It was 75 years ago when my father cycled in the moonlight through the medieval streets of Coventry for his night shift as a railway signalman.
When he returned home the following morning, it was no more – the whole of this beautiful city was in flames. Destruction was total.
Coventry, the town of my birth, was the first city to suffer such complete devastation through aerial bombing, of a scale never before witnessed.
For the aim of the German war machine was not just to destroy the manufacturing ability of this ancient cathedral city. According to German historian Jens Wehner: “The Nazi strategy was to make terror.” And they succeeded.
Suppressed at the time social researchers reported scenes of “unprecedented dislocation and depression.” My father, like most men of his era, never spoke about what he witnessed. A whole city was in trauma.
Reichsleiter Joseph Goebbels later coined the word “coventriert” to convey the power and menace of the Nazi war machine.
Jerusalem, the city of the great King, was itself “coventried,” first by the Babylonians in 587 BC and then by the Romans in 70 AD. These two acts of destruction play a pivotal role in the Bible.
From King David onwards the people of Israel thought that Jerusalem could never be taken by an enemy army. The temple of the God of Israel on mount Zion guaranteed its protection.
It was prophets like Jeremiah who spoke the uncomfortable truth that the covenant between God and his people was two-way. They were not to presume on God’s grace and live only for themselves.
“If you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.” (Jeremiah 7:6).
Tragically Jeremiah’s pleas were ignored, and so God allowed the Babylonians – as ruthless as the Nazis – to lay Jerusalem waste and take the whole governing class into faraway exile.
Those who survived the ordeal were traumatised, as recounted in the book of Lamentations. Yet nestling in this book of deep sorrow are words of hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22)
And amazingly, without any historical precedent, God restored his people to their homeland. The walls were rebuilt – there lies a story. Above all a new temple appeared out of the ruins.
It was this temple some five centuries later which King Herod renovated and expanded at considerable expense. He wanted to be known as King Herod the Great. He succeeded.
He certainly succeeded in giving the building the Wow factor in the opinion of the disciples of Jesus. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1)
Jesus, however, was not taken in by the magnificence of this stunningly beautiful building.
“Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2).
In foreseeing the destruction of the temple Jesus prepared his people for the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans as the decisive event of the First Jewish–Roman War.
Flee for the mountains. Don’t be taken in by false prophets. Prepare for suffering and persecution. “So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.”
Some forty years later the Romans decided to completely destroy Jerusalem along with its temple. “You don’t mess with Rome.” Only that part of the wall which we know today as the Wailing Wall remains to this day.
So when everything we hold dear – our home and our way of life, our temple and even our religion, even heaven and earth – is taken away, what is left?
Well, if we place our security in the Messiah, we are secure in Christ. A message which is both daunting but totally reassuring. We are to build our lives on no-one else but our crucified and humiliated Lord. Then nothing in the whole of creation can separate us from God’s love.
Last summer at New Wine we heard Brian Doerksen sing his new song:
Cultures will rise as nations fall
Troubles will challenge and assault
Your word will stand above them all
All that we cannot comprehend
Disasters will break the pride of men
You will be faithful till the end
Though the nations rage
You’re still the God who reigns
In his victory,