Sermon Remembrance Sunday
James 3:18 The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
In the land of Malawi in their native language Chichewa there is an expression ‘madzi akufika ku mphunu’ the water is coming up to your nose. That might have applied to some of the unfortunate people in Sheffield last week affected by torrential rain but the Malawians are applying that expression to describe their national situation. There has been strife and violent demonstrations which is disturbing in a land not known for confrontation. In Llongwe a police officer was stoned to death by a mob; in Blantyre a peaceful protest was broken up by a mob of armed youths. The opening words of the Malawian national anthem seems apt, O God bless the land of Malawi and keep it a land of peace.
People take up arms and become violent for many reasons, in pursuit of some gain or ideology; sometimes to expand their nation’s influence in the world. The second world war was caused by more than one influence. The resentments left by the first fed into an ideology and Germany became driven by an idea that it should conquer and be triumphant and those who stood in the way and sapped its strength had to be removed and dealt with harshly. The way Jews were treated has left such a horrific legacy.
The attitudes and actions that fuel conflict and hatred of others are never too far away. They do not come from heaven, writes James in his letter in the New Testament, they come from that which is earthly, sensual, demonic. The ideologies that led to cruelty, to genocide, to the historic expressions of anti-Semitism and the aggressive expansion of Nazism beyond Germany come into this category.
Today despite some successes in containing it, the revolutionary ideology of the Islamic state is causing much unrest in the Middle East. The rising force of Iran is causing repercussions in the Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and the Lebanon and Israel feels increasingly under attack.
At Remembrance we are reminded of the forces that have made for war and fuelled conflict and division. But it is also good to remember that lots of good and kind and heroic actions helped to save lives.
Last week the newspapers reported on a Greek woman who in Jerusalem was reunited with surviving members of a Jewish family, the Mordechai family that she and her sisters hid during the second world war. These sisters hid the Jewish family in an abandoned Turkish mosque before moving them to their home in Thessaloniki in North Greece. A few days ago in Israel in an emotional reunion the oldest of the five, who is now in her eighties, spoke of how their lives were saved by the bravery of the sisters. They shared their meagre rations and helped the family to escape the region, after the war the family were reunited and moved to Israel.
We might think, all this is in the past and it should stay there. But the seeds of envy and bitterness, and hatred and anti-Semitism can be sown and can grow in our hearts too.
In his poem, Spring, the Scottish poet James Thomson reflected upon the withering of humanity and social feeling. Since the flood, he said, humanity has lost its innocence and the results are bitterness and strife. ‘Base envy withers at another’s joy, hates the excellence it cannot each’.
Jesus told us that we should be on our guard against every form of evil desire or thought, including greed or envy. These are the things that the letter of James suggests spring up from the fallen human nature and a fallen world.
But we can bring into the world something much better when we allow God’s heavenly wisdom and the power of God’s Holy Spirit to move in us.
Jesus said, blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God. The wisdom that comes from above is pure. The psalmist asks, who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? He who has a pure heart and clean hands. Christ himself was pure: and a holy God cannot abide impurity. If we are aware of the beginnings of evil desires, or conflict, or feel in some way we do not have a pure heart or clean hands, we need to submit these to the Lord. We need to surrender it to him.
Mind you surrender isn’t an obvious word for Remembrance Sunday: but it means we need to offer up everything of ourselves to God, because only he can deal with our problems, turn darkness into light, bring cleansing power.
You probably know I play the violin. One of the things that violin players do regularly is to clean or wipe the strings; it produces a clearer and purer sound.
Other instruments benefit from regular cleaning, the trumpet for example, to produce a much purer sound.
The famous Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote, ‘according to the purity and perfections of the instrument so will be its success’. He wasn’t speaking about musical instruments but about people. If our hearts and minds are pure we are of more use to God.
In our gospel passage we have the song of Zechariah. Before the birth of Jesus, Zechariah was filled with God’s Holy Spirit and prophesied or foretold of the things that would happen under Jesus: that God would visit his people with salvation, and give them knowledge of the forgiveness of their sins. And we would be guided into the ways of peace.
We cannot reach goodness and perfection on our own. But through committing our lives to Jesus the Spirit works in us to bring about in us qualities of goodness, kindness, love, compassion, tolerance and forbearance. These are the qualities that please God; the sorts of things count for far more than our own skills, abilities or talents.
Zechariah’s prophecy also tells us that we should be saved from all our enemies and from all that hate us. That is so relevant to Remembrance when we remember that God preserved this nation from invasion and that our freedoms were kept intact, in the face of ideologies and powers that were manifestly evil.
This weekend Germany is marking 30 years since the collapse of the Berlin War: after years of division no longer was East Germany to be kept apart, now that the Communist bloc had lost its grip. For many this anniversary is a reminder of the value of our freedom and democracy.
In the last war God answered the prayers of the church and of many people, and sustained this land, but both world wars war were horrendously costly affairs in lives. Remembrance helps us reflect upon the horrors of war and to learn how if at all possible such things might never again come about. It is right also to remember that the nations we were opposing also had their dead and their painful memories.
It has not been easy to move on from the sense that certain nations are enemies: for valid reasons many felt resentment against the Japanese. But I would like to tell you about a Japanese naval officer who himself became a prisoner of war. Through that experience he came to know Jesus and gave his life over to the Lord. Michiharu Sinya was a torpedo officer in the Japanese Navy in 1942. In a horrendous sea battle in which many lives were lost he was seriously injured and was taken hostage by the Americans. He was a POW. To a Japanese that seemed a thing of great dishonour: he felt that he did not deserve to live. In his head an accusing voice blamed him for not fighting with more determination. He wished he were dead. The Japanese had taught the idea that death in battle was an honour: it was part of a system of beliefs that Japan was much better than decadent Europeans and Americans. This set of ideas led to the Japanese treating very harshly those they took as POWs. Sinya was taken along with other POWs first to a camp in Australia and then to a base in New Zealand called Featherston, where there were about 400 POWs already.
It so happened that the International Red Cross had a representation there and had arranged for access to Christian teaching and the services of a chaplain who spoke the Japanese language. At first Sinya looked down on all this; he believed in the rightness of Japan’s military government, not in Christian ideas.
It was now 1943. It so happened that there were some Japanese language books lying around and Sinya starting reading one that contained a Christian talk in it: and he was intrigued by a Bible verse in it, ‘Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They shall soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint’. Out of curiosity he obtained a Japanese Bible and began reading it from page one, until eventually he reached Isaiah. And he continued into the New Testament.
But soon his enthusiasm waned. He stopped reading the Bible. But when a Japanese friend brought him a Christian tract entitled The Reason Why he was challenged into making a decision for or against Christ as Saviour. He now realized the gospel asked of him a total surrender of his life and soul to Jesus: but still his pride and ego got in the way. What changed his mind was the visits of the chaplain when he was lying ill with malaria.
After the treatment for malaria was successful and he was discharged from the hospital wing he made the decision to follow Jesus. He described the feeling that a great load had dropped from his shoulders. Despite being still a POW he felt a tremendous freedom from knowing Christ.
He now saw the error of the unquestioning patriotism that had led him to imagine that the Japanese emperor was god present as man. On his return to Japan after the war he still had a love for his people and nation but not in the way he had before. And now he had a personal commitment and relationship with Jesus. In the years that followed Michiharu Sinya studied in the Japan Biblical Seminary in Tokyo: he was to become the professor of Old Testament. Years later he returned to New Zealand: to revisit the Featherstone Camp where he had spent many months. He commented, the first time I came to Japan as a POW: I now come as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In one of his books he paid tribute to the humane treatment given to him and others by the allies; and apologized for the atrocities committed by his fellow countrymen. When asked what was the one most important thing in his life he had no hesitation in saying: it was his conversion and new birth in the Spirit, into Christ, an experience so powerful he dedicated his whole life to Jesus.
When we know God’s power and mercy in times of crisis, then we are moved to seek a greater experience of him. When we try to live our lives any other way we are liable to get it wrong. But if we allow our lives to be governed from the wisdom that is above we learn a far better way, and based on a God who is ever faithful, and ever sure.
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