STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 10, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Remembrance Day
MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB
Joshua 14: 6 – 12; 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12; Mark 14: 32 – 36
At the highest point on Vimy Ridge, stands a monument commemorating Canadian soldiers who won this strategic piece of land from the Germans during WW1. Vimy Ridge is an escarpment 9 kms long and 60 metres high (or 200 feet – approximately the height of a 20-storey building. For three years, the Germans had held the ridge which they’d fortified with an array of trenches, barbed wire, concrete machine gun bunkers, underground chambers and a web of tunnels. They had the high ground as anyone trying to attack from the bottom of the ridge was visible and subject to the full force of the Germans. France had tried 3 times to win back the land, resulting in 150,000 casualties without success. The British troops made one major assault and fought several small battles but gained no ground. Vimy was essential to the advances by the British Third Army to the south and of exceptional importance to checking the German attacks in the area. So, not wanting to lose any more of their own sons in another suicide mission, but needing to conquer the cliff, Britain ordered the armed forces of the Dominion of Canada to do what no one else could do. The challenge was as enormous as the ridge. The assault began on April 9th. Canadian troops advanced on the ridge in the middle of a snowstorm stepping over the corpses of fallen soldiers from previous battles, under a hail of machine gun fire. They took the ridge in 4 days. More German soldiers were taken prisoner (4000) than Canada lost (3,598). Another 7000 Canadians were wounded. Needless to say, the victory made Canada a contender. After that, we got to sit at the big boy’s table consulting in future battles. After the war the French, gave the battlefield to Canada where a memorial to our fallen dead now stands. The memorial is symbolic. The two towers represent the relationship between France and Canada. Rather than putting a battle scene on the monument, the designer chose to lift up the values for which the soldiers fought. There are 20 figures on it, representing ideals such as faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. Among these is the statue of a weeping woman, representing the sacrifices and sorrows of the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters who lost children, brothers, husbands and fathers. The Vimy Memorial represents the notion of noble sacrifice for a greater good.
Symbols are powerful. Nike has a wing which represents the Greek god of war, Ares. The word Nike means victory. They sell success. McDonald’s has their golden arches which have come to represent pleasure. The logo for Apple harkens back to the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They sell intelligence. Lamborghini has a bull. They sell power. The most famous symbol in the world, however, is the cross. Although the cross as a weapon of torture has been around for 1000’s of years, it came to be associated with one being, the God-man Jesus Christ. The cross was a form of torture and humiliation. Our word “excruciating” has the same root as the word crucifixion. The cross invites us to die. Success pleasure, intelligence and power are very enticing. There’s nothing seductive about a logo that symbolizes shame, failure and death. For many, the cross has become meaningless. For you and I and Christians around the globe, the cross gives us someone to follow and something for which to live, die and resurrect. It reminds us that God is redeeming and renewing all creation to flourish through the power of sacrificial love and grace.
Along with those who seek success, pleasure, intelligence or power, we also desire a problem-free life – a safe happy existence where nothing disturbs us. We want comfort, ease, manageability. Unlike Jesus, the Early Christians or the soldiers at Vimy Ridge, the last thing we want is a challenge. But it’s through life’s challenges that the Spirit works in us, “enabling you both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 13). The Spirit wants to challenge you so you will grow and change. Learning comes about when we explore something novel to us. New things are risky. But, it’s life’s risks that create adventure. And when we’re on an adventure, we face challenges. Without challenges, there can’t be victory. We never discover what we’re capable of doing and even worse, we never discover what our God is capable of doing.
Today we read about Caleb. During the time of Caleb, 1260-1400 BC, the Israelites had left Egypt and made their way towards the “border” of the Promised Land. The land was occupied by various tribes of people. Moses sent out 12 spies, including Caleb and Joshua, on a reconnaissance mission. On returning, Caleb and Joshua reported that it would be a challenging mission – the Vimy Ridge of their day – but they believed that with God they would succeed. The other 10 guys advised Moses to turn back without trying. It was a suicide mission. The majority won. The Israelites retreated to the dessert where they remained for 40 years. At the end of that time, they circled back only to face the same challenge. To get out of their endless wandering in the wilderness and into the Promised Land, they’d have to wage war. Some of the land was flat, simple to cross and easy to locate the enemy. Some of the land was hill country. Low mountains with difficult passes. Places for the enemy to hide. It offered an up-hill battle where your approach would be visible, and the spears could be flung at you. Caleb had been 45 at the time of his first surveillance; 40 years later he’s no spring chicken. But this is what he says to Joshua, “And here I am today, eighty-five years old! I’m as strong as I was the day Moses sent me out. I’m as strong as ever in battle, whether coming or going. So, give me this hill country that God promised me. You yourself heard the report, that the Anakites were there with their great fortress cities. If God goes with me, I will drive them out, just as God said” (Joshua 14: 10 – 12). Give me the hill country. Give me the hardest, most challenging mission. Give me “Vimy Ridge”.
