Scripture Readings: Micah 4.1-5

Luke 1.67-80

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

Yesterday, 9 November, is a date of great significance for Germany. As the media has been reminding us, it was the date that the Communist authorities opened up the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, in 1989. But 9 November is also the anniversary of other historic events which led to that war, so that it has become known as ‘the Day of Fate’.

It was on 9 November 1918 that Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, making possible the Armistice a few days later, on 11 November, which ended the fighting of the Great War, and which we in this country keep as our Remembrance Day. On 9 November 1923, an attempted coup d’état in Munich the so called Beer Hall Putsch- but brought Hitler national attention. By 1938, his Nazi party was in power, and 9 November that year they carried out a pogrom which saw synagogues and Jewish shops destroyed, Jews beaten and murdered, and the start of the removal of the Jews into concentration camps.

So it is ironic that the fall of the Berlin wall should have happened on 9 November. That event finally ended the division of the country which had prevailed since the Second World War, a war caused, of course, by aggression racism, antisemitism and extremist nationalism.

Political extremists are people who do not know where the boundaries are. In pursuit of the dogmas, they are happy to see ordinary people crushed underfoot. Today, across Europe and in many other parts of the world, we are seeing a dangerous resurgence of such movements. Even in Britain, where we like to think we are a tolerant people, it seems to me that antisemitic, racist and other sorts of bigoted talk is becoming more prevalent. All of this is a threat to peace.

Peace is something which God promises his people throughout Scripture. Eight centuries before Christ, the prophet Micah spoke of a time when

Everyone will live in peace

among his own vineyards and fig trees,

and no one will make him afraid.

The LORD Almighty has promised this.

For a people who often lived on invasion routes, this must have been a welcome dream.

Centuries later, we meet in our Gospel reading today another prophet, the priest Zechariah. He has discovered that the saviour God has promised his people is, indeed, about to appear in his day. For Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, has had a baby, John, and he was to grow up to be a prophet. In a way, John the Baptist was the last of the prophets, he would preach to prepare the way for Jesus. And so, Zechariah speaks of the kind of prophet his son, John, will be:

“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.”

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.

Zechariah says of this coming Messiah that he will ‘guide our steps into the path of peace’. Peace making was at the heart of Jesus’ message; every Christian is called to be a peacemaker. Let me tell you about a remarkable story of peace making.

A couple of years ago, I visited a place in the middle of Germany which has been 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.

Demonstrators in Leipzig, 1989

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 near the border 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.[1]

But there was another purpose to those candles. The pastoral worker worried about violence- that, as the demonstrations passed the homes and offices of Communist officials, some hot headed young people would throw rocks at them. But, as he said, if you are carrying a candle, trying to keep it steady, and trying to stop if being blown out, you can’t throw rocks. Here was someone, in the midst of a fraught political crisis, trying to help others walk in the paths of peace.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, said Jesus. Like that Catholic church worker, 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.

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 and violence anywhere in the world. We can remember, too, places like Yemen, or Iraq, 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.

And this year, the Remembrance season falls during a General Election campaign. So let us not forget that just a few years ago, on 16 June 2016, a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered by a man with extremist views. As it happens, I had a meeting the very next day at a politician’s office, and he and his staff were deeply shaken by what had happened in Yorkshire. During this General Election campaign, peace making is all the more important. The wars of the twentieth century were fought to free us from the fear of extremists, to ensure we have the freedom to hold elections, to protect minorities and restore peace. We might complain about having to come out in middle of winter to have an election, but Remembrance Sunday remind us that our democracy comes at a price. Perhaps, this year, the best way we can honour those who died for our freedom, is to ensure that everyone taking part in this election- which is all of us- are civil and respectful towards those whose political  views we do not share. And that, above all, we seek the peace of our communities. Let’s hold candles, and not throw rocks.

So when, today, we remember, 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.

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. We are all called to walk, with Christ, on the path of peace.

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

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] John 1.5