As Israel approached the Jordan the priests entered the river with the Ark of the Covenant and the water receded and the people passed through dry shod. Then twelve were ordered, each to take a stone from the river’s bed where the leaders had stood, and to place the stones at the spot where they camped for the night.
Why? “So generations to come will see these stones and ask you what they mean and you can remind them and yourself of your hard-won heritage.”
Do you see the parable here? Take stones from where our great ancestors have stood – persons with ideals and vision – persons of courage and principle. Take a stone from where they made their stand and turned back the waters – where they summoned the courage to continue. Place these stones where you make the camp from which you will march forward. The stones will be there forever to remind you and generations to come of the great principles around which you must rally to survive.
On this Independence Sunday, let us look at our history and ask, “What mean these stones?”
May we remind ourselves of some deep rivers crossed – sacrifices – narrowly won victories – and let us rededicate ourselves to the best that our heritage has left for us.
It must have been, that for centuries Israel could go back and look at the pile of twelve stones at Gilgash and ponder the resolve, the devotion, the ideals that had been woven into their nation’s history. Let us, by looking at some stones, remind ourselves of some vital truths and of our direction.
If you stand there in the quiet, you can imagine the battles. There is the flash of bayonet from the pacing guard, the click of his rhythmic paces. You can imagine the Continental Line emerging from Valley Forge, the 4th Maine at Gettysburg, the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, the 5th Marines at Belleau Wood and Iwo Jima, Torpedo Squadron 9 at Midway, the Red One in the Argonne Forest, the 1st Marines at Chosin, the 1st Cavalry Division at Khe Sanh, the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st Marine Division at Fallujah.
What means this stone at Arlington? Bravery, sacrifice, even death.
I make no pretense at reconciling the teachings of the Prince of Peace and the horror of war. I never have. I have never seen it with euphemisms of knights in white armor, and faultless heroes who fight only for lofty ideals. I have never deluded myself that there is not a better way; that war comes when humanity abandons the paths of God. War is itself a spasm of the loss of God.
But neither have I detached myself in holy aloofness from the whole problem and disclaimed any responsibility – realizing always that if others must fight and die it is because of my own sinfulness – that their sacrifice to my soul’s failure.
But if I live in a nation that offers to my conscience the privilege to serve or not to serve – a nation that respects my belief – a nation that leaves me free to teach my children the way of God that leads them to a better life; and if others should come up against us saying clearly, “We will take from you that liberty and trample those who carry the message of God’s love in Christ; then I will resist with a heavy heart and prayers for my enemy.
I do not glorify battle; but I do find strength in the heritage left by those who accepted the task. And if there are those who sneer and mock, let us say to them, “There is no privilege without obligation. There is no freedom that has not cost much.”
The stone at Arlington when linked with others give us direction. They stand as a warning of what can happen in a time when we through fear forget where our strength and safety lie.
Oswald Spengler, the German historian, traces human history through many phases of development and shows how we repeat the same mistakes and succumb to the same errors. He predicts the collapse of our Western Culture caused by a period of national crisis that will necessitate the operation of government by the few to better make the decisions. In this time the strong man will arise and in nation after nation the government will be usurped by the few until we find we have surrendered the very freedoms we were struggling to defend; and having avoided oppression from without, we have welcomed it from within.
He calls this “The Age of the Caesars” and indicates that it will preceded but slightly the complete collapse of the way of life that came out of Christianity – a collapse not so much from military pressure as from the loss of ideals, of liberty, of the will to maintain it.
So our defense cannot rest in armed strength, even in brave men. We are a blasé and sophisticated age; but one thing we must recall: That our survival must at last depend upon of dedication to God. “Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
Peter Zenger spoke his mind courageously in the face of certain imprisonment and perhaps death. It was a time when the American colonies were under the King; and he soundly criticized the King for a flagrant breach of justice and was hauled into court with conviction assured. But he won!
He established there the right of an American to think and to speak! We cannot begin to know what it means to wear a muzzle.
One Chinese refugee speaks of the change in his country when the communists came: “Before, [it did] not matter how bad the government was, we at least had our thoughts, but now we are bombarded with propaganda – forced into schools – lectured – indoctrinated – made to criticize ourselves until we can no longer even think what we want to think.”
Give me this land where there has been won the right to go out today and say what I think through it run diametric to those in power.
But we must look at this stone from another perspective: Freedom of expression can become vulgarity and obscenity. It can be the printing and saying of that material that eats away at our souls and destroys us with dry rot. We are in constant danger that voices of falsehood and corruption shout with such insistence that they are mistaken for truth, enlightenment, and progress. We find pornography being called art and political correctness labeled as truth.
