Daniel 12. 1-3 and Mark 13. 1-8 from Rev Jane Richards
As we gather to worship God this morning I am very conscious that across the country, and indeed beyond, many are gathering to remember and honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice when called to do their duty for their country and community, who laid down their lives for others. And this year there is perhaps an additional poignance as it was a hundred years ago that the first national collective act of remembrance took place.
Remembrance Sunday is one of those occasions where I personally find it very difficult to preach. After all what words are there that can adequately express the range of emotions that are evoked by the thought of the events that cause the nation to stop and reflect on the horror of war and the long-lasting effects it has for so many, both civilians and those who serve their countries in the armed forces. Yet for some the day will pass unnoticed. For some the invitation to be silent for 2 minutes as a mark of respect for the sacrifice that others made that we might live in freedom will be ignored and viewed as an irrelevant relic from the past. But of course, Remembrance Sunday isn’t just about what happened over a hundred years ago or over eighty years ago. It is about what continued to happen in every corner of the world and what continues to happen today. Globally there are millions who live in the midst of war and conflict, who have never known what it is like to live without fear and there are countless others whose lives are diminished and broken as a result of the consequences of war.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus explicitly talk about war and the inevitability of this as nations raise against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms. He prophesies that this cannot be avoided and is a necessary part of the birth of God’s kingdom here on earth. The imagery of earthquakes and famines is very much part of that apocalyptic vision of the rising up of the kingdom and Jesus’s words at this point in the Gospel feel harsh and stark. Many of us turn to scripture for comfort when we are experiencing tough times – and quite rightly too – but sometimes we have to be prepared to be challenged by the Gospel, to face up to the reality of why God sent his precious Son to earth and to accept that order to build the kingdom we have to be prepared for destruction before construction. The prophet Isaiah expresses this far more eloquently than I ever could in these verses from Chapter 61
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.
In this passage we find the hope that we crave, the antidote to Jesus’s prophetic words of destruction. It can be easy to lose hope, hope in society, hope in humanity when we are constantly confronted by images of violence and the inhumanity of others. And who among us could not help but be conscious that when we examine the causes of many wars, both past and present, religion has been at the root cause. I have purposely used the term religion rather than faith as I believe that there is a significant and relevant difference between the two in the context of conflict and war. It could be argued that religion has nothing to do with God and is simply a human construct that we have adopted to bring structure to the way in which we demonstrate our faith and beliefs. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to be able to make outward expression of our belief in God as both a tool for mission and a way of focussing the way in which we live out our faith through worship and prayer. But there is of course a danger that when religious practices and tradition begin to dominate our relationship with both God and those around us we forget that it is not what we do that should take centre stage in our faith but what God does. Jesus warns us of those who will come in His name, those who will deceive and use His name as a byword to seek their own glory. Those who use scripture as a tool to persecute others, to impose their own regimes on others, they too are those false prophets of whom Jesus speaks. We see it from the Crusades through to the conflict in Northern Ireland, we see it in this country’s history and the history of many other nations and faiths. If we allow our enthusiasm to evangelise to dominate the way in which we relate to others then this can be to the detriment of our tolerance of those who do not share our belief. If our zeal takes the form of aggression and intolerance then we forget the fundamental message of the Gospel message that Jesus commanded us to take throughout the world. “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”
Jesus is the Prince of Peace. As Christians we are compelled to follow His example. And that can be hard to reconcile in the face of evil and how we can best deal with the consequences of that throughout the world, not just on a national or international scale but on an individual or community basis. We cannot ignore that the intolerance between one group against another in the name of religion has resulted in much unnecessary bloodshed and sorrow. Too often the question is asked – where is God in all this? How can a God who purports to love the world allow it to be on a course apparently marked self-destruct? We have to be prepared to own the fact that from the accounts of war in the Old Testament to the multiple conflicts in the Middle East and beyond, religion has been used as an excuse for violence, aggression and intolerance at both an individual, community and national level. These are big issues and it is far beyond my understanding to even begin to answer the questions that arise when we consider them. But what I do know is that there is wisdom to be found through our faith in God and that if we but listened more attentively to Him and considered more carefully the message of the Gospel, there would be less needless conflict and suffering. And when challenged by those who claim that, were it not for religion there would be no war, we must be prepared to speak out and proclaim that it is not religion that is the cause of war but what humanity chooses to do in its name. Religious practice is not at the heart of the Christian faith – God is. And if we remain mindful of that in all that we do and we endeavour to live out the Gospel message of universal love and acceptance in our everyday lives then perhaps we can play a part in changing the mindset that blames religion for war. We can instead ensure that God is at the heart of peace not portrayed as the instrument of war, that He is known as love not as hate and that if we put our trust in Him and submit to His will peace will reign throughout creation. We must never forget the lessons of what has both gone before and tragically continues to mar God’s creation. We must be prepared to learn from the horror and agony experienced by so many in so many different ways in order to equip ourselves to make positive changes in the way we engage with others. We need to reflect on our own individual responses to conflict in all its forms, to ask God for the strength to be more tolerant and loving towards those who may not believe what we do, who look different, who speak differently, who love differently. Today is a day dedicated to remembrance of those to whom we owe so much, it is a day for gratitude and thankfulness that so many were prepared to lay down their lives in order that we might be free from tyranny. It is a day to honour those who made the supreme sacrifice, not just on the battlefield but in countless different places in an effort to subvert evil through good.
And it also a day on which we must commit ourselves to continue to have hope, to trust that Jesus’s desire that we should love one another will one day be fully realised. So today, we remember. We remember the past. We remember the false hopes. The broken promises. The appalling treatment of our fellow human beings. We remember a generation destroyed and a shattered Europe. We remember the sacrifice, not just that of a hundred years ago but the ongoing sacrifice across the decades since. And once again, we commit ourselves to say together and corporately, that whatever it takes, however hard the work, however difficult the compromise, however painful the truth, never again. We cannot love our neighbours if we are blowing them up, if we are building walls, barriers and separate compounds to them, if we are saying, “this bit over here is mine, and that bit over there is yours. No. If we are to love our neighbour as ourselves then we consider the privileges and blessings that we have, we then choose to look at what our neighbour needs, and in love, we help. This is what working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth looks like. We choose to say, Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Not our own. May it one day be so.