Summary: My first combat was only a few days after I arrived in Vietnam. The invincibility of my youth left me swiftly. I wrote each letter home with care, for I suddenly knew that each letter might be the last words. Luke records some of Christ last words.
Lessons Learned by Veteran: For Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day
Scripture: Luke 23:34
This sermon is adapted from my book, An Enlisted Man’s Point of View: Lessons Learned in the 199th 1966-1967. It is nonfiction, a memoir of combat and its result, PTSD. Pastor Lee Houston
My first combat was only a few days after I arrived in Vietnam. On one my first nights in combat, the man to my immediate right, whose shoulder was only a foot away from my own, got a nose full of grenade shrapnel. The invincibility of my youth left me swiftly. I knew that I could die. I wrote each letter home with care, for I suddenly knew that each letter might be the last words my loved ones would ever read from me.
Since realizing that, I have noted the last words of a number of famous people. I have found that a person’s dying words can be revealing, showing us something of the person. The ideas of Karl Marx put many nations on the horrible road to communism. On the day Marx died, March 14, 1883, his housekeeper came to him and said, “Mr. Marx, tell me your last words, and I'll write them down.” Marx replied, “Go, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!” P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, asked as he was dying, “What are the receipts of the day?” Napoleon’s last words were, “I am Chief of the Army!” The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon’s last words were, “Jesus died for me." And Charles Wesley, the initiator of the Methodist Church, said, “Best of all is, God is with us.”
The Bible records seven last statements that Christ uttered while he was on the cross. These statements are important to us, not only because Jesus spoke them, but also because of the place where he said them. While Christ was on the cross, he was doing his greatest work; he was uttering some of his greatest words. Luke 23:34 records one of his last statements: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’” This one statement by Christ says much too many old Vets. Sometimes it is difficult for us to forgive people. Sometimes it is difficult for us to forgive ourselves. Someone hurts us, someone says something against us, and in our hearts, we cannot forgive that person. Or maybe we hurt someone.
Listen to Jesus’ prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Jesus prayed these words of forgiveness on behalf of the people gathered at the foot of the cross; people who wanted to watch him die; people who only the day before had shouted, “Crucify Him!” Jesus spoke these words of forgiveness on behalf of the Roman soldiers, the people who only minutes before had nailed him to the cross. He said it for the members of the Sanhedrin who had rushed to find him guilty of a capital crime. He said it for his frightened disciples who had run and were in hiding. Notice the wonder of his words. Understanding his final example to us will enable us to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, and to experience the joy that comes when we do forgive. Army, Navy, Air Force or civilian, we need to know that God forgives us for our sins and remembers our sacrifices.
Christ had a world-changing attitude. I hear Christians say, “I cannot talk to God! I cannot pray! I do not believe anymore – after the way people have treated me.” Look at the way people treated Jesus. He had preached love. He had healed the sick. He had fed the poor. He had done nothing bad to anyone. His only crime was to upset the social order. For this, his nation sinned against him. His own disciples failed him. Peter denied him. His heavenly Father was willing to see him suffer. He was up all night, dragged from one kangaroo court to another, found guilty of crimes he did not commit, beaten almost beyond recognition, had multiple stab wounds in the head from the thorns in his crown, made to drag his own cross, pierced with spikes driven through his hands and feet, then raised on the cross, suspended by his nail-torn flesh between two thieves to suffer death.
In spite of all this, Jesus was able to look up into the heavens and begin his prayer with, “Father.” He lived in fellowship with his Father and knew that even under these horrible circumstances, God loved him. I remember in Matthew chapter 22, verses 34 through 37, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ and Jesus answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” Jesus, under these most difficult circumstances of his life, remained true to his Father, never doubting God’s love, even while nailed to the cross.