Dear Friends, we come together in grief, acknowledging the loss of our loved ones. We feel deep grief and hurt that can’t be expressed by our words.
One poem describes such grief in the book, Winter Grief, Summer Grace. “Someone who gave your life meaning has died. Someone who brought you joy, someone who gave you love, perhaps even someone who gave you life, is gone. No matter how much you have prepared yourself, you were not quite prepared. No matter how many words you may have shared, there were things you did not get to say. No matter how much pain you have endured already, you are being called upon to endure still more. Someone who has been a part of your days on earth no longer walks the earth with you. Life is not the same. And it hurts.”
We are here to share such pain and grief. But we all know what has brought us together is not the death of our loved ones, but their lives and love. We are here, because we have been touched by their lives and love. So let us give thanks to God for the precious lives which they shared with us, to cherish the legacy they left for us, and to remember the living testimonies they shared with us. May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find healing, in sorrow comfort, in death resurrection.
We use different ways to cherish the memories of our loved ones---sending a memorial fund to church or other organizations which our loved ones were passionate about, or planting trees and flowers, or placing a garden bench at church, home or a community park. Nowadays one of the favorites is memorial stones with a special message, some words that tell about their lives and their characters. Now we see all these stones in this place. Someone might ask, “What do those stones mean to us?”
God’s people raised the same question when they came to Gilgal where 12 stones were arranged in a circle. People asked, “What do those stones mean to us?” And then an elder of the group began to tell the story. God’s people gathered together to retell and reenact the story, not as once-upon-a-time story, but as a living testimony. They were reminded of who God was, who they were and what it meant to be God’s people. They were encouraged, hoping that they may experience the power of the living God who acted upon in the lives of people in the past.
We also gather together today to ask the same question, “What do those stones mean to us?” The scripture tells us about the Israelites who are standing at the edge of the Jordan River. They came out of Egypt in order to enter God’s Promised Land. When they came out of Egypt, they thought they would arrive at the Promised Land right away. But it took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Many of the first generation died in the wilderness. Their great leader, Moses who led them out of Egypt also died. Here they are left with new young leaders---Joshua and Caleb. The good news is, they are almost there. They can see the Promised Land in front of their eyes. But the bad news is, they are facing an unexpected obstacle--- the Jordan River between the Promised Land and them. They have to cross over the river. The question in everyone’s mind is “how?” There is no bridge, no boat, nothing, except worn-out people and their inexperienced leaders. They are standing at the edge of the river. The water of the river is overflowing all its banks. It seems to swallow anyone who is close to the water. They can’t go back to where they came from. They have no idea how to cross the river. They are stuck between the wilderness and the Jordan River. Dead-end! Being stuck. Have you been there?
Some of you bought a house after careful financial planning. Then one day suddenly your supervisor informed you that your position was eliminated. Some of you retired after long years work and dreamed of all kinds of things you would like to do with your family. But your doctor called you and asked you to come to his office as soon as possible. He said that the medical test showed cancer growing in your colon. You raised your son in a Christian home and sent him away for a college, and later found out that he was addicted to drug and got in trouble with the law. You finish a college with high expectation and high student loans, but struggle finding a job.
You have been doing ministry for many years. Somehow you feel you don’t know what to do anymore. You find yourself feeling burned out. All the things you have done in the past don’t seem to work any longer. Your church has been in your community for more than 100 years, but now you wonder how your church can be connected to the surrounding community. Community people see your church building as a strange museum.
We are facing strong currents of changes which seem to swallow us. The overwhelming currents are post-Christendom, post-modernism, post-westernization, consumerism, individualism and a remarkable advancement of technology. There is another current of great suspicion toward mainline churches and institutions. We are facing the overwhelming currents of changes that are happening outside the church. Do you know what is happening on Sunday morning outside church? Many people are gathering in coffee shops and restaurants, running on the sidewalk, buying food and clothes at the mall, walking around garage sales in towns; kids playing soccer games and parents and grandparents watching on lawn chairs; the steady streams of shoppers in the malls and people in the ball parks. We are in the midst of a swirl of these tides of changes. Our neighborhood is multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious. The Jordan River seems to threaten us and to swallow us. The waters are treacherous. We are facing the raging waters of trouble and confusion. We are struggling in an uncertain space that disrupts our identity as Christian church.
