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Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 8

Two monuments taught the children of Israel—and us—one lasting lesson. 

Samuel C. Degner 

“To this day,” wrote Joshua (7:26). The people of Joshua’s day could still go and see two distinct monuments, which together taught one lasting lesson.  

God’s wrath 

The Lord had just toppled mighty Jericho. So Joshua led his men against the next objective—Ai. He was confident in the Lord’s power and promise to give them the victory. 

Instead, the Israelites were routed. Joshua was dumbfounded and cried out desperately: “Lord, how could you let this happen? If you promise to fight for your people and they lose, what happens to your good name?”  

Indeed, the promise had been broken—but by Israel, not the Lord. Lying hidden beneath the tent of a man named Achan was plunder from Jericho that the Lord had commanded his people not to take, under penalty of death. As long as that sin remained between them, the Lord would not fight for his people.  

But God showed mercy. He told Joshua about the sin and revealed the guilty one. Achan confessed, and both he and his family were stoned and burned. A pile of rocks was heaped over Achan, and that valley was named Achor, which means “trouble”—reminders of what disobedience brings. 

The punishment might seem shocking. But it could have been worse. Death by stoning is nothing compared to what rebellion really deserves. Achan’s sad monument stands as a warning that it is a deadly serious matter not to listen to the Lord—a warning for me and for you still today. 

You may even have your own sad reminder to this day of disobedience and rebellion—a scar, a broken relationship, a criminal record. On the other hand, maybe you managed to hide your sin—at least from others. But God knows. He would have every right to crush you under his wrath.  

God’s faithfulness 

But the Lord is merciful.   

Once the Israelites had dealt with Achan’s sin, the Lord turned from his anger and he went right back to fighting for his people. He gave them a plan of attack and, when they followed it, he granted a resounding victory over Ai (Joshua chapter 8). Its king was put to death, and a pile of rocks was heaped over his body—another monument, this one to God’s faithfulness. God’s people may have broken their covenant with him, but God had an even older promise to keep. 

It’s a promise he repeated centuries later through his prophet: “I . . . will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. . . . I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’ ” (Hosea 2:15,23). 

Our rebellions should cut us off from the Lord and disqualify us from receiving his help. But Jesus stepped forward and owned our disobedience. He was executed for our crimes, crushed under God’s wrath in our place. By his death, the sin that had cut us off from God was removed and the Lord’s anger is turned away. We are God’s people through faith in Jesus.  

As the Lord’s people, we know he has given us eternal victory over our enemies—and so much more. He has graciously promised to bless us. We can march forward in life, confident in his covenant of forgiveness.  

His word still stands as a witness to that faithfulness; you can see it for yourself to this day. 


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.  


This is the eighth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us.  


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 7

As you look aheadremember the Israelites’ monument at the Jordan that shows how God keeps his past promises and continues to fulfill his promises for the future.  

Samuel C. Degner 

The people of Israel gazed out across the Jordan Valley. There it was, right in front of them: the land flowing with milk and honey, the one they had dreamed of for generations. Exhilaration must have filled their hearts as they pictured the places where they would put up their houses—houses, not tents! 

A promise kept 

But then again . . . they had been here before. Forty years earlier, their forebears had looked at the same landscape and concluded they could never take it from its occupants. Now, those Canaanites were still there. Moses, on the other hand, was not; the one who had led them to this point now lay buried somewhere in Moab. Then there was that river at flood stage . . . perhaps the people hadn’t noticed its distant roar at first. Was it excitement or fear that made their hearts beat faster? 

That mix of anticipation and uncertainty is timeless. Brides and grooms feel it as they prepare to enter marriage, expecting both joys and challenges. So do graduates as they step into a wide open future, full of both opportunity and danger, without those who had guided them to that point. Retirees may wonder whether the coming years will be as golden as they imagine. Christians nearing death see paradise lying before them as well as the pain they may have to traverse to get there. 

As you survey your future, consider the Israelites at the Jordan (Joshua chapter 3). By God’s power, they walked across the dry riverbed into a land that would no longer be promised but simply theirs.  

A future guaranteed 

This was more than the fulfillment of a centuries-old promise. God showed himself to be a “living God,” always present with his people and fully capable of giving them the Canaanites’ land. He wanted Israel to know they could confidently follow Joshua just as they had followed Moses, who had once led them across a different body of water. In other words, God was fulfilling his words from the past and guaranteeing his words about the future. 

To help his people remember this lesson through the coming years of conquest and for generations to come, the Lord commanded one man from each tribe to take a stone from the middle of the riverbed and place it at the Israelites’ camp (Joshua chapter 4). What a powerful monument: Rocks, worn and wet from years under a river, now stacked on dry land! A memorial to a promise kept—and a promise of more of the same. 

Somewhere in that same river, some 1,400 years later, stood a living monument with the same message. As Jesus stepped out of those descending waters, another miracle took place: A dove and a voice from heaven, said, “This is my Son” (Matthew 3:17). It marked a promise kept: The Savior had come, who was the reason God brought Israel to that land in the first place. It was also a sign of good things on the horizon: Jesus’ perfect life on earth earned us a perfect life in heaven.  

As you make your way toward that promised land, you can trust the same living God’s presence and power to bring you safely through the obstacles in your path. The future that lies before you may both fill your daydreams and keep you up at night. But the Lord goes ahead to defend and bless you. It’s his promise. 


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin. 


This is the seventh article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.  


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 6

A monument marking the burial of a wife and mother also marks the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Samuel C. Degner 

The monuments we see most often may be the ones we like the least: a headstone in a cemetery, a plaque on a vault, an urn on a mantel. They are sad reminders of sin’s grave consequences. 

Hopes unfulfilled 

When Moses wrote down the Spirit’s words in the book of Genesis, he mentioned an old monument in Palestine, one put down by a grieving but believing wanderer some four hundred years earlier. It was a simple memorial—just an upright stone—that marked the burial place of Jacob’s dear wife Rachel (Genesis 35:20).  

Imagine how Jacob felt as he set up that stone. He had fallen in love with Rachel in less than a month. He had worked for his uncle Laban 14 years to make her his bride. She was the mother of Joseph. Tragically, she died giving birth to Benjamin on the journey to Jacob’s home.  

Often grave markers appear to us as reminders of dashed dreams: A life seemingly cut short by disease or accident, a grandparent that never got to meet a grandchild, a husband whose wife lived alone for many years. Surely, you’ve felt the bitterness in your heart as you walked away from the headstone or gently set the urn in its place. 

However, as Jacob set up this stone over his wife’s fresh grave, could it be that his mind was not on hopes unfulfilled but on promises kept? 

Promises kept 

This new monument stood not far from Bethel, where Jacob had set up another stone perhaps 30 years earlier. In fact, he had just stopped there to worship again—and how things had changed since his last visit! The one-time fugitive was heading home. He had made peace with his brother and no longer feared for his life. He was not alone anymore but accompanied by his wives; 12 children (and one soon to be born); and enough flocks, herds, and servants to split into two camps. He even had a new name: Israel. The Lord had kept his word spoken at Bethel years earlier to protect Jacob, bless him, and bring him back. Certainly he would also keep his promise to give Jacob many descendants, who would own the land under the stone and through whom eternal salvation would come to the world. Rachel would live with Jacob—in his heavenly Father’s home! 

Not many miles from the place where Rachel was laid to rest, another stone would mark a grave. This one was rolled over the opening of the tomb that held Jacob’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. How his followers who watched it set in its place must have felt the bitterness of their unfulfilled hopes! But this stone didn’t stand in place for long; on the third day, an angel rolled it aside. No need for a stone over a vacant tomb!  

Jesus’ empty grave now stands as its own monument, proof that God has kept his word to us: Our sins are buried and eternal life is ours. His empty tomb also changes our perspective on the graves of those dear to us. Death still brings heartache, but Jesus’ resurrection promises life after death for all those who believe in him.  

So, the monuments we place near our departed loved ones can serve not as reminders of unmet expectations but as signs pointing to a hope that is sure to be fulfilled. 


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.    


This is the sixth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 5

Alone and guilty, we need the assurance of God’s love in Christ, just like Jacob.

