This all got me to thinking about how a person, couple, or organization should celebrate anniversaries. Throughout Riverview's process of celebrating our 125th I've felt the temptation to slide into a mindset that essentially says "Look at us! Look at how much we've done for the past 125 years! Look at what we've accomplished! Look at how great we are!" This is absolutely an unhealthy way to remember special days and occasions. It's totally man-centered and even idolatrous. It fails to give God his due glory for all of the great things he has done. I think this holds true with any kind of anniversary - even wedding anniversaries.
This was essentially the problem at the Tower of Babel. Mankind said, "Look at us! Look at how great we are! And we've got this gigantic tower here to prove it!" Considering all the family connections and heritage in West St. Paul that Riverview enjoys, it would be easy to say, "Look at us! We've got a great church here, and here's the building to prove it! And here are some photos of my great, great grandfather laying tile in the sanctuary in 1961. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for him!" While I certainly won't demean the contributions of those who have gone before us to the ministry of Riverview throughout the years, to focus on ourselves, or even on those precious and God-loving people who have gone before us (even our relatives) would be to miss the point completely.
Riverview Baptist Church is what it is, and it has done what it has done in the community and in the hearts and lives of the people it has impacted over the years, only by the grace of God. It is his story we are invited to be a part of. We have not written our own story called "Christianity: The Riverview Years." No, God is the mover and shaker of our church's history, and he gets all the credit for it. If we celebrate ourselves, our own efforts, or even those who have gone before us, it is nothing less than idolatry. To be fair, I'm not suggesting this is the way people at Riverview are marking their 125th birthday, nor am I saying it is wrong to fondly remember those who have gone before us, but I am saying that the trap of idolatry is a very easy one to fall in to, and I think it is something we always need to be on guard against.
So then, how should we regard special days that mark special occasions and anniversaries? As usual, we look to scripture for the answer, and I think we see some instructive material about how to mark special days and occasions that celebrate the past.
In what has become one of my favorite books of the Bible, the book of Joshua describes the Israelites are entering the Promised Land, and as they do so they must forge the Jordan River. As the people are about to cross the river, God commands the Levites to take the ark of the covenant and stand in the midst of the river. As they do so, the water ceases to flow, and the people cross the river and go on into the Promised Land by walking on dry land. After the event, God tells Joshua to pick 12 men - one from each tribe - to gather one stone apiece from the river where they crossed and place them on the land. The purpose of the stones? Education.
When your children ask in time to come, "What do those stones mean to you?" then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord.So what's the purpose of the memorial? To exalt God; to show his power; to magnify his character and nature; to show his sovereignty and providence. I like how what the people are to tell their children that the water of the river was "cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord." The natural follow up question to such a story by a child might be, "How did you do that?" The obvious answer being, "We didn't. God did!" What a testimony to the greatness of God! This is what memorials and anniversaries are for: to testify to the greatness of God. Riverview needs to look back on its 125 years of existence and ask, "How did we ever make it this far?" And then as quickly as we ask, we need to answer ourselves, "We didn't. God did!"
Another example that we see in scripture is in Exodus 12. The Israelites find themselves in slavery in Egypt, although they are on the brink of freedom. God has pronounced his final plague on the Egyptians - the plague of the death of the firstborn. He has given his people a means of escape, however, by commanding them to paint the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, causing the angel of death to "pass over" their dwelling and spare the firstborn. This event, of course, becomes an annual tradition (a memorial or anniversary, if you will). God says:
"This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast."Why keep this as a "memorial day"? What's the point? Why does God want his people to keep the passover? So they can get together and have a good meal with each other every year, or maybe to congratulate themselves for remembering to paint the lamb's blood on their doorposts? Nope. God wants them to remember the passover so they remember his faithfulness and mighty power in delivering them from slavery. We likewise remember God's faithfulness and mighty power in delivering us from the slavery of sin in sending his Son to die for those who would believe the gospel.
All memorials and anniversaries are primarily about God: his goodness, faithfulness, and power. To celebrate them in any other way or for any other purpose would be to fail to give him the glory he is due.
Again, does this mean we can't remember those who have gone before us, and the things they have done, and the tile they laid on the sanctuary floor? No, but I think we need to remember them in the context of what a great and powerful God did through them to accomplish his sovereign purposes.
So then, I hope we can all repent of our tendency to put ourselves and our own accomplishments first, and instead give God the glory he is due for his faithfulness and providence in our lives. This is my prayer for Riverview as we look back on 125 years of ministry, and as we look forward to the future.