Greater Love Hath No Man…

One hundred four years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month or 1918, the warring nations of Europe and the World fell silent as an Armistice was signed ending the “Great War” (later known as World War I). The War had been devastating in its scope and violence. Millions of people lost their lives; millions more were wounded and permanently scarred by the fighting. Entire cities had been leveled; farms and villages had been ravaged, and economies would take decades to recover.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. It was a failure in almost every regard. Bitterness built up in the decades between 1918 and 1938, spilling into another devastating war. All the noble efforts to promote peace and unity broke down. All those lives sacrificed in the hope of bringing lasting peace were lost, seemingly in vain. And for the soldier who survived, there was continued hardship, struggle, and often, life-long pain and suffering.

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Today, we honor those who have risked their lives to serve their county/countries. Soldiers, medics, chaplains, and innocent civilians who risk their lives do so for a reason. Often, we lose sight of the reasons after so many years, but the primary reason for most soldiers is the protection of loved ones back home and fellow soldiers in the fight. Many of us live lives of comfort and safety, little knowing the dangers of war, famine, and extreme hardship. But soldiers know a life of privation, courage in the face of fear, and the searing loss of violent death. And most of them know this life as a voluntary sacrifice. They willingly lay down their lives, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to save, protect, and improve the lives of others. It is fitting and right to honor such commitment and sacrifice.

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Jesus, when speaking to His disciples at the Last Supper, said,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14 ESV) After all these years, many of us look at these verses as a moral principle, but not as a commandment. Jesus did not say, “I would really like it if you would love each other sacrificially,” or “I would prefer if you treated each other the way I treated you.” He gave it as a command that we love as Jesus loved.

So that begs the question, “How did Jesus love His disciples?” Ultimately, He DID lay down His life, paying for their sins (and ours) through His death on the cross. There has never been a greater sacrifice, not on the battlefield, not in public service, nowhere in Heaven or on Earth. But Jesus also gave us several examples of “sacrifice” in His life with the disciples. He served. He forgave. He loved. He nurtured and taught. He listened.

It used to be popular to compare Christians to soldiers– to promote service, sacrifice, and discipline in the Christian walk. This has largely fallen out of fashion, as society has diminished the role of the soldier, and the respect it used to give them. But the Apostle Paul used the comparison often, even listing the Christian’s “armor” in Ephesians 6:10-18. We should put on the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Of course, we are not commanded to kill, main, or promote warfare and destruction. But we ARE called to be prepared to die for– and LIVE for– the cause of Christ. We are to train, prepare, and stand firm in the Faith. More that that, we are commanded to serve– even sacrificially– our brothers and sisters; we are to be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past, let us renew our commitment to love like Jesus, to serve like soldiers, and to stand firm in our commitment to the One who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. And, especially in a world that does not know peace, let us pray for those who are touched by war, famine, hardship, violence, and loss. Let us work to bring peace, forgiveness, and practical help to those around us who suffer.

A Mighty Fortress

  1. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
    Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
    For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
    His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
    On earth is not his equal.
  2. Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
    Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
    Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
    Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
    And He must win the battle.
  3. And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
    We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
    The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
    His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
    One little word shall fell him.
  4. That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
    The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
    Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
    The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
    His kingdom is forever.

I love old hymns– I love music in general, but there is something powerful and “grounding” about old hymns and ancient praises that stick with us through thick and thin.

Martin Luther, author of “A Mighty Fortress”gray concrete statue of man holding book beside brown building

This ancient (nearly 500 years old!) hymn has been attacked often.  I saw an article recently that said it should be kicked out of hymnals and never sung.  The author’s reasons:  It had “old” words and it was gloomy and aggressive in its tone.   True, it has words like “abideth”, “grim”, “kindred”, “battle”, and “doom”.  (Although the song has been “rewritten”– not only translated into English, but “modernized” to take out the “old-fashined words”–it’s not like you have to put up with the archaic words you don’t like or understand.) And it isn’t an upbeat anthem about dancing and lifting our hands in celebration.  It’s not about daisies and unicorns and good vibes.  It was written in a time when worship wasn’t about luxurious auditoriums and customized T-shirts with your church’s logo.  Worship wasn’t cool–it was deadly serious.

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Good hymns are not just there to help us celebrate the good times; they are there to remind us to keep going during the struggles and bad times that are sure to come in life.  It doesn’t help that many times the hymn gets shortened..if you only read or sing the first and last verses, it can be confusing.

In its entirety, however, the hymn reminds us of a very real spiritual battle being waged for our souls, and the victory that is already ours through Jesus (“that little word!”).  Jesus is not just a “crutch” for weak sinners.  He is a mighty fortress for battle-scarred and wounded warriors.  He is a refuge in the middle of a field of war between good and evil, and the garrison for the army of Goodness.  He is the battlefield hospital, providing healing; he is the supply station, offering armor and weapons of war.

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The outcome of war is already decided– the victory is sure–but the battles are still raging.  Yesterday, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I– the “war to end all wars.”  History has left us with few illusions about lasting peace in this world.  That doesn’t mean that we should not work to pursue peace in our time.  But it does mean that our real peace comes from seeking shelter within the “never failing” bulwark that is Christ Jesus, and drawing power from Him to go back out and fight the battle before us.

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