Remembrance Sunday - 10th November 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Psalm 46 and 1 John 4:7-12

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One of the most often quoted sayings about war is from Helmut Von Moltke. He said this: no plan of battle ever survives first contact with the enemy.

War is all about things being broken. Plans are among the things that get broken by war. Ideas get broken by it – things that you thought held firm in peace time are all of a sudden shattered by the horrible realities of war. Faith gets shattered by war. The simple ideas you thought were enough don’t survive.

It’s not just war that does that. Any serious suffering does the same. The regular pattern goes something like this: You try to cope for as long as you can; you put a brave face on it; you pretend that nothing is wrong; you tell yourself or each other that everything is going to be alright, although you have no real reason to think that it will be. But sooner or later it catches up on you and you despair. You give up hope. You certainly turn your back on God. As soon as a major tragedy occurs, many people assume that there is no God, or if there is then he can’t be good, and he certainly can’t be with us. Because if there was a good God then we would never have any trouble, would we? So any sort of serious pain pushes God out of the window.

So many people think that. I know because I often meet them: when you ask them why they don’t believe, they tell you about a tragedy that has happened in their life and how that means they can’t believe in God. You can read it in the biting sarcasm of the great war poets like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen when they get onto the subject of God. You can read the same cynicism on the internet comments pages, whenever there’s an article about Christianity. What do you do when the world falls apart? The world’s answer is that you give up hope, turn away from God, and despair. Or sneer.

Today I want to persuade you that there is a much better alternative. From our Bible readings that we’ve already heard this morning I want to show you a God who has an answer to the harsh realities of suffering and war. A God who himself is the answer to suffering and war. And as we do that I want you to see that faith in Jesus Christ is not just another fragile idealism that collapses on first contact with the enemy. Faith in Jesus is the one thing that can bring you through.

You can see this other way all through the Psalm we just read, Psalm 46. The Bible’s says ‘when the world is falling apart, take refuge in God.’ Look at verse 1: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Hide yourself in God. Cling to him and let him be your shelter. He is a very present help in times of trouble. Notice that. The Bible does not promise that God’s people will not go through troubles. In fact it says the opposite. Jesus tells his followers that they will suffer. The view that God should necessarily protect us from hard times doesn’t come from the Bible. But what God does promise us in the Bible is that he will be our shelter, our strength and our refuge in the midst of those troubles. And that will be enough for us.  When the world is falling apart, take refuge in God.

Let’s have a look through this Psalm a bit more closely, to see what that means.

1. The world is fearsome, but we will not fear. (v1-3)

An important thing to say about the Bible is that it does not sell us short on suffering. It doesn’t underplay how serious the problems of the world are, or how bad suffering is. Again, many people assume that Christianity is about walking around with your head in the clouds, with little connection to the gritty realities of life. That’s a reason why people turn their backs on the church in times of suffering; they assume that when we face up to the horrors of war and other suffering, we Christians will have nothing to say. And sometimes Christians haven’t helped themselves in this matter, because they have not taken their Bibles seriously enough, and so when these hard issues arise, they do have nothing to say. They have to resort to the same platitudes as everyone else. “Oh I’m sure it’ll all be fine.” And that is a great shame because the Bible is uniquely able to give us an account of human suffering. It tells us where it came from, and how it will be ultimately solved. God is not silent, and in his word he has told it like it is.

The picture language of this Psalm accurately describes a world that is falling apart. Verse 2: “the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” Verse 3: the “waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Verse 6: “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall… the earth melts.”

This is the language of creation being undone. Literally: the world falling apart. It describes the worst that we can see going on around us in the world today, and worse still. We haven’t yet reached the point of the fabric of creation itself being unpicked. That is a terror that even the fiercest war has not brought about yet. But that’s the terror that is in view in Psalm 46. It is truly fearful. But notice the amazing statement at the start of the Psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way…”

We will not fear. Even though all that is going on around us. We will not fear. This doesn’t mean that we never get frightened or emotional or upset by things. Because in the Bible fear is not so much about our initial emotional reaction; it’s much more about who or what we will allow to take control of us. What we fear is what we submit to.

