Ebenezer – An Anchor Point for the Future
Today is a day for reflection – we remember the death of Queen Elizabeth II and it also the 21st commemoration of the terrorist attacks in USA and the close to 3,000 people who died that day. That event changed our world, and not for the better. We could sit in sack and ashes and slide into depression when thinking of all this. It is however also a time to reflect on the positive that followed the terror attacks. The 38 wide-bodied aircraft that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, as the US airspace was closed, carried 6,600 passengers. These stranded passengers were welcomed as the population of the town of Gander, which numbered less than 9,000 people in 2001, opened their homes and hearts to the unexpected guests. This is an example of unstinting hospitality, shown by the people of Gander.
We are called to worship God in joy and trust.
The Scripture readings today are from both the Old and New Testaments.
1 Samuel 7:10-12
10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. 11 The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.
12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer,[a] saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Samuel was a prophet and, although he is not listed as one of the judges, he served as military leader on several occasions during his lifetime, before Saul became king.
To put it into historical perspective: After the Israelites settled in Canaan and the last of the elders who had served with Joshua had died, the twelve tribes lived in a loose confederacy. There was no central authority or administration as we would understand it today. During the 350 years or so from roughly 1375 to 1000 B.C., individual leaders (twelve are named in the book of Judges) were called at different times to rally the Israelites and defeat neighbouring tribes who had encroached on the land and subjected one or more of the Israelite tribes. These leaders were called judges, and some of them served to administer some sort of centralized legal administration after the reason for their call had been satisfied.
The episode described in 1 Samuel happened during one of the many incursions by the Philistines into the land. The Philistines are associated with the Sea Peoples, who colonized the coastal plains of what is today Israel. They were a long-standing and fearsome enemy of the Israelites.
At the time we read about today, the Israelites had fallen away from God and were worshiping idols. Samuel brought about a revival in Israel, and a large rededication gathering took place at Mizpah, where Samuel was based. When the Philistines heard of the gathering, they considered this an ideal opportunity to eliminate the Israelites, once and for all. After all – everyone was gathered at the same place and one battle would suffice.
Samuel offered a burnt offering to the LORD – and that is where our text kicks in.
The Philistines were routed in the ensuing battle.
Samuel then erected a monument to commemorate the event and to honour God. He called the memorial Ebenezer, which means “stone of help” and dedicated it with the words: “thus far has the LORD helped us”.
This monument is not the only reference to Ebenezer. The name occurs earlier in 1 Samuel as well – as a place name. It is evident that the people of Israel had experienced God’s help in another time and place and had similarly honoured God by naming a location, maybe a town, Ebenezer. The people would use Ebenezer, whether the location called Ebenezer or Samuel’s monument, to remind themselves of the way God has stood by them and helped them in the past.
The practice of erecting a memorial is recorded in several places in the Old Testament. Joshua built a cairn when the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. This is recorded in Joshua 4:4-7. A re[presentative of each of the twelve tribes picked up a stone from the river and these stones were built into an altar or a memorial on the Canaan side of the river. Joshua dedicated the memorial with the words (and I paraphrase): “When your children ask you what’s with the stones, tell them the waters of the river were dammed up so the Isrraleites could cross. The stones are a memorial to the people of Israel”.
It was Joshua’s reminder, his Ebenezer.
Long before Joshua, when Jacob was fleeing his brother Esau after stealing his birthright, he went to sleep with a stone as his pillow. (Genesis 28:10-22). He had a dream of God that night and the next morning he built a cairn with his pillow stone as cap to serve as a monument.
He called the place Bethel – house of God. It was Jacob’s Ebenezer.
Last week we looked at the episode of the disciples in the boat during a storm, and of Jesus walking towards them on the water. We stopped at the point where Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water towards Jesus. I promised that today I will complete the drama.
29 “Come,” [Jesus] said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid
and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Peter had stepped out of his comfort zone, out of the known into the unknown and did the unthinkable – he walked on a liquid as he would on solid ground. Physically impossible, scientifically inconceivable, yet he did it.
Until he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the wind and the waves and became frightened. He went for a swim instead of for a walk. He cried to Jesus, who saved him and then the two of them got back into the boat. The storm ceased at that moment.
