Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 21st chapter of Luke, beginning with the 5th verse.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. (Luke 21:5-19)
It’s 3 am on a cold winter day. Patchy snow covers the landscape as loudspeakers overhead blare telling everyone to get to their places. Surrounded by sandbags, concrete barriers, and roughly 10,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, Bagram Air Base has flipped a switch and turned from a deployed city in sleep, to a sea of green and tan military awaiting further direction. Some just woken from a few moments of rest, others leaving their duties to attend to more pressing concerns, all focused on the events that are about to unfold—down the 3-mile main road of this Afghanistan base, standing shoulder to shoulder men and women in arms, waiting to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. Soon, the lights of emergency vehicles can be seen slowly making their way up the boulevard. Escorts, leading a flatbed trailer to an awaiting C-17 cargo plane on it’s way back to the United States. On the trailer are three caskets draped in U.S. Flags, and as the convoy approaches the lines of service members lining the streets, each pays their respects by saluting sharply the men and women who have paid the ultimate price. Once the trailer reaches the plane, the formation is dismissed. Thousands of service members in the middle of a war zone, paying homage and respect the best way they know how. Similar ceremonies are played out in other parts of the world. All to show the love and respect for the sacrifices and dedicated duty our military servicemen and women show daily. Memorial Day is about remembering these fallen heroes and honoring their sacrifices on our behalf.
Every conflict we’ve ever been involved in has had its share of casualties of both sons and daughters lost, often due to the unusual bravery they displayed during combat. Every once in a while, during those conflicts, something happens, a soldier does something, which is so out-of-the-ordinary that Congress acknowledges that person’s efforts by awarding them the Medal of Honor. This award is presented to someone who distinguishes himself gallantry at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. The deed performed must have been one of self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life. More often than not, this individual sacrifice themselves for the greater good of others.
One such individual was Douglas Albert Munro. The Medal of Honor was awarded to Petty Officer Munro as a result of his actions on September 27, 1942. Munro, in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns on the island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led 5 of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the dangerous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, 2 of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Another such example is the sacrifice made by Pat Tillman. Pat Tillman was a professional football player with the Arizona Cardinals who chose to leave that life of luxury behind him and join the U.S. Army. Pat eventually joined the special forces and found his way into battle in the Afghanistan countryside. Pat also paid the ultimate price.
There are many, many more such stories, but the picture is clear. Many men and women have put their lives in extreme danger for their comrades in arms, and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that the others might live. It seems in every war, in every battle, almost without exception, such heroic actions occur, sometimes from individuals you would least expect. I do not doubt that each time, in the days and weeks that followed, the recipients of such unselfishness were inspired to fight for their wounded or fallen comrades, perhaps with greater zeal than ever before.
In a small, Middle Eastern country nearly 2,000 years ago, that’s precisely what happened. A closer look at this hero reveals some strong similarities to the heroes I just described, but also some significant differences.
His name was Jesus, son of Joseph, the carpenter. Raised in Nazareth, the scriptures give us little or nothing to go on about his early life, other than the familiar Christmas story, the visit of the magi, and the time when he stayed behind at the temple and his parents came to find him. After that, there is a significant jump ahead in time to his adult life and his ministry among both His people the Jews, and many Gentiles as well.
But really—who would have expected such heroic action from this man. The prophet Isaiah tells us there was nothing about him physically, which would have hinted at the possibility of any heroics, not like we would like to picture our heroes. Like so many heroes of our present day, he, too, gave of Himself.
To begin with, Jesus put himself in harm’s way, and he endured pain and suffering for the benefit of others. In Isaiah 53, this was foretold far in advance. We read: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
And He did it willingly, as Isaiah continues: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Matthew records in his gospel, not once, but twice, Jesus responded to the pain and suffering He was about to endure with the words, “Not my will, Father, but Yours be done.”
Just as in the case of Petty Officer Munro, Jesus willingly endured this pain and suffering on behalf of His people to the point of death. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” and in Romans chapter 5: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
It’s at this point, however, where our comparison falls short. The men and women of the military put their lives in danger for the sake of their fellow soldiers against other human beings. The battle Christ waged was against something far more powerful and devastating. The ultimate victory was not merely the taking of some important hilltop or body of water or even one country over another, but one which secured our very souls—the victory over the power of the devil and of sin in our lives, and ultimately, the victory over death.
