To set the scene: this is the story of the people crossing over the Jordan into the Promised Land at the end of their sojourn in the wilderness.
14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
1 When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2 “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3 and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4 Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5 Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6 so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
Memory is critical to faith.
Even in the way Israel crossed over the Jordan, they were reminded of all God had done for them in the past. Do you remember how the people escaped slavery in Egypt? Pursued by Pharaoh’s army to the shore of the Red Sea, the waters parted when Moses lifted the staff of God, and the Israelites walked to freedom on dry land.
Here, the miracle is repeated in a new generation. According to the scriptures, the people wandered in the desert for 40 years before crossing into the Promised Land. Now, in the Bible, 40 years shouldn’t be read exactly. It just represents “a good long time,” but the implication is that at least a couple generations had passed since the Exodus. It was time for a reminder that God was real, powerful, and actively engaged with the world and its people.
And so, the miracle is repeated in a new generation. As the people reach the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant go to the front of the procession. When they step in, the waters flowing from the north stack up, allowing the entire nation to cross with dry feet.
But there’s more to the story. It’s not just left to the memories of the people to bear witness to this example of God’s faithfulness. Instead, the people are commanded to create a monument. One elder from each of Israel’s twelve tribes took a rock to erect a cairn at the location of the crossing. The cairn was meant to be a reminder of God’s goodness for all time, so that children might ask their parents, “What happened here?” And in retelling the story, the message of God’s real presence and power might be renewed in the next generation.
Places function in this way. That’s why pilgrimage is an important part of many people’s spiritual journeys. When I traveled to Israel and Palestine a few years ago, I know I felt the power of these stories while standing in places like the ancient city of Jericho, and in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Rituals can function in this way too. It’s no coincidence that Jesus commanded us to celebrate the Eucharist “in remembrance” of him, or that the Church continues to baptize as John baptized Jesus. These ancient actions remind us of God’s presence in the here and now.
Memory is critical to keeping faith alive. That’s because when we lose the sense of God’s presence, we all sometimes need to be reminded that God is real, that God cares, and that God has the power to do something. The point of reading the scriptures is not just to remember what God did then – but to trust in what God can do now and what God will do in the future.
For Pondering & Prayer
If you were to reflect on your life, can you recall a few instances (maybe 3-5) where God seemed particularly present and powerful to you? Have you ever tried to recapture those moments in any way – by journaling about them, creating art inspired by them, or revisiting them? If you are feeling like God’s been absent in your life lately, maybe today is a day to consider how you can reconnect to those moments.
Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the ways that you have made your power and presence felt in our lives. Help us to remember those past times with gratitude, to look for you in the present with expectation, and to trust you to hold our futures in your powerful hands. Amen.