This sermon, entitled ‘What is God saying to us?’ was preached on 10 July 2005 by Major John Read. Both are officers at The Salvation Army’s Oxford Street corps (church) – known locally as ‘the Rink’ – and have been involved in supporting the emergency services and public following the terrorist attacks in London on 7 July.
Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, called them seven days we will never forget. Last weekend was unforgettable enough – congratulations to all of our runners on the London 10K run!
On Monday it was my birthday and we had a good day. It struck me it’s 50 years since I first moved to London with my parents, a few weeks before my 4th birthday. I remember the London of my early childhood as dark and dirty; the Thames a brown, viscous, smelly flow; bomb sites from the war everywhere still; buildings black with soot, choking acrid fog thick as pea soup – but I came to love London all the same.
Here was my first primary school, my first secondary school: St Clement Danes in Ducane Road just along from Hammersmith Hospital and Wormwood Scrubs prison. At 16, I started work in the city, at Ford Rhodes Williams and Co., chartered accountants, 4b Fredericks Place, Old Jewry. It was cool to be 16 living in London in 1967. London wasn’t dark and dirty anymore. It was a city of hopes and dreams where the future was happening now.
On Wednesday lunchtime, Anne and I walked along to Trafalgar Square and we were in the great crowd when the news came from Singapore that London was to be the Olympic City in 2012. By coincidence we stood next to Rod, who works at the Rink during the week, and we whooped and jumped up and down together in celebration. Somehow it felt like London was great again!
On Thursday morning, we walked in to work. Soon after, news began to break of explosions around town. Since then, we have been caught up in The Salvation Army’s response to those events.
For most of Thursday, we were on standby. At around 4pm, we were told that Oxford Circus would be one of the places where people would end up, not knowing where to go or what to do. So we set up a table outside the hall, serving free tea, coffee and water – ready to offer advice and help. Jan Ambrose, Jan Wood, and Jean Silk made a great team.
At 5pm we were asked to relieve the Salvation Army team who had been serving the emergency crews at Russell Square. Anne and I walked up there, making our way through the cordons and taking our places close to the tube station entrance. Another team was manning the Army’s red emergency canteen truck; our role was to be available to talk to the men waiting to go down into the tunnel and those coming back up.
We got home around 11.30pm after another team – from The Salvation Army in Balham – relieved us. At 5am the phone rang again, and we headed back up to Russell Square until mid-morning when, once again, we were relieved.
Anne was interviewed for the media at King’s Cross on Friday afternoon and at Russell Square on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon, she formed part of a small team including Major Malcolm Walters that offered support to people with missing relatives at the Queen Mother Sports Centre in Vauxhall Bridge Road.
One of the most important questions we can ask in a week like this is ‘what is God saying to us?’
I believe God is saying: ‘Do not be afraid.’
President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ He was speaking as America attempted to rise up from the depths of a great economic depression. He spoke of the nameless paralysing terror that prevents action. He believed it was the main obstacle to the people achieving their hopes and dreams.
The objective of terrorists is to create fear and terror. Their aim is not to destroy buses or Underground trains, not even to maim and kill, but to paralyse their enemy with fear. To make people afraid to travel, afraid to go to work, afraid to exercise their freedom, afraid to support their government, afraid to maintain their independence, their democratic institutions, their way of life. Fear itself is their objective, terror their achievement when their plans succeed. And although their threats are real, and their bombs and the destruction they create is real, the fear they create is unjustified and unreasoning.
After 9/11, it seems reasonable that some Americans were afraid to fly. But so many chose to travel by car over the following months that the road death toll increased by more than 300. More Americans died on the roads as a result of their fear of flying than died in the 9/11 attacks.
Yesterday afternoon, while Anne and Jonathan Lomax [another member of the church] were at King’s Cross, a man and woman came out of the station and asked for directions to the Embankment. Anne and Jonathan directed them to the Underground, but they didn’t want to go on the Underground or catch a bus. They just wanted to cross the river as quickly as possible. So they pointed them south and watched them head off on their long walk, weighed down with their heavy bags and an even heavier burden of fear.
The simple phrase ‘do not be afraid’ appears in the Old and New Testaments 59 times
To be fearless and to be brave are not the same thing. If it’s frightening to do something then courage is doing it despite your fear. But the simple phrase ‘do not be afraid’ appears in the Old and New Testaments 59 times.
To the fearful God says ‘do not be afraid.’ It’s His word to His people in times of terror, in times of anxiety, in times of tension and worry. He says ‘do not be afraid’ in moments of adrenaline rush when we are faced with a sudden – even desperate – challenge. He says ‘do not be afraid’ in moments when the words we most feared to hear are spoken to us.
He speaks ‘do not be afraid’ when cold dread creeps up on us in the night. He speaks ‘do not be afraid’ when opportunity beckons and our dreams call us on to daring and adventure.
He speaks clearly as he spoke to Isaac many years ago, ‘do not be afraid, for I am with you.’ (Genesis 26:24)
And this is the second thing God is saying: ‘I am with you.’
600 feet below King’s Cross station, in the single track Piccadilly Underground line where lay the bombed out train, it was hell. I won’t try to describe what the police and workmen saw and experienced down there.
