The Kingdom of Heaven is Like an Inukshuk

June 20, 2010

You see them everywhere now, along the road, in people’s gardens, as jewellery, they are everywhere. Correct me if I’m wrong but most of us never knew what an inukshuk was before the Canadian Heritage commercials. But now most of us know at least “now the people will know we were here”, even if we don’t know what it is called.

 And for those who missed out on that entire series of commercials the Winter Olympics probably brought the concept of the inukshuk to the world at large. But, you might be asking, what do they have to with church in general and the Kingdom of God in particular? Glad you asked.

 A year ago when I was preaching my series on the Traveller’s Gift I came upon the statement that “The Kingdom of Heaven is Like. . .” was used 9 times in the New Testament, and I decided that would be a good series of messages. In particular I thought it would be a good series of messages for this coming summer.

 Well, sermons are like sausages, in most cases you are probably better off not knowing how they are created, but we will open that door a crack for you today.

 When I prepare to preach a series of sermons I usually file away random thoughts, quotes and scriptures for weeks and sometimes months before I actually start writing. Some I use and some I throw away. Then a month or two before we get to the series start date Jason and I usually lock ourselves in his office and brainstorm through the series, where do we want it to go? What do we want you to learn? What are the themes or big ideas and how will the messages fit together?

 We talk about possible video items or dramas and what music might work or not work. And then we start playing with graphic ideas. Will we use banners? What will the bulletins look like? What about PowerPoint backgrounds? And then eventually I start production of the actual messages, and each one will take me about twenty hours to produce. Because you understand that every year I produce the equivalent of a 350 page book. You didn’t have a clue did you? Truthfully, you thought this was the only day I worked and I just stood up and talked for twenty minutes making it up as I went along. Be truthful.

 See I told you it was kind of like making sausages.

 Well this time when Jason and I were in the process of what this series would look like we determined that each sermon was kind of like a rock that you would add to one another to build something, but what would that something be? A wall, a fence, an altar? And then I had a flash and said “You know those silly things you see along the side of the road”, because if nothing else I am culturally sensitive. And he said “you mean an inukshuk.” To which I replied, “Yeah whatever.”

 And it kind of progressed from there, usually at that point we start having fun and think up all kinds of neat ideas including ones that we would do if money was no object and kind of winnow them down from there. Sometimes in the process you will be so close to it that you don’t see the entire picture and you embrace some ideas and concepts that are really dumb, so after we played around with the Inukshuk idea and what we could do with it Jason suggested we talk to a few people to see if the idea was viable or if it was just way to abstract. And in most cases people would nod and say “Yeah, that would work.” So here we are; “The Kingdom of Heaven is like an Inukshuk.”

 Because really Jesus would have said that if he had of been teaching in Nunavut instead of Palestine. You see, Jesus was a master of taking whatever was at hand and using it for an illustration in his teaching. He was incredibly relevant to his listeners. And so he said, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” And he looked around and what did he see, a fisherman casting his net into the sea of Galilee, a bird landing on a mustard plant, a farmer sowing his seeds, workers harvesting grapes.

 So I would suspect, that had Jesus been teaching in the Arctic he would have made statements like, “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who was hunting seals”, or “the Kingdom of heaven is like an arctic tern” then perhaps as he cast his eyes across the bleak horizon “The kingdom of Heaven is like an Inukshuk.”

 So with that in mind, join me on the journey. And if your knowledge of inuksuit, which is the plural of inukshuk, is limited to the Canadian Heritage commercial or the gnome and toadstool section of Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart, let me enlighten you a bit.

 From my studies I have discovered that Inukshuk does not mean “now the people will know that we were here.” That may have been the purpose of the inukshuk but in Inuktitut (the Inuit language) Inukshuk means “likeness of a person” or in the larger definition “something which acts for or performs the function of a person.” Inuk meaning person and shuk meaning similar.

 The most distant inukshuk from Canada would be one that was placed in Brisbane Australia in 1988 for the world expo; in order to go further than that you would have to put one on the moon.

 We kind of think that the Inuit are the only people who built Inuksuit and that the only place there were built was the north, but the reality is that similar stone figures were made all over the world in ancient times, but the Arctic is one of the few places where they still stand. Mainly because there hasn’t been a lot of people or development to knock them down. And throughout history they have been called various names in various places but they all do the same thing.

 The Old Testament tells a number of stories of stones being placed in piles for various reasons, the first time is in Genesis 31. The back story is that Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had lived in the land of his in-laws for years and now the time had come to return back to Canaan, and as a part of that process Jacob sat down with his father-in-law to reach an agreement on his leaving, what he could take and what he would leave.

