Centenary of the Outbreak of the Frist World War
Choral Evensong, Ripon Cathedral
Sunday 3 August 2014
The Dean’s Sermon
(Texts: Micah 4:1-5; St. John 15: 9-17; Ps 46)

“Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war.”

Familiar words from the Prophet Micah, to which we might be tempted to respond, “Some hope!” Not least as we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and as we reflect on the state of the world this evening.

“Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war.”

Some hope!

A hundred years ago this evening, the ultimatum of Austria-Hungary (following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June) had already been rejected by Serbia. The Russian Army had already been mobilised by the Tsar in support of Serbia, knowing that there was a race against time: Germany would surely use its support for Austria-Hungary to provide the opportunity for a fight in both East and West. Russia knew it could depend on the support of France. And one hundred years ago this evening, Germany had already declared war on France and had asked His Majesty’s Government for an assurance that Britain and its Empire would remain neutral when the Kaiser’s forces made a convenience of Belgium by turning it into a highway to the French border. The whole world waited for the British response. One hundred years ago this evening, the House of Commons debated: How could small, weak Belgium be left to the mercy of a mighty, aggressive force? The famous ultimatum was sent by His Majesty’s Government to the Germans, requiring a satisfactory response by 11pm London time on 4th August. The rest, we might say, is tragic history.

So began the war to end all wars: some hope!

Consider the scenario: a small, yet proud nation, surrounded and threatened by larger nations and empires; disingenuous leaders disregarding truth and social justice, choosing to listen only to the councillors whom they knew to be wrong but were telling them what they wanted to hear; and religious observation being used as an inadequate substitute for a sincere desire to discern and serve God’s ways. It takes a brave person to speak the truth to power in such a potentially dangerous, even catastrophic context. And yet Micah was such a man.

This is the context in which Micah the prophet was ministering over seven-hundred years before the birth of Christ, with the northern kingdom of Israel having already fallen before the overwhelming might of Assyria. Micah had the courage to speak the truth to the kings of Judah, unlike their false prophets and weak priests.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Book of Micah is totally consistent; it isn’t. Neither is it all from 8th century BC – some of it is much later. But in its canonical form, it presents the prophet asserting that disregard for God and his ways had led to social injustice and would lead to humiliating defeat in the face of a foreign enemy. Micah was not naïve; he knew how things work in a fallen world. Without urgent and radical repentance, there would be an invasion. A mighty enemy would completely overtake this small, vulnerable nation. And yet Micah could have hope.

“Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war.”

And this would be helped by God sending his chosen king to bring in the reign of peace:

Micah 5:2 – “But from you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah, small as you are among Judah’s clans, from you will come a king for me over Israel, one whose origins are far back in the past, in ancient times.”
Under the rule of this gift from God, God’s people would enjoy security and peace:
Micah 5:4b “They will enjoy security, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. Then there will be peace.”

With the Messiah, we might say, would come the reign of peace. Some hope! As our NT lesson reminded us, when the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, did eventually come to this fallen world, the ultimate sacrifice was demanded of him: “There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friend.” (John 15:13)

In the face of evil, history demonstrates, good people are sometimes called upon to die to counter its force.

The thing that causes monarchs, political leaders, church congregations and countless others to stop and reflect over these few days is the fact that precisely one hundred years ago, nations marched into a war with their eyes wide open and yet, for the most part, utterly incapable of imagining the unprecedented levels of suffering and pain that would ensue.

Nineteen hundred years after the birth of the Prince of Peace, and after his world-saving sacrifice, the world seemed more fallen than ever. And ordinary people genuinely keen to do the right thing – to serve king, country and even God, to fight for a world in which war would be no more – these ordinary people were amongst those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Famously, some of the First World War poets crafted now-immortal verses that could suggest the sheer futility of it all. The message could be heard that, in the light of experiences between August 1914 and November 1918, one could only conclude that the scale of the carnage was matched only by the depth of the folly.

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory,
the old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
Wilfrid Owen, associated with this Cathedral, here provides just one of the poets’ countless examples.

This is a long way from the implied glory and honour found in words from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, sung by the Choir as our Introit this evening: “So they gave their bodies to the Commonwealth, and received praise that will never die.”

Many have debated the causes, wisdom, justice, and consequences of the First World War. As we pause together in this cathedral this evening, we need not join those debates. But we do well to be reminded both by Micah and the supreme example of Christ himself of some hard truths and of the only foundation of hope for a fallen world.

“Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war.”

Some hope? Yes. Some hope!

Micah knew that the world is fallen. He knew about kingdoms and empires and the human failings that lead to war. But his ultimate confidence was in God: one day the reign of peace would come. Until then, in a fallen world, good people, and good nations, needed to be courageous and to be prepared to stand up to evil.

“Now withdraw behind your walls, you people of a walled city; the siege is pressed home against you.” Micah 5:1

Micah knew well, in a fallen world those who could be counted righteous sometimes have to use evil means to counter even greater evil. A century on, the world still struggles to comprehend the level and intensity of human suffering and sacrifice demanded by the First World War; but we especially honour those of all countries who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of world peace. And we honour those in our armed forces today who courageously risk and do the same. Scanning the globe this evening, it would be foolish to conclude that the world is less fallen in 2014 than it was in 1914.

But Micah and Christ himself encourage in us the hope that comes from God and which prevents us falling into despair despite the world’s failings. The God who is described by the Psalmist as our refuge (“The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our Refuge”), the same God who raised Christ from the dead, will in the end have his way. This world will be turned into his kingdom and, as Micah knew over 2,700 years ago, this will be a kingdom of peace.

“Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war.”

This is not the vain cry of the crazy; but the hope of those who, in full knowledge of the fallen nature of this world, and possibly even in the heat of battle itself, keep faith with God and serve his will. As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we do well to remember that it is this faith and service that give hope and make for peace.