From Remembrance to Faith and Hope
A sermon preached in an Oxfordshire village church on Remembrance Sunday. By Andrew Symes.
We’re here to remember those who have died fighting in war, and especially in this centenary of the start of The Great War we remember the huge numbers of men who lost their lives, in France and Belgium and other parts of the world. When the war ended there was a national promise never to forget, and we have not done so, as the amazing popularity of the poppy display at the tower of London shows.
Remembering war goes deep into our psyche, not just because of honouring the fallen, but also because of the horror of war itself. Conflicts between nations show humanity at its best and its worst. The heroism, the courage, the selflessness – countless stories of bravery, sacrifice, counting the lives of others above one own. But also the brutality, the evil, the hatred, the terrible suffering that could have been avoided. Of those who died: yes, we will remember them. But each year this event reminds us that the forces which caused the Great War, and other conflicts before and since, have not disappeared. They are still there: on the big scale, within global politics, and on the small scale, in the decisions of ordinary individuals, and the emotions and reasoning behind them.
And as we contemplate the awful conflict we think: what would I have done? How would I have coped? And now, how does thinking about these things affect our faith in humanity to make the world a better place? How does thinking about war affect my faith in God? As we think about war and individuals who have been involved in it and even sacrificed their lives, here is an opportunity to ask what the Christian faith has to say.
The Bible was written over many years, in a culture where war was common. The man who wrote our reading today, Psalm 9, was King David, who lived about 3000 years ago, when people fought with swords and shields, but as today, war brought out the best and the worst in humanity. David was a soldier himself and was very aware of good and bad in his own character. In this poem he hints at what causes war; why as Jesus said many centuries later there will always be wars, and he reminds us of what we need to keep in mind to get our own lives on the right track.
First, think about God. King David had a lot of things on his mind, but he begins his poem by thanking and praising God. I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High. Psalm 9:1-2 Many find it difficult to talk about God at times like this. As people have said to me in the past “God can’t exist because if he did he would stop war, cancer, or the death of a child, or other tragedies”. As an answer, we can gently ask: Who is in charge then? King David is in no doubt: The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity. Psalm 9:7-8 The Bible asserts, and I personally prefer, the idea of a God of love being in charge, who we can know and trust even if we often don’t understand his ways, rather than the idea of a good God with limited power, or no God at all leaving us with ultimate authority.
According to the Bible, war is not God’s fault, nor does it mean there is no God – it happens because human beings have turned away from God: The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden. The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands. Psalm 9:15-16 You only need a few people with a lot of power making really bad decisions, and hatred rising up in the hearts of ordinary people, and you have a war. But as much as we can make a case for the justness of Britain’s involvement and the need to resist tyranny, it doesn’t do any good to think its as simple as: “we are in the right and its others who are at fault.” God has given us all responsibility and we so often mess up even in the small things, but he is still there, available to help when asked, wanting people to reject selfishness and come back to relationship with him. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalm 9:10
Second: think about those who suffer. Because that’s what God does. God did not stand aloof and let us get on with it: he came down to earth and shared in our difficult existence. The Bible says that Jesus Christ came as a servant; he experienced cruelty and suffering, but all the time he was focused on the care and upliftment of the less fortunate – the sick, the demon possessed, those who knew they had done wrong and needed forgiveness. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Psalm 9:9 When we remember the Great War, the humble, nameless, ordinary soldiers are often seen as the heroes, while some of the generals and powerful people don’t come out too well. When we think of our armed forces at present, we can be proud of the way soldiers have sat with ordinary people of Afghanistan listening to their problems and helping them get what they need. Or what is happening now in the midst of the Ebola crisis in west Africa. This is following the example of our God: power used in the right way, to oppose evil and to help the poor: But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.
Psalm 9:18 And this verse also brings us to our third point: think about the future. God promises a secure future for those who trust in him, whatever happens in this life. Churchill used to say “we will never give up, we will never surrender”. Here the poet uses the same word about God’s love. He will never leave those who trust in him. That means forever. It speaks of an eternal life.
And God promises justice. Righting the wrongs of the past doesn’t always come immediately. We all have to wait for justice whether it’s refunds on payment protection insurance or sending a criminal to prison. But in a good system it comes in the end. In times of suffering it can look as if there is no justice, but the Bible affirms that because God is in control, there is a perfect future to look forward to. If there is no God, then Hitler, and the innocent who died at his hands end up in the same place. But because of the God’s justice, there will be the right outcome in the end, in the new heaven and new earth. Because we can trust God and his promise of a secure future, as believers we can remember the past with sadness but look forward to the future with hope.