Scripture Readings: Micah 4.1-5

Luke 1.67-80

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our church buildings, like many church buildings, are full of memorials. There are the obvious ones: the lists of names from both world wars inside St Stephen’s, the congregational memorial on the outside wall of the Old High Church; the Camerons memorial area inside the Old High. We have memorials to memorial to ministers, organists, town worthies, and congregation members in both our buildings. There is stained glass in the chancel of St Stephen’s gifted by a Royal Artillery officer; and at the Old High, another stained glass memorial from a mother to her child. There are number of individual memorials at the Old High, ranging to a memorial to a General Wimberley, who led the 51st Division at Alamein, to the mention on his family memorial of Ensign James Grant who died at the Battle of Waterloo, aged only 15.

Memorials are found across our country, not just in churches, but in parks and gardens and in many other public buildings. The simplest memorials are best; and sometimes they make us come up short. Inverness Royal Academy has a war memorial, now in its third building, which contains a numbingly long list of names. You wonder what it must have meant for a school to have so many of its recent pupils- and some of the staff as well, no doubt- die in such a way in such a short period of time.

Like many memorials, the Royal Academy’s memorial dates from after the Armistice. Once, I came across once such stone war memorial in Argyllshire. It was at a crossroads, in the middle of a rather scattered collection of farms and cottages which hardly deserved the name of a village. But this was the parish war memorial for this particular Highland glen. And on three sides of this simple stone pillar were carved the names of the young men who had died- most of them, of course, between 1914 and 1918. Many of them had the same surname- brothers and cousins. I looked around at the few scattered houses in that glen, and wondered at how it must have affected that place to lose so many young men in the prime of life.[1]

The twentieth century brought war and devastation on a scale never seen before. No wonder we have so many memorials, and ways of remembrance. We all need to remember. But I wonder what we do with our remembrance? Do we just remember, and nothing comes of it?

Zechariah remembered. Old Zechariah remembered what God had done in the past. He remembered the prophets- people like Micah who assured the people that God would send a saviour for his people. He remember the covenant with Abraham, in which God promised to be with Israel, and Israel promised to serve the one true God. But Zechariah didn’t just remember. Zechariah had a son, and this son was Zechariah’s hope for the future. This son, John, was the latest prophet, the last prophet, for he would announce the coming of the one for whom the prophets of old had waited:

“You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God.
You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him,
to tell his people that they will be saved
by having their sins forgiven.
Our God is merciful and tender.
He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us
and to shine from heaven on all those who live
in the dark shadow of death,
to guide our steps into the path of peace.”

Luke 1.76-79

Zechariah was a priest of Israel. He knew his tradition, he could remember the story of God’s dealings with Israel- a story of struggle, a story which was very often dark and painful. But he also knew that God meant to guide his people’s steps into the path of peace.

It’s not that we are simply to remember. It’s what we do with our remembrance. In the run up to the vote on the Iraq war a few years ago, the Labour party’s chief whip in the House of Commons in Tony Blair’s government was reported as having told a one of his MPs that ‘war was not a matter of conscience’. Afterwards, a magazine columnist commented that previous party whips would have said that. This brought a letter from someone who had once been an advisor to a former Labour Party chief whip, John Silkin MP. Part of the letter read:

During the Second World War in the Pacific, Silkin, then a naval officer, looked into the eyes of a kamikaze pilot heading straight for his ship. Then the plane hit. Silkin lived; the body of the sailor who had been standing talking next to him was severed… John Silkin would never had said war was not a matter of conscience.[2]

Today is a day when we should pause and remember something of the horror of war, and have a long, hard think about how we minimise the possibility of war anywhere in the world. We can remember, too, places like Yemen, where people are going through unimaginable suffering right now. And we can be remembering those among us who still bear the physical and mental scars of war: former military personnel, or civilians, for whom the memory of war is still raw, whether it was just a few years ago, or decades ago. And for Christians, this can be a time to commit to living as peaceably, and remembering all who die when we do resort to war and violence.

Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is only real if it is accompanied with justice. And the rich and powerful nations of the world have a special responsibility in this regard. For without us being prepared to meet the issues which cause people to go in for extremism and terrorism, there can be not lasting peace. And even with the best military technology, you cannot keep the peace by force alone. You can have the biggest army, the best military technology, and the most dedicated military personnel, and yet still fall victim to terrorism- as happened to America in 2001, when the conflicts in the Middle East suddenly spilled over into Washington DC and New York. Alongside military measures, there are non-military measures which are the just as important- things like improved airport security, blocking terrorists’ bank accounts, or the secret work by intelligence services which we rarely hear about. Keeping the population safe is an unending struggle for our government nowadays.

