The Importance of Memorials

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

May 30, 1999

The Importance of Memorials

Selected Scriptures

Today is the traditional day for Memorial Day. Back in 1971 it was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May. I guess the particular calendar day is only important because Diane was born on that day and consequently her birthday was always celebrated with a picnic. That is something we still try to do.

I suppose in a large way that is what has become of the day for most people. It is a day to kick off the Summer season of barbecues, picnics and summer activity. It is an additional day off work purposely placed on a Monday so that it would be a long weekend. That is good for business, both recreational businesses and industry since it is more expensive for them to shut mid-week rather than at the start or end.

Sadly, it would seem most people have forgotten why there is a Memorial Day to begin with. It was still often referred to as Decoration Day when I was a kid, but maybe that is because I had a great-grandma that was a member of the G.A.R. – the Grand Army of the Republic – but I get ahead of myself.

Our observance of Memorial Day dates back to 1868, when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic named May 30th as a special day to honor the graves of Union soldiers. (The G.A.R. was an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War which existed until the mid 1950’s.) General Logan’s order was that the day was “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Hence, it was also called Decoration Day.

The selection of May 30th is attributed to a Virginian of French descent, Cassandra Oliver Moncure, who may have selected this date because it was “The Day of Ashes” in France – the day that Napoleon’s remains were returned to France from St. Helena.

There is some debate as to the location and date of the first observance of Memorial Day is in dispute. Some claim the custom of honoring war dead began in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Others claim the custom was originated by some Southern women who placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers after the Civil War. One writer states the first Memorial Day service took place on May 30, 1866, on Belle Isle, a burial ground for Union soldiers in the St. James River, at Richmond, Virginia. The school superintendent and the mayor planned the program of hymns and speeches and had the burial ground decorated with flowers. The Federal Government got into the debate and in 1966 proclaimed that Waterloo, New York, was the birthplace of Memorial Day since on May 5, 1865, the people of Waterloo had honored soldiers who had died in the Civil War.

The observance of the day was started in this country in remembrance of the Civil War dead and every war has added to those who remembered for their sacrifice for our nation. I hope that you will take part in one of the local ceremonies that will occur tomorrow and that you will take your children. It is important for them to have a sense of history, a sense of what has been done on their behalf by those from previous generations.

I mention all of this for two reasons. One, it is important for the future of our own nation that the generation that is coming up know our history and the sacrifices that have been made so that they can live with the freedoms that they have. Second, it illustrates the importance of having memorials. We need to have times set aside and activities that will cause to think about the past. It is true for nations now, it was true for the ancient nations, as we shall see in a few minutes, and it is a central aspect of our worship of the Lord Jesus.

This morning I want to present to you some of the memorials we find in the Old Testament and their importance, I want to challenge you to think of ways to make memorials in the life of your family, and then we will conclude with a memorial of the most important event that has occurred in history since Adam’s fall.

First, let’s consider a few of the memorials that were set up in the Old Testament. Some are pretty simple and others more complex.

In Genesis 28 while Jacob is traveling to Haran, where he will work for his uncle Laban and marry Leah and Rachel, he has a dream in which he sees angels going ascending to and descending from heaven and in which God speaks to him. It is at this point that God repeats the promises He had made to Abraham to Jacob. The next morning Jacob sets up a stone as a pillar and poured oil on it and named the place, Bethel, as a reminder of what God had said to him there. A simple reminder, yet an important one to him.

In Genesis 31, some 20 years later, Jacob is returning to his homeland with his family and his Uncle Laban chases after him. They make a covenant is made between the two because they do not trust each other. A heap of stones is made at the spot as a memorial to them both that God is a witness to their covenant and would require it of them if they broke it. Again, a fairly simple memorial, but an important one to them. The pile of stones was to be a reminder to them of the promises they made and that God would judge them.

Similar things take place throughout the Old Testament and they take place today. Essentially a written contract is a memorial to the agreement that people make with each other. It is more complex than a pile of stones because it also communicates in writing the details of the promises people make to each other in the contract, but in essence it is still a memorial to the covenant made. (And I guess, considering how easily people forget what they promise now, it is a good thing that a written contract is the reminder instead of a pile of stones).

Turn to Joshua 4 and I want to point out another pile of stones that were set up as a memorial. These were not witness to a contract, but rather an item of curiosity purposely set up to teach future generations. We could learn from this example.

