Read Isaiah 2:1-5
These verses from Isaiah paint an amazing picture of what the future will be. For the people of Israel this was to be a long way off as they were to pass through judgement, facing invasion, devastation and exile. Whilst these verses from Isaiah 2 are quoted each year at Remembrance, especially the second part of v.4, I don’t know how much hope is behind them as opposed to ritual. Even for the Christians among those in services of Remembrance, the hope seems a dim one. It is picked up again at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21 as the heavenly city is described and the people are living with God and there is an end to all pain and suffering; but not it doesn’t come until the world has gone through turmoil and devastation.
When has the world ever been free of war? Presumably only in the early days of creation and before Adam and Eve decided to take their own path and ignore God’s law. Certainly violence began in their family after the banishment, with Cain killing his brother through jealousy and anger. I did a search concerning wars in 21st Century. When we withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014 – and if we had not been involved in other conflicts – it would have marked the end of 100 years of Britain at war since 1914. As a nation, we have never been free from involvement in war in the first 20 years of this century. Even though we have withdrawn from Afghanistan, we still have military deployments across the world as part of NATO if not in our own right, and are still involved in military campaigns. The disagreements in the Gulf and the presence of the RN protecting shipping has reminded us that war could so easily break out. Then there are those wars that do not directly affect us – Russia/Ukraine; North West Pakistan border wars; Somali Civil War; war against Boko Haram and in the Niger Delta; Sudan; Yemen; the North Caucasus. And of course there is the unconventional war against terrorism and the drug wars of Mexico.
We spend millions on war and millions on the after effects. We spend a fortune maintaining the battlefield cemeteries of Europe and the Far East and putting up memorials in bronze and stone to the ‘glorious dead’ in case we forget – and then go to war again. One thing you don’t say if you apply to study history at university, is that history is important so that we can learn from the past and not make the same mistakes in the future: clearly we don’t learn from the past. Then we make the mistake of thinking we want to connect with alien life forms and populate space.
Why do we remember each year? Why do we mark the sacrifice of billions through the decades – both military and civilian? What is the point of doing this year in year out?
- There is the physical connection with those who were part of a war, whether it is people of my generation and older who knew people who played a part in the WW1 and WW2; or those who are younger who have a connection with those who have taken part in wars since. We don’t like to think of people forgetting that a huge sacrifice was made by others on behalf of the nation, in order to establish security and peace.
- There is a national sense that we have a debt of gratitude that can never be paid in full, to those who have died and suffered on our behalf; we should not forget.
- There is a recognition that the sacrifice made was and is significant. The service of people in WW2 laid the foundations for the years of unity and peace we have experienced in Europe at least, which has allowed us to prosper.
- There is the recognition of the ongoing need for people to stand in the breach. We know that our defences both physical and electronic are being tested all the time and so we need people to be ready who can deal with the threat.
- We believe sacrifice is necessary and should be honoured. We recognise the value of sacrifice and especially the sacrifice on behalf of others – including strangers – that leads to death.
But is there no hope?
The passages read today from Isaiah – from Isaiah 2 and 61 – are passages of hope in the midst of judgement and suffering. The people of Israel were not strangers to war – either because they were waging it or people were fighting against them. The people of Isaiah’s day had every reason to despair. When Isaiah talked of everyone coming to the mountain of the Lord to seek justice and righteousness and turning instruments of war into instruments of peace, he was talking to people who had been through the devastation of war and lost and were suffering as a result. When in Isaiah 61 the prophet talked of good news to the poor, binding up the broken hearted and releasing captives, he was talking to people who were in that state, because of war. These words were spoken into the lives of people who were an oppressed and exiled people: they had lost everything, including hope.
Perhaps a comparison can be made with those who have experienced the total war carried out in Syria. For many not only have they lost home, livelihood, family, their way of life; they have also lost hope for the future. The prophet spoke into the lives of the people of Israel who are in exactly the same situation and he said the day of salvation is coming.
The exiles were poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed. The shocking thing was that Isaiah 6 tells us that God was the cause of it, because he sent his messenger to the people and they ignored him. They are already in this condition, because they have strayed from YHWH to other gods and have become slaves oppressed by prosperity and material possessions. God knew that the message Isaiah was going to bring would not enlighten them. The condition of being poor, blind, bound and oppressed is not just an economic and physical one, but a spiritual one concerning their right relationship with God and one another in the world. However, the era of salvation, the day of the Lord’s favour would come.
