You either love him or loathe him. He is one of the most popular, well known, larger than life faces on TV. Usually Jeremy Clarkson is to be seen extolling the virtues of shiny new cars on BBC2’s Top Gear. But a while back he talked with a passion of something far more fundamental – the often forgotten heroism of men who risked their lives for their country.
Clarkson presented a BBC documentary, “The Victoria Cross: For Valour”, examining the stories of some of our VC heroes, focusing on the one he found so personally inspirational, including his father-in-law he never knew but deeply admired.
The scene was Holland, in mid-September 1944. Airborne forces were attempting to capture a key bridge at Arnhem during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.
Major Robert Cain commanded a company of the South Staffordshire Regiment. These men landed eight miles from the so-called “Bridge Too Far” where the British were fighting desperately to retain their foothold at the north end. Disaster struck. The Germans sprang an ambush and 300 of our men lost their lives, including two of Robert Cain’s closest friends.
With the remnants of his force retreating, Major Cain and the remainder of the company had a stark choice, to fight or surrender. And fight they did, losing another 40 men before being ordered to the last-stand defence of a village surrounded by 6,000 German troops armed with tanks, rocket launchers and 100 heavy guns. Single-handedly, Cain destroyed three Tiger tanks, standing in the open. He was temporarily blinded but after recovering, he turned the defence into a counter attack with such ferocity that the Germans were eventually forced to withdraw, allowing Cain’s men to escape across the Rhine.
For his courage and leadership, Major Robert Cain received the Victoria Cross, the highest, most prestigious award bestowed for gallantry. It is a sobering to remember that nine out of every 10 recipients died in the action which led to their being honoured. In its 149-year history, only 1,354 have ever been awarded, and as Clarkson discovered, the feats of the men who received it were truly remarkable. Major Robert Cain was one of the few who survived to enjoy the honour of being presented with his VC.
Jeremy Clarkson was clearly moved by the stories he told in the programme, not least that of his own father-in-law. And it prompted him to ponder a simple question which, in this period of remembrance for British soldiers lost in battle… I want us to spend a little while reflecting on this morning… He asked: “How can we call the likes of David Beckham a hero for scoring a goal? I wonder who your heroes are today? And what about your children and grandchildren? Who are the heroes pinned to their bedroom walls? What kind of people do you aspire to be like? What kind of people do we want our children to aspire to be like?
I suggest we include the local men and women we honour today whose names are recorded on these memorials. For they paid the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). This is the radical lifestyle Jesus invites us to. Please turn with me to Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus spells out the steps to becoming a real hero. It is one thing to give your life to save a friend, to put your life on the line for a neighbour, to fight to defend your country. But Jesus calls us to an even higher standard of heroism. Jesus calls us to a radical, supernatural lifestyle.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
This is the kind of love that characterizes an authentic Christ follower.
1. Love Your Enemies (Matthew 5:44)
The love that God commands of us is love so great that it even embraces our enemies. When Jesus said, “I tell you, love your enemies,” he must have startled his audience, for he was saying something that probably had never been said so succinctly, so positively, and so forcefully before. The human tendency is to base love on the desirability of the object of our love. We love people who are attractive, we love hobbies that are enjoyable, a house or a car because it looks nice.
The love of which Jesus speaks here, however, and which is most spoken of in the New Testament, is agape. The love that seeks and works to meet another’s highest welfare.
“Eight times the Ministry of Education in East Germany said no to Uwe Holmer’s children when they tried to enroll at the university in East Berlin. The Ministry of Education didn’t usually give reasons for its rejection of applications for enrollment. But in this case the reason wasn’t hard to guess. Uwe Holmer, the father of the eight applicants, was a Lutheran pastor at Lobetal, a suburb of East Berlin. For 26 years the Ministry of Education was headed by Margot Honecker, wife of East Germany’s premier, Erich Honecker….[Then] when the Berlin wall cracked….Honecker and his wife were unceremoniously dismissed from office. Under indictment for criminal activities the Honeckers were evicted from their luxurious palace in Vandlitz, an exclusive suburb of palatial homes reserved for the VIPs in the party. The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go. No one wanted to identify with the Honeckers… Enter Uwe Holmer.
