The Metropolitan Congregation

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Sermon - 16th November 2014

War and Peace

Scripture - Judges 4:1-9

Walt Johnson

[An audio version of this sermon (mp3) is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]

 I have titled today’s sermon “War and Peace”, basing it upon today’s set Old Testament reading from the book of Judges, the seventh book in the Bible, recording a period of history from the 14th to the 11th centuries BCE. As you heard, the reading speaks of a battle and a judge, a female judge, called Deborah. Before we look at the passage more closely, I would like us to reflect on November as a month of remembrance.

Two weeks ago, at the start of November, came All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. On my way to church, I drove past Southern Cemetery, and judging by the huge number of cars and people of all ages, taking time out to remember those close to them and to visit their graves, is something still done by many people.

Last Sunday, here in the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries, we took time out to remember those who were killed during the many wars, including the First and Second World wars. At 11am, our nation stopped and fell silent; the Queen and her family, political leaders of all parties, and representatives of the Armed Forces and other groups laid wreaths of remembrance, there at the Cenotaph in London, and at war memorials throughout the UK and Commonwealth. Many of us will have worn poppies as a symbol of remembrance.

In this centenary year marking the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, people from around the world have been deeply moved by the artist, Paul Cummin’s 888,246 ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London, one for each of the fallen.

In wars and battles, there are winners and losers. This Sunday, with a very different emphasis to the commemorations here in the UK, Germany marks Volkstrauertag, meaning “the day of the people’s mourning”.

For some of us, Remembrance is time to remember the sacrifices of individuals in our own families. I remember my grandfather who fought in the Royal Artillery in both North Africa and Italy during World War 2. Thankfully, he survived, but he sometimes used to speak of those of his friends who were killed or died in the prisoner of war camp.

In this church on the wall, you can see a list of those who gave their lives during the wars. Every suburb, village, town and city has a memorial, listing the individuals who died; and while war can affect us personally in our own families, war has an effect on us all as nations.

I would like us to reflect for a moment on the true horror and the cost of life in war and show you some shocking statistics relating to the two World Wars and the terrible human price.

World War 1

Military

(Civilian)

Total

% of population in 1914

UK

888,246
(123,829)

1,012,075

2.2

US

116,708
(757)

117,465

0.13

Russia

2,254,369
(1,140,000)

3,394,369

1.94

Germany

2,037,000
(763,720)

2,800,720

4.32

 Total  

7,324,629

 

 

World War 2

Military

(Civilian)

Total

% of population in 1939

UK

383,800
(67,100)

450,900

0.94%

US

407,000
(12,000)

419,000

0.32%

Germany

5,500,000
(2,500,000)

8,000,000

12.8%

USSR

13,850,000
(18,000,000)

31,850,000

16.6%

Total

 

40,719,900

 Source: Wikipedia

 War is an inescapable aspect of human history, right from the earliest historical records almost 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia. When we read the Bible, a significant part of the Old Testament relates to Israel’s military struggle; and the New Testament was written during the occupation of a foreign empire, the Roman Empire. And every century of recorded history is filled with conflict, war and human suffering as a consequence.

Today’s Bible reading is set at a time after the Jewish people had been set free from Egypt and had travelled under Moses’ leadership under God through the desert to the Promised Land. After the death of Joshua, Moses’ successor, Israel did not have a leader, and the book of Judges tells us that Israel lost its faith in God and the people turned to local gods. The Promised Land was not an empty land: it was already occupied by many other peoples with their own ways, traditions and beliefs, and clearly they were not wholly welcoming to the 12 tribes of Israel taking up residence.

There is a recurring theme through the book of Judges: the other local peoples – in today’s reading, the Canaanites, conquered the Israelites in battle and ruled over them harshly. In response, God raised up a leader (called a judge) who would, literally, rally the troops, make war and gain a time of peace, during which their love for following God faded… until it all began again.

Today’s reading is typical of this cycle in which Israel found itself, except for the fact that the judge – maybe even heroine – in this passage is a woman, and were we to have kept reading, we would have heard how the story of the defeat of the Canaanites was completed by another woman.

