Tomorrow is Memorial Day; therefore, we will observe this special day with a message from the Word. I wish to begin by sharing some of the history behind Memorial Day; however, I have encountered two separate versions of the story on how this holiday began, and so, I am going to present both accounts for you this morning. One story reads like this:
In April 1863, in Columbus, Mississippi after decorating the graves of her two sons who served during the Civil War as Confederate soldiers, an elderly woman also decorated two mounds at the corner of the cemetery. An observer asked, “What are you doing? Those are the graves of two Union soldiers.” Her reply, “I know. I also know that somewhere in the North, a mother or a young wife mourns for them as we do for ours.” [This lady and a few others] set in motion what became known as Memorial Day.(1)
The other version of the story reads as follows:
The custom of placing flowers on the graves of the war began on May 5, 1866 in Waterloo, New York, and Waterloo has been recognized by Congress as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1868, General John A. Logan, then president of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that May 30th would be a day to “decorate with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” After World War I the day was set aside to honor all of the American wars, and the custom was extended to pay homage to deceased relatives and friends, both military and civilian.(2)
Memorial Day is when we remember our lost loved ones and also the many soldiers who died in the numerous wars of our country fought over the past few hundred years; and today, I wish to help us reflect on the reason why our soldiers died: They gave their lives because they were fighting for our freedom. Therefore, this morning we will focus on “Remembering Our Freedom,” as the title of our message conveys. Let us now stand in honor of the reading of God’s Word, as we look at Exodus 12:14a and Exodus 13:3a:
A Day of Memorial
Exodus 12:14a – 14 So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations.
Exodus 13:3a – 3 And Moses said to the people: “Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place.”
In the two verses we just read, Moses told all the children of Israel that “this day shall be to you a memorial,” and “you shall keep it,” and also “remember this day.” What day was Moses referring to that the Israelites were supposed to remember? The answer is the day of Passover.
If you’ll recall the story, the night of Passover was when the Israelites were commanded to kill a lamb and spread its blood on the two doorposts and lintel of their homes (Exodus 12:3, 7); thus, making the sign of a cross by this action. That night the Lord sent a plague throughout the land of Egypt, and whoever had their door marked by the blood of the lamb, death passed over them; thus the name Passover (Exodus 12:13). Symbolically, this represented our salvation from spiritual death by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
The Egyptians, however, did not have their doorposts marked; therefore, their firstborn were struck dead (Exodus 12:12). The very next morning, Pharaoh was so tired of striving with the Lord that he finally allowed the Israelites to depart from Egypt (Exodus 12:31). The Passover represented their freedom from slavery; and this is what Moses commanded the people to remember: the day of their freedom.
The Cost of Freedom
I want us to take a few moments to reflect on our country’s freedom. The official day of our freedom was on July 4, 1776 when the thirteen colonies signed the Declaration of Independence and sent it to England to be read by King George III.(3) Even though the thirteen colonies declared freedom as an independent nation, the people were not yet completely free. There were numerous wars to be fought and many lives to be paid as the cost for freedom. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the estimated casualties that have resulted from our country’s fight for freedom over the past three centuries:
In the Revolutionary War 33,000 soldiers died; in the War of 1812 7,000 soldiers died; in the Mexican War 13,000 perished; during the Civil War 980,000 died; in the Spanish-American War 4,000 died; in World War I 320,000 U.S. soldiers gave their lives; in World War II 1,078,000 died; in the Korean War 157,000 soldiers perished; during the Vietnam War 111,000 gave their lives; in the Gulf War there were 700; and in the War on Terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been nearly 7000 deaths.(4) This is not a comprehensive list of all the American wars; however, a total of the figures presented reveal that there have been an estimated 2,710,700 U.S. soldiers who have died over the past three centuries.
They died fighting for our country’s freedom. Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” It is true that some of these men and women died out of a sense of duty to the military, but I would like to think that many of them also died out of love for their family and friends; and I am sure a great number of them did! Let us never forget their sacrifice of love and the great price they paid for our freedom. I wish to share a story by Paul Harvey that illustrates the cost associated with both freedom and life:
It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour, which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.
Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean. For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest sharks . . . ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie’s own words, “Cherry,” that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off.”
Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking . . . “Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food . . . if I could catch it.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice.
