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Rivers and Roads -- Joshua 4:1-8 (Commencement Sunday), Patrick O'Connor preaching

There are symbols all around.

As humans, we use symbols to help us creatively express our own thoughts and feelings. Symbols help us make meaning of the world around us and they can express feelings and experiences when words cannot.

In Language Arts, Literature, and History classes, we talk about how a symbol can be a setting, object, or event in a story that carries more than the literal meaning and therefore represents something significant to understanding the meaning of a work of literature. In other words symbols always have a literal or concrete meaning and a figurative or abstract meaning. Conventional symbols have a previously agreed upon meaning, and often many of these come from the Bible as a work of literature.

In our own church life, we use the symbol of the Lord’s Supper, which symbolizes Christ’s presence with us and Christ’s unshakeoffable love for us seen best in his death and resurrection. We use the symbol of baptism to mark the new life found in the fountains of God’s love.

Our graduates have been and will be participating in some version of a celebration and ceremony that will symbolize their wonderful academic accomplishments thus far and the threshold of entering into adulthood after high school.

And in today’s Scripture, we see a Biblical example of God’s people needing something to make sense of their experience.

Joshua has led the twelve tribes of Israel through quite a journey, and its still not over yet. After forty years of wondering and wandering, their time in the desert is coming to a close, but they need a way to make meaning of everything that they’ve been through, and its impact on their future. Our reading today begins with them preparing to enter into their new unknown by crossing the Jordan River. And as they are preparing to do so, God asks Joshua to pause in the planning and preparing and working to stop and gather God’s people to memorialize the journey thus far, the journey that God has led them through. Joshua and the Israelites have kept their eyes focused on the work that needs to be completed, and after forty years of doing so, I’m sure that’s all they could muster up to do. And yet God gives them a reason to pause. After forty years of wandering, finally there’s a glimpse of the Promise Land. After everything that they’ve been through, how do they process all of it and make sense of it?

The idea was to take twelve stones from the Jordan River and set them up as a physical sign and symbol of the passage through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Like Moses and the Israelites crossing the river at the beginning of their journey, as Joshua and the Israelites cross, we are told that the river will part and cease its roaring in order for them to cross until the very last heel touches dry land on the other side.

God’s instructions to gather up twelve stones from the Jordan River are meant to remind future generations of God’s presence in the lives of the Israelites thus far. Now, I don’t imagine that the twelve men asked to pick up stones planned on getting pebbles, but it feels like they got nice, hefty, stones deep in the Jordan River sediment to stack as a memorial. They had just witnessed an incredible miracle of the Jordan River, and they knew that they were close to completing this stage of their journey. A new and exciting chapter lies ahead of them- before them lies a land richer than their dreams and more fruitful than their hopes, and more beautiful than their imagination. To be part of the fulfillment of an ancient promise to Abraham and Sarah must have been overwhelming. All of those feelings and emotions of hope and promise fulfilled and work accomplished needed to be memorialized, just as much as the journey led by God that brought them there.