In Joshua 3 the Israelites have crossed the Jordan River on dry ground by means of a miracle from the Lord. God had the priests take the Ark of the Covenant into the water first. When the soles of the feet of the priests carrying the ark entered the water, the Lord caused the flow of the Jordan to stop and rise up in a heap at Adam, which was some distance away. The people then crossed the River bed on dry ground. This occurred while the Jordan River was at flood stage. In chapter 5 Joshua commands them concerning making a memorial to the event that had just occurred.

Now it came about when all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones form here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight.'” So Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel. “Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you”‘ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”

This pile of 12 stones was specifically set up to peak the curiosity of children in the coming generations so that they would ask what they where and the parents would then tell the children about it. That tells a couple of things important about setting up memorials.

One, a great time to teach children is at a time of curiosity. Children are by nature curious about the world around them and why things are as they are. They do want to know the why and how of things. I am sure all of you with children, and anyone that has spent any time with a two or three year old, has found they ask “why” a lot. After the 10th why in a row in a morning that has been filled with explaining everything from why plants are green and the sky is blue to why Cherios are round can get a little exasperating, yet what a wonderful opportunity to teach your children about the world God has created. We need to take advantage of those opportunities.

Teaching children is not a job that is done a few hours a day. Children are learning every moment they are awake. One of the great tragedies occurring in our nation currently is that so many parents think that they are not responsible to teach their kids. They think the schools and the government will do that. The Columbine High School tragedy was shocking enough, but the response of so many since then has been as bad. I can still hardly believe that the parents of one of the two teens that committed the murders is claiming that they did everything right in raising their child. That has to rank as one of the top cases of blindness and irresponsibility. Our child views Hitler as a hero, is anti-social to the larger population and then murders other teens and you think you have done everything right? That is a parent that refuses to accept the responsibility God had placed upon them.

Consider what Moses said in Deut. 6 about how the knowledge of God and the world He has created is to be passed down from generation to generation. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

We have to be diligent to teach the next generation. It is a full time job and you have to take advantage of every situation that occurs throughout the day to teach your children what it means to love their Creator with all their heart, soul and might. In every situation of life we are to be pointing out what God thinks of the current situation and how He wants us to live.

Setting up the memorial stones gave an opportunity for the Israelites to do that as they were traveling through the area with their children. “Hey dad, look at that pile of rocks. Why would someone do that?” And dad could respond, “Son, let me tell you a story . . .”

Another thing this section of Scripture teaches us is that we need to plan in advance to have something remind us to teach our children important lessons. You would think every Israelite there that day would naturally tell their children about the miracle of not only that day but the many that followed. You would think that those stories would become part of family history that would be instilled into all their descendants, yet even such important events can be quickly lost to the succeeding generations.

I can tell you from personal experience that there have to be some great stories that occur in my family history that I know nothing about. When my older brother started tracing out the family tree we found quite a few grandfather that fought in the civil war, three of them died in it. A couple fought in the Revolutionary war. A grandmother came over on the Ann, the ship that came after the Mayflower. There were quite a few preachers or wives of ministers in the bunch. What wonderful things they must have experienced and seen God’s hand at work, but I know little expect some basic information. No stories of what they saw God do in their lives.

The book of Judges tells us that the Israelites served the Lord only until the Elders who had survived Joshua also died. Then “there arose a generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel (Judges 2:10). How quickly the important events which attesting to God’s hand in our lives are forgotten. The memorial stones were set up to not only prick the curiosity of the children, but to remind the adults as well.

That brings up a question for us. What memorial stones have we set up ourselves to both prick the curiosity of others and to remind ourselves of what God has done? It may be that we have set something up already without thinking about it, but we also need to go beyond and do something on purpose.

For example. My insect collection in my office at the Parsonage is something that stirs up people’s curiosity. They ask about it and then I have an opportunity not only to say something about these fascinating little creatures God has made, but to also tell how God called me from making a living chasing them to serving as a pastor. Diane and I purposely have some pictures of our grandparents around so that we can tell stories about them and what we know of God’s working in their lives. Diane loves to tell about her grandfather who knew the Lord and had a profound effect on her. She knows a few specific stories of how God worked in his life and she likes to recount those. Some would find it odd that a pastor has a couple of plastic models of B-25’s in my office, but they give me an opportunity to tell of my father’s stories of how God preserved his life during WWII.

Traditions that we develop can also be used as memorials – as long as the reason for them is also communicated. God set up a tradition for the Hebrews to carry on every year from the time He brought them up out of Egypt. It is the Passover.

