Our lives are shaped by history. No matter how post-modern our society may become, no matter how addicted we are to the latest technology and music and fashions we are all influenced by the past. Only when I stopped to think about it did I begin to realise the enormous debt we all owe to those who have gone before us.
I went to a school which was founded in 1515 and so last year celebrated its 5th centenary celebrations. I studied at a university which was established in 1209, so has already passed its eight hundredth anniversary. The college I belong to was founded in 1350 and I had the privilege of two years living and studying in rooms built more than six hundred years before, surrounded by antique furniture and working in a library where students had learned for more than 20 generations! In theological research I routinely worked from books which are more than a hundred years old and from photographs of documents which were more than nineteen hundred years old. We owe a enormous debt to those who have gone before us.
Many parts of the Bible remind us that each of our lives have a unique place in God’s cosmic masterplan of salvation to bring the whole of creation together united under one head, even Christ. This salvation history has unfolded from Abraham to Joseph to the Exodus to the life death and resurrection of Christ through the church in every place and every age right up until today. We in our generation are only playing our tiny part in that wonderful history of salvation stretched throughout space and time. Richard Foster has suggested that we need a Copernican revolution in our lives. The astronomer Copernicus realised that the earth goes round the sun, not the sun going round the earth as the centre of everything. So we need to realise that we are not the centre of everything, but God is. So we should not ask what part God plays in our lives. Instead we should be asking what part we have to play in God’s life? Not how does God fit into our story, but how do we fit into God’s story? What is our part in God’s wonderful cosmic masterplan of salvation?
Here is a truth which our breakneck world seems to be forgetting. Our lives are just a small part of the gigantic tapestry of human history. A miniscule part. We may think we are so important, but in reality our generation is only the latest of countless thousands of generations. And as Merlin said at the founding of King Arthur’s Round Table in the film Excalibur, “It is the doom of men that they forget!”
We saw earlier this year (perhaps you can’t remember) how the Book of Deuteronomy encourages the children of Israel to remember God’s blessings to them and never to forget what He has done for them. Five times in Deuteronomy chapter 8, for example, God warns his people that they might forget him and He commands them to remember and not to forget!
2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way ….. 6 Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him …. .11 Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees. … 14 your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God,
We saw how Deuteronomy 16 encouraged the people of Israel never to forget God’s wonderful acts of salvation. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread – the most important of the Jewish festivals because it reminded Israel of their redemption and the creation of their nation. so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.
But how do we make sure we don’t forget God and his blessings and his marvellous acts of salvation? Well one way the Israelites used was stones. Great big stones. Memorial stones.
Deuteronomy 27 2 When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the LORD your God is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. 3 Write on them all the words of this law…. 4 And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. … 8 And you shall write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones you have set up.”
Other ways of making a record of event were being invented. Storytelling and passing on traditions from generation to generation. Early writing. But from the earliest days human beings have remembered the past using large stones, memorial stones.
Israelites did something similar when they entered the promised land led by Joshua. By a mighty miracle God stopped the flow of the river Jordan so the Israelites could cross on dry land. So we read in Joshua 4,
4 When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, 2 “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, 3 and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.” …… (These stones will) 6serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 7 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 for ever.”
Memorial stones. You may remember too the memorial stone Samuel set up after a great victory against the Philistines.
12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”
Set up large stones. Memorial stones. So the question I want to ask is, what do we do to make sure we do not forget all the marvellous things God has done for us in the past ????
In our generation we face a great DANGER – we are so caught up in the inspiration of the moment that we forget that we stand in centuries, even millennia of tradition!!!!! We are so busy living in the moment and looking to the future that we ignore the past.
So what do we have in the way of memorial stones to help us remember the past.
We may have stones and plaques celebrating important people and key events. We should also remember all the lives changed, as much by the faithful proclamation of the gospel week by week as by great mission events. We should remember all the people who have been baptized here. We should express our gratitude to God for those who have gone before us and brought us to faith and provided the wonderful buildings we have for worship and outreach.
I was at a church a while ago which celebrated not only a church anniversary but also a pastor’s anniversary – giving thanks for the Ministers who through the centuries have preached the gospel. Some churches have a plaque of past ministers. Others plaques of church members who have died in war. Stones of rememberance.
Giving thanks for the past. North Springfield Baptist Church was founded and these buildings established within the living memory of a number of our members. Maybe we want to write down some of the stories of God’s provision and blessing now before nobody is left here remembers. It would be good to collect together old photographs and scan them before they get lost. Looking ahead a bit, wouldn’t it be lovely to create a book to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the church.
Over the years we each have so much to thank God for. It is good to remember the people who have help us on the way. The books we have read. The songs we have sung. The sermons which have inspired and strengthened is. The special occasions and holidays together. One popular thing schools and universities have nowadays is “year books” of photographs so that you can remember the people who you shared important years with.
It is right that we recognise youngsters in the church as they move up classes in Sunday Club and give them books to mark that progression. We have certificates for dedication and baptism and present Bibles or Christian books.
Baptists prefer spontaneity. Making everything up on the spot. But there is a place for using established forms of words on special occasions: weddings, funerals, baptisms, inductions, for example.
