Isaiah 2:2-5; John 14:27
‘We will remember them. Lest we forget. Our glorious dead.’ On the gates of the memorial garden in Horley are the words ‘Their name liveth evermore.’ These different phrases are spoken every year at this time both on Remembrance Sunday and on 11th November as ceremonies taking place at memorials across the country. What do they mean and why do we say them? As we say again, ‘We will remember them’ is it any more than a ritual we feel we ought to go through? It is often an opportunity to become sentimentally nationlistic and we need to face up to the fact that we do forget, because we enter into violent conflict continually. Anyway, there is nothing glorious about the manner in which most people die in war. As we remember armed forces who died in the two World Wars and subsequent wars, we also need to remember the civilians who are the victims of war. As the wreaths are laid for the armed forces, where are the wreaths for the civilians who have died violent deaths as a result of war?
We also need to ask on these occasions what war has actually achieved. The war that stopped naitonalist dictators in Europe and Japan was also used as a cover to advance another form of dictatorship in communism. Whilst we remember those who brought victory, we need to face up to the fact that wars cause atrocities and the final political settlements don’t please all.
There is a beautiful poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier of the First World War, reflecting on those who died violently in the trenches. It is poignant and worth looking up after the service. However, there is also a worrying section that says:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Do we keep the quarrel going ‘till we have crushed the enemy? What is the quarrel anyway? Is it about justice, advancing the interests of a nation or just revenge?
The point of remembrance has to be more than sentimental nationalistic feeling. War is a fact of life and remembrance needs to be about reflecting on the sin of humankind and our tendency to violence that leads to war and destruction. It would be a brave country indeed that decided to scrap all its armed forces and even the Swiss have armed forces. Within our armed services there are Christian men and women as well as chaplains. We are going to hear from some of the Christian chaplains now.
These chaplains follow the call of God to bring the peace of Christ into the place where people train for conflict, and go with them into the place of conflict. As Christians we are followers of the Prince of Peace. When Jesus said,
‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid,’
He knew the disciples were going to be facing the most trying time of their lives and it wasn’t going to be peaceful. They learned what it was to live in the peace of Jesus Christ as they followed him and faced challenge and persecution. They were grounded in their faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ. The peace he was giving was more than absence of conflict, but the wholeness of knowing that we have been reconciled with God through his sacrifice and resurrection. However, they still had to go through the trauma of Jesus’ death and resurrection in order to experience that peace. Jesus did not bring peace to the world – the shalom, the wholeness of God – through passive inaction. Ironically, we don’t really know the full peace of God in Christ until we go through the crisis. Absence of conflict and stress is peaceful, but the peace of Christ carries us through the conflict and stress.
The passage from Isaiah, which is also read at this time of year is far more positive and helpful than the strap lines on memorials. These are words of transformation as God comes in judgement and the instruments of war are turned into tools of peace and food production. People’s minds are turned away from war and the plea of the prophet is that the people walk in the light of the Lord. However these words of hope come in the context of judgement, because they have not been walking in the light of the Lord. 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, experience invasion, devastation and exile.
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.
The exiles were poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed. The shocking thing was that Isaiah 6 tells us 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 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.
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.