Seventy years ago this year, the Second World War came to an end and those on the winning side at least rejoiced. We’re probably familiar with images like the one I’ve printed on the service sheet of people celebrating first VE and then VJ day. These images can be a bit misleading, though, because it seems that not everyone felt like partying. The Mass Observation project , which collected diary entries from volunteers all over the country, records a wide range of reactions to the end of the war. Celebrations were often far less exuberant than the famous scenes in the centre of London might suggest. One man said this “‘There were awful thoughts and anxieties in the air – the breaking of something – the splitting apart of an atmosphere that had surrounded us for six years.’” There had been a common aim holding people together through the war, but what would happen now? Another recorder described an exhausted crowd, silently watching a bonfire they’d built, seemingly with no energy to do more than that. A young woman commented ‘I felt most depressed which I felt was very naughty considering how long we have worked and fought for this’*
If you’d lost a loved one, of course, victory couldn’t bring them back, but even for those who hadn’t there were many hardships in the days which followed, as some of you will no doubt recall first hand. Rationing was worse after the war than it had been during it. Vast numbers of houses had been destroyed. Lives and families had been disrupted. And this was in the country that had won the war. For those on the losing side there was guilt and shame to deal with too.
“There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover” sang Vera Lynn in the depths of the conflict, but for many it must have seemed as if those blue birds had hardly got airborne before they came crashing to earth again. Visions of peace are all very well. Translating them into reality is another matter.
There’s another vision of peace in the first reading we heard today. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s vision of peace is a famous one, the image of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf all lying down together. It’s sometimes called the the Peaceable Kingdom, and it has often been celebrated in art. I’ve included one post war engraving of it on the notice sheet for you to look at.
Isaiah was writing during a period when his homeland of Judah was being destroyed by waves of invading armies. It was a terrifying time. But despite that, he believed that God hadn’t abandoned his people, and that he could bring peace out of the chaos and carnage.
And what a peace it would be! It wouldn’t just be the absence of war. It would be a time of complete wholeness, when everything that was wrong would be set to rights. Even the animals would live in harmony. That might seem far-fetched, but I’m sure we get his point, because this vision isn’t really about the animals at all; it’s about us. It’s about the lions and wolves in our own hearts, those deeply rooted instincts which drive us to bite and tear and grasp when we’re threatened or hungry. It’s about the temptation to treat others like prey, something to be consumed to meet our own needs. The lambs are within each of us too. We are all vulnerable like them. We know it and we often don’t like it. All it takes is for something to go wrong in our lives – the loss of a job, mental or physical health problems – and we can find ourselves suddenly defenceless in a hostile world. For some that vulnerability is a permanent state; poverty ,disability or oppression puts them at the mercy of others throughout their lives.
But Isaiah dreamed of a time when the vulnerable “lambs” of our world could live without worry, without looking over their shoulders to see who was creeping up on them. And he dreamed of time when “wolves” would no longer feel the need to dominate and terrorise them.
It is a grand and beautiful dream, but can it ever become a reality, and if so, how? I’d like to pick just two things out of our readings today that might help.
The first comes at the end of the second reading.
Jesus’ disciples sit at his feet, looking up at him as he teaches them. They are hanging on his words. As far as they are concerned he has all the answers. He opens his mouth and miracles happen. Yet he turns to them and tells them,
“You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world”.
If we wonder why the visions of peace we dream of don’t ever quite materialise perhaps we should look in the mirror. Jesus tells us that it all starts with us, that each of us has power beyond our imagination, power to change the world, but we often find that very hard to believe and to act on. Most of us think deep down that peacemaking is for UN negotiators and politicians, not for the likes of us. But we’re wrong. Wars build up from small resentments, tensions between neighbours, prejudices that go unchallenged. And if the conflict in the world comes from small beginnings then the peace of the world must start there too, in the things we do in our own lives and neighbourhoods. We are the ones who are there in those places. If we don’t build peace in our own backyards, peace in our own families, peace in our own hearts, no one else can do it for us, and then how can peace ever take root in the wider world?
So that’s the first thing; if we want to see Isaiah’s vision of peace become a reality, we have to do something about it ourselves.
But I don’t think it’s enough to say that on its own. In fact, it can leave us feeling so overwhelmed by the challenges, that we are even less likely to act. The second point I want to draw from our readings might help to balance that out.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, the wolves and the lambs don’t just suddenly decide to lie down together out of the blue. That passage follows on from the one before it, in which God promises to send a new kind of leader to help his people build peace.
The leader God promised wouldn’t be a military commander. He would be someone steeped in the Spirit of God, someone with a special care for the poor, someone who would “judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”.
It’s no surprise that Christians have traditionally seen this as a prophecy about Jesus. Whether Isaiah intended that is another matter- he was writing 600 years before Jesus was born - but it’s easy to see why the first Christians made that leap, because they found in Jesus so many echoes of Isaiah’s words that they couldn’t help applying them to him. Jesus too had led not with military power, but with the power of love. And he had turned the established order upside down, just as Isaiah said God’s new leader would do.
In the famous words of the Beatitudes which we heard today he declared that those who were poor, mourning, hungry for righteousness were blessed by God, held close to God’s heart, not cursed and marginalised, as many at the time thought. Throughout his ministry he lived out that message, and his commitment didn’t waver even when it led him to the cross. But even then death couldn’t silence him. The fact that we are still here 2000 years later, drawing inspiration from him shows that.
Creating peace, peace that lasts, peace that reaches right down to the roots of what is wrong is a job we are all called to do. But to do it needs power beyond our power, a vision that’s bigger than ourselves. Whether we are trying to sort out a family problem, to find ways of resolving disputes with our neighbours, or to work out how to live alongside people of different cultures and backgrounds, it can be very hard work. We can’t do it in our own strength. We need to be open to wisdom that transcends our own if we are going to find the courage to put down our prejudices and listen to one another. Where do we find that power and wisdom and strength? Christians would call it the gift of God, given to us in Christ who shares our lives and our struggles. He has inspired peacemakers from St Francis to Desmond Tutu, restoring their hope when it threatened to run dry.
It shouldn’t surprise us that seventy years after the second world war the peace we crave often still eludes us, because in every generation we will have to make that peace anew. There’s no magic wand, no once for all solution that will wipe war from the world. Human beings will always be half wolf, half lamb, an uneasy mix of the fears and hungers and vulnerabilities which bring us into conflict with one another and into conflict within ourselves too.
But the good news which Christian faith proclaims is that the Prince of Peace walks alongside us as we work to help those wolves and lambs live together, however warily they do so. We are called to act, but we are not called to act alone. As we face the challenges of our age; the threats of terrorism, the mass movement of refugees and the fears that mass migration provokes, as our faith and our hope are tested, just as that of our parents and grandparents were, perhaps that is what we most need to hear and to cling to. Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they shall be called the children of God. May we walk forward confidently in the knowledge that our Father will never forsake us.
* Quotes from David Kynaston, “Austerity Britain”
More information about Mass Observation here
More information about Mass Observation here