The point about using the same pattern of worship and even the same words each time we baptize somebody is not that we are using the only words which are appropriate, or even the very best words, but rather that we are using the same words as were used 30, 40, 50 years ago. That means that every person baptized as a believer remembers their own baptism. The promises we made many years ago are echoed and reinforced as we watch a person make the same promises today.
Equally in a marriage service. It is lovely if the couple make up their own vows to each other to make the service personal to them. But it is also lovely for everybody there if the couple use the same wording in their vows as Christians of all denominations have used in marriages for literally centuries. It is a delight to hear children and grandchildren make the same promises to their wives and husbands as their parents and even grandparents made decades before. In this ever changing world where everybody seems to think newest is best, it is valuuable to have continuity and permanence.
When I was Chairman of Churches Together in Brentwood I got to represent the churches of the town at the ordinations and inductions of clergy in all the other churches. This is the Preface which the Bishop reads in the Act of Institution and Induction of a new Vicar in the church of England.
“The Church of England is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
New Vicar … in the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
The task all churches share is to proclaim the Christian faith afresh in each generation, and to bring the grace and truth of Christ to this generation. But it does so from the firm foundation of the faith uniquely revealed in Holy Scriptures, set forth in the great creeds and the historic formulations of the church. The church has a great inheritance of faith as its inspiration and guidance and a continuity of proclamation of the gospel from generation to generation – not apostolic succession in the sense of authority being passed down from bishop to bishop, but apostolic succession passing on the message the apostles preached to each successive generation.
As Baptist Christians, evangelicals and charismatics, we don’t do much with liturgy. But liturgy is very good in its place! It reminds us of our place in the history of the church. We could use it more!
Just as it is valuable to have continuity in the rites of passage and occasional offices of the church, so there is a great deal of value in continuity of prayers.
We free church Christians value spontaneity in prayer, prayer as familiar unreserved conversation with God. But remember, the vast majority of Christians through the centuries, and the Jews before them, did not generally pray the way we do. Many today do not. Other traditions very happily use set prayers – prayers written by other people, prayers often passed down through generations. They often use the prayers found in Scripture in the Psalms. Most make much more use than we do of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, which we call the Lord’s Prayer but is really a pattern for our prayers as disciples.
Set prayers have their dangers. They can become “vain repetitions” where we don’t think about what we are saying. But that same objection can apply to the songs we sing. Most Christians are very happy to use hymns and songs and choruses which other people have written. We don’t feel we need to make up a brand new song every time we praise and worship God. The precise advantage of using words somebody else has written is that we can devote ourselves to thinking about the meaning of what we are singing, instead of having to use most of our concentration on thinking of the right things to say.
And the same can be true of our prayers. Sometimes using words which another believer has written can help us to express our deepest feelings better than we are able to do ourselves. It is good sometimes to be able to focus purely on God instead of having to search for the best words. It is a good thing to add our voices sometimes to the voices of countless saints in many places over many generations by using the very same prayers they used. And praying the same words as other believers have also prayed helps deliver us from that temptation of individualism which is gripping this generation. It does our soul good to admit sometimes that there are other Christians who have expressed themselves in prayer better than we ever can. So we humble ourselves and borrow their words to make their prayer our own.
There is nothing wrong with using the same words on different occasions. Telling my wife Ruth I love her – I often use the same form of words – they aren’t copyright, you could use them too – write them down: “I _ love _ you.” Nice to find other words sometimes, but the standard words are fine for most occasions.
Our spiritual traditions as Baptists, evangelicals and charismatics undervalue set prayers and liturgy. If we want to learn more about prayer that it shouldn’t be a question of either spontaneous prayers or set prayers. It should be both and. If we want to learn more about prayer we should never look down condescendingly on the rites and rituals and liturgies and set prayers of other traditions. All Christians can benefit from liturgy and sacrament and written prayers AND intimacy and informality and spontaneous prayers.
LIVING STONES – People
The place where we encounter the history of salvation best is in other believers. In the saints who have gone before us and given us living examples of love and grace and holiness and faithfulness. It is good to share our testimonies, as we have in our little book, The Difference Jesus Makes. And it does each one of us good to remember the ways God has blessed us over the years. For our own individual walks of faith we should work on remembering, for it is the doom of men that they forget!
As we share in Communion we can reflect on the continuity beginning with Christ Himself through all the churches and countless disciples right up until today. We are remembering Christ and at the same time we are remembering his church. We are breaking the bread and sharing the cup with somebody who broke the bread and shared the cup with somebody who broke the bread and shared the cup with maybe fifty links of breaking the bread and sharing the cup with one of those first disciples who was there when Jesus first broke the bread and shared the cup! Real stones, words, people who are the living stones, the continuity of communion, honouring the past to inspire us for the future.
Some people dismiss history and liturgy as “The dead faith of the living.” Far better to think of it as “the living faith of the dead?”
Hebrews 11:4 ¶ By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
May we learn from those who have gone before us and never forget what God has done for us!
time OF PRAYER – specific thanksgiving for events / people who have shaped our lives