In that victory, the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, like Douglas Munro, inspired those who witnessed it or heard about it. In his first letter, Peter, one of Jesus’ “lieutenants,” if you will, encouraged his readers with the lessons he learned from his commanding officer. From 1st Peter, we read: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Later in the letter, Peter’s words of caution and encouragement speak to us all when he says: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
Despite the wide assortment of issues that have created problems, the fact remains that America still has the best well-equipped and trained military in the history of the world. The weaponry we have, combined with the technology to use it, makes us seem quite invincible—or so we feel—until another attack comes to our homeland once again. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that in a world of terrorist attacks, where individuals do not hesitate to give their lives for their particular cause or belief, we will never be totally protected and invulnerable.
In today’s reading, Jesus explains that “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.” These events are happening today, and will more than likely continue to occur in the future. But the Psalmist seems to answer back to this gloom and doom with verse 34:4, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” Paul also answers in 2nd Timothy, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.”
But, Christians fight a different type of war beyond the physical act of combat. Paul reminds us in 2nd Corinthians, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul paints an even more specific and graphic picture when he describes the armor of God:
The Belt of Truth,
the Breastplate of Righteousness;
our feet are fitted with the Gospel of peace;
we carry the shield of faith;
we have the helmet of salvation,
and the sword of the Spirit.
That armor, combined with a life of steady and regular prayer, will indeed protect us from the temptations that come our way, and ultimately preserve us for a life of eternal joy in heaven one day.
The story is told of one soldier who lived with that confidence even as he found himself in the heat of battle. During the Korean War, one man was hurt badly on the battlefield of Heartbreak Ridge. His buddies were in a foxhole about 50 yards away when the man was hit by sniper fire in an ambush. As the fire continued, the other men discussed amongst themselves what to do. But since the sniper fire was too intense, to crawl out and bring back their wounded buddy would mean almost certain death.
For a while, no one would move. The men in the foxhole could hear their wounded friend yelling for help.
Then one of the men in the foxhole began to look intensely at his watch. He could not keep his eyes off it. All the others in the foxhole noticed this and started to ask questions. But the soldier with the watch remained silent.
All of a sudden, the man with the watch jumped out of the foxhole and crawled over to his wounded buddy. He then grabbed him by the nape of the collar, and very slowly made his way back to the foxhole, all the while sniper fire whizzing around. Both amazingly made it back to the foxhole without additional injury.
After the sniper fire had died down, the man who saved his buddy was asked why he waited so long to crawl after his wounded friend. To which he responded: “My mom said every day at the exact same time she would be praying for me. And according to my watch, I left the foxhole exactly when she started praying.”
We may not always receive answers to prayer in such dramatic fashion, and sometimes, even though our prayers may also involve physical protection or even the sparing of life, they may seem to go unanswered. But we have God’s promise that the ultimate victory in this world—the one which guarantees us eternity with Him—is ours, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we go forth, let me encourage you to remember those who have served and made the sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy today. At the same time, give thanks to God, also, for Jesus Christ and HIS willingness to serve, His commitment to our spiritual freedom, and our eternal salvation. And then, be confident in your daily “faith battles,” knowing that you are equipped by God to be that faithful warrior that makes a difference in the world around you.
The need for a military force will more than likely never disappear. We will need a protectorate from the forces around the globe to guarantee the rights and privileges we can express today. It is through our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that we have the luxury of unprecedented freedoms on Earth. But, only Christ can grant the freedom from sin that His sacrifice has granted us.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, On this day of remembrance for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy every day, we consider how they have followed in the footsteps of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Please hold our servicemen and women in your strong arms. Cover them with your sheltering grace and your presence as they stand in the gap for our protection.
We also remember the families of our troops. We ask for your unique blessings to fill their homes, and we pray for your peace, provision, hope, and strength to fill their lives.
May the members of our armed forces be supplied with the courage to face each day and may they trust in the Lord's mighty power to accomplish each task. Let our military brothers and sisters feel our love and support.
Sovereign God and Lord of all nations, may we take time to reflect on the great blessings we share as a nation and as a people. Our blessings have come at a high cost to others. May we remember these sacrifices always with deep gratitude.
We ask that you would grant wisdom to the leaders of our armed forces. Guide and direct them in their decisions. May they be led by your will and your heart as they pursue our nation's freedom. We continue to pray for peace in our world. Lord, let your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Scott Jensen.
Memorial Day is celebrated to recognize the sacrifices made by our military servicemen. Jesus made a similar sacrifice.