“Stones Of Memorial” – Joshua 4:7, 20-24
As I mulled over the ending of another year this past week, I thought about some of the traditions that surround New Year’s: the New Year’s Eve celebrations, the parties and noisemakers, the countdown to midnight, and the making of New Year’s resolutions.
What is it that we are really celebrating? Is it that we actually made it through another year? Is it that this year is finally over and we get to start fresh with a brand new one? Is it the success that we had in the past twelve months, or the hope for success in the coming twelve?
Coming at the tail-end of the Christmas holidays, there is an almost natural carry-over of the festive spirit. Christmas is wrapped up for another year, and plans are made for ringing in the New Year.
As believers – as followers of Jesus Christ – our approach and reasons for feasting and celebrating are to have a different purpose behind them.
Throughout the Scriptures, God appointed times and prescribed practices for His chosen people to feast and celebrate. There were a few national feasts that the people created themselves. The Feast of Remembrance, also known as the Feast of Lights, and as the Feast of Dedication (Hanukah), is one such feast. It came about during the intertestamental period during the era of the Maccabees. It was a feast that Jesus observed (John 10:22), even though it was not one that God Himself had ordained.
A Syrian ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes (which means “God manifest; called Epimanes by the Jews, which means “madman”) was one of the cruelest rulers of all time. He was ambitious, as well as enterprising, but had a bent toward cruelty bordering on madness. His primary goal was to unite his entire kingdom under Greek culture and civilization (known as Hellenism). To accomplish this, he outlawed the observance of any other religion other than the worship of the gods of Greek mythology.
The Jews were forbidden to observe the Sabbath, prohibited from observing all of the traditional festivals and feast days. It was against the law to read the Law of Moses and all copies of it were to be burned. Every traditional Jewish practice was declared illegal and punishable by death, from circumcision to the Temple sacrifices. Then, the day came when the first occurrence of the “abomination of desolation” took place.
This type of event was first prophesied by Daniel in Daniel 11:31; 12:11. (Note: Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24:15-16; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:5-7, 20-22, that it would take place again – which it did in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem – and Paul predicts in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 that it will take place one final time at the beginning of the last days of the earth.)
Antiochus sacrificed pigs on the altar of God in the Temple and rededicated the Temple to Zeus, the chief god of the Greeks, and set up a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies. The priests were forced to eat the cooked meat of the sacrificed pig, the most unclean of all the unclean animals in Jewish dietary law.
One pious family rebelled, resulting in the revolt of the devout Jews remaining in Judea. Exactly three years to the day after Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple, Judas Maccabeus, having recaptured Jerusalem, required the loyal priests who remained to cleanse the Holy Place and erect a new altar.
According to Jewish tradition, there was only enough undefiled oil to burn in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil kept burning for eight days. Hanukah occurs about the same time every year as Christmas. This was not a festival or feast that God commanded his people to observe, but one they chose for themselves. They wanted to commemorate and memorialize not only God freeing them from their oppressors, but they wanted to dedicate an entire week to celebrating God in His power personally intervening on their behalf.
In Joshua 4:7, 20-24, we look back to a time when God taught His children to create memorials of His participation in their lives. In this account and the one I just shared about the origins of Hanukah, we see a purposeful examination and review of God’s intervention in their bondage and rescue from that bondage, as well as establishing a way to remember and pass on the continuing work of His power in their lives and the lives of their progeny.
I want to give each of you a small bag of polished stones this evening. You can keep them any place that you like. My hope is that they will serve as a reminder to you of the freedom that you now have through Jesus Christ from your former bondage, and as a continuing reminder of the power of God still at work in your life and carrying you into the coming year.
What do you remember about where God brought you from? Do you look back, lean back, or go back to those places or things or mind-sets? The Children of Israel did so frequently; God knew this, knew that it was a tendency of the humans He had created to fall back sometimes, to want to actually go back sometimes. He knew it was our tendency sometimes to return to old behaviors and attitudes, just because it was what we knew best, not because we knew it was His best.
God knew that we needed tangible proofs in front of us to keep His plan and His provision at the forefront of our vision, instead of the hurts and failing of the past. He knew that we would need something that we could look at or hold in our hands that would help anchor our hopes on Jesus Christ our Rock and that would cause us to behave in ways that created questions in the minds of those who come after us.
Over a dozen feasts and festivals celebrated regularly, dozens of memorial constructed, all with the goal of celebrating who God is, what He has done, how He has done it, why He has done it, and what our response is to be because of it all.
The Children of Israel – except for Joshua and Caleb – had never been in the Promised Land before. They had never seen it; they had only heard about it. Walking into an uncertain future can be frightening, it can be rife with difficulty; it can seem impossible – that is, unless you have a solid faith in God.
It is still common for God to desire to lead us into a land of promise – oh, not necessarily like the “land flowing with milk and honey’ that the Hebrew children entered into. But, sometimes it takes the same level of faith to put our feet into the rushing water and believe what God has said instead of what we can see with our own eyes in order to follow the One who died for us to lead us into that land of promise where the bondage of our past no longer compel us. We need memorials to see where He has been with us and how in order to have a clearer vision of our future.
What will your memorial be about? Of what are you free of that you need reminding? What hope for the future do you need to keep in focus? What has God done in your life that you have reason to celebrate and worship Him for? What reminders do you need to help keep you on the path that God has laid before you?
This is your chance to begin a new year in a new and fresh way.
Celebrate, memorialize, dedicate…God will be in the midst of it all.