1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“They have no grave but the cruel sea.”
It seems, no truer word was spoken of the men who served on HMAS Sydney. They were indeed young men
“straight of limb, true of eye”.
Look at them parade in the streets of Sydney back in 1941. There are the faces of fine young men in their prime. They had the pride of our nation and the hope of our peoples riding on their shoulders. Their victories in the Mediterranean, their return in our hour of need. Here were our finest. And the city of Sydney turned out in thousands to welcome our boys home. The harbour was lined with people when the Sydney entered. The crowds at the parade were swelled by the special “day-off” given to the school children.
They were bleak and frightening days. Already the German u-boats and raiders had sunk some merchant shipping in our waters. For a seafaring nation that provisioned the empire these were dark days.
But yet – the Sydney was in town! The pride of the fleet. The experienced battle hardened cruiser who had done so well against the Italians. Bearing the honoured name that served with such distinction in the Great War.
Our first reading from Ecclesiastes starts:
“Rejoice o young man in your youth
and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth”.
And as we remember the men of the HMAS Sydney we say:
“They shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them”
The writer of Ecclesiastes knew all about this growing old
“the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent
those who look through windows are dimmed,
They are afraid also of what is high, and the terrors are in the way
the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails, because man is
going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets”
The men of the Sydney were spared the weariness of old age as they lay in their watery grave. But the grim verdict of our Ecclesiastes reading is the same for them as for us:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity”
whether it be their youth
“for youth and the dawn of life are vanity”
or our age
“all is vanity”
It is all vain he concludes
“it is all meaningless, empty, futile ”
a chasing after the wind!”
But is it? Is all of life meaningless? Was the death of all these men meaningless? Was it in vain? Was it utile? Did they die so we could live a meaningless life and die a meaningless death? What meaning is there in the death of 645 men whose rusting hulk has been their only tombstone these 66 years?
Are our lives and death just as futile and meaningless as theirs? Is there any meaning that can make sense of the senseless? That can make sense of their death? That can make sense of our mortality?
There is indeed emptiness for the widows, and the children, for the brothers and sisters for the 645 families – many represented here today. There is still that feeling of grief and loss made worse by those dreadful early days of uncertainty compounded by the continuing sense of “not knowing” until the discovery – last month. But even with the discovery – what meaning is there in all this?
It is only the larger picture that gives some sense of meaning to this particular loss. It is the larger picture of the war that we had to fight the larger picture of civilisation that had to be protected that gives some sense to their sacrifice.
There was so much confusion at the time of the sinking of the Sydney. Just over a week after the Sydney was lost the HMAS Parramatta was torpedoed and sunk off Tobruk. The nation was in mourning. Here in St Andrew's Cathedral on the 4th of December 1941 we held a Memorial for those who were lost in those two great ships. The crowds were so large that day that even some the widows had to stand in the aisles.
At the conclusion of the Memorial we prayed to God a heartfelt prayer I am sure, the prayer that is printed on your order – just under the sermon.
Here – in this prayer – was the meaning of their deaths.
We said – these men
“laid down their lives in the service of our country”
But it was more than just patriotism.
We prayed that
“the offering of their lives may not have been made in vain”
We asked that
“that we and all Thy people may hear the call to nobler living
which sounds in our ears – from the graves”
We prayed that
“out of the years of sin, and misery and loss, there may arise a better world through Jesus Christ our Lord. ”
Friends, this prayer in part has been answered. Now is the time to thank God for listening to our prayers. A better world has emerged from the sin and misery and loss of those dreadful dark days. This crew's offering of themselves and the lives and sacrifice of thousands of others did protect us and save us. Through them we escaped from the tyranny of Fascism and Nazism.
But yet their death did not really save the world. Only one man's death has saved the world. For since their death we have had to face the horror of Atheistic Communism, Pol Pot – Joseph Stalin – Mao Zedong.
And we still grow old – You and I –
“as the evil days come upon us and the years draw near
of which you will say “I have no pleasure in them”
“our dust returns to the earth as it was
and our spirit returns to God who gave it”
So what meaning is there in our ageing lives? What meaning in our death? Their youth – their death gains meaning from the larger story of The War.
But what is the larger narrative that makes sense of our lives; that makes sense of our growing old without them; or of our death? Here our New Testament reading
brings hope and meaning. For “the war” that makes sense of all our lives and all our deaths is the battle that the young man Jesus won, when by his sacrificial death on the cross he saved the world and, when by his resurrection from the grave he brought eternal life.
So in our second Bible reading from Thessalonians the first century Christians were told not to
“grieve as others who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again even so through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Here is the great message of hope we need to hear and understand. Life is not meaningless vanity because death is not the end. Our death and resurrection
are as sure as the historical facts of Jesus' death and resurrection. So we do not grieve as those with no hope for we know there is more to life than death. And there is more to death than a rusty hulk – out there in the Indian Ocean.
We grieve – for death hurts us all.
But we grieve with the hope of those who believe in the resurrection of the Dead. The victory that defeated more than the evil of Hitler and Mussolini. That victory that conquered evil and death themselves!
It was right here in St Andrew's Cathedral in December 1941 that we asked God for
“victory in the war” and “a better world to follow”.
“that we may hear the call to nobler living which sounds in our ears
from the graves”
Sixty six years later we have found that grave where our men lay in their sacrificial tomb. So now:
It is time to thank God for these men and their sacrifice.
It is time to thank God for hearing our prayers and bringing us to a better world –
as we keep thanking God for overcoming death for us all in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But before our Prime Minister leads us in our thanksgiving to God we are going to sing a great thanksgiving hymn written by an 18th century Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart, in the context of the 30 year war.
He went through famine, plague and siege. He conducted 4-5000 funerals of friends and neighbours, fellow citizens, refugees, colleagues and even his own family. This hymn expresses that larger picture which gives sense and meaning to life. For Rinkardt saw in life and in death the hand of God at work. He knew in the midst of all his troubles the victory of God in the death and resurrection of
God's only Son.
Let us stand together and express our gratitude to God in the words of this great hymn
Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices.