A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 30, 2021.
When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 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 before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the LORD told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the LORD commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua. The people passed over in haste. And when all the people had finished passing over, the ark of the LORD and the priests passed over before the people. The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh passed over armed before the people of Israel, as Moses had told them. About 40,000 ready for war passed over before the LORD for battle, to the plains of Jericho. On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life. And the LORD said to Joshua, “Command the priests bearing the ark of the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.” So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.” And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before. The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Joshua 4:1–24).
Tomorrow, as a nation, we will celebrate Memorial Day, a national holiday dating back to the years following the Civil War. Originally known as Decoration Day, on which fallen soldiers’ graves were decorated with flowers, Memorial Day became an official holiday in 1971. Celebrated on the last Monday of May, the date was originally selected because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. Uniquely a Northern tradition until after World War I, the holiday now commemorates all American military personnel who died in war. While often today anticipated as a three-day weekend and the kickoff of summer, in its very existence the holiday continues in honor of those fallen in serving and protecting our country.
It is right to remember, and all the more to do so as a nation. To honor those who gave their lives may respectfully quiet even the most cavalier, leading us to remember those who served us with their lives, their ultimate sacrifice. It is also not without precedence in Scripture. Israel was consistently called to remember, and even commanded to establish physical memorials and establish specific days on their calendar to not forget. However, unlike our Memorial Day they were to remember not what they had done for their country but what God had done for them.
Consider the commemoration of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land. On the bank of the river, as God directed, the Levitical priests carried the ark of the covenant, and Israel by its thousands followed at a distance. As the priests proceeded into the Jordan, the water stopped flowing miraculously, as if held by heaven in a hydrological heap. With seemingly obscure commentary, we are told that “the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest” (Joshua 3:15), which is the river’s condition presumably at this time. The water is wide, likely deep, and swiftly moving due to the drop in elevation. In other words, as one commentator puts it, “the river Israel faced that springtime was no placid stream but a raging torrent, probably a mile wide.” Yet, consistent with the historical account of Israel’s exodus, an impassable river allows the Lord to once again reveal his provision for his people. He who is mighty to save (Zeph. 3:17) delights to reveal his might in the salvation of his people.
In the center of the riverbed the priests were commanded to stop, where they stood not in mud but dry ground. Israel followed, walking through the Jordan river and passing by the sacred symbol of the Lord’s presence and his covenant with Israel. Passing ahead of the ark, one man from each of the twelve tribes picked up a stone, carrying it upon his shoulder to the other side and on to their camp. We know little about these stones, other than their origin and number, but we do know their significance. As Joshua explained to the people, the stones would serve as a perpetual sign, “a memorial forever,” that they would remember.
God’s people are commanded to remember, because we are prone to forget. Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” For all his faults, being a poor student of history was not one of his. Nor should it be one of ours. But we should be careful that we hear the Prime Minister clearly: He did not caution those who fail to know history but those who fail to learn from it. Churchill’s secular advice is worthy of Christian consideration, as much of Scripture is in fact history. Do you believe the bible to be the very Word of God? Good! Do you read your bible regularly? Excellent! Do you listen intently to the preached Word? Bravo! But do you read and listen and learn? This is the point of the Hebrew word translated “remember,” a word implying concern, reflection, even action.”
Yet, in his command, the Lord “knows our frame; He is mindful that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). And so, he gives visual aids to help us remember. The Lord commands Israel to take the carried stones and construct a monument, a memorial, at Gilgal, as Joshua explains, “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 before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” They were to look at the monument and remember that their help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps. 121:2). They were to consider the memorial and teach their children the history of their redemption and deliverance by the hand of the Lord. Therefore, remembering requires consideration of those who follow. It requires that we be good parents, good grandparents, good ancestors, leaving a legacy that transcends our human hubris and helps the next generation clearly see our Savior.
Although the text is somewhat ambiguous, in addition to the twelve stones carried to the riverbank, apparently Joshua constructs another twelve-stone monument in the middle of the riverbed, precisely where the priests stand holding the ark. As Israel looks back to the river, they see the ark-of-the-covenant and the monument beside it. Consider the significance of this moment: In the river is the ark, the symbol of God’s covenant with Israel; in the same place is built a sign of God’s faithfulness to his covenant. In that moment, God gives Israel a sign and a symbol of his covenant faithfulness, a memorial to remember.
