TEXTS: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:1-14
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (ISAIAH 2:3c-4)
Since long centuries past, humanity has longed for the fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision—of a world at peace, where all the nations walk in the paths of the God of Jacob. That beloved Scripture passage looks forward to the coming of God’s righteous Kingdom, where hope and joy and peace abound.
Alas. It remains a vision of the future. Here and now, as Jesus said, we hear of “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6). Nation rises against nation, and false prophets lead many astray. As lawlessness increases, so do hatred and violence. And the end is not yet, unfortunately.
As much as world leaders seek resolutions to earth’s many conflicts—as much as preachers like me strive to deliver hopeful messages—people seem bent on destroying one another.
If you wonder why our religious tradition declares that humanity is “fallen” … you need look no further than the latest murder reported on the nightly news. Or any of our numerous battlefields.
During the week preceding Remembrance Day, we always hear a lot of 1940s-era music being played (at least, that’s the way it is in Canada. I wonder if the same is true of the lead-up to Veterans’ Day, in the United States).
Not that this is a bad thing. I like Vera Lynn as much as the next guy. But the truth is, our world is always creating brand-new combat veterans.
Canada’s role in the Afghan conflict, for instance, cost the nation dearly; 158 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in that theatre of war—and over 2,000 more were injured. 1 American losses have been astronomically higher—close to 3,000 killed, and more than 20,000 wounded. 2
The number of Canadian Forces’ fatalities resulting from military activities in Afghanistan is the largest since the Korean War. And even though we’ve managed in this case to repatriate our war dead, the grief of friends and family members as they stand at the graveside of a loved one …
Well, their sorrow is every bit as deep as that of the man who penned “In Flanders’ Fields” on a battlefield in Belgium in the spring of 1915.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
That famous poem is an enduring legacy of the terrible battle fought near the village of Ypres 102 years ago. The poet’s name was John McCrae. He was a Canadian army doctor, and already a veteran of the South African War. Even so, the carnage at Ypres left him shaken. The suffering, the screaming, and the bloodshed almost overwhelmed him. In his field hospital, he had witnessed enough suffering to last him a lifetime.
As a surgeon attached to the First Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae had spent 17 days treating injured men—Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans—in the trenches at Ypres. It had been an unimaginable ordeal. Of it, McCrae later wrote:
“I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days … Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.” 3
One death hit McCrae particularly hard. A young friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. He was 22 years old. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day, and—in the absence of the chaplain—McCrae himself officiated at the funeral ceremony.
The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery—where the young Lieutenant had been laid to rest—McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he quickly scribbled 15 lines of verse in a notebook.
Another young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a 22-year-old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly.
“His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,” Allinson later recalled. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.”
When McCrae finished writing, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his notebook to the young soldier. Allinson was greatly moved by what he read.
“The poem,” he said, “was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.” 4
In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England.
The Spectator, in London, rejected it—but Punch published it on December 8, 1915. The rest, as they say, is history.
“In Flanders Fields” remains to this day one of the most poignant war poems ever written, and—even after all these years—it continues to touch hearts in all generations. It is John McCrae’s legacy to us.
It is also, I believe, something like a Last Will and Testament. For, even as McCrae urges his readers to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” he also tells us to hold high “the torch.”
If we would indeed hold high this torch—if we would keep faith with those who died in that long-ago conflict—we need to reflect upon just what it means to do that. The “quarrel with the foe” of which McCrae wrote was, after all, settled before any of us were born. Unless …
Unless he had another foe in mind.
I’m sure we all know that World War One was called “the war to end all wars.” We’ve all heard that, right?
I have always assumed that phrase was uttered in retrospect—that it was applied after the war was over, as people contemplated the horrors of trench fighting and mechanized warfare, and told themselves that this atrocity surely could never be repeated.
But I recently learned that, in fact, that phrase was applied in advance—at the very beginning of the conflict. In an article published in The Daily News on August 4, 1914—and titled, “The War That Will End War”—the British futurist H.G. Wells wrote:
This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age … For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever … This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war! 5
Wells’s optimism would, of course, be trashed by the events of coming years. But his phrase, “the war to end all wars,” was quickly adopted as a slogan by the Allied powers.
The dream—the vision, the “torch”—was not about war, but about the end of war. The goal was always to establish peace on earth. And this should be no surprise. I’ve met quite a few combat veterans over the years—but I’ve never met one who thought that war was a good thing. Or a glorious thing. Those who have seen battle up close—like John McCrae did—have no illusions about that.
And so, as we consider what it means to “hold high” the torch passed to us from failing hands … Here’s how I think we can do it.
In a world filled with violence and conflict, we must hold high the vision of peace that Isaiah proclaimed.
In a world filled with tyranny and oppression, we must strive to establish justice for all.
In a world filled with hunger and greed, we must celebrate—and work to fulfil—the promise of abundance for all.
Today, we are called to keep the dream alive. We are called to be dreamers who dream of a better world. Today, we are called not merely to dream, but also to work.
May God increase our compassion, our generosity, and our hospitality toward the least of his children. And may God grant us the courage, the patience, the serenity, honesty, and gentleness of spirit required to mend this broken world. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.