Samuel C. Degner

Have you ever felt so alone that it seemed even God was far away?

LOOMING LONELINESS

Jacob was a long way from his home in Beersheba, far from his mother and father. He was on his way to his uncle’s house in Harran. When the sun set, he had to stop right there on the road, somewhere near a place called Luz. There, all alone, he lay down for the night (see Genesis 28:10-22).

Making matters worse was the reason for his solitude. Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing from his twin brother, Esau. Now Esau, the hunter, had his sights set on Jacob. Jacob chose to run from Esau.

Imagine the loneliness that must have settled on him along with the darkness as he laid down his head on a stone. He had deceived his father and enraged his brother. He had also failed to trust God’s promises. Had he alienated his God too?

Loneliness is bad enough, but guilt adds to the pain like a stone under the head. We have all been there. Your sibling won’t talk to you because of an argument you started. Your friends stop calling because you let them down. Sometimes it can even feel like you’ve driven God away.

CONSTANT CONNECTION

In those rock-bottom moments, look up!

Look up with Jacob as he dreams. See a stairway resting on the earth and reaching into heaven. Watch the angels ascending and descending. Jacob was not alone! God’s messengers attended to him. God himself spoke—and not a word of condemnation. To the homeless one, he promised the land on which he lay. To the one who fled his family, he promised descendants like the dust. To the one traveling alone, he promised his presence and protection. He even promised to use someone from this guilty one’s line to bring blessing to the whole world. God assured Jacob of his forgiving love—the same love he promised to his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac.

Just what Jacob needed to hear!

Just what we needed too. When we were lying in guilty solitude, God sent that descendant of Jacob to us. Though he was one with the Father and never wandered from him, Jesus lay his head down on a piece of wood and felt what it was like to be truly estranged from God. He suffered that loneliness so that we never would.

Jesus once told Nathanael, “You will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is that stairway, our bridge between earth and heaven. He is our constant connection to God. Because of him, our cries of loneliness rise to heaven and God sends down his comfort: He will not break his relationship with us.

When Jacob woke up, he seemed surprised. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28:16). He took the stone on which he slept, set it upright, and anointed it. He renamed the place Bethel, “house of God.” He still had many miles to go and many years before he would see his family again. But he knew that, wherever he was, God would be with him.

Let his simple monument be a lasting reminder to you too. No matter how isolated you may feel, you’re never alone. Your God is always with you.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.


This is the fifth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 4

As an altar reminded Abraham of a death that didn’t happen, so a cross reminds us of how our Savior saved us from eternal death.

Samuel C. Degner

It’s not hard to find memorials that mark the place where someone died. White roadside crosses sit at the spot of a highway fatality. A new tower rises over the place where thousands lost their lives on 9/11. A makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, photos, and teddy bears crops up at the site of the latest tragedy.

But have you ever seen a monument to a death that didn’t happen?

A sacrifice God demands

Abraham was a nomad. He was used to walking for days at a time. But the three-day journey he undertook from Beersheba to Moriah must have felt like the longest of his life. It wasn’t just the distance; he was on a mission to sacrifice his son, his only son. He had God’s promise to bless him—and the whole world—through Isaac; he also had God’s command to kill him. How his confidence and confusion must have struggled with every step!

And what about Isaac? What was behind his question, when he noticed that they had all the materials needed for a sacrifice except the sacrifice itself? What was going through his mind when his father tied him up and placed him on top of the altar?

The Bible answers none of these questions. But perhaps it’s good to ask them because, whether you realize it or not, you were once in Isaac’s place.

You were bound guilty and laid out on the altar of God’s justice. You belonged there for all the times you disobeyed your heavenly Father. His wrath was about to come down on you and end your life eternally.

A substitute God provides

Abraham’s reply to Isaac echoes down through the centuries: “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8).

Who do you think was happier to see that ram caught in the thicket of Moriah—father or son? What a relief to know that another would die in Isaac’s place! Isaac’s hands and feet were untied, and he came down off the altar. He was safe! He would not die at Moriah that day. The stones stacked there were finally stained with blood, but not his. They stood as a monument to one death—and to another that didn’t happen.

