Sunday 14th November 2010
Readings: Joshua 11 v 6-9, 21-23
Luke 7 v 1-10
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The centurion said to Jesus: I, too am a man placed under the authority of
superior officers, and I have soldiers under me. I order this one go and he goes.
We speak often, in the church, about peace.
Indeed, Sunday by Sunday, we pray for peace.
Repeatedly we condemn war and the horror of war.
And this is entirely appropriate, since Christ has charged His people to be peacemakers in a world that is weary of war.
It concerns me, however, that in our anxiety to find alternative, non violent ways of achieving peace, we alienate our military personnel – the men and women on the front line, constantly preparing for and suffering the consequences of the wars in which our country is engaged. Often, it seems as though we have little to say to the very people who risk and give their lives.
Soldiers, navy and air crews seem lost in the melee as the church grapples with the huge issues of nuclear war and global peace.
It's time we said something on behalf of our service men and women.
It's time we spoke about peace, not just in political or moral terms, but in human terms as well.
It is time we spoke before God about good soldiers and bad wars.
It would be easy to leap on to the somewhat trendy band wagon of condemning war – as we must – and, in so doing, carry our condemnation to extremes - overlooking those who serve and have served.
Indeed, recently, I was involved in a discussion at the Boys Brigade – the boys were raising money for Holly Bush House, a local facility that cares for military personnel affected by the trauma of war.
A few of the boys wanted their fund raising efforts to be channelled elsewhere because they were opposed to war.
It took some effort convincing them that while non violent resolution of conflict was a goal worth continually pursuing, we still had a duty to those who have served their country.
So how do we maintain that tension?
The tension of holding peace as a state worth striving for and honouring all those who have served and continue to serve their country in war?
We might begin by considering some of the things that draw people into military service - the benefits to be gained by being a soldier.
Peace activists in the church are often too elitist to see this, but for many of our young people, the armed services offer training and a career which they in all probability would not otherwise be offered on civvy street.
When I was at college, I remember vividly talking to a man in a housing scheme in the East End of Glasgow.
It was during the time of the build up to the Falklands war.
This was a young man, with a young family, who had never been employed since leaving school.
A young man who was desperate for war so that he could enlist and give his family a regular income and something to be proud of.
He wanted to go to war to make his family proud.
For many, joining the military is an attractive alternative to joining the ranks of the chronically unemployed.
In the forces, young folk are allowed to realise their potential and their lives are given direction and discipline. They learn habits and lessons in the armed forces which serve them well for the rest of their lives.
It is this sort of discipline that we see in the Roman centurion who talks with Jesus.
In his case, he is a soldier whose military experience has taught him something important about faith.
Picture him as he makes his way towards Jesus and imagine how the crowd murmurs its disapproval.
They don't want this soldier of Caesar anywhere near their Jesus!
But the crowd's disapproval gives way to confusion and then astonishment, because this centurion seems different.
He isn't cursing them and pushing them around as the other soldiers do.
He speaks respectfully, even reverently, to Jesus.
Most incredibly of all: a Roman centurion is calling Jesus, "Lord!"
The centurion said to Jesus: "Lord, I know how Your people hate me. They hate everything I represent; they despise the empire I am sworn to defend. With all the evils of Roman rule, I know I'm not even worthy to ask you into my home! But please, Lord Jesus, my beloved servant is very ill and lies near death. If you would just stand here and say the Word I know he can be healed."
Then the centurion uses his own military background to explain his faith.
He goes on to say, "I am a man under authority with soldiers under me. When I tell them to go, they go and when my superiors tell me to come, I come. So, too, Jesus, can you order my servant to be healed"
The centurion's world is governed by a chain of command. And because this is the world he lives in, this is also how he understands his faith.
Just as a captain has authority over a private and a general over a captain, so, too, does Jesus have authority over all things, seen and unseen.
Jesus is the ultimate Commander-in-Chief.
Simply by issuing the order, He can heal the centurion's servant.
The Roman soldier has learned his faith through the language and lens of the military, but the faith he has learned is nonetheless true.
He has learned that Jesus is Lord, a Supreme Officer to be obeyed.
And Jesus is impressed by this faith.
He says to the centurion, "Not even in Israel have I found such faith. It is done for you, your servant is healed as you believed."
Today, we live in a society which teaches us in so many ways to love ourselves and to "look out for number one." Well, that's not what Jesus taught, is it; and that's not what people learn in the military, either.
Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends", and countless soldiers have done just that over the years!
They have thrown themselves on top of grenades, cleared mine fields, covered the flank on a dangerous mission, or in some other way paid the highest price.
