John McCrae and Flanders Fields
The poppy has long been, in Canada and around the world, a memorial symbol of fallen soldiers. It has come to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others.
It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of the day we now call Remembrance Day. I did some reading about this man and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place, during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres – neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what he had seen by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother after that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds….. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches – holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them voice. It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd, 1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. Six days later he died at the age of 46. He was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields. (Source)
No Greater Love
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, so others could be safe, knowing what could happen.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
But, as Christians, we remember that every week – not only once a year, but every week on Sunday, it is our calling and joy to honour the One who willingly laid down His life to save our souls. Jesus Christ
What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that no one “took his life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but even it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice — the cross of Jesus Christ.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus said,
“I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
Jesus chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who deserve death. We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who should receive the punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us, so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example and an inspiration for bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication and sacrifice.
The Christian understands this best of all because we see it perfectly in Jesus. It is the perfect sacrifice of Jesus that drives the Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t think most believers are able to fully process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some. Those under persecution for their faith, and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. It came to be known as the term for those who were suffering for their faith, and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to Jesus, that that they were willing to die. The ultimate witness.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. It’s also a future reality. God promises that those who serve Him will be persecuted, and will be martyred.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this,
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country where we are in fear of losing our lives because of our faith. But it is coming. We must pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who are martyred in his name. It is not because they are cursed, or that God didn’t love them. They did not suffer and die because of their sin –Jesus already did that for them. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5,
“Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They were not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs will have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom, and will be given things by God that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. Their job is to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength. To learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous.
To his disciples, as He was sending them out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22 ESV)
Being a follower of Jesus requires our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages and our wills, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus give everything to Him because He has given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution is to believe, with every fibre of your being, that the claims of Jesus Christ are true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like it, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. The world is a smorgasbord of options, and they get to pick and choose – and they treat religion and Christianity the same way.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths. Our own picture of God. Then we can be happy.”
God doesn’t work that way – He doesn’t allow for that. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking about subjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, but to be discovered.
Christians who suffer through persecution know they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a subjective truth. For them, it’s certainty. Their faith isn’t a choice based on fashion or convenience. It is very real. God changed their hearts, revealed His presence, sent His Son, gave them the choice to be His, and sealed their salvation by His Holy Spirit. For them, it’s not about opinion – it’s either true or false. It’s a matter of life and death, and so they need to be very certain about putting their faith in the right person.
We talked a bit about this last week – we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said,
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them,
“…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was,
“Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
When Paul was under house arrest, not knowing if he would live or die, he said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:8)
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures, and the Christian martyrs who have come since, are not certain in themselves. They are not strong in themselves. They do not build their lives on their own foundation. They are strong in the Lord that they know will deliver them. They say along with Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12,
“…which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When they pray, they pray knowing that God hears them. 1 John 5:14-15 says,
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
They have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, and they believe Jesus when He says,
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:28-33)
I believe that with the certainty that I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be free from hypocrisy. They didn’t say one thing, and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Jesus, in the Parable of the Four Soils, which we’ve talked about before, speaks of a group of people who receive the gospel as a seed sown onto rocky ground. In Matthew 13:20-21 He says,
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Jesus says that there will be some people who will listen to the Word of God, and, at first, receive it with joy. They will hear the message of salvation through Jesus and like the idea of someone dying for them and saving them from sins. So they will accept it. “Thanks for the Gift, God!” They even grow a little bit in their faith, attending church, serving some, and doing the things believers do.
They love to sing about the promises Jesus offers. They love the idea of eternal life, joy in their heart, spiritual strength, the ability to flee temptation, freedom from addiction, the presence of the Holy Spirit. They have no problems with that kind of Christianity. Here’s the problem: Though “they understand some of the basics, they don’t allow God’s full truth to penetrate their souls and make a difference in their lives. They have no root.” (Life Application Commentary – Matthew Pg 264)
God starts to show them their sin, their idols, and areas of their lives that they need to submit to Him. They don’t want to, so they push Him aside. They love being served and loved among the believers, but when God calls them to work with difficult people, grant forgiveness for a wrong, and sacrificially serve, they refuse. And it starts to get uncomfortable.
Maybe they hang in there for a while, dodging responsibilities and avoiding accountability and real life change… but inevitably, by God’s design, the heat of persecution comes. They are forced to be honest. Do they believe? Are they certain of what they’ve been singing about? Will they believe all the promises of God? Or will they trust in their own wisdom and strength? Will they let Jesus save them, or will they try to save themselves?
Maybe they endure for a little while, but when it really starts to cost them something, they give it up. They convince themselves that it was a phase. They make up reasons for why the promises are untrue. They whither and fall away. For them, sorrow, trouble, loss, fear, sacrifice, and persecution make them turn away from God. They just aren’t sure it’s worth it.
The world serves up dozens of excuses for people to quit. Satan places a hundred different options before every believer, telling them that they will be better and easier than God’s way. This should be of no surprise. Jesus said,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture? Have you read Foxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about those who have died for the faith? Let me encourage you to. It is a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certain is your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it an unshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your roots buried deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life? What are you doing to grow those roots deeper?
Third, are you denying Jesus, even in small ways? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, and choose to pretend your not a Christian in that moment? Just avoiding talking about your faith? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something – but you know it will be a time of hardship – and because of your fear of suffering, or lack of faith, you aren’t obeying what God is asking you to do?
A 2nd century Christian author named Tertullian once said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Is it possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus? I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because of fear of man or lack of faith!
It is my prayer that you walk the narrow way. That you have certainty in the promises of God and you lean on them every day of your life. That you will allow God to use you His way, for His purposes, and trust that He knows what He is doing, and will not give you more than you can bear.
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to go, preach and die for the gospel. I do not want it, nor should any of us, but persecution for our faith is coming, and the ones who will have peace will be those who are fully committed to Jesus as their Lord. I hope you are certain that God loves you, that He will not forsake you, and that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)