Sunday, November 11, 2018

When War is Done: Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 for Veterans Day

As the bullet pierced through his helmet, passed through his pack, and sank into the flesh of his back, Sgt. Myers knew it was not his day. This was hardly what he'd expected just two and a half months earlier when he'd left Camp Meade and set sail on the Agamemnon from Hoboken to France. Sgt. Myers served under Capt. Loane in Company L of the 316th Infantry Regiment. And that first month had been such a happy one. Everyone felt an optimistic hope. They enjoyed adventures, suffered no hardships, thought they'd be home so soon. Even into mid-September, they felt themselves in relative comfort – for what that was worth.

But then came the first real trial by fire. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And Sgt. Myers had his part to play. On the second day of battle, as noon neared, another regiment in his division managed to capture Montfaucon, a French commune, from the dreaded German army. That night, Sgt. Myers slept in the mud. He'd scarcely touched his rations. They each carried a two-day supply – a pound of corned beef and three boxes of hard biscuits – but in battle, who thinks to eat? The landscape all around him was ruined by war – trees become dead logs, towns become piles of stones, holes ripped into the earth, shreds of barbed wire everywhere.

Frightfully early the next morning, the 316th Infantry Regiment received their orders: they were to relieve the 313th at Montfaucon and, at seven hundred hours, attack southeast toward the Bois de Beuges, a dense forest, to press back the German lines. The 313th needed relief, alright; they'd had a rough day and rough night. One of their captains called those days “a lifetime in hell.” And the 316th and Sgt. Myers were about to get a taste of what that was like. Mere moments after beginning their advance from Montfaucon, they fell under intense artillery fire. One captain described how “big shells arrived with monstrous roars and crashes that tore holes in the earth as big as a house.” They didn't come as a surprise. The telltale sound rumbled through the air, raising the suspense of where it would land. And they were everywhere, dropping all around, sending shrapnel hurtling every which way. Sgt. Myers, as he advanced, was lacerated by shrapnel in his shoulder and right thigh – but he kept going. He ignored, best he could, the duller explosions that released puffs of mustard gas.

Soon, though, they came within range of the German machine guns, which spewed a prolific rain of bullets at them, the metal whizzing and whistling through the air. The advance was no longer an orderly affair: they crept onward, pressing, falling back, literally crawling through the dirt at times. The devastation was immense. Capt. Loane was hurt; many officers were wounded or killed. One captain in a nearby company watched in horror as one of his soldiers crawled to him with a macabre grin on his face. The soldier said the perplexing words, “I've lost a lamp,” before opening his right hand to reveal the secret in his palm: his own right eyeball, ripped out by a bullet. But Sgt. Myers wasn't there. The companies had gotten woefully separated in the general confusion, and the best efforts of runners to re-establish contact were mostly in vain. For his part, he continued his crawl through the dirt, past his comrades' corpses and the injured moaning in agony for first aid. He kept crawling toward the Bois de Beuge, the dense underbrush where the German gunners were positioned. He was hardly defenseless – he sporadically fired his own weapon, and thought he laid a few German soldiers low – but the closer he got, the fiercer the ghastliness of battle.

And finally, a German gunner swept his way. A bullet from the machine gun pierced the back of his helmet, deflected through his pack, and hit his back; it would surely have gone deeper if the intervening supplies hadn't slowed it. That was the injury Sgt. Myers felt, though a later medical exam would show his back pockmarked with holes. But that was the wound that convinced him he was done. He beat a hasty retreat back to a dressing station, got himself bandaged, and was taken by ambulance to a field hospital. After a few days of treatment there, he was loaded onto a French train where they hung his stretcher from a framework of pipes and taken over two hundred miles of rough riding to Base Hospital 48 at Mars-sur-Allier, safely away from the front lines. He was shot September 28; it was early October when he arrived at the base hospital. From both places, he wrote letters home. In both places, he wrestled with his “fierce grudge against those Germans.” And in both places, I'd bet, he did his share of praying.

Home for Sgt. Myers, you see, wasn't so far from here. Ralph Myers, just 22 when he enlisted and 23 when the bullet hit his back, had been a high-school math teacher in York County, but a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College. More than that, Ralph grew up on Main Street in Terre Hill. His dad William made cigars while his mom Lydia held fast the home, raising Ralph and his older sisters Clara and Mamie.

