Nov 11, 2001 by Scott Jensen
In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This site, on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington D.C., became the focal point of reverence for America’s veterans.
Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor. These memorial gestures all took place on November 11, giving universal recognition to the celebrated ending of World War I fighting at 11 a.m., November 11, 1918. The day became known as “Armistice Day”.
Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional resolution. It became a national holiday 12 years later by similar Congressional action. If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was “the War to end all Wars,” November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years after the holiday was proclaimed, war broke out in Europe.
Years later, realizing that peace was equally preserved by veterans of WW II and Korea, Congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day.
On Memorial Day 1958, two more unidentified American soldiers were brought from overseas and interred in the plaza beside the unknown soldier of World War I. One was killed in World War II, the other in the Korean War. In 1984, an unknown serviceman from Viet Nam was placed alongside the others. To honor these men, symbolic of all Americans who gave their lives in all wars, an Army Honor Guard keeps vigil, day and night.
As we remember those who have died protecting our freedoms, our message today will have a Veterans’ Day theme. At the same time, we will explore what it means to be a member of the army of God – soldiers of the cross.
The freedoms we enjoy today, including the freedom to move from place to place as we wish, the freedom to elect our governing officials and the freedom we have to gather here in this place to worship – these freedoms and more were bought with a price. We need only look at the recent events in the world, to be reminded of the enormity of that price.
Every conflict we’ve ever been involved in has had its share of casualties, of sons or daughters lost, as well as sons or daughters returning home safely, sometimes to a hero’s welcome. 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 by gallantry at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life.
Two such individuals are George D. Libby and Douglas Albert Munro.
According to the official report, on July 20, 1950, near Taejon, Korea, while breaking through an enemy encirclement, the vehicle in which Sgt. Libby was riding approached an enemy roadblock and encountered devastating fire which disabled the truck, killing or wounding all the passengers except Sgt. Libby. Taking cover in a ditch, he engaged the enemy and despite the heavy fire crossed the road twice to administer aid to his wounded comrades. He then hailed a passing artillery tractor and helped the wounded aboard. The enemy directed intense small-arms fire at the driver, and Sgt. Libby, realizing that no one else could operate the vehicle, placed himself between the driver and the enemy thereby shielding him while he returned the fire. During this action he received several wounds in the arms and body. Continuing through the town the tractor made frequent stops and Sgt. Libby helped more wounded aboard. Refusing first aid, he continued to shield the driver and return the fire of the enemy when another roadblock was encountered. Sgt. Libby received additional wounds but held his position until he lost consciousness. Sgt. Libby’s sustained, heroic actions enabled his comrades to reach friendly lines.
The Medal of Honor was awarded to Petty Officer Munro as a result of his actions on September 27, 1942. Again, according to the official report, 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 machineguns 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 2 small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous 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.
There are many, many more such stories, but the picture is clear. These men, and those like them, put their lives in extreme danger for their fellow soldiers, and, in some cases gave their lives, in order 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 have no 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 a greater zeal than ever before.
In a small, Middle Eastern country nearly 2,000 years ago, that’s exactly 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 wise men, 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 of heroes of our present day, he, too, gave of Himself. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 2: “Christ Jesus—Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
To begin with, like the soldiers I described, and others like them, Jesus put himself in harms way, he endured pain and suffering for the benefit of others. In Isaiah 53 we read: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon 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 her shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” And as Matthew records in his gospel, where 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.”
And, 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, as Paul continues in that Philippians passage: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” Or as Paul describes for us in Romans chapter 5: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man 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 simply 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 or George Libby, 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 1 Peter 3:15 we read: But in your hearts set apart 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 self-controlled and alert. 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 your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
And the clearest, most dynamic example of how Christ’s life and death—and resurrection—inspired His people is the fact that we are gathered here today to sing hymns, hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, offer up our prayers of praise and petition, and encourage one another in our faith.
In spite of the wide assortment of issues that have created problems, the fact remains that America still has the most well-equipped and armed soldiers 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 we recall the events of 2 months ago where we discovered our weaknesses at home. 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.
But as Christians, we can be assured that on the spiritual front, it’s a different story. Paul reminds us in 2 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, chapter 6, 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 own watch. He could not keep his eyes off it. All the others in the foxhole noticed this, and began 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 from this place on this Veterans Day weekend, let me encourage you to remember those who have served and continue to serve our country by seeking out opportunities to say two simple words: “Thank you.” Thank them for their commitment to their country and its freedoms. 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.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.