They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
These are the words that will be used in acts of remembrance today: words that have echoed around countless churches and war memorials every year for so many years. But what are we remembering? I have no personal knowledge of war. All my experience is second hand, seen in films, or on television or read about in books: some real, some fiction. Even the wars in recent years have not touched me directly. Most of those who experienced Armistice Day in 1918 have now died. There has even been a suggestion that Armistice Day be discontinued because of this. Some people see the perpetuating of the day of remembrance as glorifying war. I have to disagree with them. War is evil, but sometimes necessary to stop a greater evil. If this country had not gone to war to stop Hitler in 1939, we would probably be speaking German now and I would certainly not be standing here this morning.
What we are remembering today is not war itself but the people who have died through war. We have to remember the people who went to war, not because they wanted to, not because they enjoyed fighting, not because they wanted to kill people, but because at the time they had no choice. Their country needed them to defend it against an enemy. Many people died, not just soldiers but also civilians. Many people have suffered the effects of war for years afterwards. Unexploded shells are still being dug up in Ypres, 100 years after they were fired from the guns. Our own bomb disposal engineers are still having to deal with unexploded bombs left from the last war.
The British Legion is responsible for the poppies, which many are wearing today. The money raised goes to help ex-servicemen and women in need. It is a sad reflection that we actually need a charity such as the British Legion to help where governments and politicians do not.
Some years ago ex-prisoners of the Japanese who were imprisoned and tortured during the Second World War were awarded compensation: not a fortune, but an important gesture nevertheless. Sadly many people had died before they could benefit from the money. When I was a boy growing up in Nottingham, my first memory of the church was our vicar. He was a big man, or at least he seemed big to me. He wasn’t athletic. He walked slowly and ponderously. You never saw him run. It was only later that I learnt that he had been imprisoned in Singapore by the Japanese and tortured. He wasn’t a soldier. He was a civil servant but that didn’t make any difference. He survived, many others didn’t.
When we hear about the atrocities that have happened in Bosnia, Angola, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen the list is endless. People have been killing each other since time began. Today they are still doing it for any number of reasons. Mostly it has something to do with being of a different nationality, or religion or ethnic group. People talked about the First World War as the Great War. It hadn’t been too long since the Boer War. Surely nothing could surpass the horror and loss of life of the Great War. Yet it was only 21 years later that the Second World War began.
Since then we have come close to the brink of a Third World War on several occasions with the added threat of total annihilation from nuclear holocaust. The intended withdrawal of the USA by Trump from the nuclear arms treaty with Russia has heightened concerns over a new nuclear arms race. And of course there are still the survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to remind us of the long-term effects of nuclear weapons. Since the Falkland Islands this country has been involved in ten conflicts, the last one of which – Operation Shader is still ongoing.
It is said that in times of national crisis people turn to God. It is said that churches were never fuller than during the world wars. Perhaps the words we heard in Mark’s gospel would be preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the Good News.” We don’t tend to hear the psalms very often during Communion Services. But the words from Psalm 62 set for today might well have brought comfort to people in time of trouble. In a modern translation it says: I wait patiently for God to save me. Only he gives me hope. He is my rock, who saves me. He protects me like a strong walled city. I will not be defeated. My honour and my salvation come from God. He is my mighty rock and my protection. People, trust God at all times. Tell him your problems. God is our protection.
Of course for many who prayed for their safe return in battle, there was no return. One of my friends who is now 96, flew Lancaster bombers in the war. I remember watching a programme showing film footage in colour rather than the usual black and white. I saw a night raid on Berlin filmed from high above. For the first time I appreciated the devastating reality of such bombing. The scene beneath was a glow of orange and red from the exploding bombs and the resulting fires. Then, outlined beneath us, above the glow, we saw the shape of a Lancaster. The narrator had been talking about a young man who was one of the crew of a Lancaster. He told us that the young man did not return from that raid. He had died, as did so many airmen. Another of our friends survived living near the docks in the East End of London during the blitz. Those of us who have not lived through it cannot really comprehend what it was like. Those who have will never want to witness it again.
Twenty years ago I was involved with a link between my old parish and one in Germany. During a discussion it emerged that two people, one English, the other German, had both lost parents through bombing raids during the war. They had both grown up with anger at their respective losses. Now they were able to talk about reconciliation. God does not want us to perpetuate enmity. It is hard to forgive and sometimes easier to forget. We should try harder to forgive but strive not to forget those who guaranteed our freedom.
We have to thank God that we are able to live in this country, free from the ravages of war. But it is never far away. Today we are remembering all those who have given their lives to enable us to live as free men and women. We owe them a debt which can never be repaid. But the very least we can do is to continue to remember them and the sacrifice they made for us and for generations to come. So let us keep buying our Poppies each year. And let us never forget.