8th November 2015

“The God of desolation” (Psalm 46).

I don’t know about you, but I find Remembrance Sunday one of the most depressing days of the year. The principal reason for this, of course, is because we are trying to make sense of so much tragic waste of life: combatants and, indeed, civilians who died as a result of warfare, many of them young and with their future still lying ahead of them. I’m sure you agree that this can never be a day for celebration, it must be a day for mourning and wringing our hands in despair.

But Remembrance Sunday depresses me for other reasons. I dislike intensely the quasi-religious ritual of the commemoration with its flags and marching and bands; I regret the way in which the media’s focus on Remembrance events so often seems to focus on the “old days” and “our brave boys” rather than on honest discussion about the real value of military action; I wince at the conflation of patriotism and religion which seems endemic to our memorialising; I decry the way in which fighting men, brave yet often terrified souls, are almost elevated to the rank of Christian martyrs; and I marvel at the duplicity of our political leaders who, at one and the same time, say “never again” yet debate the merits of air strikes and “putting boots on the ground” in another far-flung country. I simply cannot understand why the Church of the Prince of Peace gets so caught up in the whole thing.

If I’m honest, though, there is another reason which makes this day so depressing for me – and, I’m sure, for you as well. For, amidst the solemnity of the processions down Whitehall and the gatherings at War Memorials around the land, there is the nagging realisation that conflict isn’t just a thing of the past; that, in too many places today, people are still being killed and injured, homes and livelihoods are still being destroyed. Despite the best efforts of politicians and military leaders arguing endlessly at Peace Conferences or the United Nations, tyranny is still rampant, people are still failing to settle their differences peaceably, the bloodshed still goes on. War doesn’t need to be “remembered”: it isn’t history but a present reality.

So, when we see those dreadful scenes from places such as Syria (the locations may change from year to year but the images are all too familiar), we are forced to ask a question that strikes at the very heart of our Christian faith: why isn’t God doing anything about it? Why, despite the innumerable desperate prayers for peace and the countless peace initiatives which have taken place, does he permit all this appalling violence to take place? Why, despite his claims to be the God of the widow and the fatherless, his promises to keep people safe under the shadow of his wings, are soldiers still being shot and bombed and innocent civilians still being raped and murdered and blown to bits? We start wondering if God is just sitting up there in heaven saying, “Tut, tut, there go those stupid humans again?” We begin to ask if he is lazy, unconcerned or even powerless to act.

But we might want to go further than that. For there are certain passages in our Bible which at first sight suggest that God might actually regard warfare as an acceptable activity for civilised human beings, that he might not just allow conflict but even facilitate it as a way of achieving his divine aims. If that is the case then we must ask if we’ve been barking up the wrong tree with all our talk of a God who loves peace. For if he is actually in favour of war, then he must be quite content for people to kill each other and wreck their countries. That seems an appalling thing to say: yet today’s Psalm declares that God has “wrought desolations” on the earth. So the question cannot be evaded: to what extent should God be blamed for warfare?

Before I try to answer that, let me remind you of some Bible passages in which God does appear to approve of warfare. There is, of course, the lengthy tale of the Jews’ invasion of Canaan. In Exodus Moses sings that God is a “man of war”; in Leviticus he speaks in God’s name to tell the people, “if you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (so far, so good!) and “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid” (that’s even better!) However he continues, “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword”. Somehow that is much less reassuring.

Moving on a few centuries, we have the story of David and Goliath. Although David declares that God “does not save by sword and spear”, his words are preceded by the chilling cry, “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel”. The fact is that, after the bit of the story we all know from Sunday School days, when David kills Goliath with his catapult and the giant’s own sword, the Philistines flee, the Israelites pursue them and there is a bloodbath. God offers no whiff of disapproval.

Now we may say that those events happened at a time when the Hebrews regarded Yahweh as little more than a tribal god who would naturally be on their side in military campaigns and whose power would give them success. And there is a lot of truth in that thought; I hope that our understanding of God has developed since then. But let’s now fast-forward a further five centuries to the time of the last prophets (and, equally, just five centuries before the time of Christ).

And here we find God interfering in human politics and power-blocs. For Isaiah declares that the Persian king Cyrus is to be God’s instrument to set them the Jews from their captivity in Babylon; this would involve military action. For, although king Cyrus’ armies did ultimately enter Babylon unopposed, this only took place following the battle of Opis in 539 BC in which they massacred the Babylonian army. This, in turn, was foretold by Isaiah’s contemporary Jeremiah who called the Persians “God’s war-club” and  “weapon of battle” with which he would destroy nations and kingdoms, smash horses and their riders, chariots and their charioteers, governors and deputies, men and women, boys and girls. These are not peaceful words; and they are presented as the words of God himself. Once again, human conflict appears to be the way in which he accomplishes his plans.

