Sir Winston Churchill was born Oxfordshire, England November 30, 1874, to an English aristocratic father and an American mother. He had a speech impediment and was considered too stupid to attend university. So he was enrolled in the British Army. He took part in a cavalry charge in India, served in the Boer War in South Africa, was taken prisoner, escaped and wrote up his adventures for the newspaper, which made him famous. During World War I he was responsible as First Lord of the Admiralty for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, was sacked and his career was considered to be over. He spent two decades in the political wilderness until destiny finally came for him after the fall of France in 1940. The situation called for a fighter and he had wanted to fight Hitler from the beginning. The King named him Prime Minister, and the rest is history.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, 81 years ago, airplanes from the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack was so unexpected that the airplanes were not identified on radar and were not even identified when they appeared before the naked eye at low levels in the sky. When bombs started falling, soldiers and sailors reported later that they were amazed at how realistic this air raid drill was. Despite clear orders from the White House to be on high alert, officers were not on duty, no one was on any kind of alert.
My mother was in Dayton, Ohio working at Wright-Patterson Field. My dad was in Des Moines, Iowa, working for the Shell Oil Corporation. One consequence of World War II was a nation, if not an entire planet, on the move. People traveled, met, mixed and married who never would have met otherwise. A Roman Catholic man from Des Moines met a Protestant woman from Indiana in Ohio in 1944, at Wright-Patterson field, where Miss Green worked and Captain Hyde was on temporary assignment. They married in 1946; moved to Minneapolis and then Chicago, two cities where neither had ever lived and knew no one and that is where I grew up and assumed this situation was normal, that I was growing up in a place that was as new to my parents as it was to me, in a house built in 1953 on land that had never been anything else than prairie since time immemorial.
Just a few days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the aforementioned Prime Minister Winston Churchill, under great secrecy, boarded a swift battleship, HMS Duke of York, and arrived in the United States on December 22 to be the guest of President Roosevelt during the Christmas season. The original plan was for him to stay a week, but the two leaders hit it off so well that he stayed for three.
They sang Christmas carols at the lighting of National Christmas Tree which in those days was on the south grounds of the White House and anyone could walk up to within a hundred feet of so of the back porch. The Marine Band performed “Joy to the World” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “The Messiah.” On Christmas Day, FDR took Churchill to Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, about a mile north of the White House. There for the first time in his life, Churchill heard “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the lovely hymn that declares:
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Churchill later remembered of the service in his memoirs: “Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.” Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress the next day, on December 26th. Then President and Prime Minster got down to the business of planning and running a war. I’ve gone on at some length with these stories, without mentioning the scriptures yet, because these people – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – are part of our Christian heritage.
The heart of our scripture readings today and for the next couple of weeks are the prophecies of Isaiah, whose utterances uncannily foretold the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, the one whom we believe is the aforementioned moral governor of the universe. The book of Isaiah is rather long and it is hard to understand. Isaiah never wrote anything down. He walked around much like Jesus did, delivered himself of prophecies, many of which rhymed and therefor sounded good, but were still difficult to understand. His followers remembered them, wrote them down in no particular order and people have been puzzling over them ever since. I think it best to read or listen to these prophecies as if they were uttered by a rapper, a modern day rhymster who does his best work with an audience clustered around as he impromptus his lines and addresses the issues of the day. It is quite possible and I think even likely that Isaiah uttered poetry in at least somewhat of a trance, surrounded by an audience of disciples, friends, hangers-on who were all singing, dancing, clapping hands and pounding on drums to induce trance and ecstasy.
However he did it, he did foretell the birth of the Messiah, the moral governor of the universe, so it behooves us to study him. The heart of today’s scriptures are his famous prophecy:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Thus Isaiah the rhymester, the poet, the rapper, gave voice to the centuries old yearning for a moral governor of the universe, descended from King David, who was descended from Jesse. Isaiah also uttered the lines made even more famous in our own day by Handel’s Messiah:
For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called
The mighty God,
The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.
Whatever this means, whether it points to Jesus or not, it is beautiful, inspirational poetry. What does it mean exactly? Well . . .
We Christians believe that there is a moral governor of the universe. We believe that this moral governor, the savior, the anointed one, was born in a stable in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem. We believe that this moral governor of the universe was real and is real, has died, has risen and will come again; that “our Redeemer liveth and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”
We believe that there’s more here – on earth, in life – than meets the eye. We believe that God himself is somehow involved in history, that God loves us and we therefore must love God and our neighbors.
Can we prove this? Prove it like 2 + 2 = 4 or the earth revolves around the sun? No. But we can say that it is a beautiful proposition, a beautiful idea.
To live by this proposition is beautiful thing. That’s what this season is about.
In the words of the Christmas carol:
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
His beauty doth all things excel
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.