Do Not Be Alarmed!
Jim Boice quoted and told Barnhouse hundreds of times. Here is a powerful, moving story involving Barnhouse at the start of WWII.
In the summer of 1939, Donald Grey Barnhouse was in Scotland, where he had been preaching. His family had been staying at a small resort on the coast of Normandy in France. He was to be in Belfast, Ireland, the first week in September for meetings, but because he had a free week between the close of the meetings in Scotland and the beginning of the meetings in Ireland, he decided to join his family in France during the interval.
When he handed his passport to the official at the airport in Croyden, he was questioned about his travel plans. He answered that he wanted to return by the end of the week so as to be in Belfast by Saturday night. The official said, “If you want to be in Belfast on Saturday, I strongly urge you not to go to France today.” Barnhouse knew that Europe was in turmoil at the time. Hitler had just signed a treaty with Russia and was threatening to march into Danzig. Still, the possibility of actual war seemed remote. Barnhouse decided to go, but the official who stamped his passport did so grimly. “Don’t forget that I warned you,” he said.
There were soldiers everywhere in France, and the airport buildings had been turned into military barracks. When Barnhouse stopped at the desk to confirm his return reservation for Friday, he was told that no one was sure there would even be a flight on Friday. The flights might be canceled. But the threat seemed unreal with the joy of reunion on his mind.
Leaving the airport, the family drove down the coast a few miles to a peaceful little village. Hundreds of families were there, for this was the height of the French vacation season. From time to time an airplane appeared in the distance, and the beach suddenly became still as it drew closer. But when the vacationers saw that the plane was French, they returned to their activities. Monday went by. Tuesday. Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday morning word came that there would be no more flights to England. If Barnhouse wanted to return to England, he would have to go all the way to Paris and then travel back across France to the coast. Barnhouse left on the next train.
While he was on the train, the French ordered mobilization. In those days every man in France had been through military service, was part of the army, and knew what to do in case of an emergency. As soon as the order was received from Paris, mobilization was announced in every hamlet and village of the country, and there was an instant response.
Moreover, the tocsin sounded. In the Middle Ages, when few people knew how to read, Europe developed a code by which church bells were used to alert the countryside of important events or dangers. The bells would tell when young people were being married, when a child was being baptized, when death had occurred. They also told of war.
This code sounded from every tower in France as the Paris-bound train moved across the green fields. At every stop there were tragic scenes. Men by the hundreds were leaving their weeping wives and children and were boarding the trains that would take them to their particular mobilization centers and then on to fight the Germans. Many would never come back, and the towns through which the train was passing would later crumble under the bombs of the Allies as the Western armies came with their own hard liberation years later.
An hour after Barnhouse reached Paris, he was again on a train, this time speeding toward the coast. In the darkness—for it seemed very dark now—the train pulled up alongside the steamer, and within a few minutes the steamer moved out of the harbor toward England.
On board, the preacher made his way to the bridge and introduced himself to the captain. Together they listened to the radio reports. Hitler had invaded Danzig. The bombing was frightful. Chamberlain had called a meeting of his cabinet. If the Germans were not out of Danzig by eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, Chamberlain had said, war would be declared.
The captain, with British calmness, observed, “This time there will be no turning back. This is it.” Barnhouse went to his cabin for a few fitful hours of sleep and then got up again to go ashore in England. It was Friday, September 1, 1939.
Once again it was a beautiful day as the train carried its passengers across Kent to London. At Victoria Station, Barnhouse caught a taxi to take him across the city to the station that serves the north of England. As he drew near he saw thousands of children lined up for immediate evacuation from London. He walked out among the children and saw a pitiful sight—children who in the fear and commotion of the moment were already victims of the war. One little child seemed to sum up the whole picture of this misery. He had been given some chocolate and had managed to smear it all over his face. He had wet his pants. And he had begun to cry, his cries an expression of misery mixed with terror. But nothing could be done. His case was but one little island of misery in the middle of a great continent of misery.
In time the train to the north left London, but it stopped constantly to allow troop trains and trains full of children to go past. The travelers reached Carlisle around midnight, and they spent the night in the crowded lobby of the station hotel. Then there was another train, which took most of Saturday to push on to the coast. That night, when he should have been in Belfast at the dinner that was to open the series of meetings, the preacher stood at the edge of the water and gazed at Ireland across the gray-blue sea.
After dark the ship that was to take him to Ireland set off. The steamer docked at Larne on the coast. Then another train made the run to Belfast, arriving just after three o’clock in the morning. The committee that had arranged the meetings was waiting, and they took Barnhouse through the lightless streets to his hotel. Church was at eleven o’clock, and they would be by to pick him up at 10:30 in the morning. One of them said, “I hope you will have a good sermon. It may be the last that some of the men will ever hear.”
Barnhouse stood alone in his room, his luggage piled around him. Slowly he picked up a piece of paper that had been lying on the desk in the room and began to write the outline of his sermon for that morning. He said later, “I stood there and prayed, and suddenly I thought of the perfect text for that hour.” Quickly he wrote the text followed by three or four thoughts that would be his subheads.
In the morning his friends came to drive him to St. Enoch’s, perhaps the largest church in Ireland. The minister was quite beside himself, shaking the preacher’s hand repeatedly. It was a few minutes before eleven o’clock. Chamberlain had announced that he would speak on the radio at that hour, and everyone sensed that he would declare war on Germany. “Thank God, I do not have to preach,” the minister said over and over again. “The church will be full of lads who will never come back. I pray God will give you something for them.”
As the little group started into the church, it occurred to Barnhouse that everyone would be home listening to the radio and that not many people would be there. But the church was full. Not one seat was empty. The service began. They sang hymns. An elder slipped a note to the pastor, who handed it to Barnhouse. It said, “No reply from Hitler. The prime minister has declared war.” A moment later Barnhouse was introduced as the speaker.
He began by telling how he had outlined his sermon in the dim light of his hotel room at four o’clock in the morning, but that, in spite of the circumstances, he had a text for them that was the most wonderful text in the Bible for such a day, September 3, 1939. It was spoken by Jesus Christ, and it was a command: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed” (Matt. 24:6).
He then recounted the experiences he had had on his way to Belfast. He told of the horrors, but at each succeeding horror he stopped and repeated the text: “Do not be alarmed.” The tocsin will sound; mobilization will take place. “Do not be alarmed.” Millions of homes will be broken up. “Do not be alarmed.” Children will be torn from their mothers and will represent in their cries all the wails that have been going up from all the world. Jesus said, “Do not be alarmed.”
The tension was mounting in the church. But then, when monstrous grief had been piled on agonizing horror, Barnhouse stopped and said, “These words are either the words of a madman or they are the words of God.” He shook his fist toward heaven and cried, “God, unless Jesus Christ is God, these words are the most horrible that could be spoken to men who have hearts that can weep and bowels that can be gripped by human suffering. Men are dying. Do not be alarmed? Children are crying in their misery with no beloved face in sight. Do not be alarmed? How can Jesus Christ say such a thing?”
But then came the answer. Jesus Christ is God. Jesus is the Lord of history. He is the God of detailed circumstance. Nothing has ever happened that has not flowed in the channel that God has dug for it. There have never been any events that have flamed up in spite of God to leave him astonished or confused. The sin of man has reduced the world to an arena of passion and fury. Men tear at each other’s throats. Yet in the midst of the history of which Jesus Christ is Lord, each individual who has believed in him as the Savior will know the power of his resurrection and will learn that events, however terrible, cannot separate us from the love of God.