Read Isaiah 11:1-10
Oh say does that Start Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
If you are an American from my generation that last part of the first verse likely gives you chills. It is beyond special. The national anthem is personal. It communicates hope not just for one but for many. The last part of the verse asks the current generation: Did you keep hope and liberty alive in your time?
Is our flag—that Star Spangled Banner—still flying?
On 23 February 1945—a date that doesn’t ring a bell with most Americans—Joseph Rosenthall of the Associated Press took a picture that is forever etched in the memory of Marines of the last 70 plus years. It is a simple picture of an American flag being raised atop Mount Suribachi on the Island of Iwo Jima.
It was actually the second flag raised on Suribachi that day. Gunnery Sergeant Louis Lowery of Leatherneck Magazine captured the image of the first flag, but the first flag was too small to be seen by many fighting on the lower parts of the island.
But when the second, larger flag went up, so did the countenance of every Marine on the island. Realize that this was not isolated battle. It came near the end of an island hopping campaign that included places with names known to only a few Americans before that time. They were places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Kwajalein, Guam, and Tinian and these battles spilled more American blood than had been shed since the Civil War.
When the Marines arrived at Tarawa just about 73 years ago, the Japanese commander had claimed that it would take one million men over one thousand years to take the island. By the time that the battle for Iwo Jima came around, Marines knew the names of more men that they had buried than the names of those fighting beside them on those February days.
There was no post-traumatic stress treatment. What followed the trauma of battle was getting back on the ship and heading to the next battle. The reward for surviving the current battle was to be sent to the next.
But when the American Flag—the second and larger flag—was hoisted, hope became new and fresh and real once again for those Marines. That battle was not yet over, but hope was restored, and that hope reached far beyond the blackened sands of that small Pacific Island.
What do 70-year-old battles on the other side of the world have to do with Advent and Christmas?
Hope and expectation, that’s what.
In a simple moment, that hoisted banner brought hope to those fighting for inches of ground that had been soaked in the blood of their fellow Marines. It was a signal of salvation amidst the carnage of combat compressed onto a few square miles of island in the Pacific Ocean.
It said, all is not lost. Hang in there. Stay in the fight. Press on towards the goal. Your present struggles will pale into contrast to the victory ahead.
We do not experience anything near the intensity of battle that those men knew seven decades ago. Our lives are full of busyness and stress. One event leads into the next. There is always a tragedy on television and if not one can be contrived in a crunch. There is seldom bloodshed in our current daily struggles, but sometimes hope still seems to get lost in the shuffle.
We say that this is the day that the Lord has made and we really do try to rejoice in it, but sometimes we just seem overcome by events. The world seems to swallow us up. We can no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Advent causes us to look forward in anticipation. We look to a time when the lion and lamb will graze together. We contemplate a time when you won’t have to worry about your children being bitten by a snake.
Injustice will become an antiquated term having no further use in this era. Righteousness will be the currency of the world in the age to come.
But we live in this very messy, complicated, violent, and sometimes cruel world and hope is sometimes elusive. We need a beacon. We need a banner. We need a signal of the better—much better—age to come.
We know that we are saved from sin and death. Sometimes we just need to know that we are saved from our daily lives. We need something to focus on to give us hope in the here and now.
John the Baptist declared to the people who sought him at the Jordan River, “Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.” In those days, people would fix roads and repair bridges and remove any obstacles that would cause a king or emperor to detour should he announce his visit to them in advance.
John was talking about the preparation of the hearts of God’s people. The Messiah was coming to save them and would tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
We who live in this age partake of the season of Advent to prepare for the coming—in our case we prepare for the second coming—of the King. We know that he will come again. We know but we need something to signal us that Christ is coming for us.
This special celebration that God fulfilled his promises in the first Advent of the Lord is our affirmation that he will also deliver on the second.
And so in anticipation of his second coming, we celebrate his first. We celebrate Christmas and the story that we know of a star in the east, no room at the inn, and a babe in a manger.
We celebrate angels with messages of good news and great joy.
We celebrate kings from afar bringing gifts fit for a king and appropriate for his arrival into the very world that would crucify him.
We celebrate in singing Joy to the World, the Lord has come!
Isaiah wrote to a people given over to oppressors because of years of apostasy. They had been warned. They ignored the warnings and judgment was upon them; yet even in judgment, there was hope.
Even as the Babylonians and Assyrians and Egyptians had the upper hand over God’s Chosen People; the prophet spoke of hope in a time to come.
There was a time when the captives returned to their Promised Land. There was a time when the temple was rebuilt. We know these things as history. We know much of Isaiah’s prophecy as well as other prophets of this time have been fulfilled already, but some is yet to come.
A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse was fulfilled once in the birth of Jesus into the world in the Davidic line, but all foretold has not yet come to pass. Jesus must come again for that.
A land without predator animals seems hard to envision. The big fish eats the little fish and the bear catches the big fish and eats it. That’s the natural order that we know. But there will be a new order that will follow a millennial reign and heaven and earth made new and things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard that the Lord, God has in store for us.
But in the here and now we need a banner, a flag raising, something to give us hope. Christmas can be that banner.
There should be anticipation and hope and peace and joy in this advent season that leads up to the celebration of the birth of our Savior.
The Hebrew people came home from exile in foreign lands. One day we will all be home with our God and our Lord in a city that needs neither sun nor moon for light. We will know a time where peace and justice and love are the order of the day.
But for today, we are still mired in the conflicts and struggles of the world. Celebrating the resurrection gives us hope and joy. So too celebrating Christmas can give us a glimpse into what the Lord has in store for us.
Let this time of year be a banner of hope, peace, love, and joy for us and to those whom we encounter. We are to be banners to those around us. Jesus called us the light of the world. He called us the salt of the earth.
While we who have been saved and know salvation need banners and signals; those who are lost need them all the more.
Two millennia ago John the Baptist proclaimed to all that would hear his voice, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.”
Jesus brought that kingdom and we may know it now even in this world and in this life, though by knowing his kingdom, we become strangers in the here and now.
But Jesus will come again and we will live in his kingdom and there will be no strangers.
He will come again. Know this to be true.
See Christmas as a banner of hope, joy, peace, and love of that time to come.
Live a life worthy of the repentance we have made and the salvation that we know for one day Jesus himself will stand as that banner and we will be summoned into his wonderful presence.