"Standing in the Day of Battle: Isabel and the Gospel"
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"Standing in the Day of Battle: Isabel and the Gospel", Advent 1, 30 November 2003
Advent 1C 2003; Luke 21:25-31
When I read passages like the apocalyptic sections of today's lessons, I am reminded of times when I felt in the middle of
an apocalypse, that I must surely be standing at Armageddon on the day of battle.
There was one very long day in the spring of 1967. The 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry Regiment, of which I was a member and commander
of its Company B, was involved in a major resupply effort, moving ammunition and equipment from the Division Base to Our Brigade
base many miles to the north near the Cambodian border.
The mission of the infantry battalions was to clear and secure the long roads through villages, jungles, rice paddies, and
The center of the sector to which I was assigned was a walled village in which the road took a sharp left turn toward the
north. The name of the village was Ap Bau Bang. Ill never forget the name of the place and Bang was appropriate: we called
it claymore corner because of the many Viet Cong claymore mines that were fired at us. The claymore mine was an above ground
shaped charge directional mine which blew steel pellets at a lethal speed for several hundred feet. We were in the middle
of what we called Indian country, driving off sniper squads and avoiding camouflaged claymore mines all day.
It was a fairly normal day in the Vietnam War until one of our tanks in the divisional cavalry squadron hit a mine in the
middle of the road that the engineer minesweepers had missed. The crew got out but the tank caught fire and its main gun ammunition
began to explode. While the explosions were taking place and the big black column of smoke towered over us, it got worse.
We had an aerial artillery observer flying above us who saw a platoon of Viet Cong snipers moving toward us. He called for
artillery fire and adjusted it. On his last adjustment he called for a fire for effect, battery six rounds. This meant six
artillery cannon firing six rounds apiece.
Unfortunately the artillery plotters made a very large error and as we were standing there watching the exploding burning
tank, we heard the frightening scream of incoming artillery. It is a screaming like you cant imagine until you hear it. And
you only hear it you are very close.
I knew instantly that these were the first six of 36 rounds coming in right on top of us. And my radio operators and I dove
for the nearest bomb crater, fortunately nearby. We happened to be in some tall rubber trees. Some of the rounds burst in
the treetops, some on lower branches all the way down, and some on the ground. Shrapnel and splinters were flying all around
us. The ground shook with the concussion. And 30 more rounds yet to come. We heard their screaming sound and the shell bursts
from ground to treetop for what seemed an eternity before it ended. It seemed to me like earthquakes at Armageddon on the
day of battle.
And particularly and most recently when I read today's Gospel I am reminded of how many of us felt during Hurricane Isabel
when it struck the Northern Neck: "...and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the
waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be
As the winds of Isabel swiftly reached hurricane speed as they came across the Great Wicomico River, I saw waves not only
picking up but being hurled against the shore banks and exploding high into the air where the winds grabbed the water and
hurled against our house. The winds came roaring and screaming across the open soybean fields, sounding like the scream of
artillery shells except that it didn't end until morning. It, too, seemed an eternity. And the sun hid its face from us behind
the darkness of swirling clouds.
We wondered what the morning would bring. We wondered how great the damage would be. We wondered how our lives would be affected
and changed and for how long.
In thinking some more about the connection between a natural cataclysm like Isabel and this apocalyptic pronouncement by Jesus
in Saint Luke's gospel, I thought of the way the fiercely howling winds had stripped the leaves from the trees. And of the
false spring that followed as the trees budded and tried to releaf, causing great discomfort for those of us who suffer from
allergies in the spring. "Look at the fig tree and all the trees," Jesus said. "As soon as they sprout leaves you can see
for yourselves. So also when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."
Well, I was certainly of the mind on that very long day in Vietnam thirty-three and a half years ago that the Kingdom of God
was a lot nearer to me than I wanted it to be. And that was not at all the only day then or since that I have felt that way.
It felt a little bit like that day in Vietnam during Isabel, as the tremendous force of creation was unleashed over us.
The interesting thing about the kingdom of heaven being near and Isabel is how it really seemed the kingdom of God was near
as people pitched in to help each other. Teams formed to cut lanes free of fallen trees and haul limbs off of roofs and out
of yards. Those with generators offered to shelter those who had none and needed shelter. The local Red Cross chapters in
the two counties responded magnificently with meals and water and emergency shelter. The National Guard trucked in ice and
water. FEMA and other agencies arrived with money, as did the duPont Fund.
One young man even carried his generator in the back of his pickup truck from house to house in his neighborhood and powered
refrigerators for several hours in turn, so that frozen and perishable food would not be lost. And so for some of us, for
a time, the kingdom of God seemed very near.
There were, however, the people whose greed overtook their good sense and charged outrageous and exorbitant prices for people
who needed trees taken from off their houses before worse damage was done. Somehow they missed the part about the Kingdom
of God being near.
The apocalyptic language used in our Zechariah and Luke readings can be frightening, with its predictions of destruction and
war and natural disaster and the end times. The prophets of ancient Israel used such frightening language to call the Israelites
of their day away from the worship of idols and back to the worship of the one true and living God. There is much about human
nature that doesnt change, however. Some people were frightened into submission and others were not.
But the sun continued to come up each day without fail, and so each generation in its time stopped paying heed to the fright
threats of the prophets. And so new prophets arose from time to time as the people began to follow idols of whatever description,
much as people do today. By Jesus day, the voice of the prophets had not been heard for many centuries.
The interesting thing about these apocalyptic readings as an aside, our images of the skeletal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
Famine, Plague, War, and Death, come from such writings the interesting thing is that too often we hear the threat of the
Apocalypse and end times and dont hear the subtext of the real message it conveys. Almost lost in the fire and brimstone of
Zechariah is this: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, I will save my people from the east country and from the west country and
I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I shall be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness."
And almost lost in the apocalyptic language of Jesus is this: "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power
and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing
The greatest message in both readings is that in the end, God will become King over all the earth and the kingdom of God will
This is the first Sunday in Advent. It is the New Year's Day of the Church Year. It is a time when the days grow shorter and
shorter and the darkness at night seems almost never to end, a time when evening comes too quickly and dawn seems reluctant
to steal across the land.
But it is a time when we are moving toward the light that is to come. In temporal time we are moving toward the winter solstice
of December 21, the longest night and the shortest day of the year. But on the next day, December 22, the days begin to lengthen
almost imperceptibly. And three days later, in sacred time, God's time, Christ is born, and the Light is reentering the world.
Keep a good Advent. We often hear of keeping a good Lent, but keep a good Advent. Focus on the Light. Focus on Jesus and the
mission we share with him in the world, to prepare for his coming again.