There are two different ways we deal with such overwhelming currents. One is to react to it with fear and despair as well as helplessness. We blame others or we are even angry toward God. Or we run away from it. Or we just ignore it, pretending it’s not there and trying to do business as usual, doing the same things we have done for years, yet expecting different results. The other is to take it as an opportunity to experience God’s living power. Crisis in Chinese letter has two words (??), two meanings. One is a threat and the other is an opportunity. In the midst of crisis when we feel no choice, there are still two choices. We can see it as a threat or as an opportunity.
At the edge of the Jordan River, facing an unexpected obstacle and barrier, what did the Israelites do in their crisis situation? Joshua and the other leaders relied upon God’s message. Joshua received God’s message and delivered to his people, saying, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God. When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.” Following God’s instruction, Joshua guided the priests to carry the ark of the covenant and selected twelve leaders from the twelve tribes who first stepped into the water to guide all other people.
We can see two distinctive actions here. One is the priests carried the ark of covenant before anyone started to move. The Ark of the Covenant is a container of Moses’ two stones of Ten Commandments. It’s a reminder of God’s promise and his living presence in their midst. God’s words were their guide, encouragement and hope. God’s words were a lamp to their feet and a light to their path through their journey. They always carried the ark and set it in front of their journey. Here again the Israelites carried the ark in front of them as they stepped into the dangerous water.
We as God’s people take God’s words seriously and let them guide our lives. Our loved ones lived unique lives, yet each one’s faith was deeply rooted in God’s words and lived them out. They taught and participated in Sunday School classes, the “Disciple” Bible study and other short-term Bible study classes. They took time to read and contemplate on the scriptures and apply to their daily lives. They are living testimonies to how important it is to meditate on God’s words and to teach other people with them.
I have seen that people’s hearts are changed and lives are transformed, after they joined “Disciple” Bible study. I have seen that people become spiritual leaders after they are equipped by prayerful Bible study. When people learn how to be attentive to God’s words, they find comfort, challenge and calling through God’s words. Church renewal is possible with group discernment through Bible study and prayer meetings! If our churches take enough time for prayers and ask among ourselves, what is God saying to us in this situation, something will happen. And if we listen to our hearts prayerfully and have conversations with one another respectfully, we will discern what God wants us to do and to be. One distinctive action in this scripture is the priest holding up God’s words high in the midst of the Jordan. God’s words revealed God’s power to people in the light of life context. It’s not using God’s words to prove my point of view. It’s not protecting God’s words. But let God’s words be God’s words. We take a long time to listen to God’s words until we discern God’s intentions in the middle ofan uncertain life context. What we need to do is to surrender our own settled assumptions and point of views, to perceive God’s intentions in the midst of disagreement and dispute. God’s powerful and transforming words are available. What do those stones mean to us? They tell us to hold onto God’s words which reveal to us His transforming power in the current context. God’s words will get us through our difficult journey.
