WORDS FROM THE PASTOR: Onward, Christian Soldiers
November 11 is a very special day.
First of all, it’s Veterans Day. Parades in many communities on November 11 will honor the service of those who have defended our nation in her military. The date is anchored in a historical event: in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns of World War I fell silent. For many years, the event was kept as Armistice Day–then its scope was broadened to embrace all veterans.
However, there is a second thing that makes Nov. 11 special. That date is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, a great fourth century Christian. (Blessed Martin Luther was baptized on that day in 1483–that’s why he ended up with the name Martin!) By a remarkable coincidence, Martin of Tours was...a soldier! There’s a great story about Martin helping a beggar. It was winter, and the beggar had no coat. Unsheathing his sword, Martin cut his own military cloak in half and gave a piece to the beggar. That night, in a dream, the Lord Jesus appeared to Martin–and Jesus was wearing the half-cloak that Martin had given the beggar! Martin then realized the truth of Christ’s words: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brothers that you do to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
So it’s an amazing coincidence that a great Christian who was also a soldier is celebrated on the same day that our country honors those who have served in her military! It’s as if God is trying to tell us something...
He is, I think, reminding us of one of the great pictures of the Christian life that the Bible gives us–that being a Christian is like being a soldier. This image of the Christian as soldier appears in numerous places in the New Testament. It also has inspired some of our best-loved hymns, like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Lift High the Cross” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.
What are some ways in which Christians are like soldiers? Here are a few:
Christians are involved in a war. We have enemies who seek to destroy us. “Be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). Satan is gunning for us, to pull us away from God. He wants us to give up on God and slide into despair. There’s an irony to being a Christian. We have wondrous peace–the peace of sins forgiven, the peace of belong to God forever. Yet in the midst of that quiet serenity, there is also violent combat–our struggle with Satan. Leon Trotsky once said to a friend, “If you want to live a quiet life, you picked the wrong century to be born in.” And we could apply that to our faith–belonging to God means that our lives are not going to be “quiet”. There’s going to be struggle.
Christians are part of an army. We are not involved in this struggle alone. We are involved in it with other Christians. Studies after World War II indicated that the friendships soldiers forged with each other were key in motivating them to fight. An army of “buddies” was a formidable fighting machine. In our Christian lives, we have buddies–the folks we rub elbows with in God’s holy church. He gives us one another so that we can encourage and uplift one another.
Christians are well-equipped by God for the battle. One of the greatest passages depicting the Christian as a soldier is in Ephesians 6:14-18. In it, Paul exhorts us to “stand in the evil day”, and tells us that God gives us numerous weapons to enable us to stand: the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit. God does not send us into battle unprotected and unequipped. These weapons work marvelously against the power of evil.
There’s a memorable scene in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” in which Afghan guerillas first use the weapons the U.S. gave them to fight the Soviets. A band of guerillas fires an anti-aircraft missile at a Soviet helicopter. And the missile drifts far, far wide of its target. The guerillas are bitterly disappointed that the American weapon had failed them. But then suddenly...the missile changes course, streaks toward the Soviet chopper, and evaporates it out of the sky. The guerillas cheer the fact that the weapon actually worked! The weapons God gives us have the same effect. They work. Our faith and the power of the Spirit enable us to stand against the devil and not surrender our faith. The reason they work is because they unite us to Christ and His cross...and on the cross, Jesus triumphed over sin, death and the Devil. God gives us victory by uniting us to Christ’s victory!
I mentioned earlier that some of our best-loved hymns express this theme of the Christian as being like a soldier. Unfortunately, many churches have been seized with a 1960s-style disdain for the military, and some of these hymns have actually been dropped. A recent Lutheran hymnal, for instance, omits “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus”, and “The Son of God Goes Forth to War.” (Apparently these songs were jettisoned to make room for soul-stirring fare like “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth”). This particular hymnal also changes “Lift High the Cross” from “all newborn soldiers of the crucified” to “all newborn servants”. (To their credit, they didn’t mess with the military imagery in “A Mighty Fortress”.) The purging of military imagery afflicts many modern hymnals–I’ve actually seen “Onward Christian Soldiers” changed to “Onward Christian People”. It’s rather sad when churches become ashamed of one of the key Biblical images of what being a Christian is like.
But Nov. 11, when we remember St. Martin the soldier and all those who have served our country, is a great day to reaffirm this powerful truth: we are like soldiers for God. As an old Sunday school song declares, “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot in the artillery, I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!”
God loves you and so do I!