On this day, 100 years ago, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the armistice was signed. It stated that at 11am all hostilities would cease. But fighting continued to the bitter end. On the last day there were 10944 casualties and 2738 deaths, before what we know as the first world war came to an end.
On the front, news of the Armistice was met with disbelief that the end really had come, with simple relief, grief for those who had not made it, and with utter weariness. One British colonel reported that at exactly 11am, as the guns fell silent, German soldiers climbed out of their trenches, bowed and walked away.
And whilst, certainly among the Allied powers, there was jubilation back at home, Robert Graves, the war poet who had served at the front, writes, ‘the news sent me out walking alone above the marshes of Rhuddlen cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead’. And when Sassoon wrote his poem, ‘Everyone sang’, which we will hear in a few minutes, Graves retorted that ‘everyone’ did not include him.
But the reality was that a war that had lasted 52 months, that had drawn in 70 million military participants from the entire globe, that had left at least 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians dead as a direct result had finally ended.
It is impossible to overestimate its significance. It was the war that began and shaped the 20th Century. It led directly to the revolution here and subsequent genocides and famine; it was the main reason why the flu epidemic of 1918 was so globally devastating: that left between 50 and 100 million people dead; and the unresolved rivalries, added to the humiliation and sense of betrayal felt by the peoples of the central powers, led directly to the events of 1933 and following.
If nothing else, it should remind us of something that those of you who serve as diplomats are probably more aware than most: that war will never end war. The war that was to end all war led to revolution, genocide and further war. War leads to war, unless there is significantly more effort and more money put into making the peace than there is that is put into fighting the war.
And today, as we mark the centenary of the armistice and the end of the First World War, is the day when we can come out of the trenches, bow to each other and stand side by side, as our political leaders are doing today – despite their differences - as we recognise our common humanity, and together remember and grieve and honour those who were and are willing to serve their country, even to the point of sacrificing their lives – each man or woman doing their duty.
Today can be one of those days when we realise that what unites us is far greater than what divides us; when we can seek the things that really do bring peace.
We recognise that each human person, each one of the 16 million and countless others who have died in war or terror, the ones who we personally remember; each one has an intrinsic identity and value and dignity. We are not just a number. We are, if we choose to receive it, created by God, unique and beloved of God.
God says, through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel – who have suffered dreadful defeat and who, for the second time in their history, have become a slave nation – ‘I have not forgotten you .. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’.
And we hold it to be true that this God, who has now made himself known to all people, speaks those words to us today. They, you, are incredibly precious to God.
And secondly we are, if we choose to receive it, created by God to live in community.
Isaiah speaks of the promised new world where people who are scattered and isolated are brought together. We do not need to define ourselves in opposition to the other, we do not need to have enemies in order to know who we are. Rather we discover who we are in relationship with the other.
And the language of our reading is astonishingly intimate: ‘Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on’.
And surely we here, who have the privilege of living as international citizens, must glimpse that there is some truth in that. You do not take away from my ‘me-ness’. You – like exquisite jewellery - enrich, no adorn, who I am, and I pray that I may enrich and adorn who you are.
And thirdly, in our reading from James – James was the brother of Jesus – we read of a wisdom that can bring peace. It is a gift of God and anyone can ask of it from God. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield – why, because the person who has this wisdom knows that they are beloved of God and they have nothing to prove. It is full of mercy and good fruits. It has no trace of partiality – it treats all people the same, as created by the glory of God for the glory of God and intended to shine with the radiance of the glory of God. And with this wisdom there is no hypocrisy, no judgementalism. The person who humbly asks for this wisdom, and who is growing in this wisdom does not claim to have arrived or to be perfect, just forgiven and beloved.
Today is a day of remembrance, of lament for the millions whose lives were cut short – in the First World War and in subsequent conflicts. But it is also a day of hope. Today exposes our pathetic attempts to live as self-contained gods. We crawl out of our trenches, and we stand side by side, and we look at what we have done to each other. And we recognise our common humanity and our need for each other. And perhaps some of us will look up, and will cry out for the gift of that wisdom from above.