All three kids were raised in church – at our EC church in Terre Hill, in fact. Of course, it wasn't called 'EC' then yet; it was 'UE,' United Evangelical, since the year before Ralph was born. William Myers and his brother-in-law John Tish, Ralph's uncle, were deeply involved there. William spent much of his son's childhood as a steward, and John was again a trustee when Ralph shipped out. Clara and Mamie had both been baptized and joined as teenagers, but Ralph held back. It wasn't until 1915, already a college student, that Ralph took the step to give his life over to Jesus. Midway between Easter and Pentecost, Pastor William Rehrer admitted him and baptized him. A year later, he finished college and got hired as a teacher, like his sisters before him; a year after that, he registered for the draft. And it didn't take him long to be called to action. Later, when Ralph was in the field hospital, he wrote home to one of his sisters, “I do not enjoy the army and would be tickled to death to get out today, but I would not have missed it for the world. I have learned a lot and seen a lot too – some things I do not care to see again.”

But the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and its horrors didn't stop when Sgt. Ralph S. Myers was shot and crawled off the battlefield. It lasted for nearly two more weeks, becoming the deadliest battle in American history, which one British major-general nicknamed 'Armageddon.' While Sgt. Myers recuperated in an army hospital in France, his friends and family and neighbors back home were nearly sequestered by the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Scarcely had it receded when they got the news that Sgt. Myers had seen coming over a month before: a ceasefire, an armistice, had gone into effect. Early in the morning on Monday, November 11 – a hundred years ago this very day – German representatives met a French marshal on a train car in the woods to sign the armistice agreement. It was a little past five AM there – here, about midnight – and would go into effect just under six hours later, to give the news time to spread to all units.

Well, spread the news did. Fighting was done. Shooting was done. Shelling was done. The war, for all intents and purposes, was done. There, in France, it was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when it took effect; here, it was the sixth hour. In New Holland and all the towns and countryside around, some people were already at work, and others not even up yet, when the church bells started ringing to announce the good news. Giving no thought to breakfast, people started pouring out of their homes with joy into every street, waving flags and cheering. The bells rang and clanged, whistles blew, people marched all around the town, too delighted, too relieved, to treat it as any ordinary day. It took 'til nine o'clock for people to get back to work.

That afternoon, thanks to a lot of last-minute planning by local civil leaders, chief marshal Isaac Snader led a parade around the town. The Red Cross was there, a-marchin' through the streets. Folks from New Holland Machine were there, a-marchin' through the streets. The silk mill employees, too, and the schoolkids. Nearly a hundred cars, plenty of floats, hundreds of people – there was even a contingent of Civil War vets a-marchin' through the streets, past all the houses draped in bunting with the stars and stripes waving in the November air. No quiet parade, bands played and the people sang and cheered. The joy in every human heart at peace bubbled over; it was uncontainable. The night ended with a post-supper meeting in Harner's Theatre to hear from local pastors and sing patriotic songs. The next day, many streamed to Lancaster for a parade, but up in East Earl, folks gathered a little parade of their own, as schoolchildren from Cedar Grove marched to the drumbeat, with flags from America and England and France all waving, and sang the national anthem house by house.

What a relief we remember today! Those jubilees of joy, those songs of security, those parades proclaiming peace at last! Can you imagine how they felt? For four years, the entire world, it seemed, had been embroiled in the Great War. America stood back as long as we could, until declaring war in April 1917. We mobilized over four million soldiers from every community in the country – including right around here. The economy of the whole country was redirected for the good of the cause; nearly everything was rationed; folks campaigned for the purchase of Liberty Bonds time and again to finance the fight. The Fourth Liberty Loan was issued the very same day Ralph Myers got shot. And then, to have all the ardors and fears and horrors of war – vanish! Oh, challenging news would still pour across the seas, but for families all around here to suddenly have the hope of seeing their sons again – to resume really living again.

