Remembrance: Hope in Death

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2011, at Leatherhead Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Isaiah 53, Mark 16:1-8 and Romans 6:1-10.

Today we think about those who have given their lives fighting for our country.  It is estimated that during the twentieth century, more than 160 million people died fighting in wars.  Of these, it is thought that 15 million people died during the First World War, whilst a further 66 million died during the Second. The scale of war casualties over just the last hundred years or so is just devastating and truly shocking.  It is difficult to come to terms with the scale.  The numbers are so vast that they can become meaningless.

What helped me to better understand the scale of the horror of war was a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where 12,000 Allied soldiers who died during the First World War are buried.  This vast cemetery, with its never ending “row on row” of headstones, is the resting place of just a small proportion of the brave soldiers who fought for their country.  A memorial at the back of the cemetery lists the names of a further 34,000 soldiers whose remains were never recovered.

We have a lot to be thankful to these brave soldiers, and the thousands of others who died fighting for our country.  If it were not for them, we would not be able to enjoy the considerable freedoms that we do.

Of course, British soldiers did not cease fighting and dying with the end of the First or even the Second World War.  The British Army is still busy today, working around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan, supporting those who stand up to brutal regimes, and espousing the values of freedom and fairness wherever they go.  Indeed, since 2001, 385 British soldiers have lost their life fighting in Afghanistan.  If freedom can be brought to people in areas that otherwise would be subject to violence and oppression, whilst clearly very hard for their loved ones, the deaths of these brave men and women will not have been in vain.

In some ways, the death of a soldier fighting for peace and freedom is a helpful metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ, which we will be considering today. That’s what we’ll be considering today as we reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that a person can make; laying down their life so that others might enjoy freedom. We’ll consider how the death of a soldier during war can be a metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ. We’ll reflect on the crucial difference between Jesus’ sacrifice and that of a member of the armed forces. Finally, we’ll see that through all this talk of death, there is a bright hope for the future which is open to all.

Our first point this morning, then is that of the ultimate sacrifice; the surrendering of ones life so that others might be set free.

It’s remarkable that so many people over the generations have chosen to fight for their country gladly, and without concern for their own welfare. We can see this clearly during the First World War  One of the most brutal battles that the British army has ever fought is the Battle of the Somme, which took place during this so-called “war to end all wars.”  On the first day alone, the 1st July 1916, 20,000 men were killed, whilst another 146,000 Allied troops and 164,000 Germans died during the coming of the weeks.  Those who died were to a large extent cannon fodder in a war of attrition which would have a huge impact on post-war Britain.  With the order on the first day to calmly walk across the battle lines facing the full brunt of the German machine guns, they were like lambs going to slaughter.

You may recognise that expression.  We encountered it today in our first reading from Isaiah 53.  The chapter records how the Servant of God was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.”  Just as the men at the Somme did their duty and confronted the Germans, the Servant in Isaiah “did not open his mouth,” but calmly faced the death that he knew was coming.

This prophecy foreshadows the death of Jesus Christ.  Whilst Jesus pleaded with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to take away the cup of suffering that he had been presented with, ultimately he sought to conform his actions to the will of his Father, and for him, that meant death on the cross. He was willing to pay the ultimate price, because he knew that doing so would set us all free from a life of sin and despair, separated from the creator God.

There is another remarkable parallel between this passage in Isaiah, and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Isaiah, considering the death of the Servant, continues by asking the question, “yet who of his generation protested?” When the Servant goes to his death, there is no one who is willing to speak out in his defence, there is no one willing to question whether the Servant’s death is right or not.

This is similarly the case for Jesus.  When Jesus went to the cross, it was with the support of many of the people.  Certainly the Romans and the Jewish authorities were keen to despatch him.  Even the crowd, when asked by Pontius Pilate whom they wished to pardon demanded the release of Barabbas rather than the innocent and righteous Jesus.

Whilst the many British soldiers whose deaths we remember today lost their lives fighting for what they believed to be a better world, or at least a less imperfect world, the Servant in Isaiah dies for a higher purpose still.  In his death he took on the “transgression of the people,” namely sinners like us who daily fall short of the expectations that God has of us.  The life of the servant was “an offering for sin,” as it says in verse 10.  In his death, the Servant “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Just as the fallen of the two world wars, and numerous battles and wars since 1945, gave their lives for the benefit of the many, this servant, Jesus Christ, gave his life for all transgressors, including you and me.

This brings us to our second point, that death is not the end. Death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, and it certainly was not the end for Jesus.

The story of the Servant, as I’m sure we all know, clearly does not end with his death. In verse 10 of the Isaiah passage, we read, “yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him, he was put to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Despite being killed, we are told that God will “prolong his days.” The Servant will receive eternal life.

This is what we saw in our passage from Mark 16. Three days after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, took spices to anoint the body of Jesus. When they got to the tomb, however, they were astonished and afraid by what they saw.  Jesus was not in the tomb.  Instead, they were confronted by a “young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” Quite naturally, they were alarmed by his presence.

