The subject of remembrance can be a tricky one for Christians. I mean how do we tread that fine line between remembering the sacrifice of so many young men and women but not glorifying the wars they fought in.
I find the annual Remembrance Service is very important to me personally, When I was a child, growing up in an atheist house the one day a year that we as a family would set foot in church was Remembrance Sunday. I was also brought up with a strong sense of family history, my Dad’s dad, my grandfather was a career sailor, he joined the Navy in 1935 and served on a number of His Majesty’s Ships before finally, in 1939 being posted on the Fleet Flagship an ageing Battle Cruiser called HMS Hood. When the Hood was sunk by Bismark 18 months later, all but three hands were lost. My Grandfather was not among the survivors.
The sacrifice my grandfather made has always been a very important part of our family story, and I know that it is a story that was repeated time and time again as every family had similar tales to tell of loved ones who were lost fighting for what turned out to be the greater good.
The legacy of the second world war is something we still feel strongly today. As well as those wars that have been fought in the near seventy years since the liberation of Europe and the ending of the war in Japan. In fact in the intervening years since the end of WWII some 16,000 British service personnel have lost their lives serving in our armed forces. The names of the conflicts are all-too familiar, Korea, Suez, Northern Ireland, The Falklands, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq to mention but a few.
But I guess the nature of sacrifice in the face of a tangible evil like Nazi fascism is why we again and again come back to the Second World War. In Britain we almost seem morbidly fascinated by it. You only have to watch the History Channels on Digital & Cable TV to see that the vast majority of documentaries are about World War II. Perhaps the reasons for this are due to the fact that as Winston Churchill said it really was ‘Our Finest Hour’. A time when a nation pulled together, a time when Britain did stand alone against a very real evil, a time when people willing gave up their freedom and worked together for a greater good.
But again, we have to be careful because it is all too easy to see the past in a glorious glow as a time when all was right with the world, and forget that real people lost their lives in unimaginably horrible ways, that yes a nation worked together to fight for good but against a background of horrendous conflict and misery for millions of people.
But what we do get from that time, perhaps more than we get from more recent conflicts is a sense of sacrifice for the greater good.
If there is such a thing as a just war, then that fight against fascism is pretty close to being it. There were certainly things the allies did wrong and which history will judge them for more as time passes, but let us never forget that it was a time when ordinary people made huge sacrifices for the freedom of the world.
When Jesus was nailed to a cross two-thousand years ago he too was making a sacrifice to buy freedom for the future. He willingly went to his death in order to provide a better life for you and for me. When my Grandfather and thousands of young men like him went to their deaths, he did it because he had been ordered too, he did it because he knew that the War was about defending his family and country from being overrun by a very real tyranny, he did it but because he knew there was no other way but he hoped that he would survive.
When Jesus went to his death he did it because he loved us, he did it because he wanted us to have the life he had originally envisioned for us way back at creation, he did it because he wanted us to be free, he did it because he knew there was no other way, but he knew he HAD to die.
When we look back on the sacrifices made in times of war over the past 99 years we might wonder whether the deaths were worth it. We might look at the world around us and be distressed at what people are doing with the freedom that was bought at such an enormous human cost. We be upset at what people choose to do with that freedom.
Try for a moment then to put yourself in God’s shoes. Look around at our world today. Look at the poverty that there is both here and abroad. Look at the things that entangle people, the injustice visited on so many people. Look how God’s people have rebelled and what they do to each other, not just in war and conflict, but they way people talk to each other, lie and cheat each other. Look at what we choose to do with our world, how we pollute and degrade the creation around us.
Imagine how that makes God feels when he looks at what we have done with the freedom that he bought us at such great cost.
Our freedom that was bought by Jesus gives us the imperative to try and be more like him in the situations we see around us. There is a modern song of worship that my Children learnt at the New Wine conference a couple of summers ago, its chorus is very simple and yet sums up exactly how we should be in the world, it goes like this:
Help me be your eyes Lord Jesus, seeing where you love is needed, may I be your hands to help
We are called to be the hands and eyes of Jesus in the world, – to do the things he would want us to do. To paraphrase a slightly older hymn –
Where there is hatred bring love,
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, true faith,
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
and dare we say it today of all days: Where the is conflict, peace.
We are called to be Jesus in the world. As Christians we have a duty to change the way we act and to make a real difference in the injustices we see around us.
The good news is that Jesus never meant for us to do this on our own. He gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us in the situations where his love is needed, to give us the sensitivity to know when to act, the wisdom to know what to say and the compassion to see how to help.
Now, we can choose not to do that, our salvation is not based on the good works that we do. We can decide to turn away from those that need us, to carry on with our own lives. We have that freedom. As Martin Luther rather succinctly put it:
Faith without works is sufficient for salvation, and alone justifies.
Although of course he said it in German.
But the reality of our faith is that if we allow Jesus into our lives, to fully live the life that his death and resurrection bought for us, then we will find that we have no choice but to act. Our very faith in Him will compel us to act and to react to the things we see around us that need his love, his touch his compassion.
The sacrifice of the men and women we remember this morning as we stood in silence, bought us a country where we are free to live as we choose, vote freely and to say what we want – even if we choose to squander those opportunities.
We are right to remember the incredible thing that they did for, and that our armed forces are still ready to do for us today.
And yet their sacrifice pails when compared to the sacrifice of a God who, became a lowly man, born of a peasant family in an ill regarded town in the back-end of no-where of an occupied territory. A God who experienced everything we know as part of the human condition and yet resisted the sins that entangle us so easily. A God who went to the cross – the most brutal of deaths – in order to take on the sins of you and me – so that we could be raised up like he was – into a glory that we do nothing to deserve.
If you are wearing a poppy today take it off for a moment and look at it. It is a symbol of sacrifice and peace. It is a symbol of hope.
The red flower reminds us of suffering and sacrifice the blood shed by people affected by war then and now. Of the loss of life endured by both sides in the fields of trenches where the poppies grew.
The green stem And The green leaf reminds us of the future, of new life and new beginnings, new growth, the spring of life. Of hope in what is to come, of hope in the freedom that cost so much.
The black dot reminds us that the aim is for all war and conflict to stop, like a full stop and that when Jesus returns all wars and conflict will end. Full Stop.
Today let us remember our own dead, but also let us remember what Jesus did for us. And as we go into the week and moths ahead let’s see if His sacrifice can make a difference in the way we live and work, in our relationships and in our attitudes to others.