In the last six years or so, I have had the opportunity to take part twice in a winter retreat of pastors from all over the greater New York City area. This retreat, organized by Concerts of Prayer Greater New York, brings together pastors from every denomination and is held in a quaint retreat center in the country located on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. I remember more than once sitting on a simple bench looking out over that cold, icy, winter river and, being a history-buff, thinking about what it was like for George Washington and his men to cross this same river near Trenton some 65 miles or so away. We are all taught in school of that famous crossing that Washington made on Christmas night, 1776, and how important the capturing of the city was for the war effort. What most never learn is, just a week later most of Washington’s troops were ready to give up and go home. As a matter of fact, up until that famous midnight crossing and defeating of the Hessian troops, that’s what a lot of the Continental soldiers had already done.
Don’t let me mislead you into thinking our country’s freedom was won by a bunch of cowards… these men had their reasons for leaving. Remember, at the outbreak of the Revolution we didn’t really have an organized army, we had militias that were brought together in different parts of the colonies only in times of crisis. Washington’s job was to take all of these independent groups and mold them into one large, cohesive fighting force… a difficult job in even the best of circumstances. When he was able to do this, they would sign up for very specific periods of time — usually a year — because all of these men also had farms, families, and businesses to attend to back home. While the women and children pitched in, society was nowhere near ready to allow the “Rosie the Rivitors” to step into men’s shoes like we did during WWII.
So, on December 31, 1776 — even after such an amazing victory at Trenton just a week earlier — General Washington found himself facing the very real prospect of losing most of the 2500 men who were under his command at the time. They were worn out, ill-equipped and under-supported, had suffered mostly defeat, and for most, basically just ready to go home. It was the dire-nous of these times that caused Thomas Paine to urgently write these famous words to every Colonial who wanted to someday call themselves an American:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.” – Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, December 23, 1776
It was these words and others from that pamphlet which helped breath new life into the tired hearts of the Colonials as they began to fight for freedom that first winter of the Revolution. As a matter of fact, it was these very words which Washington had read to the troops before they began their crossing of the Delaware to take Trenton. And I am sure he was hoping they were still considering those words as he now made his plea personally to each regiment on that December 31st to stay with him for just six more weeks — knowing it might not just mean the end of the year, but the end of the pursuit of a nation’s freedom if they would not. History records that when the call for volunteers came in one division, not one man stepped forward. So, Washington “wheeled his horse about, rode in front of the regiment,” and spoke to them again. Long afterward, a sergeant still remembered his words:
“My brave fellows,” Washington began, “you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we do not know how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer; you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.”
By now you’re probably thinking this is a great history lesson… but it’s more than that. I bring you back to the perspective of this blog — it’s “The View from Bedford Falls” after all. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey comes bit by bit to one of these moments. He can either go home or keep going. Every one of us will come to both big and small moments like this in our life — times when we have choices to make. Most times we’ll probably make the right choice, can taste the victory, and walk away with a feeling of satisfaction in our chests. And then there will be sometimes we may make the wrong choice, and it will seem as though we’ve lost not just a revolution, but our freedom as well.
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 10:13)
George Washington had encouraged his men by saying, “You have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected…” Can this be said of me? I can say that in my weakest of moments, I have not… and in the moments when I’ve been tired and battle worn and have given in, I did not. And then standing on the other side of defeat — worn out, tired, wanting to just give up and let someone else fight the battle — I have a choice to make. Do I go home or keep going? With Washington’s men they had him as their example. He was giving up just as much as they were… he’d left his family and farm behind as well and stepped into a position that he did not ask for, but now had to bear the burden of. And even though they were ill-equipped, Washington believed in them. He knew that if they themselves could just believe, then they could win the battle, the war, and the freedom. We have an example like this, too. Jesus.
“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth… Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:1-7, 10-11)
Jesus went to that cross knowing that I would fail Him. He knew there would be moments of defeat in my life, but He suffered that humiliating “defeat” in His so I could have the hope of victory. We all will have our “3 days in hell” — that period of time where it looks like the enemy has won the war. But, to quote the words from a famous sermon, “It may be Friday, but Sunday is coming!” There IS hope. A defeat is just that, a defeat. But it’s not the end. The word defeat means “to undo” — and that is exactly what the enemy wants to do, undo in me what Christ has already done. The choice is still mine… will I go home or keep going?
Back to that cold December 31st day in the hills of Pennsylvania, 1776. Washington has just made his second plea, and the drums rolled again. The sergeant recalled that “the soldiers felt the force of the appeal” and began to talk among themselves. One said, “I will remain if you will.” Another said, “We cannot go home under such circumstances.” A few men stepped forward, then several others, then many more and “their example was [followed] by nearly all who were fit for duty in the regiment, amounting to about two hundred volunteers.” These were veterans who understood what they were being asked to do. They knew well what the cost might be. One of them remembered later that nearly half the men who stepped forward would be killed in the fighting or dead of disease “soon after.” (from Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer)
How can I not feel the force of the appeal from MY general? How can I not consider what He has already gained for me, and be so willing to walk away? I can’t. It’s just that simple. So what do I do when others may be walking away and turning back, and He asks me, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” I look at those eyes of fire that are looking right at me and say what Peter said some 2,000 years ago, “Lord, to who else would I go? You alone have the words of life… I know — and I believe — that You are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
What’s another six weeks anyway?