May 27th, 2018

And the Home of the Brave
Daniel 3

Today we gather on the eve of Memorial Day. It’s an important day, a day to remember those brave women and men who put their lives in harm’s way to protect and preserve our precious freedoms.

Memorial Day is a day to remember important concepts like courage, sacrifice and bravery. So as we prepare to celebrate this day, I’d like to ask a question. What does it mean to be brave?

“Brave” is the last word of our national anthem. You know the line, “In the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Yes, our national anthem boasts that we live in the home of the brave, and I believe we do. But what does it mean to be brave?

Perhaps a story from the Bible can help answer the question. It’s a story about three young men named Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Their story is found in Daniel 3, and because it’s a lengthy text, let me recap it for you.

In this story, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, commissioned the building of a great work of art, a 90 foot statue of himself. Now just to give you some perspective, that’s 4 times taller than the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. Everybody who was anybody was there for the dedication. It was an event tantamount to the recent royal wedding. All the major television networks had pre-emptied their regular programming for the unveiling of this mighty work of art. The Army, Navy and Air Force bands had all joined together to play a grand musical salute to this 90 foot statute of gold. I mean, this wasn’t just another election year stunt; this was a grand and glorious moment for the entire nation.

As people began to look in their printed programs, they noticed that right after the tribute was played by the band, the crowd was supposed to fall down and worship the image of the king. There was a program note at the bottom of the page that said anyone refusing to fall down and worship the statute would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Of course, to most folks, that wasn’t an outrageous request. I mean, what do you expect folks to do when a 90 foot golden statute of your king is unveiled?

Yes, this request wasn't offensive to anybody, except three young Hebrew men: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You see, they would not fall down and worship the statute because they had committed themselves to worshipping only God. They had made a commitment to be true to God even if they had to face death. Listen to their statement of faith found in verses 16-18.

Then Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."

Well, most of you know the rest of the story. The king became furious and threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into a fiery furnace. But God protected them so that the fire did not harm them, and in the end, their bravery became a powerful witness to their faith in God.

Brave. There’s no doubt about it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were penultimate models of bravery. But what made them brave? These three men were brave because they risked all to embrace a cause greater than self. That’s what bravery is. Bravery is risking your life to embrace a cause greater than self. So given that definition, again I ask, “Who are the brave?”

The most obvious answer would be a military answer. Brave people are people like Stewart Glover. Walt Whitman tells his story. In “Death of a Hero” Whitman writes,

He was a small and beardless young man, a splendid soldier. In fact, almost an ideal American of his age. He had served nearly three years and would have been entitled to his discharge in a few days.

The fighting had about ceased for the day when the general commanding the brigade rode by and called for volunteers to bring in the wounded. Glover responded among the first. He went out (willingly), but while in the act of bringing in a wounded sergeant, was shot and eventually died of his injury.

He kept a little diary, like so many of the soldiers. On the day of his death he wrote the following in it. “Today the doctor says I will die. All is over with me. Ah, so young to die.” On another blank page he penciled this message to his brother, “Dear brother Thomas, I have been brave. Pray for me.”

Yes, the greatest consolation at the end of Stewart’s life was summed up in four words, “I have been brave.”

Like Stewart Glover, this has been the consolation of many who have laid down their lives to procure our freedoms. Bravery has been your consolation as you placed your life in harm’s way in places like Europe, Korea, the Pacific or Vietnam. Others of you have more recently taken risks in places like Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. So today when I ask, “Who are the brave,” your names most certainly top our list.

But bravery is not a term reserved only for those who go to war. When we ask, “Who are the brave?” other examples quickly come to mind. Who can question the bravery of police officers, fire fighters, and rescue personnel? Day after day, these folks put their lives on the line to protect and to serve. The 490 service personnel who died on September 11 serves as a constant reminder of their bravery. These folks, and others like them, regularly risk their lives for a cause greater than self. So when the question is asked, “Who are the brave,” their names are on our list, too.

