What do we remember? To remember is to seek to be a hope-giver and a peace-maker.
This was my sermon for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. As part of it I talk about a picture, The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann, and a sculpture, The Risen Christ by Jacob Epstien. I got the information on them from the linked websites. I also quote from the Observer’s 1919 editorial on the Treaty of Versailles.
100 years ago today the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It took another 6 months for the peace treaty to be signed. It wasn’t until May 1919 that the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed. But the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Fighting stopped. And so, every year, at 11 o’clock on the 11th November we too fall silent. We remember. But, sadly, one of the things that we now have to remember is that the Great War, the War to end all Wars, didn’t. Conflicts continued. The Great War was renamed the First World War, because of the Second World War. And that too failed to end the conflicts.
We remember the dead, of the first world war, and of the conflicts since. We remember.
But, our remembering is only partial. One of the things that we are called to do as we remember the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War is to remember better, to remember more fully. To remember, yes, the many, many dead. To remember, also, the living, whose lives were ruined. Those who were disabled, physically, emotionally, mentally.
To remember the people from around the world who fought in both World Wars. People of many different nations: from across Europe, from the Middle East, Asia, China, the Caribbean, Africa and America. And people of many faiths: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, those who didn’t really believe much, those who lost their faith because of the suffering they saw, and those who found faith in God, who they encountered in the midst of the suffering.
To remember those who didn’t fight because of their beliefs. To remember those who didn’t fight and kept things going at home. The many women who worked in factories and in all sorts of other jobs that they’d been excluded from before.
To remember how our country was transformed by both the World Wars. Including of course the right to vote for women after the First, and the NHS after the Second. To remember how other countries were transformed as well. Many received independence. For many, the fighting went on in different forms for years after the official end.
So, we remember. But what hope do we have as we remember? What hope do we have?
We heard a reading from the prophet Micah, who was looking forward with hope to the time when:
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.
Micah was speaking 2,700 years ago. A time of great Empires marching across continents, defeating and destroying countries, deporting people to work as forced labour. A time of war and death. So Micah speaking hope into a time when there was little hope to be had. But the hope that he had and gave to others wasn’t based on people getting it right this time. Micah gave people a God-given, God-based hope.
This picture is called Descent from the Cross. It was painted in 1917 by the German artist Max Beckmann. The painting shows the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross. Beckmann was an artist before the First World War and was inspired by French artists. So, he refused to fight. “I won’t shoot at Frenchmen,” he said, “I owe too much to Cezanne.” Instead, he volunteered as a medical orderly, taking the wounded from the battlefield to be treated by medics.
But, what he saw on the battlefield led to a nervous breakdown. And when he was well enough to paint again, Beckmann painted this picture, reflecting something of the horrors that he had seen. But contained within the horrors of this painting are the seeds of hope. Because Jesus’ death on the cross was followed by his resurrection from the dead. And this gives us the hope and the promise that death that through him death is not the end for us either.
It’s that hope that our second reading talks about. Zechariah is looking forward to what God is going to do through Jesus, and how his son, John, is going to be a part of that. John, says Zechariah, is going to be a hope-giver. John is going to give God’s hope, based on God’s love and forgiveness, his peace, to those around him:
you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
So as we remember we can have hope. Like the prophet Micah, and like John and Zechariah we can give hope to others as well. We can be hope-givers. Hope-givers based on the hope that is given to us by God that darkness, death and war are not, will not be, the last word. That Jesus has shown us that forgiveness, love, and peace are stronger than death and fear.
We too can be guided into the path of peace. It’s not enough simply to stop fighting. There is a need to work for and win the peace as well. Unfortunately that’s harder.
Much harder, as the peace treaty signed six months after the end of the First World War shows. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in May 1919, but by no means everyone was happy about it. The Observer, then a centre-right newspaper owned by a Conservative minister, was scathing about the peace treaty. Its editorial described the treaty as:
“Peace with a Vengeance [and] peace with folly. … They raise more dangers than they lay. … They repeat the fatal precedents which have always led back to war and made the end of one struggle the direct cause of another.” The only hope the Germans have, the paper concluded is “the hope of revenge”.
14 years later, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. 6 years after that, only 20 since the peace treaty was signed, we were back at war. So, in 20 years time people will gather here at this time to remember the start of the Second World War. Every year, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked as a reminder of the horrors of which we as human beings are capable.
Not everyone agreed, or agrees, that the Treaty of Versailles was that bad. But, nonetheless, in practice at least, it sowed the seeds for the rise of Nazism and the horrors that that unleashed. And the way that the Middle East was treated after the War paved the way for the conflicts that have arisen there ever since.
So, what hope do we have?
This is a sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein called The Risen Christ, started in 1917 and finished in 1919, interrupted by Epstein’s time in the British Army. Jesus has risen from the dead, and meets with his followers, giving them hope. He points to his wounds, the hole in his hand where the nail was. The scars remain, but there is the promise of hope and peace. Epstein saw this statue as a protest against war, and a symbolic warning to all lands.
The Risen Christ gives us hope. Not the hope that this time we’ll get in right. But the hope that God takes our sin and death and fears on himself, dies, and gives us new life in his resurrection. We are invited to be part of that new life.
We need hope and we need to win the peace. And we are all part of that. We are all part of being hope-givers and peace-makers.
We are not on our own. The promise of the Risen Christ is that he is with us, and that he leaves his Spirit with us, to give us hope and peace. To give us enough hope and peace that it overflows from us into the lives of those around us.
100 years ago today the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. We remember the dead, of the first world war, and of the conflicts since. We remember.
To remember is to seek to be a hope-giver and a peace-maker. God knows that we can’t do that on our own. We know that we can’t do it on our own, either as an individual or as a nation. We need God’s help to play our part. And the promise of God, through the Risen Christ, is that we can turn to him and be given that help. To be a hope-giver and a peace-maker in our lives and in the lives of our nation, and our shared world. As Zechariah promised, God will:
enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.