Today is Memorial Day. Memorial Day was originally intended to honor soldiers of the Civil War who died in combat, and was first observed on May 30th, 1868. Observance of Memorial Day gradually caught on throughout the country and every state was celebrating it by the end of World War I, in honor of all soldiers who had given their lives in war. We celebrate Memorial Day to honor the dead, those who sacrificed their lives in war to ensure our freedom and liberty. Memorial Day is a day of remembering.
But we are not to remember for remembering's sake. There is to be a purpose in our remembering. Remembering the sacrifice of those who have died for our freedom would be worthless if it did not change our thinking and living in the present. As we remember those who died, we remember them in gratefulness for their sacrifice, and so that we might be changed by our remembering.
Memorials point us to God. Throughout scripture, certain monuments, historical events, songs, or histories served to remind the people of the greatness of God. God commanded his people to remember not specific people, places, or events primarily, but that they should instead remember the God who orchestrated the events, used the people, and created the spaces. The Bible teaches us that memorials exist to remind us of the God who is working in the world. Even days like our American celebration of Memorial Day serve to point us to the God who uses people for his purposes in the world. God has used people in our nation's history to accomplish his purposes. And as we remember them we must remember him. "Remember the Lord your God." This was the command to God's people throughout scripture, and it is the command to us this day.
The Bible is replete with memorials that are designed to cause God's people to remember (Exodus 12.11-14, Leviticus 2.16, Acts 10.4, Joshua 4.1-7, Luke 22.14-21, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26). But why are they to remember? God does not tell his people to remember for the sake of remembering, or for the sake of living in the past, or even for the sake of honoring a memory. Nor does he tell his people to remember as a sentimental or nostalgic notion. Rather, God tells his people to remember the past in order to affect the present. Remembering the past is worthless if it does nothing to affect the present.
In Psalm 78 we read about the Ephraimites who, on the day of battle, turned back in fear and timidity. The author of Psalm 78 directly connects their retreat to having forgotten the works of God (Psalm 78.9-16). God had proven himself to the Ephraimites throughout history, and he commanded them to remember his works. But they forgot his works and they wonders he had shown them. And so, on the day of battle, they turned back, running away and forgetting that God is a God who works in the world. The purpose of remember the past is to affect the present. If we will not remember, we will not trust in God or in his power.
In Psalm 77, a man named Asaph sits alone in the middle of the night, feeling as though his life were pressing in on him. His depression was deep; his suffering was profound; nothing in his life was going right, and it felt as though God had left him. So he said to himself, "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (Psalm 77.7-9) To Asaph, it seemed as though the good ness of God was gone. What could he do to convince himself that God truly cared? What could he do to assure himself that God was present with him in his suffering? What would lift his spirits? Remembering. Considering the memorials of the Lord.
"Then Asaph said, 'I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.'"
The remedy for Asaph's depression and suffering was remembering. Its was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that the goodness of God had not ceased. It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God had not left him. It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God would act again on his behalf. It was in remembering the God who works wonders and who has made known his might among the peoples that this God would work wonders yet again, and make his might known among the peoples once more. It is through remembering the past that God's people draw strength for the present.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that the cross of Christ is the ultimate memorial that should speak to us of what God will do in the future. He says, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8.32) The cross of Christ is a memorial. It speaks of the greatness of a God who created the world and its inhabitants, and who loved them and desired to show his glory among them. But they rebelled against him. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1). This rebellion separated them from God and made them worthy of the just and holy judgment of God. But in his mercy, God desired to save his creation for his own glory. So he sent his Son. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).
And now, Paul says, "Look at that cross! Look at the Son of God who died there and remember the love of God for you. God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. That cross is a memorial of his great love and mercy. And since he has given us the gift of greatest price - that of his only Son - know this: he will graciously give us all things! IN all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. As you look to the future, look back to that memorial cross and know that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present northings to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from then love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The cross is the ultimate memorial that points to God's continued faithfulness.
As you celebrate Memorial day, remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. And remember the God who works in the world, who has shown his power through his mighty works, and who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of all those who will trust in him.