Deuteronomy 8: 1 – 20 Luke 21: 5 – 19
It’s 65 years since the end of the 2nd World War, and over 90 years since the end of the 1st. But we still pause to remember in gratitude and prayer - and to the vast number of those who gave their lives in those terrible conflicts which made the 20th century the worst century ever in terms of war, death and casualty - we add in our remembrance those who lost their lives in Northern Ireland, the Gulf War, the Falklands, Iraq and now Afghanistan, and pray for those who serve on our behalf in the armed forces in many parts of the world today.
The two questions which should prick our minds, our memories and our consciences at this time of year are always the same: What did they fight to achieve? And - What have we made of the inheritance they left us?
It’s easy to make too much of the ideals of war. Probably most of those who fought and died just reckoned they were doing a job, often under duress, and never wanted to be regarded as heroes. But, nevertheless, there were great underlying ideals without which it would all have been wasted. Ideals of freedom, peace, democracy, human rights, and – for most of us at least in this country – for the upholding of the Christian faith which so strongly underpins our way of life, our rule of law, our world view, and virtually all the values we take for granted as ‘good’ and valuable.
If that is so, the question remains: what have we done with that inheritance? In answer, I don’t think we should beat ourselves up too much, as the lives of most people in this country have improved out of all recognition, and on the whole, we retain most of the values we have always stood for, although our concept of what constitutes ‘family life’ has changed in a way that would have been totally unimaginable half a century ago.
But at this time of year my mind is always drawn to our first reading, Deuteronomy chapter 8, because it sets out so clearly the dangers that arise when we become generally more materially prosperous (as we have over the last half century), life on the whole gets easier (as it has), and we have the incalculable blessing of living through half a century and more without another great war or threat to our country.
The dangers are that we forget the God to whom we prayed and on whom we relied when we were faced with catastrophe; we pride ourselves that we can manage very well on our own; and, as material well-being increases, we begin to see it as the ultimate good. The test of a person’s status in society depends – not on what good he or she does for us – but on how much they earn. The question I always want to ask an investment banker is: ‘would you work any less hard if you earned only half the salary?’
In Deuteronomy 8 God calls on his people never to forget their original values. In hard times when they were working their way towards the promised land of milk and honey, God taught them (verse 3) that ‘man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ God reminds them that they learned discipline, prayerfulness and reliance on him in their lives if they were to survive, and that it must not desert them when the good times come.
Looking ahead, God warns them of the great dangers they face. In verses 10 - 18 he is very explicit in his warnings. ‘When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees. Otherwise...your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God’ who rescued you from past slavery, and ‘you may say to yourself, my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth...’
And this warning is followed in verses 19/20 by another – the inevitability that such a proud and forgetful attitude will lead to disaster. Such a nation becomes morally weak, and loses the very framework that holds it in place, and thus becomes easy prey for those who hover on the edges waiting to destroy - if indeed such a society does not simply implode and destroy itself.
It’s not that a vindictive God wants to destroy us in these circumstances. Rather it is simply that a people who lose their plumb-line their basic standards and values - and thus their very identity, will inevitably crumble under the least pressure.
Such was the judgment that Jesus predicts will befall Israel. The destruction would go to the very centre – to the temple – which would be totally destroyed in AD70 and would never be rebuilt.
And one of the results would be that people would follow anything and anybody except the truth, while the men and women of faith in him, as God’s messenger, and who followed him as his disciples, as we do, would face persecution and often death.
We find ourselves in a society and in a world which does sadly look very much like the one Jesus predicted for Israel. We easily rely on our material possessions and our bank balance, even when what we call a bank balance proves to be mirage.
We do forget the Lord our God, and seek refuge in more or less any form of spirituality. The joke (if only it were funny) is that a society which prides itself on its rationality, and makes the facts of science into its god, is exactly the same society that seeks spiritual guidance and refuge in anything from horoscopes and tarot cards, through weird and superstitious pagan rituals which have no moral undergirding, to dabbling in other religions and sects. In other words, it would rather look anywhere rather than return to the Lord our God, and to Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. We need to pray today and always for that movement of God’s Holy Spirit which will lead us to our true foundation.
On the other side of the coin are those who do follow Christ. Jesus predicts that, in such a situation, they will face persecution. So far that has not yet reached us here in any serious form. But for Christians in so many parts of the world, there is more serious and deadly persecution now than perhaps at any time in the history of Christianity. (If you have a computer, may I recommend that you put yourself on the email mailing list of the Barnabas Fund. If you don’t, they publish a magazine – Barnabas Aid. It is an organisation that specialises in telling us about the problems and needs of Christians in areas of the world where there is persecution).
In the news at the moment is the fate of the Christian Church in Iraq. To that you can add the fate of the Christian Church in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Sudan and so one could go on – great centres of Christianity in the past, as was the Church in Iran. Christians are called on to suffer greatly for their faith, to face great hardship, to live daily in fear, and under the threat of death.
We need to uphold our brothers and sisters wherever they face fear, persecution and death for the sake of Christ. We must pray constantly for them. And we must look to ourselves as a Christian Church in this country, ask what the future holds, and pray for courage, strength and guidance.
Remembrance Sunday call us to thankfulness, reflection, to repentance and to prayer. Today we, in our turn, hold the torch for the Christian faith. What legacy – what inheritance – are we leaving to our children and grandchildren? Let us pray that we, like those who have gone before us in the faith, may be found true and faithful, courageous and bold, and remain faithful to the end.
Discussion – some or all of the following...
1. Do you think there is still value in keeping Remembrance Day after all these years? If so, why?
2. In the light of Deuteronomy Chapter 8, what do you think God would wish us to consider specially at this time?
3. The world-wide church is currently suffering great persecution. How can we find out more? How can we help? Are we ourselves in danger?
4. In Luke 21, Jesus speaks of those who would lead us astray. Who might fit the bill nowadays?