Ancient Israel was divided into 12 tribes, each named after the 12 sons of Jacob, also called Israel after his encounter with God. The judges we read about in the book of Judges were, in a way, above the tribal structure: they were people faithful to God. They were also described as prophets. And it is to these people, the tribes of Israel turned when faced with crisis.

There are two tribes mentioned in the passage, Naphtali and Zebulun, so it is not unreasonable to assume that it is the land of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun which is being occupied by the Canaanite king, Jabin, and his army under the general called Sisera. The passage tells us that the occupation was both cruel and violent, so we can see why the people of Israel would seek God’s help to overcome this.

So a battle is arranged, but Israel’s general, Barak – whose name means “lightening” – is told, and the writer teases us with the words we heard at the end of the reading, that the victory would go to a woman. We might presume that Deborah was referring to herself.

Let me give you a quick summary of what did happen… Barak’s army utterly defeats the Canaanite army. The Canaanite general, Sisera, flees for his own life and takes refuge in a tent of an ally. The woman who claimed the final victory was not Deborah, but the wife of this ally, a woman called Jael, who name means “YHWH is God”. While the general Sisera sleeps, she kills him by driving a tent peg through his skull. When general Barak turns up, Israel’s enemy is found dead and their army defeated, and a period of peace begins. This ancient story from the Bible is echoed across history, with war, followed by periods of peace. While we have enjoyed peace in Europe since 1945, war continues, and many of the threats we face today as a country do not come from particular nation states, but from various terrorist organisations. It is only 18 years ago since the heart of our city of Manchester was devastated by a huge terrorist bomb planted by the IRA.

So what does this story have to say to us today as Christians?

If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we too live by the values of the culture in which we live. We want to fit in. Just like the ancient Israelites who succumbed into worshipping other gods, we are persuaded that we are entitled to increasing wealth, true love, perfect health, beauty, success, and happiness, and we pursue those goals single-mindedly. However, as Christians, we also know that as good as these things might be, there remains a “God-shaped” hole in each of us.

The tribes of Israel lived in circumstances to some degree very much like our modern society. This phrase in the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” – sounds very much like the individual freedom we have and value. Yet those periods of peace in ancient Israel were bought at a terrible price, just as the peace of freedom we enjoy in Europe was bought at a terrible human price.

God raised up the women Deborah and Jael, and they were instrumental in bringing about peace. In the biblical tradition it is often the weak and cunning who prevail over the strong, and that unlikely people can be empowered with the courage, passion, conviction, and strength to make a difference. Jael's obscurity and gender are the very reasons she succeeds; the enemy general Sisera does not suspect her.

This weekend sees the release of the film, The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, a gay man, an atheist, a man with a speech impediment, a loner, whose brilliant mathematical mind was able to break the German secret Enigma code. It is reckoned that his work shortened the Second World War by 18 months to 2 years and saved millions of lives.

Depending on our age now, those men among us, had we been 18 before 1960, we would have had to do National Service: that is, compulsory military service for 18 months. Only two nations have no armed forces – Greenland and Iceland; most retain compulsory military service for young men; and 8 countries have compulsory military service for women too, including Israel. Commonwealth countries and the USA have professional armies. Here in the UK, most of us will never have held a gun.

There are no easy or clear answers as Christians as to whether we should or not involve ourselves in the military. The most difficult decisions for our elected politicians of whichever party are those which involve sending people to war, in the knowledge they might be sent to their deaths. Former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in an interview with Michael Parkinson said: "I think if you have faith about these things, you realise that judgement is made by other people ... and if you believe in God, it's made by God as well." And, according to Alastair Campbell's diary, Blair often read the Bible before taking any important decisions.

In the interests of political balance, here’s a quote from the late Conservative Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher: “Men, nations, races or any particular generation cannot be saved by ordinances, power, legislation. We worry about all this, and our faith becomes weak and faltering.”

The things of this world: wars, famine, suffering, poverty, etc., impact all humans, Christians and non-Christians alike. There are no easy answers to any of these questions. May God grant us all the openness of mind and heart that He might use us as instruments of peace, as He used Deborah and Jael and Alan Turing.

Amen.

(Walt Johnson)

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