History repeats itself.
Remembrance Sunday is an attempt to ensure that people in the UK do learn lessons from our experience of two World Wars, as well as remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in wartime. On one level, we could perhaps argue that lessons have been learnt in that there have been no more wars on the global scale that was experienced during World War II and yet conflict has continued to bedevil humanity. There are, for example, 12 conflicts in the world currently which are causing at least 1,000 violent deaths each per year (and often much more) plus another 32 smaller-scale armed conflicts that are currently causing a smaller number of violent fatalities each year. The fact that Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday coincide this year also reinforces this point, as World War I was supposedly the 'war to end all wars' but was then closely followed by World War II.
Why is conflict so much a part of our human existence? Why, despite the devastation and loss of life that we saw in two World Wars, does it still seem that we are so far from the ability to live in peace with one another? I want to suggest a partial answer to us this evening using the story of Jonah.
The story is both well known and relatively simple. Jonah is tasked by God with preaching to the Ninevites but instead turns tail and takes a ship heading in the opposite direction. A violent storm leads the sailors to throw Jonah overboard. The storm then calms and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. Inside the fish Jonah repents and, once spewed out onto dry land, travels to Ninevah where he delivers the message God gave him. The Ninevites hear him, repent and are saved from disaster. Jonah is angry with God because the Ninevites are the enemies of the people of Israel and so he wanted them destroyed.
That hatred of the Ninevites was the reason why Jonah rejected God’s call on his life and took a ship in the opposite direction to the place God had wanted him to go. Protection of his people - the people of Israel - by the destruction of their enemies - the Ninevites - was more important to him than doing God’s will. Jonah was angry with God because he thought God should only be on the side of and care for his people and therefore he wanted to try to frustrate God’s plans to save their enemies from disaster. He was angry with God because he wanted to possess God by keeping him only as the personal God of his people.
Jonah had actually completely misunderstood God’s relationship with the people of Israel and the reason for it. The choosing of the people of Israel as God’s chosen people and the gift to them of the promised land was not so that they would be protected by their own personal God in a land that was theirs to own. Instead of being their property, the promised land was a gift from God which enabled them to be a light revealing God to the nations around them. So whenever they thought about themselves and the protection of their own possessions, they were actually wandering away from God’s will for their lives.
When Jonah did this, his lack of surrender to God’s will and God’s way caused disturbance - the storm - in his life which also affected the people around him. It was only when Jonah recognised that the storm - the disturbance in and around him - was directly connected to his lack of surrender to God’s will that the storm died down and he had time and space in which to repent and return to God’s way.
It is the same for us. When we are concerned with what we think of as ours - when we are saying this is mine, my property, my church, my nation - we are automatically anxious, worried and fearful because we are in defensive mode and we experience disturbance; disturbance which affects others because we are trying to protect what we think of as ours from those we think will take it from us. By contrast, Jesus calls us to give up our lives and let go of our possessions by handing them over to him - to let go and let God. When we genuinely do this we find we are at peace because whatever we have and wherever we are and whatever we do is then in God’s hands - everything is his and his gift to us. We experience contentment with what we have and where we are and what we do because it is all God’s gift to us.
As we read in the Letter to the Philippians, ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
Conflict and disturbance arises in our lives and in our world whenever we, like Jonah, have not surrendered to God’s will. Again, like Jonah, this occurs whenever we want to possess or protect things for ourselves, our group or our people. Instead God calls us to let go and let God; to simply acknowledge that we own nothing, that all is God’s creation and gift. When we let go of our claim on the things around us, including our own lives, we start to genuinely trust God and learn the secret of being content in any and every situation. In this state, there is no disturbance or conflict because there is nothing to possess or protect and therefore we can know and share peace with others.
Jesus shows us how to do this by laying down his life for the sake of others and his resurrection reveals the new life that results. Just as he called his first disciples, so he calls us to follow in his footsteps by taking up our cross and losing our lives for his sake; letting go and letting God.
Will we be like Jonah and resist the call of God which leads to turmoil and disturbance in our lives and our world or will we be like Jesus’ disciples who gave up everything to follow him? Before deciding, we should reflect that to follow him is the way that leads to abundant, peaceful, contented and eternal life. It is as we surrender to God and to his will for our lives that we come to know his peace in our lives and are enabled to share that peace with others.
I began with a poem so I’ll also end with one. This is ‘Silence’, a poem written by Malcolm Guite immediately following the commemoration of the two minute silence:
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as we sing our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
Michael Kiwanuka - Worry Walks Beside Me.