On Remembrance Sunday we thank God for those who have died to keep us safe from tyrants in the 20th century and from terrorists in the 21st century. However, in this centenary year our focus is the 1914 war that was hoped to be "the War to end all Wars". But how do you account for such a tragic war?
Personally, for example, my great uncle, a professional musician, was a stretcher bearer, carrying in maimed and dying men and mangled corpses. But he, sadly, later committed suicide. And, globally, sadly, things fell short of the Christian tradition of the Just War. Listen to Winston Churchill:
"Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the vanguard of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a grander scale and longer duration."
So how do you account for those four years of Hell with 8.5 million dead, 21 million wounded and 65 million soldiers, sailors and airmen involved? How do you interpret this so called "War to end all Wars"? In August 1914 that concept gained currency with H G Wells book, "The War that will end War" and its argument against German militarism.
It started, in one sense, with the June 1914 assassination by a young Bosnian Serb in Sarayevo of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria and Hungary. But what were the root causes? The BBC's experts suggest 10 different causes! But is there a biblical perspective on the war? To help answer that we will look at Luke 12.59 – 13.9.
And I have three headings this morning, first, THE LACK OF KNOWLEDGE; secondly, THE NEED FOR REPENTANCE; and thirdly, HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
So, first, THE LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
Look now at verses 54-56 of chapter 12.
"[Jesus] said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming.' And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat', and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'"
To understand what is going on here and what follows, you need to know some historical background. In the period between the Old and New Testaments, following the victories of Alexander the Great, the Jews were under Greek overlords with all their pagan practices. By the second century BC the Jews were seriously persecuted. The Greco-Syrian ruler at the time, Antiochus IV, also shockingly desecrated the Jerusalem temple. He there set up a statue of the Greek god, Zeus, and sacrificed pigs to it. This led to a successful revolt by the Jews under one, Judas Maccabeus.
But with Roman expansion eastwards, a hundred years later the Jews then came under the control of the Romans, from 63 BC on. And from 37 BC they were under a Roman appointee, Herod the Great. But he was a maniac, even killing his own children let alone the baby boys of Bethlehem as we remember at Christmas time.
After his death his kingdom was divided up, with Judea and Samaria under the control of a brutal Roman Procurator – named Pilate. So by the time of Christ, it is understandable that many Jews were looking forward to a new Judas Maccabeus – an anointed one, a Messiah - to defeat the Romans. Tragically, after Jesus' earthly ministry and Resurrection, tensions increased between Judea and Rome. This resulted in a Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 66. And there followed a disastrous war, during which there was the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. So much for the history.
Back, then, to chapter 12. Here is Jesus, in the early part of the first century (with Romans everywhere) and (verse 54) "crowds" around him. And they were for making him a Messiah against the Romans. But Jesus totally opposed such anti-Roman sentiment. By total contrast he was going around, on the one hand, saying: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mat 5.44). And, on the other hand, when a Roman army officer came to Jesus, he did not say, "resign your commission". Rather he healed his servant and commended his faith. Jesus knew that armies were needed to keep the peace and punish evil.
But he knew what people fundamentally need - and in every generation, and not only for time and this life, but also for eternity and the wonderful hope of heaven that our first reading pointed to. It is peace with God, achieved by his Cross, where he died bearing our sins in our place. For he knew the root problem was not Roman imperial rule. It was the human sin and selfishness of everyone. This leads people to ignore God, as these Jews were doing for all their talk. That's why Jesus called them "hypocrites".
They refused to see what amazing things God was doing among them in the person of Jesus Christ. So Jesus said to these crowds, "why do you lack this knowledge"? Verse 56: "Why do you not know how to interpret the present time [and all that God is doing at this point in history]?" Jesus is saying, "you are good at making predictions about the material world. When you see a cloud rising in the west and so over the Mediterranean, your science (such as it is), tells you that a shower is coming. And when the wind is blowing from the deserts in the south, you know there will be scorching heat. And you are correct. But you are hypocrites: 'you know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'"
And the honest answer was that they did not want to know. If they admitted Christ was right, and the deepest problem was their own wrong desires and choices, it would require personal changes in thinking and lifestyle. Jesus has been dealing with some of the issues earlier on in this chapter – confessing Christ in a hostile environment, resisting the seductions of money, and having family members opposed to your faith and there were more. But the people were not prepared for these costs. So they did not turn to Christ and get right with God. It seems they fantasized about fighting and defeating the Romans, like Judas Maccabeus had fought his enemies. But Jesus knew that such fantasies were not facing reality. For the Jews stood no chance against the Romans.
So much then for the lack of knowledge.
That brings us secondly, to THE NEED FOR REPENTANCE …
… and verses 57–59:
"And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny."
Jesus is warning the crowds of the urgency of responding to what God is doing in their midst through him and not ignoring him. For, one, a failure to do that will be disastrous eternally at the final judgment day that he has referred to in chapter 12. And, two, common sense says that they urgently need to sort themselves out regarding the Romans. They need to repent in line with this parable. For, says Jesus, it is utterly foolish for an insolvent debtor not to settle out of court. Otherwise he faces ruin by being jailed for the debt, with no chance then of earning money to pay what he owes. So he has no chance of ever being released. Therefore, the debtor must act quickly. Otherwise a judgment day is certain and he "will never get out".
