We don’t seem to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” very often anymore. If so, perhaps our neglect of this great Christian hymn is a product of our times–a shying away from things military toward a kinder, gentler approach even to church life, leaving “like a mighty army” to other radical religious persuasions intent upon taking over the world.
Or perhaps it is that “Onward Christian Soldiers” was written for schoolchildren and intended as a children’s processional. We’ve seen more than enough of life in dictatorial societies where children are ruthlessly indoctrinated―already at a young age lined up and “marching as to war.” Lining up our Sunday School children on the sacristy steps to sing to the congregation of going “forward into battle” may seem a bit harsh and disagreeable to our senses.
Or perhaps we are feeling a little timid these days about Christianity’s standing in this world, increasingly the party out of power. We can easily feel less like “a mighty army” and more like a guerilla group. To be sure, we know that things are going to turn out all right in the end, but to sing robustly of the “happy throng” of men and angels pressing onward to victory while “kingdoms rise and wane” may seem a bit over the top.
Then perhaps we should remember again (and again) that we have every reason to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and sing it resoundingly. We are at war, as St. Paul reminds us. This war is carried on within us (Rom. 7:23) and without (Eph. 6:12). We are soldiers enlisted, as St. Paul reminds Timothy, to “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18) and to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).
A new starting point now and then could be helpful, an occasion to fall in and start off again on the right foot, an occasion even to approach others of our army who appear to have gone AWOL. A specific day on the calendar could be particularly helpful—a day to regroup, a day to remember that we still are the church militant on this earth, a day to press forward and gain some new ground, a day to break out Baring-Gould’s children’s processional and sing it with renewed gusto: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before!”
If so, we just missed a day with potential. How about this past Friday, March 4th? It has the right ring to it. Say that date a few times with military gusto and you will recognize that you are saying “March forth!” It could be the perfect “Command Day!”—our day each year to step up the pace of our Christian lives, to do even one extra thing to make a difference for Christ’s Kingdom, to take on some stubborn thing within our own lives that may be troubling the lives of others or doing harm to Christ’s Kingdom.
To my family’s dismay at times, I enjoy a good play on words. I’ve been advocating March 4th for years as a good day for a Christian rally-the-troops day, the day each year to join the ranks of fellow Christian soldiers and “march forth” like the mighty army we are. Obviously “Command Day” hasn’t caught on yet. It may take some time. But there still is time. We have until the great victory celebration of Revelation 7 when “Onward Christian Soldiers,” no longer needed, will take its rightful place among “Best-Loved Hymns of the Church Militant” in the heavenly music hall of fame, and a new victory anthem will have become the hymn of choice for the Church Triumphant: “Salvation Belongs to Our God Who Sits on the Throne, and to the Lamb!”
I learned last week that my Uncle Harold died. The “old people’s friend,” pneumonia, had ended his life. He departed quietly, in the same manner as he entered this world and lived his 88 years. A generation or two of time will likely erase his memory, captured by three quiet paragraphs in his obituary:
Harold was an active and faithful member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Bonduel. He worked at local cheese factories until 1953 when Harold and [his wife] Connie purchased a farm located by White Clay Lake. From 1960 to 1976 he also worked for Gabes Construction, a natural gas pipeline construction company.
After he retired from Gabes, he and Connie continued to farm until 1986 when their barn was destroyed by fire. They continued to live on the farm while renting out the land. During this period of his life he worked as a handyman in the area. In 2007 he moved to Meadow View in Bonduel and on Nov. 3, 2010, he moved to Birch Hill Care Center in Shawano.
Harold enjoyed traveling, playing dartball, and playing cards with his friends, his grandchildren, and great-grandchild.
Uncle Harold was a good man, quiet and unassuming, one of the “meek” of whom Jesus spoke in His beatitude (Matt. 5:5). He probably never held a copy of the Book of Concord in his hands. He would have listened with interest but probably not participated in a discussion of Law and Gospel or the two natures of Christ. He was just “an active and faithful member” who will now receive that “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge” (2 Tim. 4:8) will award him on Judgment Day.
I mention Uncle Harold as a tribute to all of the “active and faithful members” of our Lord’s church on earth who await “that day,” who have “fought the good fight,” who have pretty much “finished the course,” who have throughout the ups and downs of life “kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). I mention Uncle Harold to call them to mind while they finish their course, who would surely be encouraged by a pastoral visit this week or a hand of Schafskopf with a friend.
For me, Christmas later this week will again be enhanced by the “third dimension” of the Christmas Gospel provided in Revelation 12. While Luke 2 provides the human dimension and John 1 the divine dimension, Revelation 12 has a third dimension to add, a reminder of what else was going on while those shepherds were watching their flocks by night.
I’m not advocating changing the manger scene out on the front lawn, but Revelation 12 does suggest a rather startling addition to the sheep and the goats: a crouching great red dragon, the serpent that had been dreading Christmas ever since Genesis 3 and its words about the One to come who would “bruise” his head (v. 15). John’s vision in Revelation 12 vividly pictures the reception that the serpent had planned for the Child and His life on earth. Its grotesque imagery always arrests my attention again and helps me to remember the proportions and consequences of that birth that holy night.
Here is what John saw and recorded (vv. 1-6):
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
This vision, of course, has to do with much more than our Savior’s physical birth, but it does add another dimension to those offered by Luke 2 and John 1 that is helpful to celebrating Christmas. It is a potent reminder that the seemingly peaceful and quiet birth of the Christ Child away in the manger, announced by angels and observed by shepherds, which lends itself so well to Christmas cards and lawn displays, was not peaceful and quiet. Like the increasingly popular 3-D video productions of today’s entertainment industry, the rawness and brutality of Revelation 12 draws me into the picture and causes me to remember what really was going on that Christmas night.
This dark third dimension of the Bethlehem story was highlighted a number of years ago when Tamara and I were visiting Jerusalem and we hired a taxi to take us to Bethlehem. Our Israeli taxi took us as far as a Palestinian checkpoint, where we walked through a well-guarded opening in the barricade to take a Palestinian taxi for the remainder of our little journey.
After our visit to Bethlehem and upon our return to the checkpoint, our Israeli taxi was waiting as we had requested, but we found that we had arrived just at the changing of the Palestinian guard, which included moving some armored equipment just as we were about to depart. When our Israeli taxi driver refused to give way to a Palestinian vehicle, heated words were exchanged, and we found our taxi surrounded by heavily-armed men peering into our windows.
In due time, cooler heads prevailed, and our taxi was allowed to leave. But looking back, it actually was quite the appropriate experience for a visit to Bethlehem. Even today under the same skies where angels witnessed to peace on earth, mere meters removed from the place where the Christ Child in mercy lay down His sweet head (and ultimately His sinless life ) to make possible life together with God and men, the dragon still makes his presence known.
Revelation 12 goes on to picture the dragon very furious, intent upon a war of revenge against “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (v. 17), the story of our lives. But John also announces the dragon’s defeat and provides opportunity to witness our own victory celebration (Revelation 7).
Which is where our own three-dimensional lives of witness, mercy, and life together enter the picture. Giving witness, showing mercy, and living together as family in the Church flow from a deep appreciation of the Christmas Gospel in all its dimensions. May yours be that kind of 3-D Christmas this year.