Remembering the words of Jesus, ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,’ Holmer extended an invitation to the Honeckers to stay with his family in the parsonage of the parish church in Lobetal…. Pastor Holmer’s charity was not shared by the rest of the country. Hate mail poured in. Some members of his own church threatened to leave or cut back their giving.
Pastor Holmer defended his actions in a letter to the newspaper. “In Lobetal,” he wrote, “there is a sculpture of Jesus inviting people to himself and crying out, ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ We have been commanded by our Lord Jesus to follow him and to receive all those who are weary and heavy laden, in spirit and in body, but especially the homeless… What Jesus asked his disciples to do is equally binding on us.
This kind of agape love is the love that God is, that God shows us, and therefore expects of us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us“ (Rom. 5:5, 8).
God’s love sees all the hatefulness and all the wickedness of the enemy yet desires to free him from his hate, to do him the highest good, to rescue him from his sin, and save his soul. Our “enemies,” of course, do not always come in life–threatening forms. Often they are people who are simply mean, impatient, judgmental, self–righteous, spiteful—or just happen to disagree with us.
In all our personal relationships, God commands us to love them. Whether a conflict is with our spouse, our children or parents, our friends our fellow church members, a devious business opponent, spiteful neighbour, political foe, our attitude toward them must be one of love. The world says retaliate. Jesus says reconcile. Jesus commands us to love our enemies. How can we do that when we don’t want to?
2. Pray for Your Persecutors (Matthew 5:44)
Charles Spurgeon said, “Prayer is the forerunner of mercy. ” I like that – the forerunner of mercy.
I’m sure you have found that when you start to pray for someone you don’t get on with, God begins to answer your prayer by softening your attitude toward them. We must love them because of who they are—sinners fallen from the image of God and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace, just as we were and do. We must pray for them that they will, as we have done, seek His forgiveness and grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who suffered and eventually was killed in Nazi Germany, wrote of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:44,
“This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves and pleading to God for them.”
Love our enemies and pray for them. Why should we love like this? Because God’s desire thirdly,
3. Become Like Jesus (Matthew 5:45-48)
The sum of all that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount—in fact, the sum of all He teaches in Scripture—is contained in these words. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).
To love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors shows that we are children of our Father who is in heaven. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
God’s will is nothing less than that we become like him. That which God commands, He provides. Our own self-righteousness is possible, but is so imperfect that it is worthless; God’s righteousness is humanly impossible because it is perfect. But the impossible righteousness becomes possible when we consciously, daily, willingly, lay aside our reputation, lay aside our rights, lay aside our self-righteousness, lay aside our pride, and trust Jesus Christ to give us His love for all, friend, neighbour, enemy.
And that is precisely our Lord’s point here – to lead His audience and us to an overpowering sense of our own spiritual bankruptcy – to realise that only Jesus can turn us from enemies of God into children of God.
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation– if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” (Colossians 1:21-22).
Jesus didn’t die just for his friends. He died for his enemies to make them his friends. He died for all who have ignored God, all who have rebelled against God, all who have denied God. God’s enemies. That is what we remain unless we come in repentance and sorrow for all we have thought and said and done that has grieved God, has angered God. Jesus gave his life to be your Saviour, the Saviour of the world. Today we rightly remember with respect and honour the heroes whose names are written on those tablets.
There is another list of names. Its in heaven. One day we will get to see it. Get to see if our names are included. Its called the Lamb’s Book of life. It’s a list of all those who have acknowledged Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. All those who, because they have received Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, have made peace with God. Have come over from the enemy side. Have had their guilt removed, their past wiped clean and their eternal future secure.
Today on Remembrance Sunday we realize we all need heroes. And we can be a hero to those we love, if we love our enemies, if we pray for those who persecute us and if we become like Jesus. Today we also realize, above all else, we need a Saviour to turn us from enemies into friends. Lets pray.
With grateful thanks to John MacArthur’s commentary on Matthew and Nicky Gumbel’s Challenging Lifestyles