Stories shape our lives, both as individuals and as nations. What stories do we allow to shape our lives? Are they stories of hope or of fear? What do those stories inspire us to do? Those questions were my challenge this Remembrance Sunday.
I’ve been reflecting on the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves and each other, and how they shape our lives. This sermon was partly in response to those reflections and partly in response to the ongoing conflicts that we see around the world, and particularly in the Middle East.
What are you looking forward to?
This sermon finishing perhaps? Christmas maybe? A family event? Something special that is happening soon? What are you looking forward to?
Both the readings that we’ve heard are from people looking forward. Looking forward to things changing, things getting back to how they should have been, things being transformed. The prophet Micah was speaking at a time of rising fear and danger. 700 years Before Christ, powerful armies were poised to destroy the nation. Neighbouring countries had already been captured and destroyed, their inhabitants carried away never to be seen again. It was a time of fear and war, of open conflict and political intrigue.
All of which sounds rather depressingly similar to the world we find ourselves in today. Nations squabble, leaders are struggling to work out how best to respond to complex situations. Fighting in Iraq and Syria, in Libya and Somalia, rising violence in Israel-Palestine, a standoff of sorts in Ukraine, dictatorships and repressive regimes in many different parts of the world. Terrorism and the fear of terrorism. Including, probably, the deaths of 224 people in a Russian plane in the Sinai desert.
But, how did the prophet Micah respond? He didn’t respond with fear or even with threats. Instead, he responded with hope. He told a story, a true story, of the hope that was possible through God, of a future that was brighter than the past, of a world without war or fear, a world of healing, prosperity and hope.
It’s very easy to fall into fear. Terrorists rely on it. One of the reasons that Churchill is remembered in such high esteem is the hope that he was able to give to people, the vision, the story that he was able to tell. It was this hope, the stories that shaped people’s lives, that enabled people to carry on. It was hope that motivated many people to fight in the World Wars, a vision of a better future. Their lives, and yes, for many, their deaths, were shaped by the stories that said they could make a difference, that it was worth fighting, that a better future was possible.
But, many other governments have come to power on the basis of fear. Many extra newspapers have been sold on fear. Fear is a powerful emotion, one which can cause us react with violence and hatred, which causes us to think of the people that we fear as less than human. It was that fear that Hitler used to such powerful effect, which allowed him to shape the stories of so many people’s lives. The fear of difference, the fear of Jews, Roma, disabled, homosexual, of people who were somehow not the same. Sadly, governments often fall into the trap of feeding people’s fears rather than giving them a better hope.
Over the summer the terrorist group so-called Islamic State, which is of course neither Islamic nor a state. In fact, most Muslims prefer to call the group Da’ish, not least because it’s very close to the Arabic for ‘bunch of bigots’. The terrorist group blew up a number of 2,000 year-old buildings in the ancient city of Palmyra. They probably did this as much for the publicity as anything else and their desire to spread fear, but it also showed the fear that Da’ish has. Because those buildings were reminders of a different world, of a different way of looking at the world, of a more hopeful outlook, of light rather than darkness.
The prophet Micah looked at the situation around him and responded with a God-given hope. A hope that war could end, that people would be free to worship God and free to flourish. Those were the things that he looked forward to. And, 700 years later the hopeful words of our other reading were spoken.
The reading from Luke’s gospel tells us of the true story that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, told after the birth of his son. Again, it was a time of war and occupation, of conflict, rebellion and plots, of fear and threats.
But, again, Zechariah’s life had been shaped by the stories of God-given hope that he had inherited and made his own. So, he responded with a story of hope, of how his life, and the life of his son, and the life of his nation could be shaped.
Zechariah looks forward with hope. He sees God’s light, God’s blessings, God’s love and mercy at work. He knows that there are things that can cause him to fear: enemies, the shadow of death, hatred. But, instead, his life and hope are shaped by the story of God’s rescue, of God’s transforming of hopeless situations into hopeful ones, of the light that shines in the darkness.
Zechariah also speaks of the importance of remembering, of God remembering his covenant, his promise with his people. He re-tells the story as a reminder to himself, to those who listened to him, and even to God himself of what had gone before, and the hope that that gave. It tells us of the importance of telling stories, of remembering, of shaping our lives by the hope that remembering gives us.
We tell each other stories all the time. Often true stories, and usually stories that are important to us. The story of how the match went, of how our day went, of the funny or embarrassing or unexpected thing that we did or someone else did. Our lives are shaped by stories. They are shaped by our own personal stories, by the stories our families and friends tell us, by the stories that our enemies tell us, and also by our national stories, the events that have shaped our society and that we seek to remember.
But what stories do we focus on? We have gathered here today to allow our lives to be shaped, at least in some small way, by the story of sacrifice and courage, of hope and of a future worth fighting for, worth dying for. Our lives our shaped in some way by the true stories of the lives and deaths of those who went before us. The lives and deaths of those who enabled us to live with the privileges and blessings that we enjoy. What hope can that true story give us? How can that shape our lives? That is the annual challenge of Remembrance Sunday.
What stories do we allow to shape our lives? Are they stories of fear or of hope?
Micah and Zechariah allowed their lives to be shaped by the true stories of God-given hope. What are you looking forward to? What stories shape your life? What hope do they give you? Or what fear do they trap you into?
Our lives can be shaped by the hope that comes from God, by the story of sacrifice and courage, of hope and of a future worth dying for that we see in Jesus. It is, above all, remembering this true story of God’s love that can shape our lives, banish our fears, and give us hope. Amen.