So let’s go back to that text: “Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth”. These words were probably written after Jerusalem had successfully resisted an attack from one of its enemies. Now I would love to be able say that the word “desolations” (or “devastation”, as our New English Bibles put it) is simply a mistranslation. I am no Hebrew scholar but I have learned that the same word occurs frequently in the Old Testament; while it does sometimes get rendered as “astounding things” in our English versions, that is a definite softening of what it means.  For its primary sense is certainly “desolation”, “horror” or “waste”. So the meaning of the verse seems horrifyingly clear: God has astounded people, not just with his power or liberation but also with the scale of his destruction.

The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon had little doubt about the interpretation of this verse: “The joyful citizens of Jerusalem are invited to go forth and view the remains of their enemies, that they may mark the prowess of Jehovah and the spoil which his right hand has won for his people ... In the days of the writer of this Psalm, there had probably occurred some memorable interposition of God against his Israel’s foes; and as he saw their overthrow, he called on his fellow citizens to come forth and attentively consider the terrible things in righteousness which had been wrought on their behalf”. Well, at least Spurgeon recognised that God’s act of saving his people had involved “terrible things”; whether Israel’s foes had been repulsed by fierce fighting or by some thunderbolt from heaven, the result had been death and destruction on a grand scale. Such a reading makes me feel extremely uncomfortable; I find it very hard to accept that God ever uses a “scorched earth” policy to achieve his ends.

But I wonder if there is another way of looking at this difficult verse? For what comes straight after it is much more hopeful: “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire”. This verse hardly seems to endorse war; indeed it tells us that God himself will destroy weapons of both offence and defence. For it says that not just bows and swords but even shields will be shattered and rendered useless. The ultimate consequence of that is that fighting will cease as, without weapons, it becomes impossible. What we have here isn’t just an agreement to retain military hardware without using it; it isn’t an amnesty with weapons being tossed into a pile; it isn’t even an operation which definitively puts serviceable equipment out of use. This is God’s own peace dividend as he himself beats swords into ploughshares, turns missiles into washing machines or even – as has happened through the agency of Christian Aid in Mozambique – transforms guns and grenades into beautiful sculptures (which you can go and see for yourselves in no less an establishment than the British Museum).

I can’t pretend that the subject of warfare, God and our Christian faith is anything but a huge conundrum. We have spent our time this morning worrying at a couple of verses in the Old Testament; but we must remember that the New Testament is by no means conflict-free. After all it was Jesus himself who made lurid prophecies about the final days of the world and his return in glory, speaking of “nations rising against nations”, “wars and rumours of wars”, lawlessness and torture, people fleeing in terror from “great suffering such as has not been seen from the beginning of the world”, and something called “the abomination of desolation” standing in Jerusalem’s Holy Place. These are not peaceful words by any means; and they are echoed by John in his vision in the book of Revelation. Violence, warfare and bloodshed take us almost – but not quite! – to the very final page of our Bibles.

And ultimately it is violence which brings redemption and peace: violence which is certainly condoned by God and, one might say, is even perpetrated by him. For the climactic scene of the entire Bible is the one we find repeated in all four Gospels and commemorate spo frequently that we forget its absolute horror: the sight of Jesus being abused, defiled, suffering and ultimately murdered by men as God, his Father, watches without lifting a finger to stop it. Yet it is this cruel and apparently futile event, the willingness of a man to give up life even for his enemies, which opens the door for reconciliation and peace. Ultimately the killing of Jesus is the supreme contrast between the rule of evil and the nonviolent reign of God.

That leads us into a final picture of God which is much more inspiring. For in the final chapter of the Bible we emerge into the clear light of eternal day. We hear God’s voice declaring that his home is among mortals; that pain and crying will cease and death itself be conquered. The celestial city will be a place of sanctuary for people from every nation; nothing that reeks of violence or division will be allowed to enter. As the old hymn by Silvester Horne – the MP for Ipswich at the beginning of the last century – puts it, “All shall be well in his kingdom of peace, freedom shall flourish and wisdom increase; foe shall be friend when His triumph we sing, sword shall be sickle when Jesus is King”. Horne wrote that in the autumnal glow of the Edwardian period and died in May 1914; I wonder if he would have been so optimistic if he had lived for a few more months?

I started this sermon by saying that I find Remembrance Sunday a depressing day. The questions I have raised this morning about God, war and history may have increased your feelings of gloom. And we may well turn on our televisions this evening and hear news which contributes further to our sense of despair. Yet we must leave our service today with the awareness that we have both shared in the sorrow of the past and are still looking to the future with hope. For we follow the Christ who came into our world to bring reconciliation and died violently in so doing; we go forth in the name of the Prince of Peace.