Two thousand years later, not far from that very place, God once again provided a Lamb. The innocent Son of God was bound and laid onto a cross-shaped altar. The Father in heaven “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). The perfect Lamb spilled his innocent blood for our disobedience. The sacrifice is over . . . and we get to live. We’re safe!

Today, we have reminders of that Substitute’s sacrifice all around us—in our sanctuaries, on our steeples, around our necks, on our walls, in the sign the pastor makes at the start of the service, on the stones that mark our final resting place. Each cross is a memorial to the Lamb’s sacrifice in our place. Each cross is a reminder that, because he died for us, we will not die forever but live with him.

Cherish that cross—a monument to a death that happened and to one that never will.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the fourth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 3

As pilgrims in this world, we need to stand out in our worship of the true God, just as Abram did in the land of Canaan.

Samuel C. Degner

There must have been no shortage of shrines in Canaan. The land we now call “holy” was filled with unholy sites dedicated to pagan gods.

An altar to the Lord

But this new altar was different. Its builder was a foreigner named Abram. He came from Ur of the Chaldeans, a people with their own gods. But it wasn’t for one of those gods that he stacked these stones. It wasn’t for one of Canaan’s gods either. In the ancient world, it was common for immigrants to adopt the local religion, not just because they want to fit in but also because they believe that each place had its own deity that had to be pleased.

Not this migrant. Abram knew that the God who had called him in Ur was still with him in Canaan. He trusted that his God could and would bless him in this new land, just as he said.

So, at his first recorded stop in Canaan, at the great tree at Shechem, Abram built an altar to the Lord. When he moved on to the hill country between Bethel and Ai, he built another altar, and “called on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 12:8). This was a public act of true worship right in the heart of pagan country! These altars were beacons of light in the darkness.

Worship of an outstanding God

What’s the land of your pilgrimage? What god do the people there worship? In secular schools, Reason or Science may be the local deities—and their followers surely are persuasive. In the workforce, many people worship Money—and seem to be rewarded handsomely. Popularity has a devoted following, and people offer great sacrifices to Sports. The rituals in the religion of Pleasure seem quite appealing.

But you, dear pilgrim, were called to be different. That’s not easy, but it’s good, as Abram would tell you.

He and his family were vastly outnumbered in their new land. Other than the mysterious Melchizedek (Genesis 14), we are told of no other true believers there except those with Abram. Yet Abram trusted the Lord’s promise that one day the land would belong to his people. After just a few centuries, Abram’s descendants covered that land like sand on the seashore.

Several more centuries passed, but the Lord also kept his ancient promise to bless the world through Abram’s family. His Offspring was born and made his pilgrimage in the same land Abram once roamed, the only Holy One in a world full of sinners. In place of our crumbling and misdirected altars, Jesus sacrificed himself on a cross to please God on our behalf.

The same God who kept his promises to Abram and the world has kept the promises he made to you when he called you to faith. He has been with you everywhere you have gone. He has blessed you with more good things than you can count. He has reserved a place for you in the eternal land of his people.

Aren’t you glad to stand out in your worship of such an outstanding God? A word of kindness in a negative discussion. A tournament game skipped because it’s Sunday morning. Words that bring honor to God. Actions that reveal godly priorities. These are all acts of worship! With them we raise a beacon in a dark world that needs his saving light.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the third article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 2

The Tower of Babel was a tribute to humans’ own arrogance. But instead of honoring ourselves, we need to work together to make a name for Christ.

Samuel C. Degner

They intended it to be the original skyscraper, “a tower that reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). Engineered with the latest technology—bricks and tar instead of stones—it would showcase their skill and ingenuity.

A monument to humankind

That didn’t sit well with the One who had formed man from the same earth they used to form those bricks. Their stated goal was to make a name for themselves, not for God. They were planning a city where they could all stay together instead of spreading out and filling the earth as God had commanded. This structure stretching heavenward was a giant fist in God’s face.

Understand how potent pride is. It sets us up against God. It seeks our glory at his expense. It convinces us that we can defy God’s commands. Yet when we build and improve and accumulate with the purpose of making a name for ourselves, these things become tributes to our own arrogance.

