I Shall Return
19 April 2008, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
'I SHALL RETURN'
The year was 1308 AD and a young Florentine poet was to commence writing what has been considered today as a classic masterpiece of literature called 'The Divine Comedy'. His book was to consist of three parts entitled: The Inferno, The purgatory and The Paradise and was designed to share with us our individual pilgrimage through the realms of death (Dowley, 1996: 331).
Born in 1265 in the beautiful city of Florence in northern Italy, Dante Alighieri was to set his course and make his mark in history.
While the purpose of 'The Comedy' was to outline the removal of those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of bliss, its views were also to show how Christianity in these early periods of history was to absorb and promote the pagan philosophies known at that time.
Ideas that had been brought from Egypt and Greece were all to contribute to the nightmare vision of damnation so well portrayed in this major historical work. Dante was now to put the ideas of medieval theology into poetic form and become the first writer in all Christendom to write in the everyday language of the people (Collins & Price, 2003: 113).
Down through history we see the ongoing influence of Dante's work and of many others who offered similar ideas. This was to be seen in both Christian art and preaching. We see devils torturing the damned along with hideous monsters destroying them at every step. Unfortunately, none of this is to be found anywhere in the Scriptures and, in the eyes of the people, it had the ultimate result of turning a loving God into a God of cruelty (Guthridge, 1999: 99).
In 1465 an artist by the name of Domenico di Michelino, inspired by Dante's work, tried to capture the essence of his writings in a painting called 'Dante with his Poem'. On the left side of his painting we find the gate to Dante's hell that bore the dire message 'Abandon hope all ye that enter here'. It would seem that this inscription was not put there by accident because, for those viewing this scene, Hell would have represented absolute hopelessness.
That same sense of hopelessness was to be felt by many who entered the holocaust of war that exploded on a global scale in the early part of this century. The imagery of war could be likened to Dante's inferno and for many it felt like they were entering the very gates of hell.
In an address to the United States Senate in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said, 'The League of Nations is the only hope of mankind.' What a futile and tragic hope that turned out to be (Tan, 1991: 992)
Since that time a succession of wars and conflicts have continued to disrupt life and the solutions that were offered seemed to have dissipated into the thin air of history.
The following words of General Douglas MacArthur were to sum up the feeling of those times. In analysing this period of history he was to suggest that 'Men since the beginning of time have sought peace…military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now [even] blots out this alternative (Ibid).
War needs to be seen as it really is, in all of its wretchedness, death, destruction, futility and horror that it brings to ordinary people. It is for this reason that Australians have set aside a memorial day of reflection to encourage the present generation to work towards finding alternatives to war in order to make the world a better place to live.
Each year we take time to remember the men and women of those wars. Anzac Day is an Australian Day of Remembrance. It is a day to pause and reflect on the sacrifices made by those thousands of Australian men and women who served Australia in wartime. Even if it was believed they died in a vain and futile war, achieving nothing more than bringing suffering to many of our fellow humans, we need to hold their memory as sacred. Anzac Day is not seen as a day to glorify war. It is understood that the greatest sacrifice that anyone can make is to die to protect someone else.
This morning I want you to listen as I read the Ode of Remembrance and then let's remain silent while the Bugler plays the Last Post.
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(THE LAST POST)
During the final stages of the Second World War in the South-West Pacific the Allied forces were under way to bring about the liberation of the Philippines. This was a key objective in bringing about the defeat of the Japanese forces that had wreaked havoc throughout these areas. The Filipino people felt abandoned in the early part of the enemy occupation as the United States was seen to be concentrating all of its efforts in the European campaign.
The voice of Tokyo Rose rubbed further salt into their wounds by telling them that defeat and death were to be their fate while America's aid went elsewhere (Reader's Digest, 1970: 175).
The one man that stood against the tide was an American General by the name of Douglas MacArthur.
Described by his critics as a flamboyant, theatrical and arrogant man, he was nonetheless believed to be the man for the hour. Very early in his life MacArthur developed the conviction that he was a child of destiny and it would seem that it was about to be fulfilled.
While some of the military would have bypassed the Philippines after the surrender of Manila, he strongly opposed such views. After virtually receiving no reinforcements or supplies, and fighting against much superior forces, the American and Philippine troops after absorbing murderous punishment, could only hold out for a further five months (Ibid: 172).
