At the first light of dawn on the morning of April 25, 1915, Australian and New Zealand troops clambered out of boats and went ashore at the beaches of Gallipoli. Under heavy attack, they dug in, securing makeshift positions. For the next eight months they would scarcely go further forward, finally forced to retreat after 8 141 of their number had been killed, and a further 18 000 men had been wounded.
That day has become embedded on our national psyche, and every year since then, on April 25, our nation has stopped to remember.
Anzac Day has an enduring worth in our culture, because it reminds us of a code of bravery and self-sacrifice, and challenges us to live up to it. It reminds us that we are in covenant with those who have gone before us, and are duty-bound to follow their example.
John Masefield wrote at the time that the Anzacs "walked and looked like kings in old poems". They have become our heroes, the kind of people we want to emulate, the kind of people we hope to be – all the more so because they were people just like us. They were fathers, husbands, neighbours, colleagues, who, when it was their time, made themselves heroes, by showing courage in the face of fear.
They were heroes you could reach out and touch. Their uniforms were hung up in the spare room, and perhaps you wondered, one day, if you might be able to fit into it when you grew older, and fulfill their courageous legacy.
Sometimes I’ve envied that as a Christian, and I’ve wished there were heroes I could look up to like that. Sometimes our heroes can seem very distant, their heroism intangible and hard to identify. Where are their great acts, their feats of daring?
But then a few years ago I realized that Jesus had become one of my heroes.
Maybe it sounds strange to you, but it had taken me a while to see Jesus as a hero. I think he seemed above that, somehow – too distant for that. I think we struggle to comprehend how God could inhabit this world – and so we assume that Jesus sort of just glided through it, hovering over it. It was as if he walked on the water and did not get wet; he was close to the world, but not truly in it.
But something changed and, in my best moments, I see things differently now. I marvel at how Jesus was able to mix with people of all classes, and be respected. He could explain his message to scribes and lawyers, and also to the illiterate and ignorant. He spoke boldly to leaders, and had the audacity to say nothing at all to Pilate.
He was a busy man, weighted with demands – and yet he prioritized prayer, and pastoral care, and made time for children. He was supremely just and upright, giving him credence when he warned hypocrites, and power when he gave hope to the sinful.
As a leader, Jesus was without compare. He handpicked his disciples and invested his time in them. He skillfully mixed theological teaching with practical experience. He entrusted tasks to them, saluted their good deeds, gave constructive feedback when they needed it.
In his life, Jesus showed that he was a hero. And in his death, he proved it.
In the middle of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, at the heart of the sanctuary, there is a stone tablet. It’s embedded in the ground, so that everyone who looks at it must bow their heads in reverence. On this stone tablet, five words are carved: Greater love hath no man.
Those five words are, of course, from the Bible. It was said by Jesus to his disciples, in John 15 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' – as the King James Version puts it.
Just a few days after he said this, Jesus was hunted down, arrested, and pinned to the Cross. He went there for his friends – the disciples, who deserted him, and us, whose sin nailed him to the tree. Yet Jesus did this willingly, like a hero, braving death to claim our forgiveness.
And then he rose again.
Throughout history many cultures have believed that the soldier who dies in battle wins immortality; a Viking warrior, for instance, went to the great hall of Valhalla, to be by the side of the great god Odin. We speak over the fallen Anzacs the words of a famous poem; ‘age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.’
I think this kind of language is a response to the great tragedy of their death. We honour these warriors as heroes, and marvel at their courage and strength – but within all this we sense a tragic futility about it all. Nations will rise and fall, wars will come and go. Heroes will burn like a flame, but then flicker and die.
But Jesus was different.
He died as a hero, but his death secured an eternal legacy. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus ‘emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Death could not hold him down. Age shall not weary him, because he has new life. The years shall not condemn, for the great warrior has conquered the grave.
And that makes Jesus the greatest hero of them all.