Read Nehemiah 8: 1-18
The “Festival of Tabernacles” or booths had been an annual event for the Jewish nation. Although starting off as a festival thanking God for the liberation from Egypt and provision for His people during the Exodus (hence the booths symbolising tents), it largely had become a celebration of God’s continuing provision for the Jews celebrating the last fruits of the harvest. It was at this feast, called Sukkot, that Solomon’s Temple was dedicated. It was one of the key feasts of the Jewish calendar and was a time when many would make a pilgrimage journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a time of joy and feasting, lasting 8 days.
It is no coincidence therefore that it would become a key event for the Jews returning from exile in Babylon. Between 597 and 581 BCE, many had been taken into captivity in Babylon. For most it was a sad time as they were kept in a strange land, separated from worship in the Temple and felt that their very identity was under attack. Meanwhile, Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in 587 BCE leading to the destruction of the city’s walls and the Temple. After Cyrus had led Persia to victory over Babylon, the exiled Jews were gradually allowed to return and Zerubbabel the prince and Joshua the priest returned and a new Temple was built (albeit much more modest than the old), followed by the city walls overseen by Nehemiah in 444 BCE. It was followed by a festival of renewal, built around the Jewish feast of Sukkot where the people were reacquainted with the word of God, and with it their identity as God’s people. The exile was over. Jerusalem had new walls and a Temple, despite battles along the way. It was a mighty feast of renewal. They could, after all those years away from their land reclaim who they were.
When I trained as a minister, I was attached for a time to a church in Rochdale. One of the church members was a man living in a care home in Norden. I visited him one day and he mentioned his career in the RAF. I asked him further about it and was amazed to discover that he was a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain. Indeed you could have described him as an air “Ace” as he had shot down a number of Luftwaffe planes. As a war hero, he was remarkably modest, describing it as “just a job”. Yet it is the courage of men such as him that enabled the peace that followed. As the first V.E day was 75 years ago, encounters of this nature with people who remember the 2nd World war, let alone served are increasingly rare. It was partly this that made Captain Tom Moore’s achievement capture the collective imagination. Even someone remembering the original VE day as a child would be approaching their 80’s at the very least so therefore we have to rely more and more on footage of the time to get an idea of what it must have been like to live through those times. There must have been a mixture of emotions expressed in those mass celebrations. There would have been relief that there would no longer be bombs dropped on cities and strategic targets. Many families would have the hope of being reunited as members were demobbed. However, many of the servicemen who returned from the war front in Europe would be sent to serve in the war against Japan. Life would not return to normal for some time, even after the end of the war against Japan. For instance Rationing only finished on 4th July 1954 when restrictions on the sale of meat was lifted and “bomb sites” still existed into the 1960’s.
Many people had lost loved ones overseas, there were thousands who died far away from the familiar faces of friends and relatives. Some would even be in anonymous graves. At home, many people would have lost their homes in the blitz and whole families were wiped out. News emerged about the discoveries of the Allies as they liberated the concentration camps – unimaginable cruelty against scapegoated communities that have haunted us ever since.
But now was a time for celebration. Like the people of Jerusalem in the 5th Century BCE, life would not return to what it was, but at least there was a sense that the worst was over. There was a brave new world to come and opportunities to make a better one. Already the 1944 Education act had been passed and soon it would be joined by the NHS on 5th July 1948. Like the account in Nehemiah, it was also a time of religious renewal. St Paul’s Cathedral held ten consecutive services giving thanks for peace, each one attended by thousands of people.
Moving on 75 years, we are commemorating that anniversary. Unlike then, we are in the midst of a national crisis and are looking forward to possible good news of a potential easing of the lockdown. There are a few of thoughts that have occurred to me.
There was a report in a newspaper on Sunday that children in a BAME majority school in North London were being taught “Britishness” such as singing “I vow to thee my country” in frequent school assemblies and only reading the work of white British authors. Despite many of us will have “Union Flag” bunting and sing “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Jerusalem”, I feel that it is not a time for renewed jingoism. To me, the thing that we are celebrating is the anniversary of cessation of hostilities on all sides. The people of Dresden and Koln had as much need to celebrate the bringing of peace as the people of UK had. The tragedy is that there has been so much bloodshed since. We, who worship the “Prince of Peace” are duty bound to uphold this quest for peace.
The second thing is that it is a reminder to turn away from the false ideologies that ensnare us and all too often turn to conflict. Anything that demonises “the other” and causes us not to listen to another point of view can all to easily lead along the path that others walked to their cost. Instead, what comes to mind are the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes,
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Being blessed in that way is the best legacy of VE and worthy of celebration and worthy of God.
The final thing is that it is a time to give thanks to God. As the people of Jerusalem gave thanks under the spiritual leadership of Ezra, and the people came to St Paul’s cathedral in their thousands to Give thanks to God, so we continue to give thanks and worship God. This is a time to honour God, give thanks for all those who fought with courage and sacrifice in the war and pray that we can continue to work for God’s peace.
Lord God our Father,
we pledge ourselves to serve you and all humankind, in the cause of peace,
for the relief of want and suffering,
and for the praise of your name.
Guide us by your Spirit;
give us wisdom;
give us courage;
give us hope;
and keep us faithful now and always.