Remembrance Sunday Sermon, Toft, 2008
“The First and the Last”
2 kilometres east of the Belgian city of Mons lies the Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery. It has a remarkable history and has the distinction of containing the graves of some of the first and last casualties of the First World War.
We've already heard how 90 years ago, 2 minutes before the armistice came into effect, Private George Price became the last commonwealth casualty of World War One. In time, his body was brought to rest at St Symphorien. In the same cemetery lies the grave of Private John Parr of the 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment. He was the first British casualty of the great war, dying on 21st August 1914. And so he is honoured with a memorial in a foreign land. But whilst the first and last casualties have graves of honour, roughly 10 million soldiers were to die in the Great War, many of whom were never to have a proper burial.
But despite that statistic, we've heard how one unnamed soldier was given not just an honoured burial, but a royal burial. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is testimony to the fact that every soldier who makes the ultimate sacrifice deserves recognition and honour, whatever the circumstances of their death, and whether their name is remembered or not.
In the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation (22:13), the Lord Jesus describes himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” And we should take those words to mean not just that he is involved not just at the beginning and the end of time, but at every point through the ups and downs of history. God knows and cares about each and every person he has created. The circumstances of the first and the last casualties of World War One have been researched meticulously for our history books. But God knows and understands each and every soldier who fought in that war, and each and every soldier who is sent to war today. The details of war are sometimes honourable and often gruesome, but God is there in both the good and the bad.
To continue my theme of “the first and the last” I want to take you to another verse in the New Testament, where Jesus is described as the “first fruits” of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20). This verse refers to Jesus' resurrection – the glorious Easter morning when the disciples discovered the tomb empty and their Lord alive. But that is only the first fruits – the promise of a greater transformation that is yet to take place. Christians have always believed that on the last day, at the final trumpet call, it will be more than just one man's body that is transformed, but the whole of creation. And in that new creation there will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more war. In the words of our reading from Micah “the peoples shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears in to pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Armistice Day was first officially marked 88 years ago, when the body of the unknown warrior was laid in Westminster Abbey. And there will not be a last marking of this day until we see God face to face in the new creation. But for now, let us remember that in the Lord Jesus, the First and the Last we have a God who cares for us wherever we find ourselves. And as the firstfruits of the new creation, he is the one who will in the end transform this world and inspires us to work for that transformation.