(A sermon based on Matthew 20:20-28 for November 9, 2008)
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918 the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I went into effect. The United States began to observe Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. In that year President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that included the following words.
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…
In 1954 the name of Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in order to emphasize the contributions of all veterans of the United States Armed Forces. In the first Veterans Day proclamation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,
On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.
My father was a WWII veteran. So was my father-in-law. Debra had three brothers who served simultaneously in Vietnam in three different branches of the military. My cousin Charles, a Green Beret, was severely injured at Khe Sanh. My father was the radio operator on a Navy transport plane in the Pacific theater; his brother Jack was in the Army. My uncle Johnny, who was still a young boy during WWII, remembers going into the kitchen one day and finding their mother breaking down in tears because of her anxiety over her sons. All of our families have stories about the service of our relatives; many of us have stories of our own.
The bottom line is that we observe Veterans Day to honor those who have served in our Armed Forces. Why did they serve? Many reasons could be given, but surely one of the main reasons is that they served to win and to protect our freedom. For that we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. We owe them every effort to promote and work for the highest levels of peace and justice that we can attain.
Service for our veterans means sacrifice. Many served to the point of giving their lives. The sacrifice of others was time away from family, for some it was wounds received in the body or in the mind, for others it was putting considerable skills to work in service to our nation when they could have made much more money using them in other fields of endeavor. They sacrificed for the sake of our freedom and we honor them for their sacrifice. Their service to our nation was and is extreme. Their sacrifice was extensive and some gave all they had to give. Their service and sacrifice should inspire all of us.
We who are Christians are inspired to serve and to sacrifice by an even greater source. We are inspired by the Savior who said of himself that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ, who was the very Son of God, who was God incarnate, who left the glories of heaven to come to this earth in obedience to his Father, came, by his own testimony, to give his life. Over the years many great people have given their lives in defense of a noble cause. But no sacrifice has ever been made that approaches the magnitude of this one: the Son of God gave up his place in heaven and then gave up his very life as a willing sacrifice. Sometimes we say that someone who dies in defense of his nation or in defense of a cause made the ultimate sacrifice. That’s understandable. But here is the one true ultimate sacrifice: the Son of God gave his life.
What makes his sacrifice all the more remarkable is that Jesus sacrificed his life for human beings. Let’s make it more particular: he sacrificed his life for me; he sacrificed his life for you. As Paul so powerfully put it,
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Nobody deserved it. I do not deserve it. You do not deserve it. We are sinners. What we deserve is to give our lives for our sins. What we receive is the grace of God in which Christ died in our place to pay that price for us.
In the film Saving Private Ryan, a squad of soldiers is sent to find and retrieve Private Ryan, all of whose brothers have already been killed in the fighting in World War II. Many members of the squad are killed in the quest. They find him, though, and as the mortally wounded captain in charge of the group lies dying, he says to Private Ryan, “Be worth it.” Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe no one’s life is worth the sacrifice of so many other lives. We certainly are not worth the death of Jesus Christ, not based on merit. What makes us worth it is the love and grace of God. It’s unbelievable. It’s unfathomable. But it’s real and it’s true.
At the end of the film, we see Private Ryan, now advanced in years, visiting France along with his family. He finds the grave of the captain who led the squad to find him. Overcome, he nearly collapses. As his family gathers around him to hold him up, he says to wife, with desperation in his voice, “Tell me I’ve been a good man!” He wanted to know that he had lived a life worthy of the great sacrifice that had been made for him.
How do we live a life worthy of the great sacrifice that has been made for us? We live such a life when we live lives of service and sacrifice. That’s the kind of life that Jesus lived. We as his disciples are called to live the same kind of life. Jesus had to correct the thinking of James and John (and their mother) on this matter. Christian discipleship is not about power and authority and prestige. Christian discipleship is about serving others. It is about giving yourself up for others. Jesus, who is the greatest of all, rendered the greatest service of all and made the greatest sacrifice of all. We who are his are called, through the grace of God and through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, to serve and to sacrifice, too.
What will such a life look like? Well, that will depend on opportunity, on circumstances, and on our willingness to embrace the call. John Temple tells a story that might help us imagine the possibilities.
Bill became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is Pristine Baptist Church…very orderly and with well-dressed families…. The church dreams of developing a ministry to the students, but they aren’t sure how to go about it. Enter Bill. No shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.
The service has already started, so Bill walks down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed, and he can’t find a seat. This awkward, uncomfortable moment takes over the service, but no one says anything. Bill realizes there are no seats, so he just squats down right on the carpet….
….Suddenly an elderly man with silver-gray hair and wearing a three-piece suit slowly makes his way toward Bill. He’s a deacon…. Most eyes are focused on this deacon. What will he say to right this ship? He walks toward the young man. Most members of Pristine Baptist are thinking, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid sitting on the floor?”
The church is utterly silent, except for the clicking of the deacon’s cane. All eyes are focused on him. The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won’t feel alone. [John Temple, Unleashing the Power of Deacon-Led Ministry Teams (Nashville: LifeWay, 2004), pp. 17-18.]
No, I don’t know exactly what your life of service and sacrifice will look like if you live a life worthy of what Jesus has done for you. But I do know that it will look something like that.