The second faith lesson is that the leaders’ feet got wet first. Can you imagine what it was like? Imagine the waters of the Jordan River are flowing fast, overflowing. And you are told to get into it without a lifejacket. When you step into the water, your feet get wet and nothing happens, then your ankle is wet, nothing happens. What could be on your mind? Maybe Joshua misunderstood God’s message? What in the world, am I getting into? You might wonder whether you should turn around. Well, no one did. And the priests kept getting into the water, and suddenly the flowing water was separated to make a road in the middle of Jordan River. Can you see anything significant here? God requires a total commitment, a complete trust in him without seeing the outcome. God requires us to get our feet wet first, without knowing the waters will part. When we take a risk and take an action based on complete trust in God, we experience God’s living power and his presence. We experience God’s working power to make a road in the middle of waters. But what do we do? We do the opposite. We ask God to show us the sign of his living power first and then we will step out. We ask God to show us his living power, and then we will believe and dedicate to him fully. Well, we know why nothing is happening. Because it’s the opposite of what God calls us to do. God asks us to get our feet wet first. Then we will experience God’s living power. God speaks to us to get into the surrounding culture and neighborhood. Step out into the surrounding community to be engaged in them, because God is out there working in people’s lives and our communities. God is on a mission in people’s lives and invites us to join with Him. We have great examples of our loved ones who devoted their lives to outreaching ministries in their communities. They worked faithfully to encourage our churches to be engaged in the people of surrounding communities.
Getting into the water is almost a dying experience; dying to our old selves, giving up being in control and yielding our lives to God. Then we are rising up from the water to be a new person in Jesus Christ who overcame the power of death. In the process, we experience God’s transforming power to make us new. Something has happened. Yes, we had such an amazing experience through our baptism. Our old person was dead and rose as a new person in Jesus Christ. We had already said “yes” to follow Jesus Christ without having a map of our Christian journey. We are baptized people in Jesus Christ. We died to ourselves in the water of baptism and rose as the people of Jesus Christ. Have we forgotten anything? We are baptized people. We are resurrection people!
We can see why the Israelites were guided to the Jordan River. They were the people who experienced the Exodus and crossing the Red Sea. How many times had they heard about the story! But as their elders passed away, their story was also fading away. What they needed before they got into the Promised Land was to experience who God was first hand. Their journey was never about getting into the Promised Land. The purpose of their journey was to become God’s people, God’s living testimony to the world. The overwhelming waters of the Jordan River became a remarkable blessing to them. They experienced God’s living power and had a living testimony of who God was and who they were. And they carried stones from the bottom of the Jordan River and set them up as memorial stones for their future generations. What do those stones mean to us? They tell us, God is good! God is real! God is powerful! God invites us to join with Him on His mission.
What we are lacking now is neither new programs nor money, but living testimonies. What we need in the midst of the current of changes is our first hand testimonies to God’s living power. In fact our loved ones who are remembering today were the ones who lived out their faith and encouraged us to grow stronger in Christ: They supported us during difficult times, and they walked with us in our faith journey. They were God’s living stones, standing tall and shining like a lighthouse calling people to safety in the midst of overwhelming currents. Like the Israelites were reminded by the stones, taken from the very center of the dangerous path they had already completed, the heart of the memory, if you will, our loved ones left a legacy on our hearts reminding us that we are also the living stones, God’s living testimony, to today’s world.
How is God calling you to get your feet “wet”? One church realized that their community needed a help in the economic crash. They decided to provide a free community meal once a week during Lenten season. They had only a $200 budget for that. They didn’t know where the extra money would come from. But they decided to take an action out of faith. Guess what! They continue providing a community meal and have fed more than 300 people once a week for the past 6-7 years. They remodeled their kitchen. Food, money and volunteers are coming in. Poor people, lonely people, young children and older people are coming to share the meal together. It has been a miracle of two fish and five loaves of bread. The program has energized the congregation and built the sense of bond in the community.
What are the risk-taking actions as the church of Jesus Christ and the Illinois Great Rivers Conference? We are living in the midst of great changes and challenges. It’s a challenging time for church leaders to stand tall holding up God’s words high in the middle of the uncertain and risky current of changes and disruptive journey. Don’t sit and wait at the bank of the river any longer. It’s time to get our feet wet first. It’s an opportunity to be deeply engaged in the local communities and our world. God has not finished with us yet. Remember we are baptized! Remember we are resurrection people! Then let’s act like resurrection people who believe and experience the living power of Jesus Christ. What do those stones mean to us? They mean God’s living power and God’s courageous people. Our loved ones who passed away left their living testimonies to us and crossed over the final Jordan River. Thanks be to God! Amen!