Psalm 46 isn’t saying that when horrors come along we should just stare back at them stony faced and unmoved, like Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti Western. God has made us with emotions; when terrible things come our way he expects us to respond emotionally. Some of you will be in painful situations at the moment, and you will feel it. It’s not wrong to feel it. It’s not wrong to be frightened, or deeply saddened. What is wrong is when we let that fear get hold of us and grip us and control us. When the war, or the illness, or the grief, or the relationship breakdown becomes the thing that completely fills our mind, and squeezes God out. That is true fear. That is what we will not do if we take refuge in God. The Bible is full of faithful people who go through extraordinary trials, and get highly distressed along the way, but who nonetheless keep putting their trust in God; they keep calling out to him; they do not lose their hope in him. And he keeps a tight grip on them. That’s what Biblical faithfulness looks like.

And the big reason why followers of Jesus need not fear is because of who our God is.

2. We will not fear, because our God is more fearsome than the world. (v8-10)

When you read this Psalm, you find that there, among all the chaos of the collapsing world, is this amazing picture of peace. Look at verse 4: “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the most high dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.” The city of God is at peace. Why? Because God is there. The battle may be raging all around, but where God is there is peace. He is a refuge; a present help in trouble.

And he is that help because he is mighty. That’s why the Psalm writer keeps describing him as a refuge. A refuge is just a safe place, isn’t it? A castle or a bomb shelter works as a refuge because it is strong. Sarah and I went for walk around a castle fortified town in France last week. You know the sort of thing – high city wall all around with turrets and the rest. It was beautiful. But the reason people went and lived there in times of war wasn’t because it was beautiful. It was because the walls are 50 feet high and 10 feet thick. It’s strong. The reason that God is a refuge for his people is because he is so strong.

Look down at verses 8, 9 and 10. Do you see what I mean? Here is the Lord bringing desolations on the earth. Here he is breaking the bow and shattering the spear, burning the shields with fire. Crushing the tanks, destroying the stockpiles of weapons. Shouting above the riot. The familiar words of verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God” – that’s not talking about a sort of zen-like calm. Enjoy the silence. No that’s more like when a teacher storms into a room full of misbehaving kids and shouts “BE QUIET!” And they are.

There will be a day when war and fighting and death and suffering cease, and when it is it will be because our God, the one who spoke the universe into being, has put a stop to it. This Psalm, and all of the Bible, is clear on that. God will judge. There will be a day when he comes in his power and squashes all the rebellion and fighting and hatred and evil. On that day all the fighting will cease, just like that. There will be no more war. There will be no more evil or death or illness or redundancy or divorce. God will call time on all of that, and it will stop. Our God will have the last word on suffering. And then the new, perfected creation will begin. God is supreme. He is so fearsome that all rebellion will stop when he thunders those words. We will not fear, because our God is more fearsome than the world.

Do you see that? The message of this Psalm is that God is a safe place like no other. We can take refuge in him in the deepest trouble and he is more than strong enough for us.

 

We don’t sleep very well in our household. Or at least we parents don’t. Because time after time, in the middle of the night, our children keep creeping into the room and climbing into bed with us. Has that ever happened to you? Did you ever do that? Now obviously we’d rather they slept in their beds all night, but at some level the fact that they do this shows they’ve got something right. They know that when they are afraid, mummy and daddy are a safe place. They can hide themselves with us and they’ll be safe. One of the joys of being a Christian is to know that God is not just a safe place, he is a Father who is a safe place. It’s often said that there are not many atheists in the heat of battle, because everyone is calling out to God. The wonderful thing for followers of Jesus is that we don’t just cry out “my God”. Half despairing, half hoping that there is someone up there after all. We cry out to a Father who we know and who has proved once for all that he loves us. When we are struggling and need to take refuge, we’re not calling an emergency service, we are walking into our Father’s room.

