The Meaning of Memorial Day
Scripture: Deuteronomy 32:7, Hebrews 12:1-2
(preached at FBC Nitro, 5/27/2012)
On November 19, 1863 President Lincoln was making his way to a Pennsylvania battlefield. He feared that he might be the last president of the United States. The country teetered on the brink of self-destruction – the Civil War had taken an enormous toll on the nation. The ceremony he would attend that afternoon would dedicate a cemetery for over 40,000 soldiers killed at Gettysburg in a three-day battle the previous July. Lincoln’s remarks provided the beginning of what would later be known as Memorial Day. He began by saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,…” Less than two minutes later, he concluded, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here (referring to the sacrifice of the soldiers). It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Over the next few years, many communities set aside special days to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Some services were quiet and contemplative, others had marching bands and speeches. All of them included decorating soldier’s graves with flowers and flags. Most towns referred to the event as Decoration Day. After World War I the day expanded to honor the American heroes of all wars. Then gradually, the custom of decorating graves of relatives and friends became a part of the day. Eventually the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day. Originally, Memorial Day was always observed on May 30, regardless of the day of the week. In 1971, the US Congress moved the date to the last Monday in May to provide a three-day holiday. So the reason we have Memorial Day is to help us remember, because we have a tendency to forget. We need to remember the lives, the legacies, and the lessons of the people upon whose shoulders we now stand. We need to remember the men and women who secured our freedom with their blood. Jesus himself said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Memorial Day is not primarily a day to celebrate the unofficial arrival of summer or the end of another school year. It is not primarily a day to enjoy the pools that have recently opened. It is not primarily a day to focus on grilling and interacting with family and friends. The primary purpose of Memorial Day is to remember. Remembering the heroes of the past and learning from them is important – throughout God’s Word we are encouraged to draw inspiration from the past. Memorial Day is meant to remember — there are at least four ways in which that is the case.
First of all, Memorial Day is meant to remember our fallen soldiers. We’ve already heard about how the holiday began – it began with a focus on the sacrifice of the military. Every generation of Americans has heroes who have defended freedom and have laid down their lives for their friends. This Memorial Day weekend the traveling Vietnam wall will be at Oakes Field in South Charleston. The wall is as long as a football and bears 58,277 names of soldiers who gave their lives for freedom in the Vietnam War. It is not the only such monument that remembers. Eight years ago the World War II monument was dedicated in Washington DC. There is a field of 4,000 gold stars that honors over 400,000 lives that were lost in that conflict. Then there are the sacrifices that have been made in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in other places around the world. Listen to these words that were written by someone who remembered, “It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. The soldier not the poet gave us the freedom of speech. The soldier, not the politician, has given us the freedom to vote, to assemble, and even to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protestor to burn the flag.” Memorial Day is meant to remember our fallen soldiers.
Then, Memorial Day is meant to remember our departed family. Our passage says in Deuteronomy 32:7, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” When I was a child, Memorial Day was a big deal for our household. In our family, there were four major holidays each year – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Memorial Day. One of the traditions we had was to go to each cemetery where family members were buried. We made sure the gravesites were decorated and well-kept. We would hold hands and pray, giving thanks for the memory and the influence of those people who were no longer with us. Our extended family was a large one, with several cemeteries involved, so that was the bulk of our day. We had relatives who would travel several hours to return to the Charleston area so they could visit the cemeteries as well and participate in the same event. Then, when we had finally finished making the rounds, we would enjoy a meal together, visit a bit, then the ones who had traveled would return to their homes. We only had one day to get it all done, because Memorial Day had not yet been moved to the last Monday of the month. We weren’t guaranteed a three-day weekend. I remember that kind of practice, 45 years ago, was not just isolated to our family. Other families did the same thing. It was a tradition, and keeping some traditions is a healthy thing. That is one we do not have to sacrifice with the passing of time and the changing of our society. We are who we are because of our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles who left their imprint on our lives and sacrificed so we can have the life we now enjoy. Memorial Day is meant to remember our departed family.
Then, Memorial Day is meant to remember our church pioneers. Our second passage says in Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…” “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”One of the principles of Bible study is that when we encounter a “therefore,” we want to look and see what it is “there for.” The author of Hebrews in chapter 11 goes into great detail describing past heroes of faith who had died. After that entire chapter, at the beginning of chapter 12 he writes, “therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” The cloud of witnesses refers to the people of God who have died. The present-day congregation of First Baptist Church of Nitro owes a debt of remembrance to the church members who have preceded us. None of us here possessed the initial vision of creating the Lock Seven Baptist Church, nor made the sacrifices necessary to bring it into reality. These pioneers at the turn of the 20th century were forward-thinking, cooperating with God’s Spirit to lead people to Christ and to make disciples in a local congregation. They were people of energy and innovation, so much so that they used a railroad car as a meeting place for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. In 1924 the name of the Lock Seven Baptist Church was changed to the First Baptist Church of Nitro. Many of us here today can recall past church members who inspired us and who molded and shaped the spirituality of the church. On this day, we remember them and give thanks to God for them. Then we think not only of local church pioneers but also of pioneers among the broader people of God. We find them in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Then when we study church history, we find them as well. It’s important for us not to ignore church history, not to skip from the characters of the people to the present day saints. There is a rich heritage and a wealth of inspiration to be found in men and women who have followed Christ in the 2000 years or so the church has existed. We are all familiar with Martin Luther King Jr., but are we familiar with Martin Luther? We’ve all heard of West Virginia Weslyan College, but we do we know anything about John Wesley? We have several youth and some adults who are involved in missions and passionate about missions, but do we realize we are not the first ones who have felt that way? William Carey, Adoniram Judson and Hudson Taylor were all pioneers in missions. Many of us love good preaching, so we listen to podcasts of well-known preachers. Are we are aware however, that Charles Spurgeon was so powerful in the pulpit that he still bears the name of the “prince of preachers?” The point is that we enjoy many of the things we have spiritually because of the saints who have gone before us. Someone may say, “Well pastor, I really don’t care about past Christians. I just want to study my Bible.” Do we realize that the Bible was not always available to everyone in the church? There was a time when the Bible was only possessed by the priests. John Wycliffe was a man who had a passion for God’s Word being in the hands of all believers, not just the clergy. His vision resulted in the first translation of the Bible into English. Memorial Day is meant to remember our church pioneers.
Then, Memorial Day is meant to remember our life-giving Savior. If Memorial Day was just about recalling people who have died, it could get pretty depressing pretty fast. Memorial Day is also meant to focus on our life-giving Savior. Because of what Jesus has done for us by dying on the cross and being raised from the dead never to die again, we have hope of seeing again the people who have gone ahead of us in Christ. Jesus also sacrificed his blood so that we might have freedom. The freedom He gives us however, is not just political freedom but spiritual freedom. He frees us from sin. Romans 5:6-8 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Revelation 21:4-7 says of Jesus, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” Memorial Day is meant to remember our life-giving Savior.
As you look back to the past and remember, there is so much that has been given to you. You have your nation. You have your family. You have your church, both local and universal. You have your Savior. The greatest thing you can do to leave a legacy for this present generation and for future generations, is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus offers to save you from our sin, but you must make the choice to allow Him to do so. He is not really your Savior until you become His child. Until you give your life to Him, all He has done has no benefit to you. Jesus wants you to ask Him to forgive you of your sin and to be saved from it. Will you do so? You may need to rededicate publicly. You may need to join this church family – as you do so, you will become a part of the heritage of this congregation. (Prayer)