Background Passages: Nehemiah 4:1-14; John 15:13
He walked his horse carefully through the rubble of the fortifications that surrounded his city, out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Wall. As he neared the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, the walls that once towered above lay now in ruins strewn across the path, forcing the rider to dismount and pick his way through the debris blocking the road.
The scrap of his sandaled feet against the stone echoed in the darkness…an bitter reminder of the complete destruction caused by his enemies and the utter defeat his nation suffered years before. He crawled up the mound of burned and broken rock, ripping the hem of his robe on a sharp shard of stone. Breathing heavily after his arduous climb, he stood in stunned silence staring at the charred remains of the gate and the broken fortress it once guarded. The city…his home…stood defenseless against any and all enemies.
Nehemiah looked over the shattered and shadowed walls of Jerusalem, his sorrow giving way to new resolve.
The next day Nehemiah called together the leaders of Jerusalem, extending to them God’s invitation and his personal challenge. “Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace.”
Nehemiah offered a new beginning to a once proud people. To their credit, the people of Jerusalem jumped at the chance to resurrect their city and their nation out of the rubble that represented their bitter defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and their long exile from the land of their fathers.
Not everyone in the region took kindly to the restoration project. Judah’s old enemies grumbled among themselves, mocking the people for trying to regain their greatness, and accusing them of rebelling against the new king. They feared Judah’s resurgence and saw it as a threat to their regional power.
These enemy nations allied with one another, determined to attack Jerusalem before its people could repair the walls. “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to their work.”
Nehemiah discovered their plan and responded to the outside threat by standing men on the wall at the “exposed places,” posting them with their swords, spears and bows. “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
On a weekend in which we honor America’s veterans, Nehemiah reminds us that our nation needs men and women who are willing to stand the wall in defense of home and all it represents.
On a hillside overlooking the Potomac River in Arlington Cemetery, rests the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On that spot on November 11, 1921, the United States Army interred the remains of a soldier who died in World War I, a man whose name was lost to history. The first unofficial Armistice Day ceremony came about as an international recognition of the end of the great war just three years prior.
Years later in 1956, after two more major conflicts made it clear that the “war to end all wars” failed to keep its promise, President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veteran’s Day to honor all men and women who serve our nation in times of peace or war.
I not sure our nation ever does enough to adequately thank the men and women who serve or have served in our armed forces. Their sacrifice on behalf of our nation is unequaled. They simply go where they are sent and stand between our nation and those who wish to harm us and our way of life.
Most veterans I know speak rarely of their experiences. My father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Three of my uncles served in our nation’s military. One in the Marines in Korea. Two in the United States Army, serving in Vietnam and in Europe during the Cold War. A nephew, a U.S. Marine, served two tours of duty in Iraq. None of them talk much of their experiences unless it is to speak of the close friendships they developed during those difficult times.
Most veterans I know seem truly humbled by their service, deferring their honor for those whose sacrifice they believe to be greater than their own. They find themselves choked with emotion for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice at the call of their country.
John Quincy Adams, the fifth president of the United States, echoed the sentiments of many veterans as they reflect on their years of service. Adams said, “You will never know how much it cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you make good use of it.”
It is quite possible that each generation of Americans shares John Quincy Adams feeling that the succeeding generations will never understand the true cost of freedom. Whether it was the baggage of Vietnam or the social upheaval of the day, my generation, as a whole, failed at the time to offer the respect to our nation’s Vietnam veterans. I’m grateful that sentiment has changed in recent years.
Despite today’s anthem protests that have been blown out of proportion, I am strongly encouraged by the patriotism displayed by the younger generation of Americans. Though more culturally diverse, most seem more keenly aware of the cost of freedom and more deeply respectful of the veterans who ensure its future with their service. Each of us bears the responsibility and obligation to, as Adams said, “make good use” of the freedoms they defended through sacrifice and death.
Yet one only needs to spend a few minutes talking to a veteran to know that in the heat of combat, the lofty ideals of freedom give way to the brotherhood of service. Nehemiah understood it clearly when he placed the men on the wall. He did not ask them to fight for Jerusalem or Judah. There was no rally cry of freedom. He asked only that they trust in the power of the Lord and “fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
Jesus, who himself offered the ultimate sacrifice for all of us, told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” It is this attitude of self-sacrifice that lies in the heart of every veteran I have ever known.
A simple “thank you” to our nation’s veterans seems grossly inadequate for the years of service and sacrifice, so I couple my gratitude with my deepest respect and honor. I offer my personal thanks to my family, Gene Lewis, Bill Mills, Leslie Lewis, Ovid Lewis and Erich Schoeffler, and a host of friends who served faithfully and without fanfare.
For all those men and women who stood on the wall for our sake, and all those currently serving around the world, may God bless you and keep you. For the rest of us, let’s make good use of the freedom they helped secure.
Looking for gifts for Christmas. Consider the books written by Dr. Kirk Lewis. Dr. Grear Howard of Truett Seminary said, “Lewis brings genuine humanity to historical Bible stories. To borrow a phrase, his devotional stories ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ He sketches out God’s power in these stories, but perhaps more importantly, Lewis shouts to the reader God’s presence in all these interactions.”
Order “Put Away Childish Things” and “The Chase: Our Passionate Pursuit of Life Worth Living” from Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.