Laying Down One’s Life. Memorial Day Address. May 30, 2016
Memorial Day Address
Woodlawn Cemetery, Joliet, Illinois
St. John 15:13
May 30, 2016
“Laying Down One’s Life”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to you a few words from Holy Scripture on this day when we have gathered to remember and honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country.
The word of God on which we meditate this morning is the saying of Jesus Christ from John chapter 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (St. John 15:13)
Memorial Day is set apart to remember and honor the men and women of the armed forces who died while serving our country. Today you may be here to honor a loved one who made such a sacrifice. Or like me, you may not have any relatives who gave their lives in service to this country. We also honor those who served, and in doing so, offered up their lives and their bodies, though they did not die in battle.
As I prepared to speak to you this morning, I reflected on how few people remember what today is about. For most people Memorial Day is nothing more than a day off from work. I have to confess before you to my shame that in the past I haven’t given proper consideration to this day and the dead it honors. What a tragedy that is, that so many ignore what today is about? How easily we forget what others suffer for us so that we are free to live our lives, to raise families, to worship God in freedom!
This blindness is a reflection of the great brokenness that corrupts all human beings—what Christians call sin—the corruption in which all people are born, which causes us to love ourselves more than God, to love ourselves and ignore the need and suffering of other people.
Because of this it’s so easy for people to take for granted what those we honor today fought and died for—this nation in which we are free to speak our minds, free to worship God according to our consciences. But those who have laid down their lives for this nation, and those whose loved ones have offered themselves up for it, tend to recognize the value of our country, to understand that it is worth sacrificing for.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Human beings are fallen. They are selfish. Even so, they are capable of heroism, courage. They are capable of doing great things that testify to our origin as beings created in the noble image of God. Jesus acknowledges that with His statement. Human love ascends no higher than when a person gives his life for someone else. People have done great things in the history of our time on earth. We have learned to fly and to penetrate outer space. We have built skyscrapers and cathedrals, made beautiful music and written poetry that people continue to hear and read and be moved by.
But the greatest thing a human being can do, surpassing these things, is give up his life for someone else.
The men and women we honor today have done this. They offered up their lives in service to their country and the people who live in it. They often died in pain, alone, perhaps afraid, in mud or dirt in a country far from here.
Why did they do it? It might have been out of simple obedience to their government or commanding officer, which is itself something to honor. It might have been loyalty to the oath they made to give their lives to protect and serve the United States of America. They might have been thinking of their families—wanting to ensure a good life for them, wanting to leave an honorable name to them. It might have been love for this nation that compelled them to sacrifice their lives, love for the ideals it represents in the world—liberty and the dignity of human beings. They might also have died out of love for their brothers in arms, wanting to do their part in battle and not let others down.
Whatever the reason, it was great love that was working in them to die for others. They might not have been aware of it. But it was a love so great that human beings are not able to do anything greater in this world apart from God’s intervention.
So we praise their bravery today. We honor, as best we can, their tremendous sacrifice—that they gave their most precious possession—their lives. We remember that they gave their lives in service to us. “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Today we enjoy basic freedoms enshrined in our constitution. We are free to speak, free to worship God as our faith dictates, free to bear arms. Not only this, but we enjoy security, safety, and order. Without these things our freedoms would mean little. We don’t live our lives under the constant threat of violence to our person or our property. We are safe. We can go to work without having to stay home to protect our property and loved ones.
This order and safety, however, comes at a cost in a sinful world. There are always people who are ready to use violence to take what they want. So the security we enjoy comes at a cost. There must be those who are trained and ready to defend against the violent with violence. There have to be those who fight if we are to enjoy order and safety. Safety and order are maintained with a price, and the price is the shedding of blood.
Christians also benefit from the safety that has been bought with the willingness of our soldiers to fight and bleed, which is why we always pray for our country and its armed forces. We benefit from the order and safety that allow us to assemble to worship, and the freedom of religion that enables us to remember and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the one who spoke the words of our text today, also loved and gave up His life for others. He also fought a battle and shed His blood so that others might have safety, peace, and freedom.
He gave His life not to give us physical safety and freedom in this life, but to give us spiritual safety and freedom so that we live in peace for eternity.
As we remember the soldiers who fought and died today and honor their service, we also remember that most of them would rather not have had to fight and kill. War and the suffering it causes is not something that we should enjoy; we’d be happy if there was no need for it. But because sin has made people selfish and unloving, it is necessary in this world. Sin alienates people from each other and makes warfare and violence necessary. But this same sin also alienates people from God; it makes us enemies with our Creator. This alienation brought death into this world, and it leads to the eternal separation from God in hell.
So Jesus, the Son of God, became a human being to fight a war in which people would be freed from sin. In His suffering on the cross, He laid down His life in order to make atonement for the guilt of our sins, to free us from death and hell, to reconcile us with God.
As we remember the sacrificial death of American soldiers and sailors and airmen for our good, we are pointed to the sacrificial love of God, who suffered the punishment for our sins. His sacrificial death on the cross brings us safety and peace, not for a decade or a generation, but for eternity.
It was a greater love than human beings are capable of that caused Him to make this sacrifice. He died not to save only His friends or his countrymen; He died to save even His enemies.
Many of our soldiers who gave their lives believed in this Jesus. They found comfort in His love that caused Him to die for their sins. As many of them lay dying in a foreign land for others, they died trusting this Jesus who died for them. They died with the hope that when they left this world and this life, they had a place in the kingdom that God has established, an eternal country where there is no more death, no more selfishness and evil, no crying, no more alienation from God. They died believing that they had a place in this country through Jesus’ death for them.
Today we give thanks to God for the gifts and blessings we have enjoyed through our nation. We thank God for those who served this country and who, out of love for it, for us, laid down their lives. We thank God for those who continue to serve the United States and risk their lives for us.
May we always also remember Jesus Christ, who died to establish an eternal, heavenly country, in which war will never enter, in which death is destroyed, and in which human beings see the face of God. May we also remember and believe in Him who died in service to us to give us freedom from sin and death, to give us eternal peace with God.
That peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria