Stones of Remembrance

Sermon by Pastor Doug Stratton — March 29, 2020

Genesis 28:16-22 

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

Please watch this video and then continue reading. Thank you!

Central Idea: Living in the Past or living in the future are stones that keep us from living resurrection lives.

Remember when. . . 

We used to walk to school and on the way home pretend we were Olympic runners?

You had to get off the couch to change the channel on the TV?

You had to wait until you got home to call you friends?

You did not have a shower in your eagle claw tub?

We gathered for church in person?

Or do you look forward to 

the day when you have an empty nest?

Your wedding day?

That moment when you pay off your mortgage?

The marathon race you are working for?

The day you see Jesus face to face?

Remembering the past and projecting the future are two of God’s great gifts to us. Reminiscing around a glass of wine at the holidays deepens the bonds that we share as family and friends. Recalling times together as we sit by a campfire is an experience I look forward to. Looking ahead and planning for  the next stage of life can bond a couple as surely as reminiscing about the good days passed. Anticipating a birthday can be as exciting for a child as the party itself. 

Today we look ahead to a time when we will be able to hug and hold one another again. In years to come we may look back on these days as a time that we learned how important our relationships are to us. 

That is what Jacob learned when he woke from his deep sleep. You see, Jacob was running from his brother and heading to his uncle’s to find a wife. His whole life he had been running from one thing or another. But that night, as he slept, he had a dream a vision of God’s messengers ascending and descending a stairway to God’s presence. As he watched, He heard the voice of God who said, “I am the Lord your God,… I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying,… All peoples on earth will be blessed through you,… I will bring you back,… I will not leave you,… I have promised.”

Imagine these words. Every phrase was founded in God’s character. I will, I will, I will. What a powerful vision!

When he awoke, he said, “This is Bethel (which means the House of God)!  And if God does what he says, then I will serve God and honor God with my tithe.” With that he set up a stone, a pillar, marker that was to remind him of God’s presence and God’s promise. It was a stone of remembrance. It marked a high point in his life. But in the years that followed, Jacob’s sons and later the Israelites began fighting over the markers in this place and many others that Jacob had built. The wells he dug over the years, became points of conflict with the residents. In Jesus day, the well in Samaria became a point of conflict between Jews and Samaritans. 

So while he had placed the stone to remind him of God’s promises, it became a stone that separated people. As they remembered, there was pain in the memory and when they looked ahead, what they saw was the possibility of revenge.  

What are the stones of remembrance in your life? Are they stones that engender worship, or are they stones that engender bitterness? What are the moments that you have marked in your life? How do those moments impact your life now and in the future? 

Remembering and looking ahead can be gifts, but they can also be stones that drag us down when we begin to live in the past or live in future. 

We all know people who have lived this way. Perhaps they get into a pattern of mourning a death that becomes so deeply set that they cannot get out of the pattern. Or perhaps it is the person who having been betrayed is not able to move on their lives. 

Often observers will say, “Just move on. Or, Get over it!” But that often is not what people are capable of. PTSD can be seen as being stuck in the past because of a trauma. And it can be an incredible weight in our lives, but we can’t just lay that trauma aside and be done with it. But healing of those deep wounds in our lives begins when we decide to seek freedom. It is not as easy as putting down your rock, but the first step is to decide you no longer want to carry the rock. And then the journey continues as you learn new ways of remembering and coping. That healing will always require walking with others, but healing is possible when we decide we no longer want to carry the trauma.

As we heal from the wounds of the past, we are able to integrate those lessons and patterns into a new life with hope. 

But friends, it is not only the painful memories that can weigh us down. We can also get stuck in the glory of the past. Churches are especially prone to anchoring ourselves to this rock. Jacob intended to keep returning to the pillar he set up. He said, “God, if you take care of me, then you will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house.” The stone was to continue to be a place where Jacob would return, and for generations, it seems, Jacob’s descendants returned to this place. After the Exodus, the first place of central worship was Bethel, when the North and South split, Jeroboam set up a worship place in Bethel. Each time people would return to Bethel, they hoped they would encounter the God of Jacob. The belief that Bethel was the House of God became a burdensome stone as idolatrous shrines were built to reach God. 

Imagine how good markers could become stones that weigh us down. What if Moses, after crossing the red sea, Moses had built an altar and then stayed there and called it the First Church of Red Sea Crossing. And when they gathered, they would talk about the walk through the sea bed and about the fish they could see through the water curtain, and about the fear in the faces of the Egyptians as they were washed away. And each time they gathered they Moses would raise his hands and the water would part and they would go for another hike. We snicker at that, but over 1,000 years later that is exactly what Peter wanted to do when he was on the mountain with Jesus. When Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus to talk about his upcoming departure, Peter said, “Let me build you three shelters so we can all stay here forever.”

While the past can provide a good foundation upon which to build our lives, Peter and Jacob were using their experiences as anchors to keep them in the past. They were great events, but they were to be foundational, not anchors. 

We get stuck in the past when those events, good or bad become the focus of our lives. Whether it is Al Bundy’s 5 touchdowns of glory, or Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, being stuck in the past is a stone that prevents us from knowing the fullness of resurrection life. In fact, living in the past usually leads to a life of bitterness and regret.

But the same thing is true when we live every moment dreaming of a better future. Churches often say, “When we can take care of our own people, we will learn to reach out.” Families who live in the future say, “When the kids graduate, we can start living.” Businesses say, “When the economy turns around we will be able to give back to the community.” And this week, as we have been looking to the future, we have been saying with anxious tones, what are we going to do?

Living in the future is not the same as living in hope. To live in hope is to live each day with the confidence that the God who has walked with you in the past will walk with you into the future. To live in hope is to live in the faith that God’s grace has prepared a way for us. When we live in hope, we hear the angel’s words spoken to the women at the tomb on that first Easter, 

“He has gone before you…” Living in hope is a blessing. 

But when we are obsessed with the future we see everything in light of what may happen for good or bad. We either become paralyzed by anxiety, or live as though nothing will ever change. 

Whether we are stuck in the past, or obsessed with the future, we are missing life. 

I think Jacob learned that night when he encountered God’s messengers that the past was a teacher in his life, and future was assured because of God’s promises, but life was to be experienced today. 

In the Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis presents a fanciful series of letters from an old devil named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is new at this whole “being a devil” thing, and his uncle is training him. At one point Screwtape writes: “The humans live in time but our Enemy (God) destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

The present is the point where time touches eternity. That does not mean we live for the present, reckless without regard for those around us, but rather wen live in the present, not anchored to the past, or obsessed with the future. 

Jesus said, “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (Luke 6)

As God cares for the flowers and the birds, God will care for you. So we can rest today, even in the midst of the pandemic. When we learn to release the stones of the past and the anxiety of the future, we can know the joy of living in God’s presence.

Will you leave your burden at the cross and begin a journey of healing?

In Christ,

~ Pastor Doug Stratton

Hatboro Baptist Church