St Michael’s, 3rd August 2014
Reading – Psalm 88
The 96 names on St Michael’s Roll of Honour were read aloud …
None of the men remembered on this roll of honour ever volunteered to be there. Very few, I suspect, craved any great attention for themselves, let alone considered themselves heroes. These were simply sailors, soldiers and airmen, just doing their duty.
And they were not the only casualties. We heard just now of two men who died years afterwards from the effects of the war, but we know there were many, many more. There were the wounded who for the rest of their lives carried round a scar on their bodies or in their minds. There were those left behind who never knew the fate of their loved ones, and others who discovered the man they married was not the same as the husband who came back. Many different people were affected in many different ways, and few homes in this parish were not touched by that tremendous conflict.
Of course much time has passed since the Great War came to an end. You may well wonder what is the point and purpose of our commemoration today. The world nowadays is a very different place. There are sadly many more recent conflicts that hold our attention. So why is it, then, that we come together on an occasion such as this?
Well, for many families the aftermath of the war still has consequences. As people work back through their family tree, they find branches that reach a dead end, maybe in a trench on the Western Front, or out at sea on the Western Approaches. The personal and human tragedy echoes down through the ages.
But there are wider consequences as well which I believe affect all of us. In many ways the First World War was the real start of the twentieth century and what happened during those four long, grim years still has profound repercussions for us today, that we need to acknowledge and reflect upon in such a service as this.
For a start, the First World War was in many ways the first industrial conflict. If Henry T Ford invented mass production, then the Great War acted as a catalyst to make it an established method of production. Ever since, there has always been a ready market in factory-built weapons that are relatively cheap and easy to acquire. And the ease in which such weapons can fall into the wrong hands is all too evident today.
Then, as the name implies, the First World War was the first truly global war. On this roll of honour are people who fell in Egypt and Palestine, Mesopotamia and India. For those who served aboard HMS Monmouth their watery grave was somewhere off the coast of Chile. So when the news filtered back home, events which must have seemed so distant to folk in this parish suddenly became all too real and all too personal. Just as indeed we have ourselves seen how conflicts which were mere headlines even a few weeks ago have all too abruptly become real and close to home, with, for example, the shooting down of flight MH17 or the discovery of English jihadist fighters in the Middle-East. The First World War teaches us we cannot ignore the rest of the world and pretend it doesn’t matter. One way or another we all connected, whether we like it or not.
And although only in relatively small numbers, the First World One produced the first civilian casualties. War was no longer something that stayed on the battlefield or out at sea. It reached into streets and neighbourhoods, it destroyed homes and businesses, a grim prelude to the far great havoc wreaked in World War Two.
In short, the First World War changed history decisively. And those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ, it is worth spending some time reflecting on those changes, because it forces us to ask how we hold on to a faith that is unchanging in a time of great change, and indeed of great suffering.
Now for me, one of the appeals of Scripture is that we find within its pages the full range of human experience. Even though it was written many, many centuries ago in a different place and at a different time, when we open up the Bible, we find the words of men and women experiencing sorrow and joy, expressing certainty and confusion, claiming faith and revealing doubt. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book of Psalms, and indeed if you were to try and describe the thread that runs through all 150 Psalms, it is precisely this tension between faith in a God who never changes and experience of a world that is always changing. We find hymns of praise, we find laments, we find exuberant worship, we find quiet prayers.
And right in the midst of the psalms we find this extraordinary psalm I read out a moment ago. It is a psalm that is like no other. Every other psalm ends with some appeal to the Lord, or some declaration of faith. But not this one.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend. Words that I can easily imagine could have been written in the trenches after yet another failed attempt to go over the top, or in some field hospital by a survivor who has seen all his comrades fall. This is, if you like, the diary entry of someone who has experienced the most bleak and most unimaginable horror, who has known what it is like for everything to change suddenly and catastrophically.
What, then, has prompted the psalmist to write this entry? Well, if you look back through the psalm you can see that he is in the midst of some grave illness. Verses 3-5:
For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Now we don’t know what caused the psalmist’s illness. Maybe it was a disease that struck him down. Maybe it was some illness caused by an injury or a wound. After all, the casualties of war are not just those killed by other human beings. We heard during our reading of the roll of honour of those who died of illness on active service, and especially during and just after the First World War there were many who succumbed to disease and to sickness.
