SHOT AT DAWN

Herbert Burden lied about his age to enlist as a soldier in the Great War. Horribly traumatised by shellfire, he ran from a battlefield that is now the site of a cemetery with hundreds of war graves. After being found guilty of desertion, he was stood in front of a firing squad and ‘Shot At Dawn’ He was 17 years old. In 1914, Lord Kitchener made his famous proclamation “Your Country Needs You!” No one could have predicted the stampede of 2 million young men who lined up alongside their friends to join the Great Adventure in France. It is now the final resting place for many them.

Not everyone responded to Kitchener’s dubious invitation, nor the order that came later as volunteers turned into conscripts. Many were abused in the street, others had ‘Coward’ painted on their front doors. Thank God history is kinder to the ‘deserters’ and ‘objectors’ than society was at the time. Those who enlisted were required to swear a solemn oath of allegiance on the Bible. If they had been allowed some time to open the book they were required to place their hand on they would have discovered some interesting things.

The Bible records the stories of those who made very tough calls, others who struggled with complex moral choices and still others who signed up for the cause and later deserted. Most of them had less justification than 17 year old Herbert Burden and hundreds of other young lads who buckled under the horrors of trench warfare. Maybe the worst deserter in the Bible was Jesus close friend Peter. Jesus had done a similar thing to Lord Kitchener but not with a propaganda poster. He called out to Peter from the banks of the Sea of Galilee. “Come and follow me” Jesus said. No longer was Peter going to clean fish, he was going to clean people.

The invitation was irresistible and Peter and his brothers enlisted, leaving everything to devote their lives to healing the sick, loving the lonely and rescuing the lost. A divine mission to fill the streets with the good news that hope was available, forgiveness was possible and Heaven was accessible. Three years later Jesus went to the cross to die for the sins of the world, providing a way for everyone of us to be restored to a right relationship with the Father that’s when it all fell apart for Peter. He denied all knowledge of Jesus, taking the easy route and the soft option to save his own skin. When the heat was on him he couldn’t deliver. Just like the rest of us, he lacked the courage of his convictions.

People often say to me “Where is God anyway and why has he deserted us?” Maybe the truth is that we have deserted him. At the time of the First World War the vast majority of people went to church but that’s all changed now and we’re not in a great place as a result. When society abandons its Christian heritage, it doesn’t believe in nothing it believes in anything. So, what happened to Peter, the deserter? After Jesus had rose from the dead, the Bible records a dramatic conversation he had with a distraught Peter. Jesus faced him up with what he had done, restored him and re-wound the clock of his life. That’s how it works for all of us. We reach out in faith to God, through the finished work of Jesus and he saves us.

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