Isaiah 25.1 – 9: Revelation 22.1 – 5
Today, on Remembrance Sunday, we remember the ending of the First World War and reflect with sadness and regret the loss of life in all the wars since then.
It has been a hundred years since Passchendaele and the other battles of the First World War, but their dead speak to us still. The silence of their immaculate white headstones speak volumes. Many still visit them, looking for the graves of relatives, or standing in respectful silence before those bearing the words, ‘unknown soldier’. Words do not matter so much; it’s the sorrow and love bound up in our deeper wordless prayers, that God alone understands.
We all carry the images of war within us, often fed by the poetry of those who died in the First World War, such as Wilfred Owen. The horrific images captured by filmmakers, artists and photographers, scanning acres of mud and treeless landscapes articulate the social catastrophe that is war; articulate the tragedy of the men and women from these islands who were killed then and since, or injured physically and mentally, who carried these scars until they too passed on. The numbers killed and injured may have been less in the Second World War, but the potential for even greater destruction and loss of life remains with us still.
In the 1914-18 war, vast numbers of men and women volunteered for the war effort from all parts of our nation, seemingly bound by a sense of adventure perhaps, or a need to be with one’s mates, or was it to do with a mystical notion of King and Country? My uncle, who fought in the Great War as it became known, was too young to enlist, so lied about his age because he wanted to be part of the war effort.
Whilst the Battle of the Somme has come to represent the epitome of carnage, Passchendaele has come to symbolise a depth of pointlessness. The Battle of Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres, as it is sometimes known, took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917. The combatants were fighting for control of the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres, and Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of the city, near a railway junction, which was vital to the supply system of the German Army. The Allied plan was to close the German-controlled railway running through this part of Belgium. Unusually wet weather and the onset of winter exacerbated conditions in the battlefields, while politicians and military leaders argued among themselves about the validity of the plan. The campaign to secure this fragment of land was controversial then and has been argued over ever since.
In our first reading from Isaiah, the specific ruined city the prophet has in mind is unclear, and its identity doesn’t really matter as it has become universal. Historically, we are at the end of the Neo-Assyrian period in the Hebrew story, during the reign of Josiah, in the late 7th century BC. After more than a century of being a vassal to Assyria and paying dearly for the privilege of survival, Judah found itself free. It was nothing to do with its own efforts, since the Babylonians, far away in Mesopotamia, had conquered Assyria.
The passage begins with a hymn of praise to a victorious God. The opening phrases, “you are my God; I will exalt you”, allude to the ancient “Song of Sea” from Exodus, when the Lord led the people out of slavery in Egypt. The image of a divine warrior however is troubling, particularly if read in the context of the Battle of Passchendaele.
But if however Exodus is the model for God’s victory then we need to look at it in a different light. In Exodus, God delivered an oppressed people from an imperial power in Egypt. The divine concern was for the poor and the needy, who needed to be rescued from ruthless taskmasters. And the Lord is portrayed not simply as a victorious king, one who has defeated and replaced human rulers, but as a generous celebrant, providing a feast for his supporters, suggesting a new intimacy between God and humankind.
In our second reading from the Book of Revelation there is more. The victory over death is key. Death has no power over God. Here the river of life is based on a passage from Ezekiel, where the river flows out of God’s temple. In the Book of Revelation’s New Jerusalem there is no temple building, and so the river flows from the throne of God, flows with life from the presence and the ruling power of the Lord of all.
The old serpent has been dispensed with, and the tree of eternal life flourishes among the people again. In Ezekiel, the river was lined with all kinds of trees, but here there is only one, the one that matters, the tree of eternal life denied to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Ezekiel’s vision, the leaves were for healing of Israel, but in Revelation they are for the healing of all the nations. Here there is nothing cursed. Salvation is fulfilled in this city paradise. God’s victory over death, enacted centrally in the cross of Jesus Christ has overcome the power of death and evil.
From God comes light; from God comes the tree of salvation; from God’s throne flows the water of life. God is the temple, sanctifying the entire community; and God’s own presence is assured. We know that presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that presence when we are baptised, when we approach the communion table, and in the proclamation of the good news. We know that presence dimly reflected in our own imperfect communities. So this text renews hope for our future. Renews hope for a New Jerusalem.
We live in the now and not yet of God’s Kingdom, sustained by the images of Revelation and Isaiah, but we need also to keep the searing images of violence in our sight, to be reflected on in our respectful silence for the fallen. Lest we forget. A new feast, greater than Isaiah’s is laid before us when we approach the communion table, when we glimpse the One who makes all things new, the One who gives us water from the spring of life.
When we are baptised we are called to be disciples on mission, proclaiming by our lives the kingdom of God and the good news of Christ. We keep alive the gifts given to us by grace to bear witness to our faith and to become involved in justice issues, with a desire to relieve poverty and pain, as well as an ecological awareness of our interdependence with all the other creatures on this planet. It takes courage to be a soldier of Christ, to hope in redemption, as but Isaiah says, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Amen.