The story of all the miraculous plagues God brought against Egypt and her false gods is told in Exodus 7-12. What I want to point out comes from 12:21-28 when Moses tells the people about the coming Passover and what they are to do.

Exod 12:21 (NASB) Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said to them, “Go and take for yourselves lambs according to your families, and slay the Passover [lamb.] 22 “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts; and none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. 23 “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite [you.] 24 “And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. 25 “And it will come about when you enter the land which the Lord will give you, as He has promised, that you shall observe this rite. 26 “And it will come about when your children will say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ 27 that you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’ “And the people bowed low and worshiped. 28 Then the sons of Israel went and did [so;] just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.

Every year the Jews were to hold this sacrifice and have this particular meal as a reminder of what God had done in delivering the nation out of slavery. God was serious about this tradition being done every year for He repeats the command to do it several times. The people were given this command to hold the Passover and then repeat it every year here in Exodus 12:21-27 just prior to the event itself. The next day, in Exodus 12:42-49, when they leave Egypt, they are told again about observing the Passover throughout their generations. The command is repeated again in Exodus 23 & 34; Leviticus 23:5, Numbers 9 & 28; and Deuteronomy 16. God wanted the story of what He had done for them Egypt to be remembered.

Traditions can be good things because they can tie us to the past and what God has done in past times. But it is critical that the reason for the tradition is taught or the tradition simply becomes an empty ritual and then can be forsaken altogether. A study of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles shows that many generations of Israelites did not celebrate the Passover, and only when Godly kings came back on the throne, such as Hezekiah and Josiah, was the Passover celebrated again after generations of neglect.

We all should be aware of how quickly the reasons for a celebration can be lost. Even in our own society the days that have in the past been important days of the worship of God and remembrance of what He has done have been changed by a secular society into excuses for a day off work to play. School systems around the nation have Winter Break instead of time off for Christmas. Within them you may speak freely about the mythical Santa Claus, but you are restricted from speaking about God becoming a man in Jesus Christ. The celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus is Easter and Spring Break, a time for the celebration of the arrival of Spring with fertility symbols and the wearing of brightly colored clothes. Thanksgiving is now “Turkey Day” and is given over to football and gluttony. My purpose in mentioning these as examples is that if our children are to hold any of them as having any significance, then it is up to us to teach them the significance.

The dangers of empty tradition also face the church. Sadly, many churches are full of ritual which has lost its meaning. Whenever I have attended a more liturgical church I have wondered at the meaning of their many ceremonies, yet I also find that the people do not know why what is done is done that way. They simply think that is what they are supposed to do. This church, like all churches, must also be aware and on guard otherwise we can also quickly fall into the same trap.

In Matthew 26 Jesus gave His followers a new tradition that they were to repeat as a memorial to Him. Starting in verse 17 we find that Jesus has directed His disciples to prepare the Passover meal. This tradition which had been instituted by God nearly 1500 years earlier was still being celebrated, and for Jesus and the disciples, we can be sure they understood its meaning. Jesus then uses this ceremonial meal of remembrance and gives its elements a new meaning for His disciples and all that would follow Him in the future.

In verse 26,27 we read, And while they were eating, Jesus took [some] bread, and after a blessing, He broke [it] and gave [it] to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”

Without going into all the details about how the Passover was celebrated please just notice that the text here says “while they were eating.” The Passover meal was well in progress, in fact many of the elements would have already been finished including eating the lamb. At this point in the meal matzo – unleavened bread – is passed along with a third cup of wine called the “cup of blessing” because a special blessing was pronounced over it. It is at this point that Jesus changes the Passover into the Last Supper.

The unleavened bread was baked in large, flat, crisp loaves. Jesus took some of it and broke it into pieces. He offered a blessing of thanksgiving for it as He always did for whatever He had to eat and then passed the pieces out to the disciples. Then He said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Luke adds that Jesus also said, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

The unleavened bread had been a symbol of the severance of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. It denoted a separation from the pagan or oppressive – the leaven – that would be left behind as they went to the Promised Land where they would begin a new life of holiness and godliness. Now the matzo would symbolize Jesus Christ Himself who gave Himself up in our behalf that we might be separated from sin and unto godliness.

After the bread was taken Jesus continued. Verse 27-29, And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave [it] to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

The blood symbolized here is significant in three ways.

