When I was 17 I was asked to learn and recite a very long poem for the Christmas Day prize giving at Milnsbridge Sunday School. One of the elderly sisters had requested it. It was called ‘The Lonely Watcher’ and was about a young woman watching all alone on top of a tower for signs of the Lord’s return. She was exhorted not to descend as there was a danger of her soiling her pure white garments. It was a long-winded way of warning us against becoming contaminated by the world, but it painted a picture of loneliness and endless inactivity. Poor girl! There was no mention of her being relieved by another watchman at the end of her shift. We used to sing hymns like ‘Watchman, tell us of the night’. Now we don’t often speak about watching for the Lord’s return.
Watchman, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are.
Traveller, what a wondrous sight: see that glory-beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray news of joy or hope foretell?
Traveller, yes; it brings the day, promised day of Israel.
On the other hand whoever would have thought that in these days we are all metaphorically watching on our towers and trying to deal with self-isolation for the safety of others as well as ourselves.
The other story is about Antarctic exploration. [Click here to read the story in full.] I remember seeing a video about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s unsuccessful third polar expedition on the Endurance. They set sail from London in August 1914, but before they reached their destination the ship became stuck in polar ice and eventually broke up and sank. The explorers and crew managed to salvage a lot of supplies and three boats so that the 28 men could set up camp on the pack ice. Eventually they set off rowing towards the South Shetland Islands and reached Elephant Island where they were still completely stranded.
Photo by henrique setim on Unsplash
In April 1916 Shackleton set out in a rowing boat with five men to try to reach a whaling station on South Georgia in the hope of finding help to make a rescue attempt by sea. I will leave his epic journey and think of the men left on the island.
Home on Elephant Island was built of two upturned boats joined together where 22 men lived “like semi-frozen sardines side by side”. They lived there from April 24th to August 30th (129 days).
It was winter. I don’t know what supplies they had left or whether they had to go out hunting and fishing. They watched Shackleton and his party set off but had no means of communication. All they had was faith in a good leader, hope and prayer. They say that every mariner calls on God when in extremity. Their prayers must have been often and fervent. Although there must have been a lot of sea ice you can imagine that every day they would scan the horizon hoping to see a ship.
They wouldn’t know that Shackleton had successfully reached the Stromness Whaling Station and made three rescue attempts by various ships. Each time they were turned back by sea ice. On the fourth attempt they reached Elephant Island and picked up all the men. None was lost.
During the present Pandemic everyone is hoping the vaccines will succeed in halting the virus. Yet there could be more immediate help if our Lord returned. Are we praying for his return? Are we watching for signs? Are we letting others know of our hopes? No, we probably aren’t voicing them. Our reason is that there have been too many false alarms in the past which have discredited the preachers. Jesus will return when he is least expected. He expects us to ‘occupy till he come’ (Luke 19:13). We hope others will see our good works and believe.