The Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9.2–7
a sermon at the rededication of the Memorial Cloisters, Sedbergh School
13 November 2005

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; for unto us a son is given, the Prince of Peace.’  Isaiah’s words are all the more poignant when we think of the sons who were given – born, nurtured, loved, sent off to school, delighted in as they developed powers of mind and body – and then cut down on the very threshhold of a long and fruitful life.  War memorials are always moving, if you open the windows of your imagination even a small crack; war memorials in a school are like an unfinished symphony, a sonnet whose first eight lines never knew the last six that would make full sense of them.  The Rabbis used to say that he who kills a man kills a whole world; who knows what that man might have done, the children he might have had, the beauty he might have created?

‘Unto us a son is given, the Prince of Peace’; and of course the double irony there is that when the Prince of Peace finally arrived he, too, was cut down in his prime, as the brutal military empire of the first century did what brutal military empires have always done.

It may be that connection (mostly, no doubt, subconscious) that keeps calling us back to remember the horror of wars most of us are too young to have known, just as our society finds itself called back again and again to the message of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, despite the scoffers and sceptics.  When I was here in the cynical 1960’s and playing in the CCF band (not that we had those smart red uniforms and pith helmets) the master in charge on Remembrance Day had to remind us to take it seriously and remember the people in the town who’d lost a brother, a father, a son.  We assumed such remembrance would fade with time, just as the sceptics assumed that Christian faith was on the way out.  But here we still are, remembering the fallen and pondering Isaiah’s words about the Prince of Peace.

They need some pondering, mind you.  When we hear them at Christmastime we normally miss out the middle verses, the bit about the yoke of burden and the rod of the oppressor, about the tramping boots and the blood-stained uniforms.  But these are crucial to the prophet’s meaning.  In between the promise of the coming great light for those who sit in darkness and the promise of the son who will be the Prince of Peace there are two detailed promises which address directly the double problem that haunts international relations to this day; and when I say ‘this day’ I think of those who wake up this morning in Basra and Baghdad not knowing whether they will wake up again tomorrow.

The double problem is that of tyranny on the one hand and violence on the other.  Of course they often go together, as tyrants regularly use violence to gain and maintain their position. But, as the Roman Emperors always claimed, when you have a strong ruler you have peace – albeit at a price.  Conversely, when people who suffer oppression and injustice, or who face national danger, seek a solution, they make war.  It’s quite easy to have peace if you’re happy to settle for injustice.  It’s quite easy to work for justice if you’re happy to do without peace. The relations between ourselves and Iraq have oscillated between those poles over the last fifteen years, just as the relations between ourselves and Germany did in the first half of the twentieth century.  Of course there are plenty of ideological and economic factors at work as well.  But today, faced with the stark simplicity of a list of names in a book and in a cloister, let’s look at the stark simplicity of the promises of God.

First, we are promised victory over tyranny – but not the normal kind of victory.  ‘The yoke of their burden, the rod of the oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’  Now just as we know the stories of the Somme and Ypres, of Dunkirk and Arnhem, so Isaiah’s hearers knew the stories of the old battles; and the point of the famous victory over the Midianites was that it wasn’t a battle at all.  Read about it in the book of Judges.  Gideon and his men surrounded the camp by night, blew their trumpets and waved their torches, and the tyrannical Midianites fled in panic.  Justice re-established without violence.

And where there is true justice, justice without tyranny, there can be, second, a peace in which the very memories of war can be laid to rest.  ‘The boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood’ – and those of you who’ve visited the battlefields and museums will know all about those – ‘will be burned in the fire.’  The horrible reminders of the sheer brutal nastiness of war – and if these names could speak, this is one of the main things they would tell us about – will be put away for ever.

Thus: justice attained without violence; peace attained without accompanying tyranny.  My friends, the world today is still wondering how to get to that result.

And Isaiah says: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; for to us a Son is given, the Prince of Peace.’  And we who live between the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the final establishment of the kingdom be came to bring, the kingdom in which justice and peace shall be knit together at last and for ever – we are entrusted with a mission. Not simply to save a few souls from the wreck of this world, since God so loved the world and has promised to redeem it.  Nor simply to tinker with the world’s own systems, merely to do things a bit differently here or there.  No: rather, by prayer and courage, and holiness and hard work – and it will be hard work – we are called to discover the practical ways in today’s and tomorrow’s world of seeking justice without violence, of making and maintaining peace without tyranny.

The world sneers and says it can’t be done.  We who honour those who gave their lives, and who do so in the name of the Prince of Peace, are committed to saying it can be and will be. That is why every act of Remembrance must also be a moment of vocation – perhaps for someone here today, to follow the Prince of Peace and become a peacemaker, and God knows we need some right now.  And that is why the rededication of the Cloisters must be also a rededication of our own lives, to serve the God of justice and the Prince of Peace and to follow wherever they may lead.  The people who today sit in darkness need to see the great light; for to us a son is given, and he shall be called the Prince of Peace.

The Blessing of the Book of Remembrance

In memory of those who gave their lives;
In gratitude to God for the freedom they won;
In sorrow and prayer with those who mourn;
We dedicate and bless this Book of Remembrance
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
May they rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.

The Rededication of the Cloisters

As today we remember afresh, and honour afresh, those who went from this place to serve their country and to lay down their lives, so we hallow and rededicate these cloisters, these memorials, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  May those who have fallen rest in peace and rise in glory.  May those who mourn find comfort.  May those who remember find wisdom.  So may Almighty God have mercy on his troubled world, and may these stones speak of the love that is stronger than death, the love made fully known in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(Note: Bishop Wright was a pupil at Sedbergh School from 1962-67.)