So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
-Joshua 4:4-7 (NIV)
Most of them were on Civil War battlefields, and the names are a vivid part of my childhood memories: Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Stones River. Almost everywhere you go around Chattanooga or Middle Tennessee, you see memorials: plaques, statues, even cannons. They commemorate battles and honor the soldiers who gave their lives there, both Union and Confederate. They’re witnesses to the past: testimonies to people generations gone whose courage and sacrifice helped to draw our nation back together. As a kid, I’d climb on the cannons and shoot down imaginary enemies. A little older, I’d read the plaques and the names and sometimes wonder what they were like, which of them went home and which were buried in the Tennessee clay under my feet, which had a life after the war and which left widows and orphans and grieving parents behind.
The New Year is barreling down on us, so it’s a good time to consider memorials. But not so much those elaborate Civil War memorials of my childhood that are so good at bearing mute witness to the past. It’s a different kind of memorial that’s on my mind today, less elaborate, almost crude, but more vital and living: A pile of stones standing on a riverbank.
When the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they brought those stones with them. The Jordan was the last obstacle, the one thing keeping a four-decade horde of wanderers from beginning to grow into a nation. Their leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses, knew a memorial was in order. So he tasked a representative from each of the twelve tribes that made up the fledgling nation with removing a large stone from the dry riverbed that God gave them to walk across. Once across, they were to use the stones to build a memorial. Kind of like those Civil War memorials.
But not really, because this memorial was to serve a different function. It was less a memorial to the past than a marker for the future. Joshua imagine kids playing by the riverbank, or young men hunting, or young women washing clothes. He imagined a future when Israel was secure in the land, and imagined that future generation might need a history lesson. “What’s this pile of rocks here?” they might ask. And then those who knew the story could tell it: “You might have trouble believing this, but God stopped the flow of the Jordan so we could cross! This is who we are. We’re the people of the God who dammed a river for us.”
A trailer was shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It contained no actual footage of the movie it promoted, because no one is allowed to see that movie yet. It’s called 100 Years, and it’s billed as “The Movie You will Never See.” It envisions life on earth in 100 years, and once it was completed it was placed in a bulletproof, time-locked vault set to open on Nov. 18, 2115. A thousand people from around the world, including star John Malkovich and director Robert Rodriguez, have received invitations to be passed down to their descendants.
What the future holds for us, whether 100 years or a day from now, is locked. It’s inscrutable. This time of year is filled with predictions, and it’s filled with retrospectives, but rarely do the two inform one another. We memorialize the past with markers, and look toward the future with some mixture of hope, fear, uncertainty, dread, and anticipation. But rarely do we occupy the only ground we really can, the present, and let what our past tells us inform the future we know is coming.
So here’s what our past tells us about the coming New Year. It tells us, for one, that we will face obstacles. We have to anticipate that there will be times in the next twelve months when taking a step forward will feel like wading out into a raging river. If you think being one of God’s people means that life should be easy and comfortable and free of conflict, well, then you just don’t know your history. There will be moments in 2017 where you find your way blocked and your fears mounting.
But our past also reminds us, doesn’t it, that God goes with his people? Whatever you face between now and next January, you won’t face it without him. Where God’s people go, he goes with them, whether as a pillar of fire or an Ark of the Covenant or the Word made flesh. You know that’s true, because you remember what he’s already walked through with you. You will encounter no adversary, no obstacle, no snare or temptation or sickness or grief that he will not encounter with you.
And where he goes, the dangers recede. Where he goes, rivers dry up and armies break and run and storms still and demons submit and grieving people find joy again. This year will bring nothing that he can't handle, that he hasn’t already handled. There is no hurt so deep, fear so powerful, obstacle so big, or enemy so strong that God is not deeper, more powerful, bigger or stronger still.
The New Year seems like uncharted territory, and of course in some ways it is. But, look, there on the riverbank. Look at all those markers, all those memorials of how God has been with his people and helped them through and over and around the obstacles they’ve encountered on the way. Word and song and prayer remind us. Jesus assures us. The experiences of our family in Christ testify that we walk into this New Year’s inevitable mix of joys and sorrows, blessing and hardship, with the presence of God and in his power.
So grab your rock as you cross. Make it part of the testimony of God’s people, so that when your children are scared and your friends are in doubt and even your own heart is weary, you’ll look ahead with hope and joy and anticipation.
On New Year’s morning, we’ll gather around the table and share bread and cup in memory of Jesus. But we won’t just look back on that awful past event. It will serve for us as a marker as we cross into 2017 to the future hope we have because of it.
May all who need such hope this year see it. And may we tell that story well.