3. We need not fear, because our God loves us

This is where our other reading comes in, that passage from 1 John which spoke about love. Why don’t you flick on in your Bibles to page 1227, because we’re going to look quickly at part of that reading now. Now when you talk about love in the context of thinking about wars, you run the risk of being sneered at. Some of you may remember all those songs at the end of the 1960s about how love was the answer to the problems of the world. All you need is love, what the world needs now is love, sweet love – do you remember those? There was one song which was a favourite back then by Youngbloods which went “come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and love one another right now.” The idea was that if everyone just tried to love each other the world would be fixed. The problem was it didn’t work. When I was growing up I listened to Nirvana, and one of their songs took that same lyric and turned it into a sneer. The message was simple – you, our parents, tried loving each other and it didn’t work. The world is just as much of a mess as ever. There’s that cynicism again. Love didn’t survive first contact with the enemy.

But again the Bible shows us another way. Real love, the sort of love that can actually bring help and healing in trouble, is not based in what we can do, it’s based in what God has done. The hippies at the end of the 1960s thought they could love one another because love came from within themselves. The Bible says that love comes from God. Look at verse 10: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

This is the great message which Christianity can bring to a hurting and cynical world. God himself has stepped in, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. He’s not even sat waiting for us to run to him. He has come to us. He has come and has allowed himself to be hurt by the pain of this broken world. Born into poverty, familiar with suffering, he has even submitted himself to a violent death. All out of love.

And the best thing about this act of love is not just that Jesus experienced the worst of our sufferings, which he did, but that what he did for us actually worked. We’re told that he was ‘an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ Sacrifice is one of those words which we hear quite often in conversation about war. When we try to understand how a war death can be worthwhile, we often talk about sacrifice. Someone’s life being given for a greater cause. And there are some amazing, inspiring stories of people doing just that in wartime. But with sacrifice there’s always that nagging question – was it worth it? Was the sacrifice worth the cost? Did it actually achieve anything?

With Jesus’ sacrifice the answer is a resounding yes. His death was an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Sin itself has been dealt with by the death of Jesus. Now sin is not a word we hear often today, except perhaps to describe a donut at weightwatchers, but in essence the history of war and suffering is the history of sin and its consequences. When you talk about sin you are talking about the root cause of all the mess, the reason why the world is as dislocated and painful as it is. The fundamental alienation between people and God and between people and other people is due to human sin. That’s the poison which causes the pain. And Jesus has taken on himself both our sin and its consequences. That’s what it means to be an atoning sacrifice, it means that his death has dealt with the rupture in relationship between people and God and therefore between people and other people.

Christianity has something concrete to say when faced with the horrors of war and suffering. Jesus didn’t just say something about it, he did something about it. He took the full force of human evil and suffering in his own body, and he did it for us.

In July of last year, a gunman opened fire in a cinema in Colorado, USA. Jon Blunk, a naval officer, was in the cinema with his girlfriend. When the bullets started to fly, he pushed her to the floor and covered her with his body. He was hit and died. She lived. A few rows away Alex Teves did the same for his girlfriend, with the same consequences. At the same time Matt Quinn did the same for his girlfriend, with the same result. There are three young women in Colorado now who know all about the pain and suffering of this broken world. But they also know that they are loved. They have no doubt that their boyfriends loved them.

When we look at the sacrifice of Jesus, we need have no doubt that we are loved. The world is painful, there is suffering, yes. But we have a God who has stepped into it and taken the full force of it for us. He has thrown himself down to death, so that if we trust in him, if we believe in him, we might have his life. That’s not empty idealism. That’s blood sweat and tears. That’s a real rescue. Putting your trust in that sort of God will be enough for you, even through the toughest trials.