Under protest, MacArthur was evacuated from the besieged fortress of Corregidor after dusk on the 11th March 1942. The PT (patrol-torpedo) boat that whisked him away made its way to Mindanao Island where he was to be flown by an American bomber to Batchelor Airfield near Darwin. It was in a speech delivered after he arrived that his now famous words to the Philippine people were spoken. 'I Shall Return'.
It is hard to imagine the effect of those words on a subjugated people in wartime. 'I Shall Return'. Liberation from the enemy was to become their greatest hope and they were to wait patiently, even though amid suffering, for it to be realised.
From the middle of 1942 when Australian and American forces inflicted a series of defeats against the Japanese forces, MacArthur steered the allied offensive towards the Philippines. It took more than two years to advance across New Guinea and the islands of Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) to be within reach of his goal. In October 1944 MacArthur stood at a microphone on the invasion beach at Leyte, in the midst of a raging battle to make good his pledge.
'People of the Philippines', he said slowly and emotionally, 'I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil…The hour of your redemption is here…!' (Ibid).
Two thousand years ago on the Mount of Olives a promise was made to a band of anxious men as they watched a miraculous event that was taking place before their very eyes. As the disciples watched, a cloud enveloped their beloved teacher as he ascended to the courts above to be reunited with His Father in heaven. It almost seemed that all their hopes and dreams were to be completely destroyed as He disappeared from their view.
However, while they were watching, two angels in human form appear and give them a wonderful promise that was recorded in Acts 1: 11. Let's read what it says:
'Men of Galilee, they said, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.'
Jesus was going to come back and it was this wonderful hope of His soon return that was to spur the Christian movement to almost encompass the then known world by the end of the first century AD. This frenetic activity was to be aided by a very special gift that Jesus had already spoken to them about. It was to give a power to this movement that was seen to be miraculous in its effect upon the peoples of that age.
Jesus had made it very clear in Acts 1: 4, 5 that the disciples were not to leave Jerusalem, but were to wait for the gift that His Father had promised and that He, himself, had spoken to them about. He says, 'For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised by the Holy Spirit.' They were then commissioned to take the good news to the very '…ends of the earth (Acts 1: 8). In all of this, Jesus says in Matt 28: 20 that '…surely I am with you always to the very end of the age' and in Matt 24: 14 He says that when '…this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'
While this promise is sure, we are told in Matt 24: 36 that 'No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.'
As we look forward to the fulfilment of the promise Jesus made we need to remember that watching is not the only thing that believers need to do. In Mark 13: 32-37 Jesus makes clear that those waiting for His return must be faithful servants. Being faithful while we wait and watch sums up the most important lesson that Jesus gave in regard to His return.
William Barclay the well-known New Testament scholar suggests '…that we must so live that it does not matter when He comes. It gives us the great task in life of making every day fit for Him to see, and being at any moment ready to meet Him face to face. All life becomes a preparation to meet the King' (Barclay, 1975: 321).
As history records, the early Christians, through their suffering and persecution, looked and longed for the release that the coming of their Lord would bring.
We see the same situation occurring in the interim period between the time the words of hope were given by MacArthur and his final return that was ultimately to bring release and freedom to the Philippine people. His words, I shall return' had lit a flame that became a symbol of hope. It was scraped in the sands of the beaches, it was daubed on the walls of buildings, it was stamped on the mail and was whispered in the cloisters of the churches. It finally became the battle cry of a great underground swell that no enemy bayonet could ever still (Readers Digest, 1970: 177).
However, it was to take two years before that promise could be fulfilled and this was to be a test of the hope and the faith that these people had been given. With the passing of time there is a tendency to lose sight of the promise or to believe that it will never take place, or it is so far in the future that any sense of urgency to be ready is put aside.
However, for the Filipino people, there were signs that MacArthur was steering his offensive towards their homeland. In 1943 his forces drove the enemy out of southeast New Guinea followed by northeast New Guinea, western New Britain and the Admiralty Islands. These victories had the effect of isolating the Japanese base at Rabaul eventually allowing the recapture of western New Guinea and Moratai. One month later MacArthur was able to fulfil his pledge to the Philippine people when he landed on the island of Leyte on October 20, 1944 (World Book, Vol 13, 1989: 3).
The signs of his return became a source of encouragement amongst a people who continued to suffer from deprivation, destruction and despair. Through sheer exhaustion many of the Philippine soldiers and civilians continued to die as they fought a war that they believed would eventually end in victory and freedom. Knowing that the time was near provided the motivation to continue in the most discouraging of circumstances.