In the cesspool that results from the freedom to express any idea we have but one defense. “Our defense is in the law of the Lord and in that law do we meditate day and night.”
But there is an even more sinister cloud that presents itself along this line. It is the growing anarchy that is so apparent from the mob actions. It is the mistaken idea that because we are free to speak, that therefore what every person says ought to be heard – not so!
Everyday sees a growing eruption of soul-less mobs clamoring for everything from rights to entitlements. God knows there are wrongs to be righted, but they are not righted by seeking more for me or destroying another.
The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin sees the end result of mob-rule. The great mass will by their numbers bring pressures upon government, demand support at the expense of society and others who seek to rise above the mob.
It is good to be able to speak, to print, to express oneself; but it is a dangerous thing when that includes the intimidation of others and communities and the political process. We are witnessing something in our society – the desire to destroy what others have and silence what others say for the sake of equality.
It is a dangerous road we travel to give men the right to express themselves; but do we take away this privilege? No! We rather bring our simple witness: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things shall be added unto you.”
Another stone of our heritage is just a few miles from here and it broadens the concept of the one we have just mentioned. This stone is at Hodgenville, Kentucky and on it these words are carved: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men a created equal.”
The man who said these words at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky.
All men are created equal … and so they are in the sight of God. A person’s race, or wealth, or status, do not make a person superior. Each is God’s beloved creature and due the respect and affection that reflects God’s love.
Do we acknowledge it as a nation? We are equal because God says we are equal before Him – equal in our right to a place on the earth – a right to justice, to love, to opportunity – but not equal in talents, ambitions, dreams, aspirations.
All of us are due the opportunity to grow, to make of ourselves what we are capable of achieving. But not all shall choose to do so.
When government steps in to try to do more than this – to bring us to goals that cannot be given – bring some to aspire, to earn, to possess that for which they have no desire to achieve.
We come to realize we can only achieve this external equality – equality of things, of possession – in society by levelling to the lowest denominator, by taking from others, by creating the uniformity of upward limitation.
We mistake equality for justice, opportunity, and rights; for equality in possessions, outcomes, and circumstances. There is a better way than government: “Whatsoever you would that others should do unto you, do you even so unto them.”
The last stone at which we look is at Plymouth – a round, knob-like, gray rock – and the chill morning a little boat grounds on the shore and a group of people step out. The Indians in the brush of the forest are curious at the sight. Why did they come? They came so they could worship God as they chose.
This morning we were free to get up and go to any church you may desire to attend. You may join, leave; be immersed, sprinkled; sing, not sing; come to meet friends, or just for the air conditioning. But it was not always so. Those who won the right for you were spiritual, God-fearing men. To win that privilege for you they were branded, tortured, imprisoned, sold into slavery. Even our privilege to stay away was won by the Church and its people.
It is interesting how freedom of religion has become freedom from religion in our culture. This evolution is in part our fault … our laziness. In our effort to make Christianity appeal to everyone – easy for everyone – we created an all-inclusive religion, diluting the faith until anyone can accept it because it means nothing.
I am saddened by the trends I have observed over the years in mainstream denominations: The urge to conform to society so as to be approved by society. And when the Church or a church ceases to be different – defined by God’s Word – then is ceases to make a difference or to matter at all. When something can mean anything, it really means nothing.
It is safer to conform, but the Church is at its best when it does not conform – indeed, the Church is at its best when society is against it.
Jesus Christ does not evolve in His understanding. The uncertainty in our nation is expressed is by human voices. The gloom is from those who think the world holds all the answers.
William Faulkner once wrote: “It is not that we didn’t believe; it’s that we couldn’t, didn’t know how any more. That’s the terrible thing they have done to us.”
Yes, that is a terrible thing; and in the confusion of a changing society, and new theologies, and the conforming Church, we may become bewildered.
Don’t be. Center is just where it was when these stones were put in place – just where it was when Israel crossed the Jordan – just where it has always been.
The Declaration of Independence finds its authority in God, and for us to try to implement it, or to make it live without God is folly. There are those who would try to interpret our documents of freedom as purely humanistic, but they forget that humanity has value only because you and I are God’s beloved creatures, and unless we are, then we are lost in the universe.
Listen to these references from the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the law of nature and of nature’s God entitles them …”
“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …”
“Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions …”
“With a firm reliance on Divine Providence …”
There will be turmoil, eruptions, violence, proclamations; but remember, the Lord God omnipotent reigns.
What mean these stones? “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk, and faint not.”