Upper Room Service next Sunday at 10:00 a.m., the two floors of brand-new classrooms and offices where the gym stage and the missionary apartment used to be. Plus you’ll see the ductwork for the air conditioning in the west wing. As you walk through the portico, I want each of you to reach out and touch those massive granite stones. Some have been there for a century, others have been in place for about three months. Take a look at that cornerstone and think about what it represents—89 consecutive years of Bible-based ministry in Oak Park. This church started in 1915 with a tiny handful of families who wanted a non-denominational church in Oak Park that would do three things:

1) Preach and teach the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

2) Preach the gospel and win the lost.

3) Send missionaries to the ends of the earth.

They met early in 1915 in a home a few blocks from here. For six weeks they discussed the possibility of starting a new church. On March 21, 1915—that’s 89 years ago next Sunday—they met for their first Sunday worship service. They started with less than $100—which they used to purchase chairs and some hymnbooks. Last year our giving topped $2 million. As Bruce’s cornerstone letter makes clear, a lot has changed in the world since 1915. But some things have not changed at all.

We still believe exactly what we believed in 1915. That has not changed.

We still preach and teach the Bible. That has not changed.

We still preach the gospel and win the lost. That has not changed.

We still send missionaries to the ends of the earth. That has not changed.

But we can say it even stronger:

The world needs Jesus. That hasn’t changed.

Men and women are still lost in the darkness of sin. That hasn’t changed.

Jesus is a wonderful Savior. That hasn’t changed.

The blood of Jesus can wash away every sin. That hasn’t changed.

God is faithful. That hasn’t changed.

His mercies endure forever. That hasn’t changed.

We serve a risen Savior. That hasn’t changed.

In my Father’s house are many mansions. That hasn’t changed.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. That hasn’t changed.

God’s Word is true. That hasn’t changed.

The Lord reigns. That hasn’t changed.

Go into all the world and preach the gospel. That hasn’t changed.

I am with you always. That hasn’t changed.

All things work together for good. That hasn’t changed.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That hasn’t changed.

Jesus is coming again. That hasn’t changed.

The Upper Room Service

Nothing that matters has changed. Next Sunday we celebrate our 89th birthday. We aren’t 89 years old—we’re 89 years young. We’re celebrating our birthday by launching a brand-new service in the gym—the Upper Room Service. The founders of the church would like that idea—after all, they did something much harder—they started a brand-new church. And they would approve of our vision of unleashing a new generation of leaders at Calvary. The founders were the ultimate “new generation” of leaders because they were the first ones. They had the pioneering vision. But there is one part of the new service that they would have a hard time grasping. We’re going to have live worship in the sanctuary at 10:00 a.m. and live worship at the same time in the gym—two different worship teams, two different worship plans. But when I stand up to preach, we will simulcast the sermon from the sanctuary onto a huge screen in the gym. That concept would seem like something from the Twilight Zone to our founders. The word “simulcast” didn’t exist 89 years ago. I don’t know if they would be impressed by our whiz-bang technology or not. I tend to think they would smile and say, “That’s nice. We didn’t have any of that when we started the church. We’re glad you have it. Now what are you going to do with it?” Good question. Next Sunday we’re going to preach the gospel with it. It so happened—I didn’t plan it this way at all—that on our first Sunday of the Upper Room Service, I’m preaching on the part of the Apostles’ Creed that says Jesus “was crucified, died.” Just three words—but what a saving message they contain. A year ago I had no thought that I would preach through the Apostles’ Creed this year, and we had no idea of starting the Upper Room Service. But it is entirely fitting that on our 89th birthday, I will be preaching the heart of the oldest creed, the gospel message itself—Christ died for our sins. The technology has changed—but thanks be to God, the message remains the same.

So this morning reach out and touch those granite stones and think about what they mean. They are a memorial to 89 years of God’s faithfulness to us. The generations come and go, but he remains the same. And in the future, when I have passed off the scene and another pastor has come, and another after him, and another after him, those of you who are still here 10 and 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years from now, if we are still in this building, reach out and touch those granite stones and remember what I have told you. When your children ask, “What do these stones mean?” tell them that a long time ago God’s people passed through the Jordan River and erected a pile of stones to remember what God had done. Today we are doing the same thing with these stones of remembrance. Those of us who sit here today will eventually be forgotten just as our founders are but distant memories. But as long as this church is here, these stones will stand as a testimony to our great God. He parted the “Red Sea” 89 years ago and now he has opened the “Jordan River” for us. It’s the Lord’s doing, all of it, from the first day until now.

So may this church remain faithful to the Word of God.

May we never stop preaching the gospel.

May we never stop sending missionaries to the ends of the earth.

The God of our founders is our God too. He did not bring us this far to cause us to fail. When we are but dust in the earth, he will be the same to our children and to our grandchildren as he was to us. And so with deep faith in God, with profound gratitude to those who have gone before, with great hope for the future, we dedicate these buildings and we dedicate ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?