Sermon at Evensong on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity 2018

Beyond catastrophe

The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon in Residence

Sunday, 7th October 2018 at 3.00 PM

On the Sunday before the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson stood in the pulpit of Westminster Abbey and declared that "what was happening was not the work of God but of the Devil." The Archbishop was speaking of the rising tensions in Europe which were to lead to the outbreak of war.

The Great War, as it became known, divided the people of Britain, and of the Church. The Bishop of London, A F Winnington-Ingram, began what amounted to a recruitment campaign, infamously declaring the following year, again in Westminster Abbey, that the war was "a great crusade to kill Germans. To kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, the young men as well as the old." Other bishops and clergy strongly disagreed with Winnington-Ingram’s violent jingoism, and struggled instead to make some kind of Christian sense of the vast conflict in which so many were engaged. At the outbreak of the Great War, the call of duty to God and Empire was one which inspired thousands of young men to enlist; but also taxed thousands of Christians to their moral core.

By 1918, of course, the tone of many preachers and politicians had utterly changed. No longer was the war effort seen simplistically as a noble and glorious cause: the cost to all those involved had been devastating. Sorrow, penitence, exhaustion, guilt, relief: Armistice Day and the months – the years - which followed were marked by the struggle to deal with physical, mental and emotional trauma of individuals, communities and nations. Winnington-Ingram continued to blame the Germans and demand that Germany be punished. But very many others strongly disagreed. Preaching some fourteen years later to the International Disarmament Conference in Geneva, the Archbishop of York, William Temple, commented ‘We have not only to ask who dropped the match but who strewed the ground with gunpowder’.

This afternoon we have heard part of the story of another people apparently on the brink of initiating a war of conquest. Joshua and the Israelite tribes are encamped on the east of the Jordan river. According to the biblical account, they have spent many years on the move, led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness. Within sight of the promised land, Moses has died, and his successor is  named as Joshua. Joshua it is who is tasked with leading the Israelites into the land promised to them by God. But the task will not be easy. The resident population is Canaanite, a people who have lived there for many generations in large cities, supported by well-farmed lands. Joshua is anxious and unsure of himself. He sends scouts to spy out the land, and he commands the priests to make preparations. The ark of the covenant, containing the stone tablets of the law given by God to Moses on Sinai, is brought to the edge of the river. Everyone stands back. God instructs Joshua on what is to happen. The ark of the covenant is carried into the middle of the Jordan, and the waters dry up – many miles away far upstream, and far downstream. The Israelites cross the Jordan safely and enter the promised land.

This is all meant to remind us of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – but it is a very low-key version of the story, and nothing like as grand or miraculous as the first occasion. Joshua is not Moses, and the Jordan is not the Red Sea. At the Red Sea, Moses has lively conversations with God; at the Jordan, Joshua is silent when God speaks. The crossing of the Red Sea results in the gifts of freedom, the law, and a new sense of purpose for the Israelites. Crossing the Jordan ends with nothing like as successful outcome for the Israelites. It’s as if the authors or editors of the book of Joshua know at the outset that the trend for the Israelites is downhill from here on. Crossing into the promised land should have been the great climax to the journey through the wilderness, but it is all rather flat, mundane even. The river waters stand in a heap afar off, no enemy is drowned, no songs are sung or dances danced as happened by the Red Sea.

There is a good reason for this. The people who put together the final version of the stories we know as the book of Joshua do so with the benefit of hindsight. The promised land is not without its issues. The conquest of the land by the Israelites had not happened as God commanded. The Canaanite inhabitants resisted the Israelites, and were able to continue to farm the land and to worship their own gods – gods of agriculture and harvest, gods which were to prove very attractive to many Israelites in the years to come. Yes, the Israelites entered the promised land; and yes they settled in many areas, and eventually were united under King David and established the worship of God at the Temple they built in Jerusalem. But the biblical texts from Joshua to the Second Book of Kings continually remind us of the threat posed by the tempting worship of foreign gods. Many of the Israelites did not remain faithful to the God of the exodus, the God who had promised them the land they now inhabited.

Catastrophe struck the people of Israel. Threats from neighbouring tribes, invasions, civil war, weak government – a sequence of disasters eventually led to the Israelites being overrun, the promised land lost, and the Israelite leaders taken into exile in Babylon for fifty years. It was during the exile when the book of Joshua amongst others was edited, edited by those who knew that Joshua and the Israelites would lose the land promised to them by God. Hardly surprising, then, that the description of the arrival of Joshua and the people into the promised land is somewhat low-key.

But the future catastrophic loss of the land does not mean the end of all hope for the Israelites. We are still told of God’s promises, and God’s promises still stand. ‘I will be with you as I was with Moses’ says God to Joshua; ‘the Lord of all the earth’ will be with you says Joshua, to encourage the people. The land given to God’s people may eventually be lost – at least from the editors’ experience – but it is still promised by God. It turns out to be more of a theological than a literal gift of land.

For the land has been promised to the people in order that they may be free to live properly as God’s people. The hope is that in the land promised by God, the people can be themselves – not slaves in Egypt or nomads in the wilderness – but a light to the nations, a blessing to others. They can be God’s means of communicating to the world at large: that is their calling and purpose. Land is simply one means to that end, not an end in itself. As the Israelites in exile were to discover, losing the promised land did not mean the end of their faith, but a new beginning. A new discovery of what it means to be God’s people, to live by God’s promises, and to be prepared to re-discover their vocation.

On the eve of the First World War the language of noble causes, defending God and Empire, sacrifice and courage was often to be heard in pulpits and street corners. But by the end of the war, the language was very different as preachers and politicians, those who had fought in the war and those who were injured and bereaved sought to make sense of the catastrophe. There was a realisation that ‘when some great loss or reverse radically changes life for us it is absolutely necessary actively to re-negotiate life on a new set of terms’ (Neville-Ward, Friday Afternoon, 1976, p. 60).

Christians gather in churches - we gather in this Abbey - to remember the work of God among us, to tell the story of God’s people, to remind each other of God’s promises for this reason: so that we can then go and tell the world of what God has done. That is our purpose as God’s people today. We may not have a promised land as such, although the language of promised land has been used of the promise of heaven. But we are asked not to forget God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, to follow his teaching, and to live according to God’s promises. The churches in the United Kingdom are in numerical decline; overall the past hundred years have seen a decline in congregation numbers, and closure of some church buildings. If we were to lose the church buildings of this country, I am sure that the loss would be regarded as catastrophic by many, an architectural and aesthetic disaster; a terrible loss of our shared historic memory built in stone. But the loss would not be the end of us, far from it; for such a loss might in fact turn out to be a new beginning.

If the experience of those who lived through the First World War has anything to teach us, it is that we do well to remember that our understanding of our current experience is only ever partial; and we should be cautious about claiming divine sanction in time of conflict. If the experience of the Israelites has anything to teach us, it is that a catastrophe for God’s people need never be the end, but the opportunity for a new beginning. And if the gift of Jesus Christ has anything to teach us, it is that the catastrophe of death itself is not the end, but the prelude to new and unimaginable life, the promise of God fulfilled.