Who are the brave? The brave are also those who stand against injustice; those who stand peacefully but forcefully in places like Selma, Ferguson, and Baltimore. Brave are people like Martin Luther King who stood against forces that eventually took his life because racial equality was a cause he deemed greater than self. In fact, shortly before he was killed he wrote, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So when we ask, “Who are the brave,” folks who stand in the face of injustice most certainly appear on the list.

But there are others who rightly belong on our list of the brave, others for whom no flags are waved, nor celebrations declared. Despite their anonymity, these folks are no less brave than those whose names we herald.

Who are the brave? Jim and Elisabeth Elliott rightly belong on the list. Perhaps you know their story.

Jim Elliott was a missionary to Ecuador. In 1952, Elliott arrived in Quito, Ecuador to begin his ministry. After establishing himself in Quito, he moved into the Ecuadorian jungle to share the gospel with people who had never heard about Christ.

Deep in the jungle were a group of indigenous people called the Aucas. Translated, the word Auca means “savage.” These natives were known for their hostility.

For several weeks, Jim and three other missionaries flew over the Auca’s village, dropping gifts and calling out to them over a loud speaker. Eventually, the four missionaries moved deeper into the jungle, closer to the Auca village.

A few days after setting up camp, a small welcoming party of Aucas visited them. The visit was positive. The Aucas brought handmade gifts for the missionaries and Jim even gave one of the Aucas a ride in his plane.

After the welcoming party returned to their village, Jim and his companions decided the time was right to venture into the Auca village and share the gospel with the natives. Unfortunately, they never got the chance. On the day after their initial encounter with the welcoming party, a group of Aucas attacked the camp and killed the four missionaries.

Later, Jim’s journal was found. On the day before his death he wrote that he believed his work for Christ was more important than his very own life and he quoted Luke 9:24. "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it." He concluded with these words. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

Interestingly, Jim Elliott’s story did not end with his death. A few months later Jim’s widow, Elisabeth, went to the Auca village to share the gospel of forgiveness with those who had savagely killed her husband. Impressed with this woman’s bravery, the Aucas allowed Elisabeth to share and several Aucas accepted Christ. Today, a church stands in the village, dedicated to the glory of God and the bravery of Jim and Elisabeth Elliott.

Yes, the Elliotts were brave because they risked themselves in a cause greater than self.

Who are the brave? I cannot answer that question without thinking of some of you. And while there will never be a day in your honor, you deserve a Memorial Day, too, because your bravery is as genuine as anyone’s I know.

“Brave” is the word I use to describe you parents who selflessly give your lives to provide full and meaningful lives to children with special needs. I know it’s not easy to do what you do, but you do it gladly because the happiness of your child is a cause greater than self. Who are the brave? You are the brave, and I greatly admire you.

“Brave” is the word I use to describe you adults who spend most of your time, most of your money, and all of your energy caring for aged parents or spouses who can no longer care for themselves. Few tasks require more bravery. But you give yourself - over and over again - because you’re devoted to a cause greater than self. Who are the brave? You are the brave.

“Brave” is the word I use to describe the members of this church. Week after week you stand for your convictions despite the criticism and ostracism of a community that does not share our gospel view. In a community suspicious of ecumenical unity, you boldly take a public stand with people of all faiths. In a community quick to condemn people of alternative lifestyles, you lovingly reach out to anyone who will allow you to befriend them. In a community that relegates women to subservient church roles, you honor women by encouraging them to serve in the same roles as men. Yes, sometimes you are the focus of a community’s criticism or the brunt of a community joke, but you do not let that deter your ministry of love. Indeed, you are the brave because you’re devoted to a cause greater than self.

And there are many others who should be on the list. Silently, you struggle to live out your convictions and often you do so by facing some dire risk. Tomorrow there will be no parades for you, nor will there be any monuments, but I am convinced God knows your name and that one day you, too, will stand with the heroes of faith, with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, with Martin Luther King, with Jim and Elisabeth Elliott and with the host of others who embrace a cause greater than self.

Who are the brave? You are the brave, and I’m proud to be called your pastor.