 You know just like when your kids are going to college and think the family computer and flat screen would look better in their dorm room then the family living room. And we pick up the story in Genesis 31:44 – 47 So come, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and it will be a witness to our commitment.” So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a monument. Then he told his family members, “Gather some stones.” So they gathered stones and piled them in a heap. Then Jacob and Laban sat down beside the pile of stones to eat a covenant meal. To commemorate the event, Laban called the place Jegar-sahadutha (which means “witness pile” in Aramaic), and Jacob called it Galeed (which means “witness pile” in Hebrew). If they had of been on Baffin island they would have called it an inukshuk.

 The next time we see this in the Bible is when the people of Israel finally cross into the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for forty years and we read in Joshua 4:1-3 When all the people had crossed the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. Tell them, ‘Take twelve stones from the very place where the priests are standing in the middle of the Jordan. Carry them out and pile them up at the place where you will camp tonight.'”
And then a little later in the passage we read Joshua 4:6-7 We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.” What was he saying? “Now the people will know that we were here.”
And then in the book of 1 Samuel we read the story of how the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant, which some of you will recall was the sacred container that was used to carry the Ten Commandments, and others of you will recall was the focal point of the first Indiana Jones movie.
Regardless, the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant and under the direction of the Prophet Samuel the people of Israel were able to rescue the Ark, and it was at that point that we read 1 Samuel 7:12 Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, “Up to this point the Lord has helped us!” And we are going to reference that in our last song, be looking for it.
And now we come to the “So what?” in the message. Well that leads us to a statement that Peter made to the early Christ Followers in his letter 1 Peter 2:5 And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple.
You see if Christ had of simply come and lived for thirty three years, died on a cross and rose from the dead it would have meant nothing and would have been remembered by nobody, but he left behind an inukshuk, and that is us. We are the living stones that build the Kingdom of God and Jesus looks down at his church and the people who make it up and he nods and says “Now the people will know I was there.”

 But the analogy only works if we can see the characteristics of the inukshuk in believers.
Titus 2:7 And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. The Inukshuk Was Used as a Landmark Anyone here ever been to the Arctic? Between my second and third year in bible college I had a summer job on a salvage tug that took me to Little Cornwallis Island, which if we bring up a map is located right here.
And the one thing that you realize in the North is that there is a lot of nothing. And so in many cases the Inuit couldn’t say “walk three miles until you come to the big oak tree and take a left” You might be able to say, “walk three miles until you come to a polar bear, then run for your life.” But that would only work if the bear was still there and hadn’t eaten you the first time you saw it.
And so in a terrain devoid of features the inukshuk became the features, because they were different and they stood out. And so they became landmarks, “walk until you come to the inukshuk made of eight rocks then and turn east.”
2000 years ago Christians lived in a world that was radically different than the values that they embraced. It was a world of immorality and excess, and those believers were called upon to be examples, to be land marks in a world that was devoid of moral bearings.
Kind of like today, Christ Followers are called to be landmarks of morality and right teaching, we are called to be different, to stand out. Not in a bad way, you know some Christians think that by dressing and behaving strangely they accomplish that but we were called to be different in our behaviour. And the question would have to be: are we? Can people tell who we are and who we worship by what we do and don’t do? By the way we treat people and respect God? Are we moral landmarks in a culture devoid of moral landmarks? Because to quote Benjamin Franklin “Well done, is better than well said.”
Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. The Inukshuk Was Used to Point the Way Another purpose of the Inukshuk fit with the first, “When you come to the inukshuk made of eight stones you must follow in the direction of the short arm until you come to the inukshuk made of four flat stones.”
And so we are told that the Inuit people relied on inuksuit to provide direction in their travels. They followed in the steps of those who had gone before. I read somewhere “To Know the Road ahead ask those coming back.” Well when it comes to eternity we can’t ask those coming back but we have been given direction in God’s word. Part of our responsibility as Christians is to point people to heaven, if we truly believe that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned then we should be at least somewhat passionate in telling people how to get to one and avoid the other.
“Follow the short arm until you come to the inukshuk made of four flat stones.” Jesus gave us direction in John 14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. Jesus didn’t say he was one way he said he was the only way, he didn’t say that there were many paths to God he said he was the only path to God, and if we believe that then we have a responsibility to tell people, that is part of why we were left behind. The last instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples are spelled out in Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
He was telling them directly and us indirectly to point the way. Because if the church and the people who make it up are not pointing the way to heaven we are not fulfilling the instructions given to us by Christ.
Seriously, if there is no afterlife than the church is irrelevant, but if there is an afterlife and we aren’t telling people how they can get there then the church is irresponsible. It was D. T. Niles who said “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” If we know the way to God than don’t we have a responsibility to point others in that direction?
One source told me that when a inukshuk has a hole, that if you looked through that hole you would be able to see the next one. Which immediately reminded me of the old story of the mother and son who were sitting in church one day and the little boy was gazing in wonder at all the stained glass windows, and finally he asked his mother “Who are all those people?” to which his mother replied “Those are the saints.” As he continued to look at the windows his mother sensed a teaching moment and asked him “Do you know what saints are?” and the little boy said “Yep, they are people the light shines through.”
Good answer, is the light shining through you? When people look through your life can they see the Kingdom of Heaven?
So an Inukshuk is a land mark and it points the way, but there is still more to it, Hebrews 3:13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. The Inukshuk Was Used to Warn of Danger Perhaps at that particular point the ice wasn’t safe or maybe it was a place that polar bears frequented.
Years ago before you could be annoyed with a hundred bogus warnings a day in your email inbox warnings about dangers had to be conveyed in other means. There has been a story has been told for years in our family and I have no idea if it’s true or not but it’s a great story, it seems that my father’s great grandfather was fishing in the Bay of Fundy when he came across a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe far from land in his canoe. Wanting to be helpful my great-great-grandfather offered the man a lift to the main land and so other man asked his name, when he heard the name he said, and again I cannot guarantee this is true but it is a great story, “no, Guptill steal canoe.” I don’t know if that gentlemen had personal experience with canoe thieves or if he had been warned by others.
And inside of all of us there seems to be an inclination to warn others. We might not have unsafe ice and polar bears today and may not build an inukshuk but we do it through misguided emails, flashing your lights after going by a speed trap, or simply telling others about a craftsman who has done shoddy work.
Part of why Jesus left the church here has been to tell people the good news but there is also the other side and that is to warn people of danger. In a real way there is the danger of judgment, if we believe in the reality of hell, the reality of an eternal separation from God and from all that is good and all that is lovely then we need to warn people. That is the reason Cornerstone is here, to help depopulate hell.
But there is also a need for the church to warn people about the consequences of sin. I’ve mentioned before that people look at the rules set down in the bible and that have been preached by the church and think that God is simply a spoil sport, out to make sure we don’t have fun. But the reality is that God has put them in place for our benefit. To warn us away from actions that could harm us, physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Sometimes the problem is that we’ve added to the list with more lists and more warnings until it is hard to take serious the ones that are really dangerous.
Bjorn Bayley is the president of Ikea American and he said “In the US we find the label requirements are crazy. It is almost as if we had to label a bookcase with the warning ‘do not eat this bookcase — it can be harmful to your health’.” And for years that was the side the church swung to, don’t do this, don’t do that, this is wrong and so is this and don’t forget about that. And we warned people about dancing and playing cards and going to the movies, not that there wasn’t validity in some of those warnings, but in all of that the warning about things that were peripheral it got to the place that people no longer listened to the church about the things that were important. And we became like the little boy who cried wolf.
And it has made our job harder, but we are still required to do it because those warnings are important, both for the here and now and for the there and then.
And finally two quick thoughts to end on. We read in Romans 12:4-5 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. Inuksuit are All Different But They are All The Same. If you google Inukshuk and look at the images you notice that while they are similar they are not identical. An inukshuk can be small or large, a single rock, several rocks balanced on each other, round boulders or flat.
They were each created unique by their creator. And we need to be reminded that within the church we are all called to follow Christ and be Christ like but we are still individuals. And we are all wonderful, beautiful creations of a loving and caring God. And if you ever find yourself in a church that dictates that everyone has to think the same, and dress the same, and worship the same and there is no room for individuality then, really it’s probably not a church you should be in.
And finally in Psalm 105:15 “Do not touch my chosen people, and do not hurt my prophets.”
Inuit Tradition Forbids The Destruction Of Inuksuit. As a church we cannot dictate how we will be treated by the world but we can be very careful about how we treat one another.
So be mindful of how you treat other believers, be careful you don’t hurt them and that you don’t hurt their reputations. We are family and families need to care for one another and protect one another. Does that mean we ignore people’s sinful behaviour? Not at all, when someone falls you don’t pretend they didn’t fall you help them back up and deal with the consequences of their fall.
And just as important be careful of your own inukshuk, that is be careful in how you behave that you don’t destroy your own reputation and in so doing the reputation of your saviour. Because sometimes we are our own worst enemies.