Ever heard of a woman named Irena Sendler?
I hadn’t either until about a year ago.
But her story is incredible.
During World War II, Irena Sendler (also known as Sendlerowa) got permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. Knowing the Nazis planned to murder the Jewish people confined to that area, the Catholic social worker passed herself off as a nurse and was allowed to go into the ghetto.
The small woman recruited friends and they began smuggling Jewish children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins. Irena brought along a dog, trained to bark when Nazi soldiers let her in. The soldiers didn’t want anything to do with the dog — whose barking drowned out any noises the children might have made.
The children were taken through a network of basements and secret passages. Most went to Catholic convents, homes and orphanages and given aliases. Hoping to reunite them with their families, Irena wrote their true names on scraps of paper, which she buried in jars in a friend’s yard.
At one point, Irena was captured by the Nazis, who broke her leg, but she refused to reveal her fellow conspirators. Irena, herself, might have been murdered, but some of her fellow resistance members bribed a Nazi, who helped her escape.
After the war, she retrieved the jars and sought to return the children to their families, but in most cases there was no family left. The children were adopted by Polish families or later went to Israel.
Estimates of how many children Irena saved range from 2,500 to 3,000.
Irena remained relatively unknown until some Kansas high school students wrote a play about her.
Then word of her heroics spread.
Irena was 98 when she died in May 2008 and is buried in Warsaw.
For much of her life, Irena was an unsung hero in a world where people more often pay tribute to celebrities than someone who lived in such a dangerous and selfless manner.
I love underdogs and unsung heroes.
And recently I found one in the book of Jeremiah in the Bible.
I can’t remember when I’ve ever heard a sermon about this guy and I had to get on the Internet to find out how his name was pronounced.
But I plan to remember it.
His name is Ebed-Melech.
Found in the Old Testament, he lived during the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah.
Long before Ebed-Melech is mentioned, we learn that the people of Judah have become so very wicked (no, you don’t want to know how bad), and God has sent a prophet named Jeremiah to warn them.
Jeremiah cries out to the people for years — saying they’ll face pestilence, famine and invasion by foreigners if they don’t repent and start following God again.
But they don’t listen.
Jeremiah faces intense persecution. People plot to kill him. He is beaten, mocked and put into stocks.
At one point, some officials convince King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be executed.
And hundreds of years before Pontius Pilate ever washed his hands of Christ’s death, the weak Zedekiah — fearing the officials’ power — turns Jeremiah over to the angry group.
The king’s officials put Jeremiah into a cistern, something used to catch rainwater.
Jeremiah is lowered down into the cistern. There’s no water in this cistern, but Jeremiah sinks down into the mud.
Things look bad, but God provides help through Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch who lives in the king’s house.
When Ebed-melech learns what has happened, he makes a bold move. He tells the king that the men did an evil thing by casting Jeremiah into a cistern.
“And he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city,” Ebed-melech says.
So the king commands Ebed-melech to take 30 men and get Jeremiah out of that cistern before he dies.
Ebed-melech gathers the men and goes to the king’s storehouse. There, he finds rags and worn-out clothes, which he lets down by ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern.
He tells Jeremiah to put the rags and clothes between his armpits and the ropes.
So Jeremiah does that.
Then the men pull Jeremiah up with the ropes and lift him out of the cistern.
Jeremiah remains imprisoned until Jerusalem falls to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.
The Babylonians release Jeremiah and tell him he can live where he wants. So Jeremiah goes to live with a governor of Judah. That governor is killed and another man takes his place, later fleeing to Egypt and forcing Jeremiah to go with him.
Jeremiah continues to prophesy until his death in Egypt.
What happened to Ebed-melech?
Before Jerusalem falls, Jeremiah tells Ebed-melech that God will save him. He’ll be a prize of the war for the Babylonians, but he won’t be killed, because he’s put his trust in the Lord.
A war prize may not sound so great, but the Babylonians were said to be kind to those who surrendered.
Not so with those who resisted.
King Zedekiah, who’d done evil during his 11-year reign despite Jeremiah’s warnings, would rebel against the Babylonians. He’d later flee and be captured.
The Babylonians kill all of Zedekiah’s sons — right before his eyes — and then blind him and put him into prison where he dies.
Eventually, the Babylonians were defeated by the Medo-Persian alliance. Medo-Persia would be defeated by the Greeks, who later were defeated by the Romans.
That’s a whole lot of defeat.
But listen to this.
The Romans were ruling their vast empire with an iron fist when a precious baby was born in Bethlehem.
We know him as Jesus — the one who came to save us — not from some Babylonians or Romans.
But from our sins — so those who trust him have the hope of eternal life in heaven, a place where there’s no fear, pestilence, famine, heartache or death.
In heaven, we won’t worry about being invaded by an evil army.
Nobody’s going to get thrown into a muddy cistern there either.
Can you imagine how muddy poor Jeremiah must have been when they pulled him out of that cistern?
And what about Ebed-melech?
He was so brave to stand up for Jeremiah, especially when the officials wanted the prophet to die. Ebed-melech had more courage than the king, who succumbed to popular opinion.
Ebed-melech did what was right and was rewarded for his trust in God.
And Ebed-melech was resourceful — getting those rags to help make the prophet’s rescue a little more comfortable. What’s more, he and the other men took on a messy job of pulling the prophet from the muck.
Life can be scary and messy and hard. Good people, like Jeremiah, can suffer for doing what’s right.
But every once in a while, we can find those unsung heroes like a Polish woman, who saved children or an Ethiopian man, who saved a prophet.
And we’re reminded of Jesus, who came to save us all.