Above ground the police maintained three cordons. An outer cordon isolated the neighbourhood of Russell Square and kept the general public out. An inner cordon created a barrier within which the police and emergency services could make their preparations, and a final tight cordon around the station protected the immediate crime scene.
The Salvation Army was the only organisation apart from the police and railway workers allowed inside the inner cordon. No other agencies, no cameras, no reporters were allowed in. Only two vehicles were parked inside the inner cordon, the London Underground Control Centre, and the Salvation Army’s canteen truck.
As police, forensics, anti-terrorist squad, engineers and workmen came up for a break from their exhausting work they drank Army cups of tea and coffee, ate bacon sandwiches and chatted with Salvationists.
Seen across rolling green hills and golden fields, the tower of a parish church stands as a visible reminder of God’s presence in the countryside. Rising above the red tiles and stone walls of a great old city, the spire of a Cathedral says ‘God is here.’
In the cordoned community of police, emergency services, and construction workers around Russell Square tube station a red Salvation Army truck carries a message from God: ‘I am with you.’
Down below, the unimaginable horror spoke the destructive power of evil. Above ground the Army truck spoke honest goodness, practical love, and a God who cares.
The church and cathedral serve up a small feast of bread and wine week on week as a remembrance of God’s love for the world. The truck served unlimited tea and bacon sandwiches – a visible tangible, drinkable, eatable visible word; a sacrament of God’s presence in a shattered, questioning, hurting world. But in truth the Spirit of God does not live in the bread and the bacon but in the hands that prepared and served them.
You and I are the real, the true, living sacrament of God’s presence in the world. We must always be open and watchful, ready to step behind the cordons, the barriers that people set up and ready to minister in plain word or simple action the living, loving presence of Christ in the world. God is in our world and with His people and through His people He ministers to our world.
The third thing God is saying is: ‘Evil will not triumph, good will prevail.’
The simple phrase ‘Do not be afraid’ appears in the Old and New Testaments 59 times.
There are some amazing benefits in living at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our standard of living and life expectancy is the highest in history; media and travel opportunities have broadened our horizons immeasurably. But there is a downside. All of us have been exposed to appalling images of pain and suffering and new images have entered our minds this week. None of us who have seen it will ever forget the photograph published in many newspapers yesterday of the red double-decker bus – blown apart just a few seconds earlier with devastating effect.
We do not have the luxury of pretending the world is a place where evil never flourishes, where the innocent never suffer, and wicked men and women always get their just deserts. But the Gospel is realistic. It doesn’t downplay the reality of evil. It is not undermined by the awfulness of events. You won’t find easy answers or instant solutions to the problem of evil in the pages of the New Testament. The fact is at the heart of the gospel is a real life encounter with all the horror and pain, the unfairness and arbitrariness of suffering, and Christians can be shocked and deeply disturbed but never completely surprised by a day like last Thursday.
Jesus endured a cruel death as the innocent victim of a gross injustice. And he did not die alone. He died in solidarity with every innocent slaughtered, with every victim of man’s grievous inhumanity to man.
Who can say whether one man’s agony is more or less than another’s? We don’t have to believe that Jesus suffered more cruelly… that’s not the point. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion, powerfully portrayed the suffering endured by our Lord, but it was at its weakest when it tried to show that the agony and suffering of Jesus was greater than anyone else had suffered before or since, because the sins of the world were laid upon him. Who can say whether one man’s dying agony is more or less than another’s? We don’t have to believe that Jesus suffered more cruelly than anyone else before or since. That’s not the point.
In suffering innocently and dying cruelly, Jesus was not alone but one of many. Everyone dies alone. But two other men were crucified with Jesus. The nails that tore through his flesh were identical to the nails hammered into theirs. The Romans crucified thousands upon thousands at a time, they lined the roads with crosses, and by no means all, if any, deserved their extreme punishment. The Romans perpetuated a reign of terror. Terror has not been invented as a weapon of war in the last fifty years. Fear and terror have been used as weapons of war from the beginning. Jesus died an innocent victim, expertly killed by extremely proficient state terrorists. His death seemed futile at the time, his cause lost, his faith worthless.
Jesus carried faith in his heart when he went to the cross not certainty. He believed against all the odds love, goodness, God would triumph. Nothing men could do to him could take that away. The empty cross of Jesus stands as a wordless sign of the triumph of God in Christ over all his enemies, a victory of love over hate, life over death, light over darkness, goodness over evil, faith over fear.
[The apostle] Paul expresses it perfectly: ‘for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)
Below ground at Russell Square were the consequences of a so-called Holy War fought with the weapons of terror. Above ground a Salvation Army fought Holy War with tea, sandwiches and kind words. It seems an unreal, uneven match. But the war is real, a primal, cosmic battle between good and evil. We must never forget The Salvation Army is a real army fighting a real battle – in the end the only battle, the only war that counts. And alongside all Christians everywhere, we fight with the only weapons that can win this war; not with weapons that can destroy men, women and children’s bodies but can never win their hearts and minds. We fight with weapons of love.
We do not fight a war of terror but a war of love. And we are promised the final victory with all who fight alongside us in this war. God is speaking to us strongly:
‘Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be terrified… The LORD your God is the one who goes with you… to fight for you and give you victory’ (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).
Photo by Ilya Haykinson