This morning at Ascot Baptist Church I stood in solemn silence with the rest of the whole congregation for two minutes commencing at 11.00 precisely. Just like the rest of the nation. It was Remembrance Sunday, or Poppy Day, as we call it here in the UK. It is always the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day, marking the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918 when the Armistice was signed by the Allies and Germany at Compiegne, France, marking the end of the Great War (World War 1). Armistice Day this year fell on a Friday, two days previously. This may be why some journalists, such as Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer, believes that the two-minute silence should be observed on that precise moment, when all work should stop, all other activities cease, and even trains stop wherever they are. This, according to Heffer, will get every person's mind to remember the human sacrifices made for our freedoms, and not on a Sunday when much of the nation is slumped on the armchair.
Maybe I can understand how Heffer feels. Much to the credit of many, including employees at the Lloyds Bank in the City, together with a public gathering at Trafalgar Square along with a few Scottish veterans at a cenotaph at a remote area, as with many other locations across the nation, people stopped what they were doing to give a two minute silence of respect at exactly 11.00 on the Friday morning, and this, as far as I know, without any order or even a suggestion made by Government, Royalty or Church officials. Little wonder that Heffer feels that Remembrance Sunday is farcical and Armistice should be the day for remembering. For you, Heffer, the 2012 Armistice will fall on a Sunday, thanks to it being a leap year.
In the Great War, between 1914 and 1918, an estimated 20,000,000 people, mostly in the military, died defending our freedoms. The casualty toll for World War II was much greater, with more than 16,000,000 of the Allied military dead, along with 45,000,000 of civilian deaths, giving a total of more than 61,000,000 casualties.
But our remembrance Sundays are not confined to the two World Wars. As we stood still this morning, our latest casualties who were killed in Afghanistan were also considered. At this point of writing, 385 of our British soldiers were killed defending our country, which is more than one soldier for each day of the year.
We sometime forget what a very fortunate generation we are! As we revel in our materialism, our high education and careers and our advance in Medicine and healthcare, along with the knowledge that we weren't, nor will we ever wear a military uniform, try to think of yourself as one barely out of your teens, out in a trench, across the Channel from home, on a freezing cold day. During a respite your heart pines for home, the nearness of your mother and perhaps girlfriend, or your wife is due to give birth and you know that you won't be around. Instead as the firing re-starts, bullets from the enemy frontline whistles within inches past your cheek. Your best mate right next to you is hit, and slowly dies. If he is lucky enough, he is ferried back to quarters. Otherwise he dies in the trench and left there for the duration of the shooting. Meanwhile, your crushing desire is to be anywhere but here.
In the Daily Mail newspaper, columnist Max Hastings gives a graphic account of one 17 year old serving on the battle-cruiser Hood in 1940. The youngster writes a letter to his mother begging those in the Admiralty to give her son a reprieve from the ship and offer him a shore job at Rosyth. He concludes his letter with the words:
You know, tell them you have got two sons away and that. Be sure to tell them my age. If only I could get off this ship it would not be so bad.
Not much later, in May 1941 the ship Hood went down with nearly all hands, including the lad who wrote to his mother a few months earlier. He was one of the 16,000,000 military casualties.
On the other hand, there is enough evidence to prove than many who voluntarily join the Forces, particularly in the present day, do so for want of adventure and a life of daring challenges of frontline warfare. In the same article, Hastings relates of two individuals who finds putting their own lives at risk very exhilarating, along with a report that nearly every front line soldier in Helmand was guiltily proud of the casualty rate which, according to them, "was six times higher than at Iraq" as they testify as the most dangerous and exhilarating game that had ever been invented. I wonder whether it was love and loyalty to Queen and Country which had motivated them to travel far from home to fight the Taliban, or was it a way to escape the crushingly dull, mundane day-to-day existence in the office, stuck with a dead-end desk job, and equally stuck in rush hour traffic every morning and evening. An offer of an alternate life in the Forces promises much, much more!
But whatever the motive, wherever it is to fulfill a duty to the country or seeking a dangerous thrill, sacrifices were, and are constantly made. The price to pay for our freedom from a foreign dictatorship such as Hitler, or freedom from terrorist attacks from such as the Taliban, is human life. And once a year we set two minutes of our lives to remember those whose lives were paid for our freedoms.
And it was while at church this morning that one of our elders, Dave Rogers, likened the sacrifices made by our fallen heroes to the one Sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross also for our freedoms. But this freedom gotten for us by Jesus Christ is the eternal freedom from sin and death, to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Here there will be fullness of joy, when we will partake in the everlasting love which had always existed between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All one need to do is to believe that the Cross of Christ will be effective and trust in its saving power.
When Jesus Christ hung on that cross, his motive was not a reluctant duty under obligation to a King or country like the teenager on board the battleship. Neither was it an exhilarating thrill seeking experience like it was to those two fighting in Afghanistan. Rather it was an act of love, the love God has for mankind, and a love which God allowed his Son to suffer and die as a once-for-all sacrifice to bring reconciliation between God and mankind.
And there are a multitude of martyrs who willingly gave their lives for the cause of the spread of the Gospel. Sure, we do have All Saints Day (1st November) but that is much more remembered for the evening before, Halloween, than for the day itself. At least for the better known martyrs, such as St. Peter, St. Paul and St. James, churches and even hospitals were named after them.
This issue has, to me, brought up the question: what are the spiritual state of those who died in warfare? Are they in Heaven? In Hell? Where is the poor soul of the teenager who drowned when the Hood went down?
Author Dave Hunt once wrote of an experience of standing at a large war cemetery in France, contemplating the souls of all those French soldiers who died in warfare. Hunt assumed that the vast majority of them are in Hell. With much sorrow and grief of heart, he then cried out in prayer, "Why, oh God, did you create man?"
But although I have much respect for this brilliant Bible scholar, whose books played a role in shaping my own Christian life, still I don't agree with all his assumption of the French soldiers. Yes, I agree that each person is saved by God by grace - undeserved mercy - through faith alone, and not by human grace or courage, neither by human sacrifice. But it is not for us to judge or decide who is in Heaven and who isn't. This matter is solely between the person's heart and God. Only God has that right to release or bind a person. In other words, there could be a lot more saved souls from that French cemetery than Hunt would speculate.
The same applies to our British fallen. We have no idea of the whereabouts of their souls. Only God knows. But we can be sure that these people died to defend our freedom. In a parallel sense, it was Jesus Christ who sacrificed his life for our freedom from sin. This is something always to remember and rejoice in, and hoping that by the grace and undeserving mercy of God, the souls of many fallen in warfare are now enjoying eternity basking in God's love and joy.
Now that is worth a poppy or two.