But whatever the cause, the effect of this illness is to leave the psalmist feeling separated from God and from his friends. Verses 6-8: You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. This is a man who knows the full realities of suffering, for whom faith is not easy, and for whom there seems little way out. And what astonishes me as I read a psalm like this is the realisation this was written nearly three thousand years ago. It’s little wonder that during the First World War many turned to the pages of Scripture for their comfort because the words they found there spoke directly to their situation.
Now a few years ago I had the great privilege to go to visit Jerusalem. If you were able to go there today, and avoid the fighting, you would find that one of the places of pilgrimage is a narrow pit set deep in the earth. You can only access it by going down by a very narrow flight of steps. It is reputed to be the place where Jesus was held before He brought out to trial before Pontius Pilate. There is no real evidence for this, and there is nothing in that pit which connects the place directly with Jesus.
But at the bottom of the pit there is a bookstand and on this bookstand you find this psalm printed in many different languages. It was one of the most moving experiences in the whole Israel trip reading this particular psalm in that cramped, confined space. Why? Because not only does Psalm 88 connect with our own human experience, it also reminds us that the God Christians worship sent His Son Jesus Christ down into the deepest pit to draw alongside us, to share in our grief and suffering. What seems to be a psalm with no hope in fact turns out to be a psalm foreshadowing the agonies of our very Lord and Saviour, agonies, that, yes, led to death but in the end also led to resurrection.
And when you understand the real significance of this psalm, then you begin to see how in spite of everything it is possible to maintain a faith in an unchanging God whom we believe to be Lord and Creator of this broken and suffering world. Because this God, the God revealed in Scripture, does not stand aloof from the chances and changes of this fleeting world. This God enters into our all too real human experience by sending His Son Jesus Christ even into the deepest pit of human suffering and pain. This does not mean that the path of faith is easy. This does not mean all our questions will be answered. But we know that in ways beyond our comprehension our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has trod our path as a man of sorrows… familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3). And even though we may feel overwhelmed by the horror and the scale of what today we are commemorating we can trust this Jesus for a greater future where even the last enemy of death will be swallowed up.
The question is: do we really believe this? We can talk so easily and so blithely of Jesus becoming one of us. But if there really is any connection to be made between what happened one hundred years ago and all that Christ experienced, then we begin to touch on how much Christ must have suffered on our behalf, and really just how precious is the hope that He offers us in this broken world of trenches, tank shells and torpedoes.
That’s why to finish I would like to read a poem written by a lady called Lucy Whitmell, first published in the Spectator on 11th September 1915. To me it sums up more than any other poem from the war that connection between Christ’s suffering and our own. It’s quite simply called Christ in Flanders and it goes like this…
We had forgotten You, or very nearly—
You did not seem to touch us very nearly—
Of course we thought about You now and then;
Especially in any time of trouble—
We knew that You were good in time of trouble—
But we are very ordinary men.
And there were always other things to think of—
There’s lots of things a man has got to think of—
His work, his home, his pleasure, and his wife;
And so we only thought of You on Sunday—
Sometimes, perhaps, not even on a Sunday—
Because there’s always lots to fill one’s life.
And, all the while, in street or lane or byway—
In country lane, in city street, or byway—
You walked among us, and we did not see.
Your feet were bleeding as You walked our pavements
How did we miss Your Footprints on our pavements?—
Can there be other folk as blind as we?
Now we remember: over here in Flanders—
(It isn’t strange to think of You in Flanders)—
This hideous warfare seems to make things clear.
We never thought about You much in England—
But now that we are far away from England—
We have no doubts, we know that You are here.
You helped us pass the jest along the trenches—
Where, in cold blood, we waited in the trenches—
You touched its ribaldry and made it fine.
You stood beside us in our pain and weakness—
We’re glad to think You understand our weakness—
Somehow it seems to help us not to whine.
We think about You kneeling in the Garden—
Ah! God! the agony of that dread Garden—
We know You prayed for us upon the Cross.
If anything could make us glad to bear it—
‘Twould be the knowledge that You willed to bear it—
Pain—death—the uttermost of human loss.
Though we forgot You—You will not forget us—
We feel so sure that You will not forget us—
But stay with us until this dream is past.
And so we ask for courage, strength, and pardon—
Especially, I think, we ask for pardon—
And that You’ll stand beside us to the last.