We don’t know what ran through the minds of the Canadian soldiers when they were told their next assignment was Vimy Ridge. Probably, they wrote their families and made their peace with God. They may have prayed that for a change in assignment. Then they steeled themselves up, found their determination and courage and headed into battle to win or dying trying. It’s unlikely any one of them said, “Wow! Vimy! How lucky am I?!” I’m certain that between the French, English and Canadians, not one person stepped forward and said, “Give me the worst position possible.” Nobody asked for the hill country.
Long before 85, most of us are ready to hang up our boxing gloves, spend winter in the sun or get a room at Easy Acres. We’ve faced our challenges and fought our battles. We’re preparing to slide through the pearly gates. “It’s someone else’s turn,” we say. But whether we’re 18, 45 or 85, God is still the same. God has a challenge for us. And when God gives us a challenge, he goes with us.
In 1909, Evelyn Brand and her husband felt a call to mission work in rural India. They offered the people with education, medical supplies, roads and God’s grace in Jesus Christ. After 7 years, they had no converts but many friends. A priest of a local tribe became deathly ill, no one would go near him except Evelyn and her husband. The priest decided Jesus must be the true God because only this Christian couple would tend to his needs. After he died, they raised his children, just as he’d requested. The people of the village began to seek out the couple to learn about Jesus. Many of them came to follow Christ. After another 13 years of vital ministry, Evelyn’s husband died. She was 50 and everyone expected her to go home. Evelyn stayed another 20 years. She was known as “Granny Brand”. At 70, her children coaxed her to retire. Her mission office cut off funding. But Evelyn wasn’t leaving. She managed to buy a little shack, bought a pony and travelled the mountains introducing people to Jesus. At 75 she broke her hip. Again, everyone thought it was time for Evelyn to leave. She didn’t. When she hit 93, Evelyn couldn’t ride anymore; the men in the villages put her on a stretcher and carried her around the countryside so she could tell of Jesus. She lived 2 more years.
Not everyone is a Caleb or a Granny Brand, your challenge will be as unique as you are. What’s easy for another may be a mountain for you. But we can all ask for the hill country. We can all keep growing. We can all keep serving. God has a challenge and an adventure for you. And God will be with you, as you do it.
If Granny Brand had a logo, it might be her stretcher which pointed to her endless love. What would be your logo? For some it might be your walker. I’m sure some weeks just coming out to worship is a challenge. Your walker is a sign of how important God is to you. For another it may be the chair where you read your Bible every day, even when you’d rather nap. For some, it’s a dish towel. For others, it’s a piano. For another, it’s the car you use to drive people who can’t drive themselves. Maybe it’s the little flyer you take when you visit those in hospital. Or the computer where you write agendas or minutes for a team or keep the books. Maybe it’s an apron you where when you feed the hungry. Or a door where you stand to greet people. Praying hands.
If God had a logo it would be Jesus – the word made flesh, the logos. As Christ’s body, the Church, we don’t have a program, plan, platform or product to help people. We have a Saviour. We don’t sell success, knowledge, pleasure or power. We point to the cross. We don’t promote what people want, but we have someone they need. It’s a challenge to offer people life in Christ, when they think life is found, not in sacrifice for others, but in self-gratification. It’s much easier for McDonald’s to sell burgers, than the hill country.
Our deepest longing should be to be fully alive in Christ, to become the person God wants us to be and to be used by God to bless the world. This life is available every moment through Jesus, who conquered sin and death and now dispenses new life with unrivalled authority. Ask for a mountain and out of your belly will flow rivers of living water. You will be the “you”, you most deeply desire to be, not for yourself but for God’s pleasure.