“God of the Nations”

Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

There are few things that stir me up just as much as the Battle Hymn of the Republic does.

Whether it’s sung by a congregation, or my favorite recorded version- sung by the folk singer Odetta, it’s one of the most emotive and powerful songs ever written by an American.

It was, you may know, written by Julia Ward Howe, who was born in New York and who spent most of her life in Boston, so being in between those two cities, I think we should be able to claim her.

She wrote the song in November 1861, as the United States Civil War was beginning to ramp up into one of the first industrial wars of mass slaughter.

The first battle of Bull Run had taken place in July, resulting in a confederate victory that shocked the Union. Nor would things get much better for some time.  Mrs. Howe would have heard about the battle of Ball’s Bluff in October, another humiliating defeat for Union forces that resulted in the death of a sitting US senator, Senator Edward Baker, who was leading an army regiment.

So things were dark.

This might be why Mrs. Howe needed to included such…apocalyptic imagery in her poem.  The famous first verse draws on language from the book of Isaiah, which depicts the wrath of God as trampling on a wine press- the metaphorical grapes of wrath, with the spraying of the juice staining an otherwise clean robe just as blood stains bodies.

We see this imagery again in the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation, 3 chapters before our reading from today, describing The Word of God, who has a robe dipped in blood, leading the armies of heaven. There, the book of Revelation tells us that Jesus Christ will “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”

If you think this imagery is mighty bleak, powerful, and a little bit scary, you aren’t alone. It’s one of the reasons I don’t often preach from that part of the book of Revelation. Without proper social and political context, and spiritual preparation, it can be quite frankly, terrifying. 

Apocalypses, after all, are like revolutions: there is no going back from them.  When God sets things right, and punishes the wicked, we better all hope not that God is on our side, but that we are on God’s side.  And like revolutions, depictions of divine justice and intervention in an apocalypse do not bode well for people in power. 

Like a revolution, an apocalypse reveals that the control that people with power believe they have over the world around them is nothing more than dust in the wind. See the American, French, and Russian Revolutions.

Because these images are so powerful, they’re not something that we should invoke lightly.  Mrs. Howe did so in writing her song when her country’s future- and more than that, the future of a world without slavery, seemed to be in grave peril.

Indeed, the war that happened after this song was written was even more brutal than what happened before it. This was industrial scale warfare, with tens of thousands dead through combat, and many more dead through disease.

Being from the South, I can name some of those battles by heart, and we all should know some of them- they are the bloodiest days on American soil by far. Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Petersburg.

I say all this not as a pure history lecture, but because this is the background for our observance of Memorial Day, which started in Decoration day services, which involved local churches and individuals laying flowers on the gravesides of soldiers on Sunday afternoons and evenings.

Of course, people have been laying flowers on graves since time immemorial.  But in the aftermath of the civil war, this took on new meaning for a nation that was nearly cleaved in half, and was very slowly mending its deep wounds.

Many historians would say that it would take a full generation- until the outbreak of the Spanish American war in 1899, for things to really heal in the United States.

But I think the practice of Memorial Day- then known as decoration day- played a major role in this healing, even if on a local level. We can see this change happen through the period, moving from honoring just the dead on one’s side, to memorializing the war dead on both sides.

The first national commemoration of Decoration Day took place in 1868, at Arlington National Cemetary. Future President, but at the time Ohio Congressman and Brigadier General James A. Garfield, had this to say in the company of 5,000 living, and 15,000 dead:

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.”

In that statement, Garfield commemorates the dead- the Union dead.

Compare this to one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s last poems, written in 1882, 14 years later.  If you’ve heard that name before, he was a New England Poet and hymn writer- he wrote #208 in our hymnal, and more famously, the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Here’s his poem, decoration day:

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest On this Field of the Grounded Arms,

Where foes no more molest, Nor sentry’s shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before, And started to your feet At the cannon’s sudden roar, Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath, No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace, Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease, It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be As sentinels to keep Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green We deck with fragrant flowers;

Yours has the suffering been, The memory shall be ours.

Longfellow’s poem honors all the war dead, no matter which side they fought for- The shouts of battle cease, It is the Truce of God.

In their deaths, the soldiers from opposing sides do not continue to rage their battles. There is no union or confederate, Johnny Reb or Billy Yank in the embrace of God.

For there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, Slave or Free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

This represents a big shift in thinking, maybe one that’s only possible in retrospect, after the wounds of war have healed some, and transformed into scars.

It also begs the question, “Why is the truce of God only for the dead?”

That’s a darn good question.

Perhaps it’s our human frailty at work; the power of the sin of pride, greed, gluttony.

Perhaps is the lack of justice and righteousness on earth.  I don’t know, I’m not a political theorist or sociologist.

But what I do know is that the striving for peace on earth, goodwill toward all is a Biblical perspective, and probably the primary Biblical perspective.  It’s the subject of our Psalm today, and a key line in our reading from the book of Revelation.

Part of that cry for peace comes from the perspective that God is the God of all the nations.

While it is true that God is our God, our psalm, psalm 67, reminds us that God is not just the God of the Kingdom of Israel, or the United States, or Canada.  God does not just bless those people who live near me or who look like me.

For God judges all the nations of the earth with equity. God would not be able to do such if they weren’t under his jurisdiction.

After all, Revelation tells us that the kings and rulers of the nations will come to the heavenly city to pay homage to God.  This isn’t to weaken God’s judgement in any way, or to defang God.  There will be judgement- the New Testament is clear on that.  As Christians, we will be judged as well, but thank God, Jesus will act as our advocate during that time of trial.

But back to this idea of the truce of God, the peace of God. It’s a powerful idea, and it enchanted Mrs. Julia Ward Howe- remember her? So much so that after the civil war, she became an ardent peace activist. Her second project that she’s remembered for today started as an outgrowth of her movement for peace.

And although it’s changed a bit since then, it still reminds us of the difficulties and commonalities of parenthood, and the work of being a parent.

Yes, Mrs. Howe was one of the originators of Mother’s Day, which, as complicated as it is, reminds us that we all come from common sources, and share in a common destiny before the Lord our God.

So may we on this day, this sacred day to remember the dead, honor them and their memories. Remember that just as Christ died to make us holy, they died to make us free, and that even those who were not on our side might have been on God’s side as well.

For eventually, all will pay homage to God.