They died young, on fields of battle all over the world. They are examples of courage and self-sacrifice to us today, us with our faith that is "neither cold nor hot" an example to us who live our faith somewhere between comfort and commitment.
Military personnel have learned important lessons about love and loyalty
They love each other completely, even with their lives. More so than most Christians, many of our military personnel have the kind of love Jesus talked about.
So, in the church, when we talk of war and peace we ought to recognize the Christ-like values which can be found in our armed forces.
Recognising these values, we might then be compelled to ask - What happens to these military personnel, who have learned such important values?
And the answer is: they are sent to fight in evil wars.
Listen to these words, written by a soldier looking back on his own experience of war:
What kind of war do civilians think we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy who were wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts or carved their bones into letter openers. Not every British soldier, or even one percent of our troops, committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the enemy. But the war necessitated many so-called crimes and the bulk of the rest could be blamed on the mental distortion which war produced... -
The "mental distortion which war produced."
These words were written by a veteran of World WAR II, a veteran of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He fought in what we often call "the good war, the just war."
In our text from Joshua this morning, we see how wars were fought thousands of years ago.
Israel plundered cities and burned them to the ground. When enemy soldiers ran for their lives, the Israelites tracked them down and slaughtered them.
They killed every man, woman and child they could find. The Bible says that "they did not leave any that breathed"
General Sherman said, "war is hell" and so it is.
Soldiers of every age have known it.
War brings hell to the land, to innocent civilians and to the soldiers themselves.
War is hell.
Some would still argue, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that war might be necessary on occasion, but don't call it "good."
War is always evil.
Christians who want to justify war often cite texts like this one from Joshua to justify war.
"The Bible is a violent book," they say, "and God is a God of war.
But what about Jesus’ teaching?
And what about all that the Old Testament says about the evils of war and the blessings of peace?
Wherever the Old Testament seems to bless war, there is usually a little clue somewhere to make us stop and think and keep war in a more sober perspective.
Here in Joshua, the clue is in the chariots. When the battle is over, God tells the Israelites to burn the chariots they have captured from the enemy.
Now, why would Israel do that?
At a time when wars were fought hand to hand and on the ground, the chariot was a kind of ultimate weapon, the nuclear bomb of its age, if you will.
It was certainly a great leap forward in the technology of death.
So why would Israel burn these chariots and voluntarily give up an important advantage in the arms race of their day?
They did it to make sure they wouldn't use this new weapon!
To the Israelites of Joshua's day, war was fought under God and God was the nation's security, not the latest weapon.
The minute they trusted in themselves for their defence they were doomed; and this is precisely what happened later, during the age of the prophets.
They acted faithfully with a form of unilateral disarmament.
Of course, chariots became crossbows, crossbows became cannons, cannons became machine guns and machine guns became missiles.
Today, our chariots are called "Strategic Defence," or "Star wars."
Whether we admit it or not, we are just like every other nation on earth in this respect: we find our security in our weapons, not in God.
We pay lip service to God but look to ourselves for strength.
And just like ancient Israel in the age of the prophets, our nation is not eager to hear what God's servants would faithfully say:
Our nation has it all wrong insofar as things military are concerned. We should be celebrating our soldiers and condemning war. Instead, we condemn our soldiers and celebrate war.
Oh, I know we often hear politicians and business leaders praising the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers. But whenever I hear those speeches, I want to cry out in protest, because that is the sound of patriotism and hypocrisy mixed together! How can we as a nation praise veterans one day and then cut their benefits and ignore their problems the next?
It seems we are willing to profit by sending them to war, but unwilling to share our profits with them in peace. And so, they are mistreated and ignored.
This is cynical and callous.
We've got it all wrong.
We hate the good and love what is evil.
We treat our military personnel shabbily and we glory in the profits and passions of war.
Remember the centurion who came to Jesus – and all our serving men and women today.
And remember how, even in its most violent episodes, the Bible does not bless our vision of war.
God's Word requires repentance and a national leap of faith, because it says that righteousness must be our armour, and God our defence, even in a dangerous world.
You will notice a startling and revealing phrase at the end of our text in Joshua. When the long battle is finally over, the text says, "And the land had rest from war."
Israel crushed her enemies with force, but there was no peace for Israel, only a rest from war.
That's all we have ever had in this world: a rest from war. Today, we don’t even have that.
Our patriotic bluster and our lack of real faith in God keep us blind to the paths of peace.
God have mercy on us and on the souls of all the good folk who have died in bad wars. And God have mercy on the soul of our nation. Amen