Sermon Illustrations

World War II Prison Camp Inmates in Burma Transformed by God’s Love and Grace, the Case of Ernest Gordon

Ernest Gordon was serving as a captain in the British army during the Second World War when he was captured by the Japanese, marched with other prisoners into the Southeast Asian jungles, and forced to construct a railroad bridge over the river Kwai. The conditions of the prison camp would eventually claim the lives of 80,000 men.

The prisoners were made to work for hours in scorching temperatures, chopping their way through tangled jungles. Those who paused out of exhaustion were beaten to death by the guards. Treated like animals, the men themselves became like beasts trying to survive. Theft and betrayal were as rampant as hunger and disease among them. Life was met with indifference, deceit, and hatred--by captive and captor alike.

Yet, Gordon lived to tell of hope and transformation in the valley of the river Kwai. In his widely acclaimed book, he gives a firsthand account of the story behind the "death railroad" and the spiritual resurrection of the camp. "Death was still with us," writes Gordon. "But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness and pride were all anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men. True, there was hatred. But there was also love. There was death. But there was also life. God had not left us. He was with us, calling us to live the divine life in fellowship."(1) In the valley of the shadow of death, Christ had risen.

God somehow changed those men so that they found themselves unable to respond to others without similar unexplainable acts of grace. In fact, so complete was the transformation of the men, so real the presence of Christ among them, that they were able to reach out even to their captors with the love that had taken hold of them.

While still in the hands of their enemies, a train carrying Gordon and several others came alongside another boxcar at a stop in Burma. The entire car was filled with gravely wounded Japanese soldiers. They were left alone, without medical attention or company, as if abandoned refuse of war. "They were in a shocking state," Gordon recalls. "The wounded looked at us forlornly as they sat with their heads resting against the carriages waiting fatalistically for death....These were our enemy."

Without a word, many of the officers unbuckled their packs, took out part of their rations and a few rags, and with their canteens went over to the Japanese train. The guards tried to prevent them, but they pressed through, kneeling by the side of the injured men with food and water, cleaning their wounds. Eighteen months earlier the same men of the river Kwai prison camp would have celebrated the humiliation and destruction of anyone on the side of their violent captors. Yet Gordon explains, "We had experienced a moment of grace, there in the bloodstained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey his command, ’Thou shalt love.’"

Ernest Gordon left his three years of brutal imprisonment with an unexpected turn in his own story. Among the suffering and enemies, God had spoken. Now it was Gordon who could not remain silent. He returned to Scotland to attend seminary, eventually becoming the dean of the chapel of Princeton University where he remained until his death in 2002. In the trenches of despair and hatred, the inexplicable love of Christ called enemies--and humankind--to hope and forgiveness. (Jill Carattini)

All of us bring emotional baggage and weak wills to our relationship with Christ. For some we bring to our Christian life anger with a hair trigger or prejudice or the inability to trust others. This harms our relationship with God and others. Sometimes those things will fall off easily. Others we battle all our life, but God wants us to stop thinking and living like people of the world and start acting like people filled with the Holy Spirit.

From a sermon by Ed Sasnett, A Good Example of a Bad Example, 6/2/2010

Related Sermon Illustrations

Related Sermons

Browse All Media

Related Media

Preaching Slide
Preaching Slide