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The Bad and Good News of War

One hundred years ago today, the last soldiers went ‘over the top’ at 4.20am. At 5.00am, The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, Northern France. At 11. o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns of Europe fell silent. The Great War was over. Yet on that morning alone, there were nearly 11,000 casualties and 2,738 were killed. On the 11th November 1918, the news was both good and bad. The war was over, peace broke out, yet even on that day alone, before the 11th hour, there was massive loss of life, injury and trauma.
War brings a mixture of good and bad news. There is valour, tales of great comradeship and acts of sacrifice. Last week’s television schedules produced many heart-warming stories of friendship and acts of bravery in the heat of battle and the mud of the trenches. There is the sweet taste of victory to savour, particularly when it can be said that forces of evil and oppression have been defeated, but none of this can cover up the fact that warfare in all its forms is bad news. The cost of war and its impact is immense. It devastates the economies and infrastructure of countries affected, leaves families bereft and removes a whole generation from communities. The physical pain of the injured is often eclipsed by the mental stress; the injury to the soul.
The opening words of the gospel reading today (Mark 1.14-20) speak twice of good news. Jesus has been baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan and then spent forty days in the wilderness. Now, after John’s arrest, he begins what we call his ministry. He comes to Galilee and proclaims the good news of God. He calls on people to believe the good news.
But to really understand this good news, we must grasp the bad news too. As Jesus continues his ministry, he comes across much bad news: people who are physically sick or living with disabilities. Those suffering with mental health issues, broken relationships and demon possession. There is turbulent weather, bereavement and death; all the things which cause us grief and anguish. As Jesus encounters each situation, he brings healing and wholeness. He demonstrates, that this bad news, this darkness cannot have a hold over him or those who will trust him. Yet, Jesus’ ministry is not a simple magic cure all. Instead he helps us understand where bad news starts.
Surprisingly, it’s not that far away. It’s not in hell. It’s not in the areas of high social deprivation or in the mansions of the rich and famous. It’s not in the politics of the Tory party or the Labour party depending on your inclination. Jesus teaches: ‘For it is from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (Mark 7.21-23)
Jesus states clearly that the source of evil will be found in our own hearts, at home inside us. It is a problem which affects every human soul. A majority of our fellow human beings find ways of curbing this evil within them through obeying the law of the land, doing what is socially acceptable and following religious beliefs if they have them. If that were not the case, imagine how bad our world might be. But for a significant minority of people for a wide range of reasons, there is no restraint. Evil is out of the bag and runs unchecked. Those who use knife crime to protect their drug operations in London and other big cities. Those who use their power corruptly in developing countries to exploit the poor and mis appropriate aid. Those who groom and abuse children or traffic migrants. And then there is war. Countries go to war with each other for many and complex reasons. In the case of the first world war, I think it is fair to say that they soon lost sight of the reasons why it started. Personal gain and pride are often what prolongs a war to the cost of many innocents. The desperate situation in Yemen today is an example of that.
While Jesus spells out the bad news, the source of sin deep within us all, he also proclaims good news. That good news is not about the kingdoms of this world and their conflicts, but the Kingdom of God which Jesus says is at hand or has come near you. God’s Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom based on peace and justice. Its territory is the hearts and minds of all who will accept it. How can we join? Jesus has two words for us; repent and believe. (Mark 1.15)
How can this be? The reading from the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 9.24-28) helps to explain. Jesus acts as high priest. Each year, the high priest in Jerusalem would enter the holy of holies in the centre of the temple to offer a sacrifice for the sin of the people, to atone or make reparation for all the bad things which were in their hearts. By contrast, Jesus, needed to do this only once. Because of who he is, his total holiness and purity and that he is able to enter not the holy of holies but heaven itself, so his sacrifice on the cross is enough to mend the sin of the world. Through repentance, that is heart felt sorrow for that sin and belief, that is trusting that Jesus can atone for our sin, there is good news. Lives are turned around. The Kingdom of God is seen in this world as well as something that is hoped for after death.
One of the many programmes broadcast in the run up to this special Remembrance Day focused on the part played by the bible amongst the troops in the trenches. Many soldiers were issued with new testaments supplied by various charities. This one from Scripture Gift Mission was quite common and included a message of encouragement to the troops from Lord Robert, Commander in Chief of the armed forces in 1914. It also includes ‘The ABC of the Gospel or How to be Saved’. Each point is illustrated with bible references. ‘A’ talks of the bad news, sin and its consequences. ‘B’ and ‘C’ about the work of Jesus as saviour or rescuer and ‘D’ includes references to repentance and belief. For many soldiers, their new testaments were a spiritual life line that helped them to die at peace with God. There are also stories of how they saved them physically as carried in their breast pockets, they acted like body armour deflecting or absorbing bullets. Whatever, those new testaments were good news amongst the bad news of the trenches.
The Great War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ We continue to live with both the threat and reality of war. The bad news is that everyone still has that heart problem of sin. Yet, the Kingdom of God is still at hand. Have you joined its ranks through repentance and faith? Just as you need to be a British Citizen to enjoy the benefits of our country, so you need to be sure that in repentance and faith you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God to enjoy its benefits for eternity.
One of my favourite hymns is: ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken.’ As it’s usually song to the tune of the German national anthem, I doubt we are singing it this morning, but the words of the last verse are a good place to conclude.
Saviour, if of Zion’s city (God’s Kingdom)
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity—
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s members know.
Kingdom 2 Remembrance Sunday 11.11.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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