I don’t know what it is like to experience war, I suspect there are quite a few of you like me. Thank you Lord, for our peace and liberty we have experienced …
There have been a lot of war movies made down the years, and we’ve probably seen some of them – Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, 1917, Schindler’s List. It’s hard to avoid pictures of war zones on tv: Afghanistan and Syria …
but it’s not the same as experiencing it for ourselves.
My grandchildren in Belgium recently went to see some of the trenches in Ostend which remain to show people what they were like, you can have a similar experience at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum at Whittington Barracks. On a trip to Vietnam years ago now, I visited the tunnels dug by soldiers during the Vietnam war.
These all give an insight, but it’s impossible to have the same experience as a soldier in the two world wars or the ones since. Actually being there, in the midst of the action, there was
- the physicality: mud, too hot or too cold, feet sore from wet boots and socks, irregular sleep and food rations; aching muscles;
- the smells: more mud, Woodbines, smoke from the guns and shells of combat, uniforms damp from the rain;
- And what was the state of mind of the soldiers? Ready for a fight, keen for some action, worried about family and friends at home, uncertainty about whether they would see tomorrow, or the end of the war, or how it was going to happen? Just plain scared? Or even occasionally, a sliver of the Lord’s peace?
I don’t know, but I expect it was some of these and whole lot more, a complete welter of sensations and thoughts, multiplied by a hugely varied group of people, each with their own sensitivities, strengths and reactions.
In our reading, Jesus and his disciples are a long way from a physical battlefield, though the crucifixion was only days away. But they’d just been in the temple, doing verbal battle with the Pharisees, the Sadducees and teachers of the law.
And now they were sitting on the Mount of Olives with a spectacular view of the temple, by all accounts an amazing sight: built of huge blocks of stone, some of it white marble, many of the stones covered with gold – can you imagine it, shining, shimmering in the sunlight!
But Jesus tells his disciples that it will all be destroyed, not even one stone left on another. That shakes the disciples up: looking at the building they’d think it would go on forever, given its sheer size, not to mention its beauty, and its importance as the most sacred place for the Jewish people. It seems unthinkable, and the disciples ask when it will happen, and what will be the signs it is going to be destroyed, so they can in some way prepare, or be prepared, for it.
Interestingly, Jesus does not start with the physical signs – cracks in the walls or an attack by an enemy – he starts by telling them first to watch out that no-one deceives them. The first threat he mentions comes from mankind’s corrupted impulses, in this case, deceit. People will come falsely claiming to be the saviour, the messiah, the one for whom the world waits for deliverance.
Jesus then goes on to talk about wars and rumours of wars, but even then he doesn’t tell them anything about how to prepare for war, he tells them not to be alarmed. I wonder what the disciples made of that, how would that even be possible.
Finally, he does he go on to admit these things and worse will happen – wars, natural disasters, famines, the list sounds strangely contemporary. Our reading stops with his observation that these will only be the birth pangs. Any woman will tell you that the birth pangs are simply the first stage of labour, there’s much harder work to come before the end!!
What Jesus is saying to the disciples is that yes, there will be huge challenges, but through it all, they are to keep their eyes on him, on the true saviour, not on false prophets. But he also tells them not to be alarmed. There will be terrible things, but reading on to the end of the chapter, the angels of the Lord will gather the elect, the end will come eventually, heaven and earth will pass away, but his words, his teaching of sacrifice and love, will never pass away.
I think those are two hard instructions Jesus gives to his disciples, and to us: not to be deceived, and not to be alarmed, to know in their hearts that the Lord is in charge, and all will be well if they are his elected people.
For us, making sure we are not deceived is a matter of discernment and study. How many shades of opinion do we hear on our TVs, read in the newsmedia, on Google, and on that so-called great source of information for many, Facebook? There are obvious truths and obvious lies, and we’d identify them easily, agreeing with the former, and rejecting the latter out of hand.
But there can be a lot of grey area, and discerning the right, the true, information requires time, Bible in one hand, news source in the other, to see where the truth lies. It is not easy. You may know of people in the recent past who have claimed to be the messiah, who have grown great cult followings, but who then have destroyed the very people who followed them. There was Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, who killed 909 people, by mass poisoning in 1978. In 1993, a standoff between the FBI and an extremist group called Branch Dividian headed by David Koresh resulted in the killing of 80 people. Those might seem extreme examples to us, but to the people following them, the leaders had convinced them they were the messiah. But sometimes there are people with more subtle false messages vying for our time, attention and confidence. We must be alert, making sure we are following Jesus and his teaching, not chasing down rabbit holes which are going to lead us away from the truth rather than helping us discover more about it.
The other thing Jesus said was not to be alarmed at wars, and rumours of wars. That’s hard: most of us won’t have directly faced war, but we might be in the midst of grief, or have news of a serious medical condition, exams can feel very threatening, major upsets in our workplace or family can feel very alarming. But even in these difficult times, sometimes, just sometimes, a peace descends, like a shard of broken glass slicing through the layers of paper we thought we’d safely wrapped it in, or a narrow shaft of brilliant sunlight through clouds in an otherwise thunderous sky. That’s the peace that passes understanding, it is the touch of God. It may not be there for long, but long enough for us to recognise a momentary respite from the grinding in our stomachs as we face our difficulty, to assure us Jesus is with us.
And that’s what Jesus would have us have, in the midst of difficulty, the absolute assurance that he is there, that he has us in his hands, and that whatever happens, he will be with us, and we will be with him, not just for this life, precious as it is to us, but for eternity as well, and that is the ultimate goal for us as Christians. It doesn’t mean we won’t meet hardship or wars, or that we’ll sail through challenges without a worry, but it does mean we are safe with him.
In all the changes and chances of life, we are called to watch out that the one we are following is Jesus, and that, having put our trust in him, we are not to be alarmed. My guess is it will be difficult for us to do, we are human, but that needn’t stop us praying that we have his discerning eye to see the right way forward, nor that we should stop seeking his peace, asking him for it, in everything we do. His peace will be, it is, available for our hearts in spite of what is going on around us.
Going forward, that’s the real challenge as we consider the outworking of the COP26 conference, as we consider the war in Yemen, the challenges in the Ukraine and Poland with migrants just now, the situation in the Middle East, the circumstances around Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, difficulties in our own lives and communities. We need to make sure we are following the teachings of Jesus, keeping our eyes on him, and not being alarmed, but trusting in him to bring us through it all.
We remember today those who have faced similar challenges in earlier times, who have followed Jesus and trusted him. As we face our challenges today, let us give thanks, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and following their example of following Jesus. Amen