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Sacrifice, Freedom and Honour

A sermon on Revelation 7: 9-17 and Anzac Day by Nathan Nettleton

Today is the most religious day on the Australian calendar. Not the most sacred day on the Church’s calendar — that was three weeks ago — but the most religious day on the secular national calendar. Today, of course, is Anzac Day. The date was chosen for its link back to the heroics of a disastrous campaign by Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, Turkey, during the first world war, and with a few rises and falls in popularity along the way, it has become the day on which we remember those who have fought for this country in various wars since, and especially those who have lost their lives in those wars.

Tonight’s reading from the apocalyptic Revelation to John speaks of a vision of a great white-robed multitude who have come through the great ordeal and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb and who are now standing before the throne, with palm branches in their hands, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And it says of them that “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; and the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The imagery is surprisingly similar to the imagery that was used at dawn services around the country today. “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” But this passage from the Revelation was not chosen because of a connection to Anzac Day. It is a coincidence. Anzac Day is a fixed date, but the Paschal season moves taking this reading with it, so they only occasionally line up. But this year they have lined up. Anzac Day has fallen on a Sunday, and this is one of the readings set for the day, and the readily apparent congruence demands our attention. What is God saying to us about this day through this passage of Scripture?

This is not an easy question. Any serious attempt at an answer will be controversial, because Christians are divided on the relationship between armed service in war and Christian discipleship. Many of the Anzac Day services around the country today will have had church minsters involved. Many of them will have described the soldiers as fighting for our freedom and suggested that such defence of country is a noble Christian duty and thus a service of God. Some of them will probably have made use of this passage from the Revelation and made a direct link between the fallen soldiers and the white robed multitude of John’s vision.

But others will disagree. Many Christians will argue that war, and therefore military service, are quite incompatible with following Jesus who calls us to love our enemies and meet hatred and violence with mercy and endurance, not retaliation. They will argue that the white-robed multitudes are those who were martyred for their non-violent faith and not those who died while trying to kill and defeat others. Some will therefore decry any Christian involvement in the Anzac Day commemorations, and some will even speak words of judgement and condemnation about those who have taken up arms in times of war.

So, what is God saying to us through the juxtaposition of this passage of Scripture with the commemorations of Anzac Day? Let me suggest several things.

The first is a reminder of the implications of the coincidence. This passage of scripture is not addressing our questions about armed service, and it is not talking about people who were killed while fighting as soldiers in war. We would therefore be misusing the passage if we made a simple connection and used it to support the nationalistic honouring of military service. However, just because there is no simple connection doesn’t mean that there is no connection. The fact that the white robed multitude is not a reference to the war dead does not mean that the white robed multitude does not include any of the war dead, or perhaps even many of the war dead. Both sides of the debate can be guilty of over-simplifications and the misuse of scripture.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate the words of the multitude themselves: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Now the reason that that is important for our question is that it tell us that, as followers of Jesus, we do not look for a salvation that is won for us by the sacrifice of armies in battles, but by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There is a confusion of terminology here. We evangelical Christians have become so used to using the word “salvation” as a jargon word for something that we often mistakenly think embraces only the spiritual and not the whole of life, that we forget that it means pretty much the same thing as liberation or securing our freedom. Jesus came to win our freedom for us, to save us from all that would harm us, oppress us, destroy us, and dehumanise us. So when we speak of soldiers dying for our freedom or of Jesus dying for our freedom, these are in fact counter-claims. They cannot simply be reconciled to one another. Most people are not followers of Jesus and so of course they put their faith in military force to secure their freedom, to save them in time of peril. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to stop trusting in the sword and start trusting in the Prince of Peace. The white robed multitude will remind us that trusting in the Prince of Peace does not guarantee that you will not suffer or be killed, but then military force has seldom been able to guarantee that either. But what they will assure you is that you will be saved in spite of suffering. The freedom we value and proclaim was not won on the hills of Gallipoli, but on the hill of Calvary. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

However, that should not be heard as a condemnation or even really as a criticism of those who fought and sacrificed their lives in war. Those who laid down their lives fighting for freedom deserve our honour and gratitude. They did what our country asked of them and what the principalities and powers that govern the world we live in demanded of them. Whatever we think of war — and even General Peter Cosgrove, one of our greatest soldiers, has said that by any analysis, war is an extremely stupid way of doing things — whatever we think of war, it is never right to hold the ordinary fighting men and women responsible. It is not them who start wars. It is not them who decide that international disputes should be settled by sacrificing our sons and daughters on the battlefields. They are the people who get sacrificed, not the people who order the sacrificing. The anti-war movement made the mistake during the Vietnam conflict of directing their protest at the ordinary soldiers. That was so unfair. If we ever make that mistake again, let me assure you that we will find ourselves confronted with Jesus standing shoulder to shoulder with the fallen soldiers in the face of our condemnation and hostility. Jesus stands with them, because both he and they were the victims of a system that blindly believes that salvation belongs to the powerful and can be secured by destroying our enemies and sacrificing our children to do it. Jesus was sacrificed on the orders of the principalities and powers who determined that it was better to sacrifice one man than the whole nation. The wrath that his blood appeased was the demonic wrath of a system that always demands more victims in order to protect is wealth and power and control. And our fallen soldiers were sacrificed on the orders of the same principalities and powers who determined that it was better to sacrifice thousands than the whole nation. Jesus and the soldiers no doubt had very different understandings of what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it, but both were sacrificed by the power-brokers who deemed them expendable. Jesus will stand in solidarity with the sacrificed and fallen, and if our opposition to war ever descends to hostile condemnation of ordinary soldiers, then we will have him to answer to.

However, this line of thinking does not lead to an uncritical joining in with all that Anzac Day has become. Yes, as people who worship the ultimate sacrificial victim, we can join with him in honouring the thousands and millions of other sacrificial victims, the countless multitude of those who have come through the great atrocity. Honour them, pray for them, remember them. Lest we forget. But remember, lest we forget, indeed, because part of what Anzac Day is now used for is actually to encourage us to forget. It wants us to remember the victims, but to forget the stupidity and futility of the causes in which they were sacrificed. It wants us to forget who demanded their sacrifice and whose interests were being protected by sacrificing them. Anzac Day has become more than just a day to remember and honour the fallen. It has been hijacked and turned into a sacred day for an idolatrous religion; a religion that worships a nation and the independence and exclusive privilege of the nation. Anzac day is being exploited as propaganda promoting the interests of the very principalities and powers who sacrificed the glorious fallen. Honouring the victims has been twisted into a justification and glorification of the victimisers. Anzac Day is being used to reinforce the horrific heresy that says that protecting our Australian privileges and freedoms at the expense of the poor and dispossessed outside our borders is a cause worth sacrificing our children for. Don’t fall for that. We do not honour the fallen by endorsing the ideologies and the systems that sacrificed them.

Listen again to John’s Revelation:
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Did you hear that? They were from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. There is no privileging of those born inside our borders here. There is no fighting to secure our people over against those people. They were “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and they cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen? Amen!


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