First, a covenant had to be ratified with blood. In the common covenants made between people some animal – often a dove, a sheep or a cow – would be sacrificed to seal the vows made. The individuals would cut the animals in two, and then walk between the halves. It was in effect saying, “may this be done to me if I break my promises to you.” God did this with Abraham in Gen. 15 with God Himself going between the animal halves. Jesus was going to ratify a new covenant in which salvation is brought by faith in Him and a life of holiness is assisted by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Second, there could be no remission of sins without the shedding of blood for the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:14; Heb. 9:22). Sin brings death and so the sacrifice had to die a bloody death as the payment for sin. Jesus would die the next day as God’s sacrifice to pay for man’s sin.

Third, the setting is a Passover meal which was a memorial of the first Passover in which a lamb had to be slain and its blood spread on the doorposts and lintel as a covering for the family so that the death angel would “Passover” them and the first born would live. This was now being changed as Jesus pointed out with the cup that it would be His blood that would be shed to deliver man from sin’s judgment. Jesus, the lamb of God, would become the final Passover lamb when He was crucified the next day.

As a footnote here, let me comment about the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in which the bread and the cup become the literal body and blood of Jesus.

First, there had been no confusion among Christians about the meaning of this until about the 11th century. Pagans had accused Christians of cannibalism because they ate bread that was supposedly “Christ’s body,” but the Christians understood perfectly that it was done “in remembrance of [Him]” and defended that position. It could only be symbolic, not literal. Jesus said it was to be in “remembrance of Me.” In addition, Jesus was standing there with His body fully intact when He offered the bread to the disciples. His body and the bread were clearly distinct. And finally, the disciples would have rejected the bread if it was to be considered to actually be Jesus literal body. Cannibalism was abhorrent to the Jews and was considered a sign of God’s judgement when it occurred.

The same is true of the cup. The wine here is purely symbolic. Jesus’ blood was still in Him and the wine in the cup was just wine. For them to view the wine as the literal blood of Jesus and then drink it would have been directly against God’s command in Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:12,14 & Deut. 12:23 not to eat the blood of any manner of flesh. The disciples understood very clearly the symbolic nature of what Jesus was talking about.

Yet, despite the clearly symbolic language used, the context in which it was said, and the Jewish reaction to cannibalism, the Roman Catholic Church declared in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council that transubstantiation was an official dogma of the church. Even by that time, the Roman Catholic Church had moved so far away from a foundation in the Bible that the wild speculation of the scholastics and the mystical stories among some of the people prevailed over the clear reading of the Scriptures themselves.

We must be careful ourselves as we partake of the bread and the cup of communion that it continues to have the meaning which Jesus gave to it, that it continues to be precious reminders to us of what Jesus has done on our behalf. It is a memorial that, as Paul states in 1 Cor. 11:26, proclaims His death until He comes again. We must not let this become either a meaningless ritual or let it be perverted as the Roman Catholic Church has done.

Sermon Study Sheets

Sermon Notes – 5/30/1999 a.m.

The Importance of Memorials

Selected Scriptures

A History of Memorial Day

Early Memorials in the Old Testament

Genesis 28

Genesis 31

Lessons from Joshua 4

Teaching Children

Reminding Ourselves

The Tradition of Passover

Exodus 12:21-28

It’s Importance

It’s Neglect

The Institution of the Lord’s Supper

Matt 26:26 (NASB) And while they were eating, Jesus took [some] bread, and after a blessing, He broke [it] and gave [it] to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave [it] to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

The Bread

The Cup

Footnote on Transubstantiation


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What is the reason for Memorial Day? What do you do on that day? In Genesis 28 Jacob sets up a pile of rocks – Why? Jacob sets up another pile of rocks in Genesis 31 – Why? In Joshua 3 the Israelites make a pile of 12 stones – Why? What lessons can we learn from what they did? What items do you have that could be used for a similar purpose with your children? What was the purpose of the tradition of Passover? What memorials or traditions do you have that cause you to remember God’s hand in your life? What memorials or traditions could you make or start to cause you and your family to remember God’s work in your lives? The Israelites eventually forgot the purpose and then neglected the practice of Passover – why? Whose responsibility is it to teach the children about God and His work? Are those responsibilities being fulfilled? Why or why not? What needs to change? Do it. What was Jesus doing when he instituted the practice of the Lord’s Supper? What does the Bread signify? Why? What does the cup of wine signify? Why? Why is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation the bread & wine become the physical body of Jesus) against the teaching of the Bible and therefore wrong? How can we be careful not to fall into the trap of meaningless tradition or a perverted ritual? What can you do to keep the Lord’s Supper meaningful to you?

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