The Bible tells us of a number of stones raised to commemorate events. Jacob raised a stone up at a place he named "Bethel". (Genesis 28:18) At a time of distress, it represented the beginning of his relationship with God, and his trust in God to take care of him. He was fleeing from Esau whom he had tricked out of his birthright, and he raised it at the spot where he had the dream of the angels coming up and down a ladder that reached to heaven. He had awoke with the thought "Surely God is in this place and I was not aware of it." So he took the stone he'd rested his head on that night and set it upright and made a promise to God: "if God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God. This stone I set up as a pillar will be God's house and of all that you give me, I will give you a tenth."
In the intervening years God had abundantly blessed Jacob with wives, children and wealth, though mixed with these blessings were much bitterness and trial. Jacob's wealth had come at the expense of his father-in-law Laban. In fact, Jacob at a place called Mizpah made a pile of stones representing the covenant he made with Laban - his father-in-law - who he had left with Laban's daughters and grandchildren, and unkwowingly to Jacob, but not to his wives, much of Laban's wealth as well. It was called "Mizpah" which means "watch- tower" because it represented the Lord keeping watch over Jacob and Laban - over Jacob that he would take good care of Laban's daughters and grandchildren - over Laban that he would not try to harm Jacob."
But God had reminded him of the first "stone" he had raised up at Bethel (31:13) and then told Jacob to take his flocks and go home to his father, Isaac. God had kept his part of the bargain, and had his plan for Jacob and his family. Jacob set up another "stone" at Bethel (35:14) because God had answered him in his distress and had been with him wherever he had gone." It was at this time that God changed his name to Isreal (which means he struggles with God") and renewed the Covenant made with Abraham and Isaac with him as well. Lot of things happened in the many years that followed. The tribes of Isreal had gone to Eygpt with Joseph and had been made slaves. Moses had led them out in the Exodus and through the wilderness. Joshua had brought them to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The conquest, incomplete because of sin had resulted in the oppressions of the Judges. Finally almost a thousand years later, bitterly oppressed by the Philistines, who had even temporarily captured the Ark of the Covenant and killed Eli, the high priest's sons at a place called "ebenezer", For twenty years, The people had mourned over their sins and sought after the Lord. Samuel had ministered to the people from Bethel and Gilgal and Mizpah and Ramah. They had rid themselves of their idols. Samuel then gathered the people to a placed also called "Mizpah", though perhaps not the same one where Jacob had raised his stone with Laban. Now Samuel was interceding with the Lord in their behalf, as they fasted and confessed their sins. But the Philistines attempted to take advantage of this worship service. They got together an army and atacked the Isrealites there at Mizpah. The people plead with Samuel to intercede for them and seek God's help against the Philistines. Samuel sacrificed a lamb, and as he sacrificed it the philistines drew closer. Then God thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into panic. Isreal was able to slaughter the fleeing Philistines. Samuel took a stone commemorating this victory and set it nearby. He named it "ebenezer" saying "Thus far has the Lord helped us." Now I have told you quite a tale of these four stones raised up. Now we want to again ask "why an Ebenezer"? They were stones of commemoration - representing promises kept or to be kept, visible lasting reminders of things to be remembered.
For many of us, this has been a difficult year in the life of our congregation. Our families have had their trials as well. But we can testify this thanksgiving day that, up to now, God has helped us. Nourished and fed us. Protected us. And richly blessed us. And kept his Word to us. Perhaps like Jacob's stones, you will commemorate God's help in times of distress, his blessing your labors and your homes and families. Or perhaps God's protection from your foes. Or the wonderful covenant God has made with Christ in our behalf. Perhaps like Samuel's stone it will represent God's discipling your life, dealing firmly, but gently with your sins, restoring you to Himself. Or just perhaps you will give thanks for miracles you have seen God do in your behalf. Miracles like the thunder that saved a people gathered to worship from the foe armed and determined to destroy.
As I mused on these verses this week, it occurred to me that an "Ebenezer" is like a "milestone" encountered in a journey. It could represent a beginning of a journey. It represents the portion of a journey already completed. Or the many steps yet to be made. Wherever the terrain of our lives may take us, whether smooth or rough, an "ebenezer" marks God's help, his presence, faithfulness or blessing. Jacob's stones represented God's giving and keeping of his promises, and testified to abundant blessing and bounty given. Samuel's stone represented both a revival and a deliverance of God's people. But all the stones had in their future a degree of uncertainty - and thus something durable - a stone - was raised up. Something would withstand the unknown tomorrow. Future storms and trials - as a reminder that God's help has been with us.
Today we are going to again "commemorate" this stone. We will place our words and objects of thanksgiving around it. We will tell each other of God's goodness and mercy and blessings to us. Just as Jacob's stones, it represents God's promises made and kept to us not only this last year, but for many years before. It may represent God's faithfulness even when we have been unfaithful. We will again state with Samuel that "thus far God has helped us." Then we will take this ordinary rock back outside to the front of our church for another year to rest patiently enduring the elements, heat and cold, day and night, sun and wind and rain and snow - the passing of time. As you come to church, or as you depart, will you see this rock and remember what God has done, the many things you are thanking Him for this day. Will it assure you that our God is a Rock. He does not change. What He has started in your life, He will bring to completion. The God of Jacob, of Samuel is our God too. Our God - our help in ages past is our hope for years to come.