The message this mysterious man in white had for them was truly earth shattering. He told them that Jesus, whom they are seeking, has risen. “He is not here,” he tells them. “He has risen.” If they head to Galilee, he says, they will see Jesus there.

This staggering proclamation stunned and staggered the women. They had expected to find a closed tomb with the body of their beloved Jesus in his final resting place. Even after all that Jesus had said during his ministry, they were confused and upset by the absence of his body.

The prophecy of the Servant in Isaiah is borne out here with Jesus. Just as the Servant was “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors,” yet would live to “see the light of life” and have his days prolonged, Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross, died, and was resurrected by the power of God.

The incredible revelation brought to the women here in Mark’s gospel has provoked many different feelings in people throughout the generations. The resurrection of a person nailed to a cross is something which, unsurprisingly, people have difficulty accepting. Some have simply dismissed the resurrection as a made up story, a myth circulated by the early Church. Some have sought to find a rational explanation, and have tried to explain the resurrection away by saying that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.

Others have accepted the miracle of the resurrection, believing that Jesus himself had explained throughout his earthly ministry that it was what would happen. Those who have accepted the truth of the resurrection have themselves been divided; some, like the two Mary’s and Salome, were nervous, whilst others have been excited not just by the resurrection itself, but also the implications it has for the whole of humankind. The resurrection, after all, offers hope, hope of a life that continues beyond the grave. A hope that is wonderful to consider as we contemplate today the loss of all of those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.

This brings us to our third and final point, the point that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. Just as death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, just as death was not the end for Jesus Christ, neither is death the end for us today. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can have hope in a future that is eternal. What’s more, as we reflect today on the horrors of war and the loss of human life that flows from fighting, this eternal future is one free from violence and war, where love and peace abound.

This hope is brought out by Paul in his letter to the Romans. In our reading from the letter this morning, Paul described how “all who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death.” Paul is not giving baptism in itself some magical power here to transform our lives, but is recognising that baptism is simply an outward sign of the inward, spiritual conversion of Christians. If we turn to Christ, renounce our old, sinful ways, and strive to live like him, we are dead to our old selves. If we live in this way, we can share in Jesus’ death, since in dying Jesus took on our sin. To return to our Isaiah passage, Jesus “bore the sin of many,” and if we truly follow him, that applies to us, as it does to all those who love Christ.

Paul continues by saying, in verse five, that, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This verse reflects the true magnificence of the Gospel message. Not only are we freed from sin by sharing in Christ’s death, we are also united in his resurrection. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected and taken to be with his Father in heaven, so too will we. Paul is in no doubt at all as to the truthfulness of this statement; his words are that we shall certainly be united in a resurrection like Jesus’. There is no doubt. It is a certainty. Just as we can be certain that night will follow day, and that Spring will follow Winter, we can be certain that new life will follow death.

In verse seven of our Roman’s reading, Paul states that “anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” The expression “to be set free” has great resonance on Remembrance Sunday. Our armed forces have, throughout our history, fought to defend us and to uphold the values that we aspire to. This is, perhaps, no clearer than during the Second World War, when the western world battled against the forces of Fascism and Nazism. There is a very real sense in which those who fought during the Second World War fought, if not to set us free, then certainly they fought to ensure that we remained free from tyrannical ideas that were threatening lifestyles and even lives in countries not that far from our own. Today, two of the most important tasks of our armed services are to protect the freedoms that we enjoy at home, whilst also striving to set free those in other countries whose liberty and human rights are being abused. It is right that today we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives for the freedom of others.

How much more, though, should we rejoice that Jesus sacrificed his life in order to set us free from sin? This is not just freedom in the here and now, but eternal freedom. Freedom that lasts beyond the grave. Had it not been for the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would be weighed down by our sin. We would not be able to approach God, much less have a relationship with him or to enter into his heavenly kingdom. There would be no eternal life if Jesus had not set us free from sin. It is only through his actions on the cross that we can be free.

In conclusion, then, how do we respond to all that we have heard today? How do we respond both to the sacrifice of those who have given their lives up for the good of others, so that they might be set free from earthly injustice, and to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died so that we might be set free from sin for eternity? Well, today is primarily a day for remembrance. Let’s make a point in the days ahead, just as we have done today, to reflect on the sacrifices made both by our armed forces, and that sacrifice with eternal consequences by Jesus Christ. Let’s hold our armed forces in our prayers, those who are fighting, those who have been injured, mentally or physically, and those who have been killed in the line of duty. And let’s pray for those who have lost a loved one serving in the armed forces, as well as those who care and look after those who have been injured by war.

Let’s also reflect, though, on the hope that we have of a life after death, both for those killed in action, but also for ourselves. Let’s give thanks to God for his unending love for us that we can see through his eternal plan of salvation, which culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And let’s praise Jesus for going willingly to the cross, to take the punishment for our sin, so that we might have eternal life.

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