A Sermon on Remembrance by the Reverend Trevor Jamison,
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, preached in November 2020
So, today is a time for thanksgiving. We give thanks for the lives and dedication of all those who have lived through wars, especially those who have had to fight in them. It’s also a time of sadness, because it involves remembering millions upon millions who have died in war, particularly, but not exclusively, the First and Second World Wars.
I say millions upon millions, but we mustn’t let huge numbers blind us to the reality that these were all individual human beings, each made in the image of God; all remembered by someone, many of them deeply loved and greatly missed.
This is also a challenge. It should be a challenge to all people, for we all have to try to reconcile our stated deep desire for peace, with positively marking past and current human conflicts. Some of these wars have been prosecuted in the name of peace – and sometimes proclaimed as such by both sides in the same conflict.
It’s particularly a challenge for Christians, or at least it should be. After all, there must be a tension between taking part in or supporting a conflict and your understanding that a defining aspect of your identity – “Christian” – is that you are a follower of Jesus Christ, also known as the Prince of Peace.
So these readings are relevant and challenging. The prophet Isaiah and the writer of Psalm 46 are convinced that God is both our refuge and the LORD of hosts: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in danger’ (46:1). And according to Isaiah, God has been, ‘a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress.’ (“25:4) That sounds unthreatening and comforting until you realise that ‘refuge’ here carries the sense of stronghold or fortress. Hence Martin Luther’s sixteenth century hymn, variously translated as ‘a safe stronghold’ or ‘a mighty fortress is our God’.
Also, for both the psalmist and the prophet, God is ‘LORD of hosts’: ‘the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’ (46:7); ‘on this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food’ (25:6). God is portrayed as the leader of the nation’s armies, an image that might give some of us pause for thought. Truth to tell, though, many times in history, it’s been taken for granted that God is on our side in the wars we fight. Yes, the other side might say that, perhaps even believe it, but we know, just like the psalmist knew, God is the God of our armed hosts, not theirs.
Yet in what’s written in today’s bible passages, God makes for a strange leader of armies. Yes, God’s the LORD of hosts, the leader of the army, but one who, ‘makes wars cease to the ends of the earth … breaks the bow, and shatters the spear … [and] burns the shields with fire.’ (46:9) According to Isaiah, this LORD of hosts, this leader of armies, looks after the poor and the needy in their distress, shelters them from the elements, and ultimately ‘will swallow up death for ever … [and] wipe away tears from all faces.’ (25:4, 8) That’s a very strange way of going about fighting a war.
Now there is a real tension for Christians between addressing the realities of human conflict – can I really allow them to attack to the neighbour that I am called to love and not step in, with force if necessary? – and prioritising peace because we are followers of Jesus Christ. Our Gospel reading reflects that.
Zechariah is the father of the newly born John the Baptist, and he bursts into song about it. God has redeemed his people by raising up a saviour, having previously spoken through prophets like Isaiah. Baby John will grow up to be a prophet of the most high – a saviour, bringing knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of sins. Within this song’s list, though, difficult current realities and God’s future direction are both addressed.
First, there is the reality that Zechariah, John, and Jesus lived in an occupied land. As far as Zechariah’s concerned, this saviour is one who has ‘rescued us from the hands of our enemies.’ (1:73) People who read that line aloud when Luke’s Gospel was first written would have done so quietly. ‘The enemies’ could only be the troops of the occupying power, the Roman empire, whose head, the emperor, was quite attached to the title, ‘Prince of Peace.’ This was about current realities.
Second, though, Zechariah’s song is about God’s future, and the part of God’s people in getting there: ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (1:78-79) Yes, the Roman imperial enemy is identified and acknowledged, but there’s no suggestion that the LORD of hosts, or the new saviour, intend to prosecute a war; this is about walking the way of peace.
I’ve mentioned an old hymn by Martin Luther, inspired by Psalm 46:1. The psalm finishes with a phrase that has inspired a more recent one: ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ (46:10) There’s a comfort and a truth in singing that; about knowing the presence of God in our individual lives and as a congregation, especially when we gather to worship. But look at the whole verse: ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’
People of God, including followers of Jesus, are called to acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, and also in our political settings – nations – and in the earth – the environment, itself. And today that confronts us with a challenge; to live in the world of nations, including conflicts and our wars, and yet to acknowledge the presence and authority of a LORD of hosts whose purpose is to put an end to wars, and who has sent a saviour to achieve this. So, yes, this period of remembrance of war calls for both sadness and thanksgiving. It’s also a challenge to all followers of the most-high, Jesus Christ, the true Prince of Peace.