As we begin the new year, let’s reflect on two other time beginnings - the beginning of a sports event and the beginning of a week. For some people, those two are very much alike.
We begin a sports event by singing our National Anthem. Our National Anthem is from a poem written by Francis Scott Key as he was being held on a British ship positioned to bombard Fort McHenry near Baltimore during the War of 1812. Key’s mission at that time was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes who had been captured during a recent raid on Washington. The two men were detained on the ship so as not to warn the US soldiers of the plan to attack the fort.
The first verse of Key’s poem accounts his view of the fort’s flag at the “twilight’s last gleaming.” By “the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air” he got glimpses of the flag during the night’s bombardment. We can imagine that he hoped, and likely believed, that Fort McHenry would stand against the British onslaught. But the only real assurance of victory was the continuing glimpses of the flag. In the “dawns early light” his spirits rose as the flag had not been removed in defeat. This was a minor victory in the thirty-two month war, but the poem became a rallying cry for ultimate victory in all wars.
To tell that story in a typical sporting event consumes about .5% of the time invested in that event.
Now let me transfer those thoughts to another .5% of time - the portion of a week that some of us spend in communal worship of God. I have been preaching off and on in church for about forty years. For many years I thought that the main reason for going to church was to hear the preacher read a passage from the Bible and then impart some practical advice for living based on that passage. I will have to confess that whenever I did that kind of message I was speaking to myself. Furthermore, as the following week progressed I found that I didn’t do so well in heeding my own advice. I couldn’t expect more from my listeners.
No. We come to church like Francis Scott Key having battled the previous week with our personal battles. They could be some addiction or simply battling to love some person who is hard to love. We may have seen glimpses of victory during the past week but we have no assurance of victory in our own strength because we live on an enemy ship. In our time of assembly we will have the sign of God’s victory illuminated by the light of Jesus. The sign is the Cross rather than the flag - the Cross in visible display - the Cross in songs - the Cross in the spoken word - the Cross as we eat the bread and drink the wine - the Cross in our fellowship with one another. We gather to celebrate that victory over sin that was won in 30 CE in human time and was won before the creation of the world in God’s timeless realm.
And as we leave the Church building we leave a little bit like the way we want a sports team to go into a contest. Regardless of what the score is at the end of the game we want the teams to have a pre-game victory by playing fair. If the opposing team does not play fair, we want “our” team to give up their “right” to get even. “Getting even” means not believing the already-won victory. Giving up our “right” to get even is one way of looking at Jesus’ call to “carry the cross.”
We must keep the Cross in view from morning until night.
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early