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Proper 28: The Second Sunday before Advent,  proper 28A, Tr 1 (C of E provision), St Mark’s, 13.11.02
Zeph 1.7, 12-18: the day of the Lord’s wrath
Ps 90.1-8, (9-11), 12: Lord, you have been our refuge, satisfy us with your loving-kindness
1 Thess 5.1-11: keep awake; destined not for wrath but for obtaining salvation
Matt 25.14-30: Parable of talents: he who has shall have more. - weeping & gnashing of teeth. (1520)

God, our refuge and strength, bring near the day when wars shall cease and poverty and pain shall end, that earth may know the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen

           The putting of pen to paper, namely, the signing of the armistice that ended World War I took place on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 11 AM on 11th November 1918.  Every year since there has been an annual observance of the event, either on Armistice Day, 11th November, or the Sunday nearest to it, which is today, Remembrance Sunday.  What are we remembering?  What is or should be, our overall purpose in observing Remembrance Sunday?  Keep this in mind for a bit.

          Our reading from Judges is concerned with girding up the Israelites for war, with Deborah calling Gideon to lead the Israelites.  Those who are called ‘judges’ like Deborah and Gideon, are not judges in our sense, but much more like saviours or heroes.  It is no coincidence that when one looks at them carefully, there are twelve of them, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel .  They all shall have prizes as part of the propaganda used to weld the 12 tribes into one nation.  Something which might be viewed in a somewhat similar light was the formation of the United Nations by all the allies at the end of World War 2.  Much of the OT narrative, and especially here in Judges is concerned with war and battle strategies.  This material is so good that the Israelis of today have used this material to plan their effective strategies against those who would wipe present day Israel off the map.

          But we are those who profess to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

          Now today’s readings can be viewed as getting us ready for judgement, with wrath being mentioned in our psalm, and the reading from 1 Thessalonians.  Even the gospel reading from Matthew ends up with someone committed to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

          Throughout the Old Testament the wrath of God is used to bring Israel to repentance.  Now, the writers of the OT do not distinguish between primary and secondary causation, that is, between what God positively wills, which is primary causation, and what he merely lets happen, which is secondary causation.  This is why, for example, in the book of Exodus Yahweh is presented as saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let you go”, and this is then followed by Yahweh clobbering the Egyptians because they did not let the Israelites go.  Now if this were meant in the way that we normally think, this would make God out to be highly immoral, but that is because we distinguish between what we actively intend and what we merely allow to happen.  However, the writers of the Old Testament generally did not do so when speaking of God.  So when they speak of the wrath of God, although it is expressed as being the active will of God, there is some element of its being what we might call the natural result of going against God’s will. 

          As an example of what I mean, let us take the case of children who play with matches and burn themselves.  If we provided the opportunity for this to happen because we did not lock the matches away so that they could not get to them, then at the secondary level, we are responsible for the children being burnt.  But if we always kept our children in cotton wool, so to speak, they would never grow up to be mature, responsible adults.  In the same way, God has given us freedom to respond to his love, and to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

          When we come to the New Testament I believe that St Paul , when he speaks of God, distinguishes between primary and secondary causation.  There are thirteen letters that bear Paul’s name, but only five of them are ones that he wrote himself, namely, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Philemon.  All the rest, including 1 Thessalonians, from which we read today, are written by his associates or other members of the churches that he founded.  They are written to meet various needs in the churches in ways that the writers thought, rightly or wrongly, that Paul himself would do if he were in their shoes, and two of these, namely, Colossians (2.6) and Ephesians (5.6), speak explicitly of “the wrath of God”.

          But when we turn to the letters that are by Paul himself, it is only in Romans that Paul ever uses the word “wrath”.  He does so eleven times, but he only speaks of “wrath” or “the wrath”, and never of  “the wrath of God”.  On the contrary, he speaks repeatedly in Romans of  “the kindness of God” (2.4;8.12;11.22[3x]), and he says, “Do you not realise that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2.4).  Why this apparent shift from “wrath” to “kindness”?  I believe it is because what he has experienced in Christ is an overwhelming sense of  God’s love as made known in and through Jesus by the Spirit of God.  For Paul it is God’s love that melts our hardened hearts, not wrath.  God loves us and gives us freedom to love him and our neighbour.  If we turn away from his love and his loving ways, then there will be consequences, and a code word for those consequences is “wrath”, or in Matthew’s terms, “outer darkness, with  weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

          When we look at today’s gospel with Matthew’s parable of the talents, we hear of people being entrusted with talents, and those who make use of the talents are given more, but those who make no use of what is given them lose even that, and their latter state is worse than their first, for they are to be thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  

          There is an evident truth in this parable, for we have been entrusted with the love of God.  If we make the habit of sharing it, then with time it becomes even easier to show and to share, and it will grow both within us and in others, like the good servants made the talents grow.    But if we do not seek opportunities to share it, then, it will wither and die, and our latter state will be worse than the first.  So let us all seek opportunities to share God’s love with all whom we meet, in big ways and little ways, even if it is only a smile as we meet others in the street, for you and I are called to work in God’s vineyard, helping to raise up a bountiful crop of love in every corner where we find ourselves, that when the ingathering comes, we may hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your lord.”

          This orientation should, I suggest, form the bedrock to our answer to the question of what is our overall purpose in observing Remembrance Sunday.  After the appalling loss of life in World War I in which almost every hamlet in the British Isles had lost men it was natural that it be a time for standing in silence remembering the dead.  It was known as The Great War and was even called the War to End War.  In the aftermath of the war The League of Nations was founded, but it was ineffective when Mussolini went into Abyssinia in 1922.  Hitler saw this, and so in 1939 he picked up where World War I had paused, in effect, and the slaughter continued.    At the end of World War 2 the United Nations was founded and has worked with a wide remit not simply to avoid war but also to work in areas that have led to war.  Noble as the effort may well have been thus far, it is certainly not enough as indicated by the simple fact that in country after country in the developed world and in the developing world the gap between the rich and the poor has widened despite much rhetoric about justice and opportunities for all in a shareholding society. 

          Is it any wonder that the best we seem to achieve is that at least the various ongoing conflicts are not in our own back yard.  We may be able to keep them at arm’s length, but even the body count from wars, brutal oppression, and the like continues down to our day with, for example, the bodies of our service personnel being received at Wooton Bassett and now at Brise Norton from Iraq and Afghanistan.

          And so we keep this Remembrance Sunday with poignant memories of those whom we have known who have been lost in war, with gratitude for their service, with concern for those left behind, the widows, the orphans, the wounded, the maimed, the bereaved and all those who care for them.  And we do so with a determination that is guided and empowered by God’s love made known in Christ that it shall not always be so, no matter how long it takes.

 

[Sermon to be followed by 2 minute silence and then the following prayer:

 

Eternal God, in whose perfect realm no sword is drawn but the sword of justice, and no strength known but the strength of love: guide and inspire all who seek your kingdom, that peoples and nations may find their security in the love which casts out fear; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.]