Writer's note: This sermon was delivered on the Sunday we consecrated the ground upon which new educational and fellowship facilities were to be constructed. We followed the example set in this passage by gathering 12 stones from the property, presented by charter members and other key leaders to be stacked together for the duration of the project.
It is one of the climactic events in all of biblical history. The Israelites had waited forty years, but now the time had come. It is a poignant moment as they stride across the riverbed of the Jordan, opened for them by the miraculous power of God. Behind them, they leave the wearying decades of meandering around in a barren wilderness and the tragic memories of countless funerals for an entire generation of people who would not trust God's promises. Slavery in Egypt and the bare survival of nomadic life are bygone experiences now.
A new and welcome chapter opens before them! Before them lay a land richer than their dreams, more fruitful than their hopes, and more beautiful than their imagination. Now it is theirs by God's steadfast promise.
It must have felt surreal to finally stand in Canaan, kind of like when you unlock the door to your first home. You've envisioned it, planned for it, imagined what you will do with it…but when you step in that front door, your emotions soar! To be the fulfillment of an ancient promise to Father Abraham must have been overwhelming.
Their joy had been magnified by recent events. When they arrived at the Jordan, they found it is flood stage, menacing in its speed and dangerous fro what it concealed. The jungle-like grow covered by the rapid current left Israel flatfooted. The river was impassible, its crossing impossible.
But God intervened, performing a miracle that paralleled the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt. God rolled back the waters of the Jordan River, just as He had done with the Red Sea. God meant what He had said through Moses years before. Here was His signature again, in the same way, to assure His people that He was good to His word.
I imagine there were songs and shouts as God's people worshiped and exulted in Him. But there was also one important act that calls for our attention this morning. After Israel crossed, God gave Joshua some very specific instructions, recorded in Joshua 4:1-3: After the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord spoke to Joshua, "Choose 12 men from the people, one man for each tribe, and command them, 'Take 12 stones from this place in the middle of the Jordan where the priests' feet are standing, carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night.' "
Joshua did exactly what he was told, sending these select 12 men back to the riverbed of the Jordan where they were to bring back 12 stones—stones that at one point were buried, unreachable, covered by a challenge to the faith of God's people, but were now divinely accessible.
Twelve men hoisted heavy stones to their shoulders from Jordan's floor and then piled them together in the Promised Land, by God's command. They were stacked there as a sign, an unmistakable marker at the very place where God had demonstrated His power to overcome any obstacle to His will.
Because stones don't naturally stack, there would come a day when Israel's children would ask for an explanation for this phenomenon. Here's the answer God wants the next generation to know: "Tell them the story," says God in v. 7, "of how the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the Lord's covenant. When it crossed the Jordan, the Jordan's waters were cut off."
Verses 23-24 add, For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, just as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over. This is so that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord's hand is mighty, and so that you may always fear the Lord your God."
This is what happens when the impossible meets the promises of God. This is the outcome when the implausible comes up against the glorious riches of God in Christ Jesus.
So now come with me, congregation, to our point of crossing. Today we will gaze at a much-hoped-for dream, which has been planted in our hearts by the mutual leading of the Lord and our growing needs as a body of Christ. Today, we shall consecrate the very ground on which shall be constructed to God's glory, buildings that will expand the reach of the gospel and serve God's church. Today, we will build a consecrated memorial, a preemptive marker of our confidence in God. Let me make some statements about the stones Israel placed and the stones we will place.
What do these stones mean?
I. It's all about God
Seeing that rock pile and hearing the story, the people of Israel would know clearly that they had not crossed Jordan on their own. Those stones cried out, "God did this! By His hand we have forded this river. By His power and faithfulness we have accomplished this!"
So may this memorial stand to speak to us all. Let it remind us that Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor over it in vain (Ps. 127:1). Let the hallowed act of our devotion come back to strengthen us that it truly is "Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit," says the LORD of hosts. (Zech. 4:6). From start to finish, from every dollar given to every brick laid, let God be all in this place!
II. We have a missionary purpose
Joshua told Israel that the stones would serve as a reminder that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord's hand is mighty, and so that you may always fear the Lord your God." (v. 24) Let no one be confused. We have no mission here but the Great Commission. These buildings aren't memorials to us, but to Him! We exist to know God and make Him known. Our buildings exist, not to make us comfortable or proud, but for God's glory and the gospel's advance.
III. We must change if we want to go with God
The stones out of the Jordan marked the movements of God among His people. They testified of the willingness of a people to leave what they had known in order to go with God, to face challenges to their faith, to step into the water, to believe in what they could not see.
Here me, people of God: Between the realization of this dream God has planted in our hearts and where we are now, there stands some daunting boundaries. We cannot yet see how God will do it, but we believe He is faithful. It's time to venture with God into His future for us.
Look to this memorial in the days ahead and hear the message they preach: This is all about God and His glory; it is about the missionary purpose for which we exist; it is about the challenge to change so that God can manifest His glory more fully through us.