You know that Captain Eddie made it. And now you also know that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking . . . white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent. His bucket was filled with shrimp to feed the gulls, to remember that one, which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle.(5)
Just as Eddie Rickenbacker never forgot the gull that gave its life, we should never forget the soldiers of our country who gave their lives. Because that sea gull gave up its life, Eddie got a second chance; and because many brave men and women have died in the armed services fighting for our country’s freedom, we too have a chance at life – a life of liberty. We must not forget that both freedom and life never come without a price. The blood of many soldiers paid for the freedom that we experience today, just as the blood of the lamb of Passover paid for the lives of millions of Israelites. A price has to be paid for freedom and life, and that price is the death of another. Someone, or something, has to die in order that we might live.
Our country’s soldiers died that we might have a life of freedom, and Jesus died that we might have life eternal. In the story of the Passover, the blood of a lamb was marked on the doorposts and lintel, and this caused the destroyer to pass over the households that were marked; thus, granting them life. If you will recall, I mentioned that this marking of the doorposts made the sign of a cross, and this represented the cross of Jesus Christ upon which the very Lamb of God would give His own life that we might live forever in God’s kingdom.
Our soldiers died for our country’s freedom; and Jesus died for our spiritual freedom, for He said in John 8:36, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” In John 10:10, Jesus told us, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Jesus paid for our spiritual freedom and gave us a crown in heaven when He died on the cross. Michael English said, “There’s not a crown without a cross.” There is no freedom without the shedding of blood, for Hebrews 9:22 says that “without [the] shedding of blood there is no remission.” We must never forget our many soldiers who died for our freedom here in America; and most importantly, we must never forget our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave His own life on the cross that we might have eternal life.
A Symbol of Hope
In the song “I’m Proud to Be an American” there is a part that says, “The flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away.” The flag of our nation stands as a symbol of freedom, and we can’t look at it without remembering the untold sacrifices that were made for our liberty. Our nation’s flag is a symbol of hope, and in war it has been a guide to soldiers lost in the heat of battle.
Visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History can see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. The original flag measured 42 feet by 30 feet. It was the immense size of the flag that allowed Key to see it from his position ten miles out to sea, following a night of gunfire.
The means by which a flag that large could fly on a pole 189 feet in the air is on display at Fort McHenry on Baltimore’s inner harbor. There in one of the barracks are two oak timbers, eight feet by eight feet, joined as a cross. National Park Service personnel discovered this cross-shaped support near the entrance to Fort McHenry in 1958 buried nine feet in the ground. Not only did the cross piece help rangers locate the original site from which the Star-Spangled Banner flew, it answered the mystery of how such a large flag could fly in the stormy weather without snapping the pole. This unseen wooden device provided a firm support and foundation for the symbol of our national freedom; and similarly, the cross of Christ provides the foundation by which our faith is rooted and supported.(6)
Just as we look to our nation’s flag as a symbol of hope, we must also remember to look to the cross of Jesus for hope. When we look at our flag the red stripes remind us of the blood of many soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom, but when we look at the cross we remember the blood that was shed for our spiritual freedom. This Memorial Day, let us remember both our soldiers and our Savior who gave their lives for our freedom.
Time of Reflection
In John 15:13, when Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” He was referring to His own sacrifice on the cross. Jesus died in order to pay the price for the sins of all mankind; and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). He gave His life on the cross for those who are called His friends; and in John 15:14, Jesus identified His friends, saying this: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” So, what does the Lord command? The answer is found in 1 John 3:23: “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”
In order for His sacrifice on the cross to take effect in your life, you must do as He commands, which is to believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” I invite you to come today and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; to be forgiven of your sins and receive eternal life.
(1) Gerald Flury, “Memorial Stones,” taken from the Internet May 2003 at http:// www.sermoncentral.com.
(2) David Whitten, “Every Sunday is a Memorial Day,” taken from the Internet May 2003 at http://www.sermoncentral.com.
(3) Independence Day on the Net, taken from the Internet May 2004 at http://www. holidays.net/independence/.
(4) Casualties of American Wars, taken from the Internet May 2003 at http://www. nationalist.org/gallery/charts/dirty.html; United States Military Causalities of War, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_casualties_of_war.
(5) Paul Audrandt, “The Old Man and the Gulls,” from Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story, 1977; quoted in Heaven Bound Living (Knofel, Stanton: Standard, 1989), p. 79.
(6) Greg Asimakoupoulos, author and speaker, Naperville, Illinois.