Seven months after the armistice, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Sixteen days later, Ralph Myers boarded the Rotterdam in Brest, France, and set sail for the good ol' USA, where after a stint at Bethlehem Steel, he later returned to teaching and became a principal in western Pennsylvania. I wonder what he felt as he thought back to his service in the Great War. As it was going on, some proclaimed it “the war to end all wars.” Even in our denomination, some voices held out that hope. And no wonder – even many of our pastors sent sons to the front to fight, some to die. But the Great War wasn't really “the war to end all wars.”

Ralph Myers lived long enough to register for the draft in World War II. He lived long enough to see young neighbors go off to fight in the Korean War. And he lived two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. Ralph Myers, a veteran of the Great War that was supposed to end all wars, lived nearly five decades after taking that bullet from the German machine gun – yet, when he died, his nation was again at war. When the parades marched through the streets a century ago today, it meant a war was done. But not war itself. Veterans would continue to be forged in combat. Any veterans here this morning, are veterans because World War I was not a “war to end all wars.”

Over two and a half thousand years earlier, when the ancestors of Ralph Myers and the ancestors of whatever German gunner shot him were probably both among the proto-Germanic tribes pressing southward into the northern European coast from Scandinavia, a prophet in the far-off land of Jerusalem had a vision that one day, no new veterans would be made. Isaiah saw a vision, and in that vision, he heard that the day would come when everyone would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Imagine the parade through our streets when not just one war, but all war is done! Can you imagine it? Never again a soldier sent off to fight. Never again the shells, the bullets, the gas. Never again the bombs and missiles and tanks. Never again the lists of casualties. Never again the bereavement of a war widow, a lost son, lost grandson. Never again the hardness of battle or the fraying of nerves. No Agent Orange, no sarin gas, no PTSD – none of it. No nervous home front, no battle-weary warriors. Only parading and cheering and singing, only welcoming and embracing and rejoicing. When war becomes a distant memory, when all conflict is forgotten, when peace is all and in all, when happiness breaks through in gushing torrents of relief, and every field will give back its blood, and every bullet and bomb repent, and all that's gone wrong will come undone.

Not long after the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was established to secure world peace. It didn't work. After World War II, it was replaced by a new body, the United Nations. Its headquarters is in New York City. Across First Avenue from the United Nations, there's a park, dedicated in 1948 during the construction process; and if you ever visit that park, you'll see a wall. It's called the Isaiah Wall. And chiseled into the stone, do you know what you'll read? “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It's Isaiah 2:4. Eleven years later, the Soviet Union presented a bronze statue for the United Nations Headquarters' North Garden: it's a man beating a sword into a plowshare. In the decades since, we've seen museums dedicated to military hardware repurposed for peace; we've seen presidents like Nixon take their oath of office on Bibles open to Isaiah 2:4; we've heard presidents from Carter to Reagan and beyond appeal to the very same verse. But it still isn't here. What gives? But if you read the rest of what Isaiah says, it's clear what has to happen.

First, the world has to become centered on Jesus Christ. Isaiah starts his prophecy like this: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills” (Isaiah 2:2). In Isaiah's Jerusalem, that mountain was the temple mount, the central site of Jewish worship of the God of the Bible. Other countries had mountains where they worshipped their gods, and even in Israel there were sometimes 'high places' on various hills for people to go worship this idol or that idol. But Isaiah dares imagine a world where the real temple, the real mountain, will loom undeniably higher than every rival – a world where the worship of the true God will be elevated over all. And in the New Testament, we see Jesus presenting himself as the true mountain, the true foundation of God's new temple, which is his body, the church. When war is done, it'll be because Jesus looms higher than every thing. It'll be because Jesus is lifted up – and he was lifted up... on the cross. For “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said (John 12:32).

And just the same, in Isaiah's vision, when “the mountain of the house of the LORD is lifted up, it will draw all nations to itself. Isaiah continues by saying that “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob'” (Isaiah 2:2-3). To get to the whole swords-into-plowshares part, here's what needs to happen: the nations have to be drawn to the mountain, to the temple, to Jesus and his church. Jesus and his church need to be attractive. Jesus promised he would be – and he has been. In being lifted up on the cross, he's been drawing people from every nation to himself, as the nations are discipled through being baptized and taught (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Speaking of teaching, Isaiah says that's why the nations come to the mountain. They say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). The nations go, because they need to be taught. Instead of learning war, they have to learn something else. They have to learn the ways, not of the petty gods of war and blood, of race and clan, of money and leisure and lust, of technology and identity and power, but the ways of the God of peace, the God of good news. And the nations are taught so that they can walk – they learn it in order to live it, to put the good news into practice. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). That's where the gospel got its start, and it's been spreading into the nations since the days of the apostles, and it's still going forth now through us. Our task is to have this gospel word keep going forth, because we go into our community and carry it there. That's how the word moves: we, gathered from the nations, penetrate the nations with the good news message, and we disciple others who hear it, leading them back to the mountain who is Christ.

