How good it is to celebrate, to remember, to thank those who made VE Day possible and to mark the passing of 75 years, almost a lifetime, since it happened. To watch, and to sense the joy and relief and expectation that ‘now things would be better’, draws us closer to the lives of the revellers whose faces we see in the old films. The voices of Churchill, and of those who lived through it, still inspire us, reminding us of passed loved-ones and the hope they held that now it was over, things would be better. The hope that now the lights could go back on, the cities be rebuilt and those who had left for distant shores could return at last.
I have had the pleasure over the last few months to spend time in the company of some of those who lived through another ‘VE’ day. I couldn’t see their faces, not because of social-distancing, but because of the distance of time, but their voices still inspire and bring hope. They too had been in distant lands because of war. Not for six years but for nearly seventy. They too, lived in a city that had been destroyed by the actions of a foreign power. They too faced the task of rebuilding, both their city and their nation, ravaged as it was by what had gone on before.
To see our nation celebrating VE Day 75 has been inspiring. Even in lockdown people have found ways to come together, to celebrate, to remember and to thank. Because victory brought hope. Hope that houses could be rebuilt, great buildings restored and new social structures realised by those who came back from foreign lands. The NHS, the institution in which we are placing our hopes today, was built by those who came back from the war.
Jerusalem had been destroyed by war, its buildings flattened and burned. But now the foreign power that had taken away so many of its people had been defeated and they were free to return. Supported by foreign aid the people who returned commenced the task of rebuilding. Of those who had left years before, few would come back. Many had died, many chose not to return, preferring the life they knew, to the hardships ahead of those willing to make the journey back. But some held onto a hope for the future and the restoration of what had been.
These stories are inspiring. They are stories of the human spirit, of how evil can be overcome, of how lives can be rebuilt just as the Temple, the walls and the houses of Jerusalem were. Just as our cities were and our institutions. But the Britain, and Europe and the World that was rebuilt after VE day was not the same as the one that was there before the war. At the celebrations that marked the completion of the restored Temple many shouted with joy, but those who remembered the old Temple wept because it was not the same.
Ezra and Nehemiah, Churchill and Attlee were inspirational leaders. They achieved great things alongside those in their generation who carried through their plans. They ushered in times of peace and freedom and yet history tells us that such times are short-lived.
God promised that his people would return to their land, and so they did. He promised to be with them, and Ezra’s words record that God was with them in all that they did. They rebuilt the Temple and yet it was not the same as the Temple on whose foundations it stood.
Sometimes I wonder, if we put too much hope in the things we achieve as humans. The things we build, the peace and freedom we imagine, the place over-the-rainbow where dreams come true which we strive to find. Perhaps it is because our perspective is limited by our own short life spans and our own restricted vision. I cannot help but hear a sense of frustration in Nehemiah’s words as he reflected on all he had achieved. They had rebuilt the city, and restored the covenant which bound the people with their God, and yet the evil which had caused the conflict all those years before was still with them.
God’s voice is not heard at all in the record of Nehemiah and Ezra’s achievements. God’s presence did not return to the Temple they rebuilt until another 400 years had passed, when a servant girl and her builder husband brought their baby to give thanks for his birth. But God’s voice is heard in the writings of the prophets. The God who made the heavens and the earth, is the God who is intimately concerned and connected with the beings he created. He is the God, who throughout history has revealed his plans through the words of his prophets and the words of his son.
From the time of Jerusalem’s rebuilding, through post-war Britain to today as we wonder what life will be like when Covid-19 is defeated, our human hearts have yearned for a better world. We are tempted to think that in our strivings for peace, for health, for safety we will be able to defeat that which we fear the most, and build our own ‘heaven’ here on earth.
But God has already promised us something different, something more. God knows that our rebuilding efforts will always be flawed and our desire to be safe ultimately futile. Because we live, death is an everyday reality. God did promise to bring his people back to Jerusalem, and through the faithful leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra this came to be. But while Ezra rebuilt the temple and Nehemiah the city walls, God had another city in mind, a new Jerusalem, in which he himself would dwell.
It is right for us to consider the great things, the heroic acts, that people have done in the past and are doing even today. It is right and good to remember and be thankful for the sacrifices people have made in the face of death itself. And today, when people are uncertain of what to hope for, and our victory over this covid-19 is not yet in sight, it is surely vital that we are certain about what it is we hope for. You see, the baby who was presented in the temple, became a man who faced death in that city, who died and yet overcame death. He was the one who God promised through the words of the prophets, who would save us. He is the one who gives us hope for the future.
As I listen to the songs of the wartime generation and the yearnings of their hearts, I am so thankful for the one, who through his death and rising to life, brings us hope. Hope for a life lived in all its fullness, and a sure and certain hope that when this life comes to an end that we will live forever with him in his new earth and his new Jerusalem. Now this is something good, to remember, to celebrate and to be thankful for.
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