And, of course, that urgency still applies to us. On the one hand, God's final judgment day could occur at any time; or you could face sudden death and then that judgment day. On the other hand, things still go wrong in this life when you don't trust in God. We know with hindsight how that was true in the 1st century, when the majority ignored Christ and experienced horrific judgment at the hands of the Romans. The ancient historian Josephus tells us that 1 million were killed during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 – more than the British dead in World War I. And 1000s were captured or enslaved. So notice: in simple terms, the cause of that million Jews killed was due to ignoring God and his Son, Jesus Christ. The Jews ignored Christ's warnings and the meaning of his crucifixion (as dying for the sins of the world). And they rejected the fact of Christ's Resurrection leaving a tomb empty that proved he was the true and divine Messiah. But something like all that happened in regard to World War I.
The American Commentator, George Weigel, writes:
"Some will doubtless think it too simple to suggest that the most penetrating answer to the grave questions – Why did the Great War begin and why did the Great War continue? – is the answer suggested by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn thirty years ago: it was because [and he quotes]: "Men [had] forgotten God"
Years before Solzhenitsyn made that comment, the remarkable theologian Karl Barth, born in 1886 and who died in 1968, also came to that conclusion. For the 19th century had witnessed huge attacks on the biblical understanding of the human condition and Christian ethics. These were especially from atheistic Continental thinkers and writers like the Frenchman Comte and his idolatry of science, and the Germans, Feuerbach and his God being a human projection, Marx and his materialism, and Nietzsche and his "will to power". And Karl Barth saw that so many theologians were seduced by these thinkers and also buying into a radical and extreme biblical criticism. The net result was people treating the Christian faith as merely poetry and exchanging biblical fact for a groundless evolutionary optimism. So Barth personally and publicly rejected such liberal theology.
But the crunch came for him, not when he had another look at the biblical texts. Rather it was when the First World War was about to break out. And he discovered that many important German theologians were backing the Kaiser's war policies. So he wrote:
"Disillusioned by their conduct, I perceived that I should not be able any longer to accept their ethics and dogmatics, their biblical exegesis, their interpretation of history; that at least for me the theology of the nineteenth century had no future."
Barth, whatever his faults, certainly could interpret the times in which he was living. And thank God for his positive influence on subsequent biblical theology and in his stiffening the resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. For without the God of the Bible, the doctrine of the Just War and its ethics gets ignored as happened. And Church leaders capitulate to pagan ethics and eventually Hitler has his Holocaust.
So what do all these verses say to us today? First, that ignoring God still has disastrous consequences at a global level. Secondly, they warn us about Church leaders capitulating to pagan ethics as a number are doing today. But, thirdly, they challenge us, as part of modern society, to repent (literally "rethink") and take action regarding two facts. One, we have, at the present time, a world where studies relating to this world are truly amazing. As verse 56 puts it, we "know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky" and much more. But, two, we also "do not know how to interpret the present time" having ignored the God of the Bible. In the West there is too little public analyzing the world from a biblical perspective. But there is a cost.
There are (I quote) "blind spots" from the secular humanist "allergy" to religion and treating it as "an eccentricity". That was how Ed Sturton, a BBC Radio 4 presenter, recently described the situation in the media. And it has led, he says,
"[to a] catastrophic misreading of events" in the Middle East and other regions where religion plays a crucial role in political life."
Referring to the so called Arab Spring, he says:
"In the aftermath of the revolution in Egypt, for example, we listened to the secular liberals in Cairo, and were completely caught by surprise by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood."
How important, therefore, that as Christians we speak out in public as and when we can.
So much for "the need for repentance".
Thirdly, and finally, HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Look at chapter 13 and verses 1-5:
"There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
So here were people who were beginning to think about the wider world and not just themselves. It looks as though they were asking Jesus how to interpret the events relating to Pilate and the Tower in Siloam. So how does Jesus reply? He doesn't say they were wrong to question him. Rather he challenges their fundamental assumption. Jesus is saying to them, "as you think about these wider societal problems, don't assume it is all to do with the faults of others, either past or present; for (and this is the bombshell), you too are a problem."
He says (verse 3):
"I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
And that's so important, it's repeated in verse 5. Yes, learn lessons from the past and from others. But hope for the future begins when you recognize not just the need for others' repentance but your own. And it's to be real repentance. That is when there is grieving for wrong committed or omitted (when you fail to act), and a genuine change of heart, which is then proved by action. Paul spells this out in Acts 26.20. He says that "[you] should repent, turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with … repentance".
And there is hope for everyone, for it is never too late to repent. That is the message of verses 6-9:
"And he [Jesus] told this parable: 'A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vine dresser, "Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?" And he answered him, "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig round it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down".'"
God is looking for real change for good – for the fruit of repentance from us - and there is still time to produce it. But at our "present time" anti-Christian forces are growing. So true repentance, with true obedience, will often be costly – yes, sometimes financially, but also in terms of contending for truth and for what is right. That is one lesson I personally have learnt from World War I - namely - that if you are convinced that something is absolutely wrong, you should take a stand and be willing for the cost and the consequences.
For my great uncle's brother, my maternal Grandfather, was a conscientious objector in World War I. So I was brought up on stories of prison life in the early 20th century. For, unlike in World War II, there was no provision for conscientious objection. I actually decided, as conscription required, to sign on for the navy. But I am hugely grateful for that lesson I learnt as a child.
I must conclude
Hope for the future will only come from true repentance. So who this morning needs for the first time : "to repent, turn to God and perform deeds in keeping with your repentance" for eternal peace with God. And that is possible, because Christ died for you, and as this Sunday reminds us:
"Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15.13).
And who this morning has turned to God – you're committed to Jesus Christ – but you know there is something costly you have to do "in keeping with your repentance"? Well, it's never too late to take action. And the Holy Spirit will work with you. For as we learnt in our Home Groups this past week, Philippians 2.12-13 says:
"[you are to] work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."