While we are told that 'Hope' constitutes one of the great unquenchable characteristics of the human spirit. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of Britain's eminent preachers of the nineteenth century qualifies this by saying that: 'Without Christ there is no hope' (Water, 2000: 495).
Before Jesus left the earth he provided a clear description to His disciples of the signs that would precede His coming. Matthew 24: 1-3 tells us that Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives when the disciples came to Him privately and asked Him to tell them when the destruction of the temple would occur. They also asked Him what would be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age as they saw all these events as being closely entwined. While many of the signs Jesus was to speak about had a fulfilment in the fall of Jerusalem, they were also applicable to the events leading up to His final return to this earth.
In mingling the description of these events Jesus, in His mercy, enabled the disciples to take in what they were able to endure at that time. If He had not taken this approach the future events, as He beheld them, would have been too much for them to bear. However, this was to be a message not only for the disciples, but particularly for those who were to live in the last days of this earth's history (White, 1940: 628). Let's begin by reading Matt 24: 4-13 (NIV)
'Jesus answered, ' Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, I am the Christ, and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains.
Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm until the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'
From these mingled descriptions of Jerusalem's fall and the events of the future Jesus now passes to the greater event of His coming that has been called the last link in the chain of this earth's history.
The time between these events have been viewed as centuries of darkness when the church was marked with blood, tears and agony. It is interesting that Jesus was to briefly pass over this period by mentioning in Matt 24: 21, 22 (KJV), that there would be '…a great tribulation such as was not seen since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.'
As history records, for more than one thousand years, Christ's followers were to be persecuted as never been seen before. Millions upon millions of His faithful witnesses were to be slain (White, 1940: 631). If God's hand had not been over them, all would have perished. If the days had not been shortened, the elect would have been no more.
Jesus now commands the attention of His disciples by speaking of His second coming in a form that could not be misunderstood. It is here, mingled with the signs of Jerusalem's destruction, that He outlines the dangers that will also precede this glorious event of the ages (Ibid).
Let's read His words in Matthew 24: 23-27 (KJV)
'…If any man shall say unto you, Lo here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christ's, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, He is in the desert; go not forth: behold, He is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.'
False prophets and false Christs showing signs and wonders have become an attraction to thousands of people throughout the world. Spiritualism, faith healing, and the communion with spirits of the dead is a clarion call to recognise the times in which we live.
While providing these signs of His coming, the Lord goes even further and fixes the time when many of these signs would appear. Let's read Matt 24: 29-31 (KJV)
'Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.'
At the end of the great persecutions of the medieval period Jesus declared that the sun would be darkened, and the moon should not give her light. Next the stars should fall from heaven.
And then He says in Matt 24: 32, 33, 'Learn a parable from the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that He is near, even at the doors
Jesus has made it clear that we may know when He is near, even at the doors. For those who see these signs, He says in Matt 24: 34: 'This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.'
Today, we know that these signs have already appeared which should tell us that the Lord's coming is not far away. 'Heaven and earth shall pass away, He says in Matt 24: 35, 'but My words shall not pass away.'
Dear friends, Jesus is going to return. His promises are sure and He has not forgotten. He will come back to honour those who have loved Him and have been faithful to Him and He will take them to himself. This will be the final relinking of the family chain.
Just like the Filipino people, the signs of his return will become a source of encouragement amongst a people who continue to suffer from the deprivation, destruction and despair found in this sinful world. Many will die fighting a war they believe will eventually end in victory and freedom. Knowing that the time is near should provide the motivation to continue in the most discouraging of circumstances.
A little longer and we shall see the King in all His beauty.
A little longer and He will wipe away all tears from our eyes.
A little longer and He will present us faultless 'before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy (Jude 24) (Ibid: 632).
When He gave the signs of His coming, He made it clear in Luke 21: 28 that 'When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh'.
Barclay, William (1975) The Daily Study Bible - The Gospel of Mark. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press.
Collins, M. & Price, M. A. (2003) The Story of Christianity - 2000 Years of Faith. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Dowley, T. (ed) (1996) A Lion Handbook - The History of Christianity. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson.
Guthridge, I. (1999) The Rise and Decline of the Christian Empire. Middle Park, Victoria, Australia: Medici School Publications
Readers Digest (1970) Readers Digest Illustrated Story of World War II. Sydney, Australia: The Readers Digest Association Proprietary Limited.
Water, M. (2000) The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations. Hampshire, UK: John Hunt Publishing Ltd.
White, E. G. (1940) The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association
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