As God was faithful to his covenant people under the Old Covenant, so he is under the New. Like ancient Israel, he knows we need visual aids to help us remember. For example, under the Old Covenant, circumcision served as a physical sign and symbol of inclusion in the covenant community and an outward sign of an inward reality. Likewise, under the New Covenant, baptism, as the “circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11), serves as an outward sign of an inward reality and a symbol of our inclusion in Christ’s church. When we witness a baptism, we remember God’s covenant of grace and remember our own baptism with
serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”
Similarly, Israel was commanded to keep the Passover, literally beginning with a “memorial day” (Ex. 12:14). Given precise instructions, they were to eat the meal to remember and to teach the children, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Ex. 12:26-27), for the sake of the blood of the lamb. Likewise, under the New Covenant we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in which the bread and wine of the Passover meal serve as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, and the meal serving as a sign of Christ’s presence by his Spirit.
Through the memorials that the Lord has given us under the Old and New Covenants, we remember his mighty work for our redemption. But while God is always faithful to redeem his people and keep his covenant, we are not always faithful. We, who fall far short of his glory, are often covenant-breakers. Yet, in his mercy and grace, our Lord shows us that part of remembering is renewal.
As Israel advanced into their promised land, they captured Jericho evidencing God’s faithfulness to them. But Achan, of the tribe of Judah, chose to disobey the Lord, leading to God’s judgment upon Israel. As the sin of one can affect many, Israel’s courage failed, longing for the good old days before crossing the river. Rather than showing the nations that “the hand of the LORD is mighty” and fearing the Lord, they feared the nations and showed their God impotent. Thankfully, as God is faithful to his covenant, so he leads his people to covenant renewal.
We see this clearly in Israel’s assembled worship in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. In the same location that God established his covenant with their father Abraham, Joshua leads the congregation in a covenant renewal ceremony. The Scripture says that Joshua “read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse…There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel…” (Joshua 8:34-35). Joshua taught Israel that part of remembering leading to renewal is going to his Word, reading it, and learning from it. In that time of worship, Israel remembered God’s faithfulness, pledging themselves to obey his covenant.
Similarly, as we assemble in worship as a congregation, we engage in a covenant renewal ceremony. As a covenant community, like Israel, we gather to hear the blessings and curses of God’s Word. There are indeed curses for those who fail to turn to Christ in faith but eternal blessings for those who believe. By God’s grace, we confess our sin to the Lord, hear the covenant promises secured for us by Christ, and commit ourselves again to the Lord. And as we remember his faithfulness and renew our commitment to him, we will inevitably rejoice in him.
The date Israel crossed over the Jordan river is recorded, “the tenth day of the first month,” precisely 40 years to the day that God commanded Israel to prepare for their exodus by setting apart the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:2-3). While still slaves in Egypt, the tenth day of the first month marked the commencement of their redemption. On the other side of the Jordan river, the tenth day of the first month marked its consummation. A nation of slaves became a nation of heirs. Every Passover, they would remember both their redemption from slavery and their arrival in the promised land.
Unique to memorials established by our Lord, we are to remember that we may worship him, rejoicing in what he has done. So extraordinary was the Jordan river crossing that the only fitting response was to rejoice in the Lord’s provision. Rightly does the psalmist command, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! …Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him” (Ps. 66:1-3, 5-6). Remembering God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, leads us to rejoice.
In this sense, every Lord’s Day is Memorial Day in the church, where we decorate not the graves of the fallen but look to the crucified who is risen, where we not merely commemorate the greatest sacrifice ever made but find our very life in it. And through the ordinary means of grace, we remember the extraordinary means of our redemption: Christ crucified and resurrected. Just as it is the Lord’s kindness that leads us to repentance, it is his provision that leads us to praise.
It is fitting for us as a nation to remember those who gave their lives for our country. It is all the more fitting for us to remember the faithfulness of our God in the sacrifice of his only Son that we might have eternal life through faith in him. So, let us remember. Let us be faithful to covenant renewal. And, let us rejoice, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words (Geanies House, Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2000), 38.
 “History Repeating,” Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, accessed June 2, 2021, https://liberalarts.vt.edu/magazine/2017/history-repeating.html.
 Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 92.
 “The Larger Catechism Q. 167,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (Lawrenceville: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2007), 319-20.
 Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words (Geanies House, Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2000), 41.