Preacher Canon Robert Titley
At the Imperial War Museum, you used to be able to sit in a flight simulator that showed real pilot’s-view footage of a wartime raid. It jerked you around as a Mosquito aircraft would have done on a mission to bomb the perimeter wall of Amiens prison in France, so that resistance fighters held captive inside could escape. It was an operation requiring a precision that can elude today’s armed forces, even with their smart weapons, but in early 1944 they did it. Someone among the top brass knew their Bible (how likely would that be now?) and called it Operation Jericho.
Jericho is a story that is received in different ways. For those who have no power it is an invitation to have faith in a powerful God, as in the spiritual sung by slaves, ‘Joshua fit de battle of Jericho’. But other people take up the story, people who have power and want to believe that they are wielding it with divine authority, or at least with the force of right behind them. A story of breaching a wall with God’s blessing. I don’t have much problem with the extension of the Jericho motif to the 1944 raid but I’m more ambivalent, about Israel giving the name ‘Jericho’ to one of its ballistic missiles. It suggests that, wherever it is pointed at whatever tie it is used, God endorses it.
There’s no reason for Joshua to be ambivalent in the story. God speaks – the city of Jericho is an obstacle to the divine plan and must be destroyed – and he obeys. No ambiguity in Matthew’s gospel either, when Jesus pronounces sentence on three towns that have not received him well. For you and me, I suspect, things are rarely so straightforward. Say you have the power – the money, the physical strength, the ‘clout’ – to do something, and you think it’s right to do it. Can you be sure of what is propelling you? God’s will? Your own fears and appetites? Both?
There is a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus and the disciples have been run out of a Samaritan town, and the disciples – I imagine them dusting themselves off with bruised indignation – say to Jesus, ‘Shall we call down fire from heaven and destroy them?’ Shall we just do that? Just so they know who they’re messing with? Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9.52-56).
When you simply know you are right and you have the power at your arm, then any opposition can look like a Jericho ripe for divine demolition. And that’s dangerous. It was well put by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, himself a decorated war veteran, at a service to mark the end of the Falklands War in 1982: ‘Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another.’ It earned him the angry disapproval of the then Prime Minister.
Did such a temptation come to our leaders twenty years later, soon after the September 11th attacks, in the shape of Saddam’s Iraq? Did our then Prime Minister see Baghdad as a new Jericho? We may discover more – the certainties that were not so certain, the mixture of motives – if ever Lord Chilcot publishes his report. I hope another full-scale war has not broken out in the region by then.
No such certainties, I suspect for our present PM. This weekend he comes back to No. 10 after talks with Chancellor Merkel. Apart from the UK and the EU, their conversations will no doubt have touched on Turkey: the Russians violating the airspace of this NATO ally, the Turkish PM seriously suggesting that his Kurdish opponents may have murdered their own supporters in the Ankara bombing yesterday, while Kurdish forces are among the most effective opponents of IS/Daesh, whom Turkey is also fighting, as is Russia and its ghastly ally, Syria’s President Assad. Where is Jericho, the unambiguous target of God’s justice, in that mess? No weapon is smart enough to find it. That is the burden our leaders bear.
Why talk about this in a sermon? First because, in the second reading, Matthew describes Jesus offering rest to all who are burdened, and that must include those who take counsel for the nations of the earth. Secondly because war and peace are as much God’s business as our personal moral dramas, and such world events can place those dramas of ours in a certain perspective.
The stakes may not be so high for you and me (though they may be: all sorts come to church here) but the character of the dilemmas may not be so different. Public dilemmas can find echoes in personal lives: decisions at work, or at home, decisions of a parent about a son, or of a daughter about a parent; any corner of life where there are choices to be made, a God to obey and a conscience to live with.
Jesus says to us all – to the politician, to the general, to the private and the private citizen, ‘Come to me, all you are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ What is this ‘rest’? It is not soothing fiction. Jesus will not ease the burden by telling us that bad choices were good, or that even the good choices were without cost. He pays us the respect of speaking the truth – he is the Truth – but he shows us that the truth is bigger than the audit of our lives, bigger than the profit and loss of our choices.
Twelve years ago, when the war was a few months old, and much killing and maiming still lay ahead, St Paul’s held a service of remembrance for those killed in Iraq. At that service a different Archbishop put it like this.
Those who…do their work for God with faith and steady patience….are not promised safety or peace, they are not promised an easy conscience…What they are promised is an anchorage in the living Truth in person, Jesus Christ. Nothing can break this; there may be terrible risk and suffering; there may be the sense of failure; there may be immense personal grief and loss – but the relationship remains…
What we are given isn’t confidence in our own purity of motive, not even unquestioning faith in what people tell us is the righteousness of our cause, but confidence in a God who is able to use whatever we do and whatever we suffer in good faith.