I am too young to have experienced VE Day the first time round – as you will no doubt have worked out from my youthful appearance! But I’ve seen the news-reels. I caught a documentary on the BBC this week, which had recollections of VE Day from a wide variety of famous people. There were lots of famous faces – everyone from Michael Parkinson and David Attenborough to Bruce Forsyth were there…with Ester Rantzen and even Jilly Copper thrown in for good measure.
However, what fascinated me most were the clips of film from that day – clips of people holding street parties; and clips of the great surges of people moving through London and settling down in Trafalgar Square to listen to Winston Churchill proclaim the surrender of the Nazis.
I was particularly struck by all the dancing in the street that took place – and by the fact that on that day there were not enough men to go around. Women were often seen dancing with women, as indeed they had often had to do throughout the war. Men were still away – not yet demobbed. Many men, of course, had not survived at all. Many men, and quite a few women, would never experience the joy of VE Day. They had given their lives so that others could have this moment, and a long peace thereafter.
The overwhelming emotion of that day was, it seems, optimism. A great evil had been defeated (as David said in the words of introduction to this service just now). There was every reason to hope and suppose that things would get better from now on. At that moment, no-one knew that rationing would continue until 1954 – nine more years. Few people had even heard of the Falklands, or Vietnam, or Korea. No-one foresaw that the Cold War would come galloping over the horizon, with all its menace and fear. Certainly no-one saw that the Middle East would become the powder-keg that it has become today. No, on this day, 70 years ago, the streets were filled with optimism.
There was optimism at moments of Biblical history too. Just now we heard the prophet Micah proclaim that a time would come when strong nations will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. A time would come, said Micah, when nation would no longer lift up sword against nation, neither would they learn war anymore. Micah foresaw a time of pastoral bliss, when people would sit quietly and peacefully under their own vines and fig trees…no doubt wearing a nice straw hat!
But what were the circumstances that would lead to such peace? What is it that Micah optimistically believed would bring about such a wonderful state of affairs? For Micah, and for all the biblical prophets, days of peace will only come when God’s children – that’s you and me – have learned God’s ways and walked in God’s path.
The Bible is, among many things, a record of mankind’s quest to find out the ways of God. But then time and again it is also a record of how we human beings seem to believe that we know better than God. The Bible is filled with wisdom – wisdom which few people know, and even fewer people actually read. And yet, God continues to call to us, through its pages, that the ways to peace are available…if only we would listen.
I learned a startling statistic recently. I don’t know exactly how true it is – but it feels about right when you think about it. Here it is: since the days when Jesus walked on the earth, and taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, there have been only seven years when some kind war was not taking place in the known world. Seven out of 2,000 years.
That startling statistic should teach us something. It should teach us that we need to listen harder, more intently to what God has told us about how we should live.
God’s rules are pretty simple. They were boiled down by Jesus to just two over-riding and fundamentally simple rules: love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
Intriguingly, Jesus isn’t the only religious teacher to have said this. It’s a common teaching, running across all religions. So much so that a variant of – that Jesus also used - it is known as ‘The Golden Rule’. There’s a story I like about an old Jewish Rabbi, from around the same time as Jesus, who was once challenged to stand on one leg and recite the whole law of the Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Hillel took up the challenge, stood on one leg, and said this: “Love God, and don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t like them to do to you. All the rest is just commentary”
Let me ask you to try and capture some of the optimism of that first VE Day today. Let me invite you to think what the world would be like if human beings actually lived by the Golden Rule. This world about which I dream would be a world in which all disease would have been cured centuries ago – because money that has been spent on weapons for 2000 years would have been spent on medical research. This world would be one in which everyone has enough to live on, and a fig tree or vine to sit under in a nice straw hat – because the resources of the world would be shared. This world would be one in which nations no longer existed, because neighbours don’t divide themselves into nations. This world would be one in which terrorism and extremism like that of the Nazis simply had no place….because the conditions which create such extremism would not exist.
Of course, I know that I am being utopian. I know that you will tell me that I am an idle dreamer. And until such a vision comes to pass, we need our troops, we need our weapons, and we need to protect what is ours from those who would forcibly take it away from us. You would probably be right. But I still want to hold on to optimism. I can almost taste the optimism of those first VE Day crowds. I want to bathe in that optimism, and keep crying out that the world really could be that good! If only we would listen to God.
So today, let us celebrate the ending of the war in Europe, and the relative peace we have enjoyed for the last 70 years. Let us give thanks for those who gave their lives for that peace. Let us remember the joy of VE Day and the optimism of all those crowds. But let us also re-commit ourselves to the task of loving God, and loving our neighbour every day.
A long journey begins with a single step. Each day that someone lays aside hatred, selfishness and greed, and chooses to embrace every other human being as a brother or sister is one more step along Micah’s road…the road to the beating of swords into ploughshares.