Want to know where that leads? Travel to the Middle East and look for the tower our ancestors undertook at Shinar. You won’t find it. Perhaps a few rows of bricks are there somewhere, buried under centuries of sand. Maybe they were scavenged long ago for another purpose.

What you will find there are people you probably don’t understand. Like anywhere else in this world, you’ll find human beings whose differences put them in constant conflict with each other—a reminder that here we have no perfect society and no enduring city (Hebrews 13:14).

A continual reminder of God’s judgment

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:6,7). The Lord saw humankind’s prideful defiance. He came down and put an end to their vain ambitions.

Yet even in this act of judgment, we see God’s mercy. United by one language around one sinful purpose, what would have become of humanity? By frustrating their purposes, the Lord granted them an opportunity for repentance. Moreover, he had a gracious plan to fulfill. He had a Savior to send, who wasn’t going to be born in Babel. Humans could defy God to their own peril, but they could not thwart his loving blueprint for this world.

Centuries later, with humans still busy exalting themselves, the Lord came down again. Only this time, he came not to judge but to save, not to scatter but to gather.

“And I,” Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This was the fulfillment of the Lord’s plan for all people. Human efforts could never reach heaven, so God’s Son came down to us. He humbled himself to die for our pride and disobedience. He rose to guarantee us a place with all his people in the eternal city built by God himself.

Now we have a new purpose. We work together to make a name for him, not for ourselves, to highlight his accomplishments, not our own. We strive to raise up the cross of Christ for all peoples and languages.

A monument to our Savior God.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the second article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories

Noah built an altar as he stepped off the ark to show his gratitude because God kept his promises.

Samuel C. Degner

For 375 days, Noah and his family lived on a boat. People who spend a week on a cruise ship sometimes say they feel cramped. Noah and his family spent over 53 weeks on a vessel half that size! For a whole year plus ten days they were confined to that space—together with the animals. Finally, the Lord gave the green light to disembark.

Noah’s gratitude

What would be the first thing you would do if you were Noah? Roll around on the ground just to feel some earth on your skin? Run as fast and as far as you could to stretch your legs and fill your lungs with fresh air?

Noah stooped over and started picking up stones.

Picture him there on the slopes of Ararat. The world must have looked so different since he had seen it last. The force of God’s watery wrath had changed things.

But there stood Noah, safe and dry, surrounded by his family and the beginnings of new life. God had protected them from the waters that engulfed everything and everyone else. He had rescued them from a godless world that had threatened to swallow up their souls. Most important, he had preserved his promise to send a Savior.

So, Noah gathered some dry stones and stacked them into the first recorded altar (Genesis 8:20). Perhaps he laid some driftwood on top. Then he sacrificed some of the clean animals he had brought with him on the ark. It was an act of dedication that sprang from a grateful heart as eagerly as Noah must have jumped off the ark.

Our thankfulness

Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. What was true before the flood is true after it: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). Our tendency is to be quicker to enjoy the good things in front of us than to praise God for them. We step out of bed and hit the ground running without thinking to dedicate the new day to the Lord. We sprint past our morning devotion into the day ahead. We dive into a delicious meal without giving thanks. We spend the paycheck before we can offer any of it to God.

Stop and look around you. Everywhere you see signs of destruction—not past but future. You see an ungodly world reserved for judgment, not by water but by fire (2 Peter 3:7). But not you. The Lord lifted you up and out of harm’s way by the waters of your baptism. For Jesus’ sake, he rescued you from a fate far worse than drowning in a deluge. You’re safe!

Now in your new heart rises a thankfulness that won’t be contained. So, before getting on with the new life that lies before you, spend a few moments picking up stones. Gratefully offer this day, this life, to the God who saved you—then run out and enjoy it.

Oh, do you need a reminder from time to time? Noah’s physical monument on the mountain has been lost to history, but God gave us a lasting memorial: his rainbow (Genesis 9:13). Whenever he sees it, he remembers his promise not to destroy the earth in a flood again. Whenever you see it, remember to thank him for keeping all his promises.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the first article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

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