It is in the prophecy of Isaiah that we see the cause of the problem and the hope of a solution. We see the hope of a future, if we could but grasp it. Right at the beginning this wonderful picture is painted of what life should be like as we live in right relationship with each other and God our creator. Right at the end of the prophecy the hope is held out again as the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord comes upon his servant and he brings the message of hope. In fact the picture begins in chapter 60:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
This picture, this future is founded on one thing: repentance in relation to God our creator. Isaiah’s call has been for the people to return to God and walk in his ways:
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The people of Israel found this so hard to do, until they had hit rock bottom.
At the beginning of Mark’s gospel he says that is about Jesus Christ the Son of God and then quotes Isaiah:
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
The way was prepared for Jesus to come to bring hope to the world and bring people back to God. What does the message he brings begin with?
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
The Good News, as with Isaiah, starts with repentance.
The concept of the gospel was not alien to the world. You will remember that the Roman emperors announced the gospel to their empire: a great victory has been won and enemies have been crushed: come and see them in the parade and in the arena. Come and worship the victorious emperor who has upheld the Pax Romana and will now bestow benefits and privileges on those who supported him, but bring judgment on those who opposed. Or the gospel of the emperor might have been proclaimed on the birth of an heir and the promise of continuity and future prosperity as a result.
We are now in the run up to the General Election. The candidates for government are promising good news if people vote for them and disaster if they vote for the opposition. When they are victorious, they will bring benefits and privileges to the whole of the UK – which will either include the benefit of leaving the EU or the benefit of remaining in the EU, depending upon who wins. Or perhaps we will still sit in no-man’s land. When the victor is announced they will make proclamations of good news to all people and promise to work with those who will promote their policies, but be ruthless with those who get in the way. Benefits and privileges will be bestowed on those who supported them in the campaign and there will be great celebrations in the camp of the victor, following the results of 12th December, as the gospel of the Prime Minister is proclaimed. This is the way of politics.
When Mark used the word ‘gospel’ there wasn’t much good news for the Christian community in Rome and elsewhere, but there was persecution and it reached the stage of equating declaration as a Christian with a death sentence. Mark writes to these people, cutting out any preamble and getting straight to the point; to encourage them and point out that the one they worship and have committed themselves to following also suffered as they did, in order to bring the good news of God and not the emperor; in order to be the good news of God not the latest Prime Minister.
Not only would the word ‘gospel’ have made people sit up: so would the title ‘Christ’. Here was the title they had been waiting to hear. For Jewish believers they would think in terms of a Moses type of deliverer. Here was someone who would restore justice – restore Israel to her rightful place. Kings would come to the holy mountain and people would flock to it as the prophecies foretold.
- Prophecy is being fulfilled. Mark attributes his quotation to Isaiah overall, but it is a composite quote that includes verses from Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah. By doing this he is saying that the law and the prophets confirm the truth of what he is telling everyone.
- The identification of Jesus as the Son of God puts him in the role of Israel, because this is the term used by the prophets about Israel when the people were being obedient and fulfilling the purpose God had for them. It was the term used of the kings of Israel who were supposed to be leading the people in the way of God. It is used at Jesus’ baptism as God gives his seal of approval to the one who has chosen to walk the path of obedience. Here is the one God has chosen to reign.
- Jesus comes from the wilderness and announces the kingdom. This was the place into which God had led the people of Israel and from which they had been led into the Promised Land. It was also the place people fled to escape iniquity or violence. It was the place that it was thought that God would do battle with the evil one; and Jesus defeats the devil in the wilderness and emerges to defeat the devil in the world.
- Just as the people passed through the Jordan into the promised land, so the people are being asked again to pass through the Jordan in baptism and repentance for the renewal of Israel; and Jesus consents to this renewal. In doing so he mirrors Moses who gave up being a prince to become a shepherd and Jesus gave up the glory of heaven to become the shepherd of the people who would lay down his life.
Here is the message of hope to a world that lives constantly with war. Here is the message we declare to all; and the Good News is brought about through sacrifice, which the world understands. It is something that spans cultures, generations, centuries and millennia. Unlike the sacrifice of millions we remember today, this sacrifice deals with the fundamental human problem – that of the human heart. Only the sacrifice of Jesus can heal the sin of the human heart. Unlike the sacrifice of the millions which we remember today and unthinkingly appropriate, we have to consciously accept the sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ, to receive his good news and turn in repentance to God our Father.
Will we go on with Remembrance Day forever? Probably because the track record of humankind is one of war. In the midst of that depressing thought is the hope of Jesus Christ in death and resurrection, and the picture painted in Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
This Kingdom is there for all who will receive it.