Does this mean that the message of last Sunday – about getting out of the boat, out of our comfort zone, was wrong or wasted?
- By no means!
There is a big difference between the situation in the boat before Peter had stepped out in faith and after Jesus got into the boat with him and the other disciples.
Let’s unpack that: The disciples in the “before” boat had known Jesus, admired Him, and followed Him. Some of this loyalty may have been because they were experiencing new and wonderous things when He was near. They loved His teaching and quite possibly enjoyed basking in the reflected limelight as people flocked to hear Jesus.
When Jesus stepped into the boat – the “after” boat - they confessed Him as the Son of God – as the Messiah, the Saviour. The storm that had battered them and frightened them was gone – Jesus was present and had overcome the storm. Although they did not know it at the time, but they had also embarked on a journey through unfamiliar terrain – out of their comfort zone – because they were about 6 months away from the events at the Passover feast in Jerusalem, when Jesus would be arrested, tried, crucified and rise again
So let us complete last Sunday’s message and tie it into today’s message.
I believe God is calling us to step out of our comfort zone – out of the boat, to return to the metaphor I used ad nauseum last week. When we do, and keep our eyes on Jesus, He will bring us the peace and the clarity where we can confess Him as Lord and Saviour – and the One who is in charge of our tomorrow.
When we, as a community of faith, step out in faith, God is there to take our hand, stop us from sinking when we look at the difficulties and issues facing us. He will also show us the way into the future – reveal to us the exciting things He has in mind for us. Refer to Jeremiah (chapter 29)
– “11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”.
When one navigates unfamiliar territory by map and compass, one selects as a starting point – called a waypoint or a compass anchor point – an easily recognizable and discernible feature. One then takes a compass bearing in the desired direction and follows that. Every so often one would pause and look back at the selected feature, view it again through the lens of the compass, and thus ensure that one stays on course.
North Lonsdale United Church was founded in 1913. We have 109 years of history to look back on. When the congregation was founded, Robert Borden was prime minister of Canada, Woodrow Wilson was president of the USA and King George V ruled in Britain. Sixteen ministers have served NLUC over the 109 years, in two different denominations, three different locations and four different sanctuaries. Over the decades, a lot of things have changed. Denominations changed. Worship styles changed. Our community changed. Society changed. But what has not changed is the God whom we worship and serve. Or the dedication this community of faith has shown to Him, and the love shown in His service over the decades to the community at large.
The history of this congregation can be seen as our Ebenezer stone, our compass anchor point. We can look at our history and say: “Thus far God has helped us”. We can look back into our history and reflect with gratitude and humility at the way God has led us and guided us over this time, through the good times and the stressful times. We can build on that, and we can look to the future, uncertain as it may be, with confidence and say: “God is ahead of us, He is showing us the way.” With Jeremiah we can say (I paraphrase): “We know that God has plans for us, to prosper us, not to harm us”.
As individuals we also have Ebenezer stones. Maybe you have not thought of that in this way, but I invite you to reflect. In your life and faith journey there are people or places or events or things that may stand out as milestones to point out how and where God showed up for you in a special way. Think about this, and consciously identify your Ebenezer stone or stones.
Allow me to reflect on one of mine. I gave my life to Christ in my early teen years. In my early twenties a couple of incidents happened that caused me to fall away. Someone once joked that I was backsliding so fast you could not see me for dust. When I met a beautiful blonde lady, who was and is a dedicated disciple of Christ, and she invited me to come to church with her, I agreed. Not that I was much interested in going to church, but I wanted to spend more time with her. At Rosebank Union Church, in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Rev. Rex Mathie was the guest preacher that day. (Sanctuary seated 600 people – full) Rex Mathie preached to me alone on that Sunday. I left the service in a daze and soon after I rededicated my life to Christ.
The memory of Rex Mathie is my Ebenezer stone – thinking of him reminds me of how God led me to that day and leads me to this day.
- NLUC can look at its history as its Ebenezer stone
- Who or what will be your Ebenezer?
It is time to move on to Colossians.
When Paul writes to the Colossian church, he has high praise for them. He calls them God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. When we read that salutation, we may shy away from applying that to ourselves. After all, we know our faults and foibles too well.
