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In 1863, the Civil War then raging, a small town in Pennsylvania decided to formally open a military cemetery, occasioned by a battle nearby.
They invited one of the leading orators of the day, one Edward Everett, to give the formal speech which was considered so necessary. They invited him to speak on October 23rd. He declined, asking more time, for such a speech would easily run from one to two and a half hours — and the city fathers would want their money’s worth. Both sides agreed and November 19th was selected as the day.
One author described speeches back then this way: “An oration was an oration in those days, and it had to have a certain style to it — classical allusions, a leisurely approach to the subject matter, a carefully phrased recital of the background and history of the occasion, the whole thing working up to a peroration or closing, which would sum everything up in memorable sentences.” Everett began with Pericles, an influential orator, in ancient Greece, and slowly wound his way through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones on to modern times.
The applause indicated the speech was well received. The city fathers had received their money’s worth. Edward Everett was indeed the master orator, as advertised. Sitting down, Everett handed matters back to the master of ceremonies who announced that the President of the United States, on hand as befitted such an occasion, had a few words as well.
The thin form of Abraham Lincoln walked to the podium, spread out two sheets of paper, and began: “Four score and seven years ago….”
The only reason anyone remembers anything at all about Everett’s speech that day is because of the remarks by Lincoln. His remarks turned a cemetery dedication at Gettysburg into history.
It strikes me that our worship is something like that. We spend a great deal of time singing, and even more time in preaching. At the tail end of the service or right after the singing, before the sermon, there seems to be some sort of ceremony, almost, at times, like an afterthought. An ignorant visitor might assume it was of trivial importance; after all, wasn’t most of the time spent in preaching and singing? Yet we know that of all our worship activities, the most indispensable, the most central, is the Lord’s Supper.
Like those at Gettysburg that November who forgot Edward Everett’s noble speech, we may forget the preaching, we may forget the words to the songs, but we must never forget what Jesus did for us. Communion is not an afterthought. It is the center of worship, for it commemorates what Jesus did.
As Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address needed no great length — indeed, I think its impact is greatly increased by its brevity — Communion needs no great span of time either. In it God speaks to our hearts, encouraging us to repentance, to remembrance and to hope. The real question is, are we listening?
The preaching is appropriate; the singing is wonderful; but only the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross can bring salvation.