As that happens, as the nations are discipled, they'll learn to refer their disputes to God and accept his verdicts. That's what Isaiah pictures: “He” – meaning, the LORD“shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4). That's a great fruit of discipleship: learning to let God settle arguments instead of trying to do it on our own. So often, even in the church, we fail to do that. We bicker and we feud, we fuss and we groan, we wrestle each other for power, instead of referring it to God and cultivating a heart that accepts his verdict. If Germany and Britain and France and America had all been discipled well enough to do that in the first place, would there have been a world war? If they'd been able to submit all concerns to God through his worldwide church, and accepted how God speaks to the whole church through his Holy Spirit – if that had happened, would the war have been fought? Would Sgt. Myers have been shot? Would his fellow soldiers have bled and died? Would any war since then need to have been fought?

See, in Isaiah's vision, it's only then – when God decides all these disputes, settles world wars and civil wars and culture wars – then we read that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – tools of destruction, demolition, harm, into tools of creation, cultivation, nurture. Because there won't be a need for swords or spears – no use for machine guns and artillery shells – no function for nuclear missiles or mustard gas. Global disarmament as an act of faith in a God who so visibly judges the world that all can trust him to maintain peace among all nations. And on that day, Isaiah says, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). No more war. No more carnage. No more loss, no more grief, no more death. No more heated anger, suspenseful nerves, fearful unease.

In a day of “wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Mark 13:7), we rightly long for another day – a day, not of war, but of peace. A day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4). Today of all days, we remember the sacrifices of those who endured the hardships of war and lived to tell the tale. We remember it today because we also bring to mind, from a hundred years ago, the hour the fighting stopped, and families could breathe easy. As we remember the armistice, we long for a day when we can breathe easy for good – know that it will never start again, that the next generation will never be called to risk life and limb, terror and trauma, in combat; that the toll taken on veterans will never be repeated, that every soldier can lay down his arms, that the price paid will be refunded by a God who doeth all things well, and that parades of praise march every street, waving not the flag of a nation but the sign of the cross as the banner of the victorious love of God.

It seems like such a dream. It's easy to picture utopia. Even John Lennon could imagine his version. We know a billion utopias that really are 'no place.' Dreams are a dime a dozen. It's nice to toy with them. But can we really believe this one? Can we believe that a day will come when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”? And I declare to you this day, we can! “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you..., was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes, for all the promises of God find their Yes in him(2 Corinthians 1:19-20)! All the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. And that means this promise of God – the promise of no more sword, no more war – finds its Yes in the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom I am here to proclaim among you, and whom we are here to proclaim among the nations of the world! “That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). As surely as Jesus Christ is risen, as surely as death has no more dominion over him, just so surely will the day come when war, all war, is done. And “no one shall make [us] afraid” (Micah 4:4).

And the march toward that day starts here – starts with a people who ascend the mountain of Christ here, starts with the gospel word going forth here, starts as we come to God's teaching here, starts as we learn to walk in his ways of peace here, starts as we beat our own swords into plowshares here, starts as we disciple people of all conflicted and conflicting nations here, starts as we lift up Christ in word and deed here, starts as we go forth on gospel mission here. Right here. Right now.

This very day, this Armistice Day, this Veterans Day, we can seek that day by bringing the gospel word of peace from this place into the neighborhood around us, and bringing people back to “the mountain of the house of the LORD which is Christ. And with as beautiful as that day will be, the day that will answer the hope of every veteran's service and every family's prayers with a Yes to Peace in Christ – we have every reason to do it. So, as Isaiah would tell us: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD – and march forward with the gospel until all war is done, in Jesus' name. Amen.

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