If that is your attitude, I want and need to correct you.
When we accept Christ and decide to follow Him, we are fully justified before God. We stand before the Creator of the universe fully justified – as if we had never sinned – as if we were perfect. Which we are in His sight because we stand purified by the blood of Christ. One day, when we meet Him face to face, we will be glorified with Him.
In the meantime, in this life that we live now, we are in a time of sanctification. Of becoming more like Christ. Of becoming holy, of being set aside for God more and more. There is no contradiction in these statements. By accepting Christ, we are justified, by living a life for Him, pleasing to Him, we become more like Him, and we are sanctified. And one day, when we move from this world to the next, our sanctification is complete, and we will be glorified.
- Justified in Christ, being sanctified to be more like Him, glorified when we see Him face-to-face.
We are God’s chosen people, holy and loved by Him.
The passage from Colossians can be split into two parts.
In the first part, verses 12 to 14, Paul addresses the church in terms of unity. To achieve the unity that we as disciples ought to practice, Paul gives a few pointers.
To achieve unity, tolerance and forgiveness are essential. Bear with one another – tolerate each other. Put up with each other – even with the brother or sister that bugs you no end! Why? – because of forgiveness. Forgive, Paul advises, as the Lord forgave you. That is, forgive AND forget. In Jeremiah 31:34 we read: “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more [says the Lord]”
How often have I heard someone speak of another person, who may have hurt or treated the speaker badly: “I will forgive, but I won’t forget”. That is not forgiveness – that is merely lip service, a pretense. When there are disagreements between people, my experience has been that it can usually be traced back to a lack of clear communication. It boils down to the old argument of he said, she said.
When this happens in a secular situation, such as in a business organization or in a family, it is sad. When it happens in a church family it can be devastating. As we move forward into what may well be strange territory for us, we have to guard against this in our family here at NLUC. We have to guard our unity jealously.
How best to do that? Put on love as the outer garment so to speak. Over all the virtues you have, Paul says, put on love. Like a cloak or an overcoat, cover it all with love. Not some fuzzy, warm feeling – but deliberate, unconditional, agape love.
- Tolerance, forgiveness, wrapped in agape love. What a recipe for unity!
In the second part Paul gives advice for what the church needs to reach out to others.
The peace of Christ, the message of Christ and the purpose of Christ are the three anchor points that Paul points out.
The peace of Christ – allow that to rule. In his letter to the Philippians Paul speaks of the “peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). As members of one body, we are called to peace. I have often wondered whether Paul might not have dreamed of being a surgeon or a doctor, since he so often uses the human body as an illustration. In the body every organ and member have a function, and everything must function for the body to be healthy.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly, Paul says. All we do has to be based on, and anchored in, the message of the Gospel. We have, as our prime focus, making disciples of all nations – that is the Great Commission. And we could use words if absolutely necessary. We can work towards this goal by living a life that is worthy of our Lord. To show God’s love for our community we need to be infused with the message of Christ, so to speak. The message is proclaimed among us through teaching and worship. We are blessed with those who can and do step up to teach. The lay preaching team, visiting ministers and the people we can call on as pulpit supply for the sacraments. The worship team faithfully and competently leads us in worship with psalms, hymns and songs of the Spirit, in gratitude to God for what He has done. They could have taken their mandate directly from verse 16 of our text!
And finally, whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks to God.
- Peace, Gospel and Purpose, three anchor points for us in the challenges that lie ahead.
As we step out as a community of faith and as individuals, we must keep in in mind that we are not doing this in order to achieve some temporal personal or communal goal. We are doing everything for Christ. We are doing what we do so that we can reflect His love to those around us and in our community.
Let me summarise.
- As we, as individuals and as a community of faith, step out into a new chapter of life after Covid, we do so with a strong Ebenezer to remind us of what God has done for us thus far. It gives us a foundation to build on, a compass anchor point.
- We step out in the knowledge and assurance that God is ahead of us – He knows what He has in store for us. It gives us a compass bearing, so to speak.
- And we step out knowing that what we do, we do for Him and not for ourselves. It gives us a purpose.
May God bless His word.