What is really needed, however, is that we need to live, as a nation and as individuals, so that we do not create enemies. It’s usually poverty and despair that causes violence and war. So in order to prevent conflict, we need to tackle poverty. So we need to encourage education, fair trade, good working conditions. We need to tackle the multinationals who don’t pay taxes which could pay for schools and road and a police force. A few years ago the Pentagon identified global warming as a major source of conflict in the world- tensions are rising as deserts expand and sea levels rise. So even taking care of our planet is part of peacekeeping.

Christianity is, above all, a faith of peace- that is clear to anyone who reads the Gospels carefully, and takes seriously the words of Jesus. We can never allow Jesus Christ to be the reason for war and violence. If we are going to war, it must be a war against poverty, against injustice. The tools of that war will not be spears, but ploughshares. Our calling as Christians today is a call to be peacemakers- and Jesus Christ called the peacemakers blessed, as you know. So for Christians, there is an imperative to work for peace by working for justice. That means replacing enmity with dialogue- for example dialogue with those of different faiths. And it means supporting efforts at achieving economic justice for the poor, and peaceful settlements in those places where violence and war are endemic.

Meantime, what do we do with our remembrance, and with our memorials? Do we just look back on the past? Or do we despair of the present? No- not if we are people of faith. Because from faith should always come hope. Can we can share the hopes of Micah and Zechariah? Dare we hope for an age to come when people will hammer their swords into ploughs, their spears into pruning-knives? Dare we allow God to guide our feet into the paths of peace? Dare we do our bit to make the prophet’s dream a reality, to work for peace, for justice, for a better world?

For it is not enough just to remember. We have to do something with our remembrance. We need to remember with hope. Remembering is, to some extent, about looking back. We ought to look back- but that’s not enough. We should look back in order to learn from history. As we look back, let us remember, but also let us hope for the day there will be on more Martinpuichs and Sommes and Jutlands. More than ever, our world needs people with hopes for the future, people who will heed Jesus’ call to be peacemakers.

The prophet Micah saw a day ahead when

‘Everyone will live in peace among their own vineyards and fig trees, and no one will make them afraid. The Lord Almighty has promised this’.

Today they regularly bulldoze ancient fig trees and olive groves to build Israel’s security barrier, or to take away cover for those attacking the West Bank settlements. And yet Micah’s vision is a lovely vision, a vision worth pursuing. It is also a vision which sometimes becomes a reality- if we work at it.

In 1745, the Old High Church was used to house prisoners of war. They shot some of them out in the graveyard- that would probably be described as a war crime nowadays. It was a terrible civil war, which ended with a vicious battle just a few miles from here. And yet, somehow we got over it, and on this island of ours, people mostly live at peace with one another. Once, places like on the Somme like Martinpuich were the scene of terrible slaughter. Today, there are still memorials to mark the spots where the slaughter happened. You can still visit the remains of what was once the most heavily fortified border in the world- the fortress of Verdun, the Maginot line. But the French countryside, where the Western Front once lay, is peaceful now. So many of the issues which led to war in 1914 have, at last, been put to rest- they are no longer important. Peace and reconciliation are possible.

Point Alpha, betwee Rasdorf, Hesse, and Geisa, Thirginia. Photo by Peter W Nimmo

Just the other week, I visited a former military installation, which is now preserved as a memorial to the Cold War. We forget that people did actually die in the Cold War, even in Europe. Point Alpha was an American base from which they patrolled the very border of the Cold War, on the fortified frontier between East and West Germany. The attached museum reminds us of the many people who were killed trying to get over that border as they tried the Communist dictatorship.

There were a number of video installations where you could hear the stories of local people who lived on that Cold War border. One was a Catholic church pastoral worker, who was surprised to find himself in charge of the protests against the Communists in his East German village in 1989. He explained that although they were secular protests, the meetings arranging the protests often took place in church buildings, and that the demonstrations followed on from prayers for peace in the churches. These were peaceful demonstrations, in which many people carried candles- a symbol with Christian roots, reminding us of what the Gospel of John says of Christ:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[3]

On one occasion, the pastoral worker explained, some of the younger people wanted to go to the homes and offices of Communist officials and throw rocks at them. But, he said, the hotheads discovered that if you are carrying a candle, trying to keep it steady, and trying to stop if being blown out, you can’t throw rocks. I could not listen to that man’s memories without thinking of the words of Jesus we heard in our worship last Sunday:

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’.[4]

For every follower of Jesus Christ is called to be a peacemaker. That will mean different things for different people at different times. But we are surely all called to be people who light candles instead of throwing rocks.

Ascription of Praise

Blessing and glory
and wisdom and thanksgiving
and honour and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

Revelation 7.12

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

After sermon: Hymn: Hope for the world’s despair written for the centenary of the Armistice of 1918

Notes

[1] Inverness war memorials from the First World War and after are listed and illustrated at https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/search?filters%5Bsettlement%5D%5BInverness%5D=on&page=1

[2] Ann Carlton, letter ‘Girlish Behaviour’, New Statesman 2.11.2001, p37

[3] John 1.5

[4] Matthew 5.9