Sunday, 16 September 2007

Battle of Britain service 2007

BATTLE OF BRITAIN

It is a real privilege to be able to celebrate this service with you today.

We come to give thanks to God for those who fought in the Battle of Britain, for the outcome of that battle, and also to give thanks for those - who, in that same spirit - have continued to serve in the Royal Air Force.

And we have here men and women who have served with the RAF regiment and with the USAF in Iraq and Afghanistan. We give thanks to God for you and for your families. And we also remember before God those who have given their lives, and their families. And on behalf of this town and church I wish to say that we are immensely proud to be associated with you.

I am not sure that the role of this particular service is to honour victory. Please do not get me wrong. Of course we give real thanks to God for the victory in 1940. It was the first major defeat of the war for Hitler, and it meant the invasion of this island was put off indefinitely. Certainly, the consequences for this nation and for the nations of Europe, if the Battle of Britain had been lost, are quite unthinkable.

However it is not for the church to honour the victorious. If the church is to be faithful to scripture and to her teaching then it is not what we are about. The church is not the place to honour those who are wealthy or powerful or famous or victorious. Their honour can be found elsewhere.

No. As we gather here in God’s name, we do honour people: not for victory, but for dependence on, humility before, trust in and obedience to God, for Christ-likeness, for faithfulness, self-sacrificial service and love – many of the things that were evident in the spirit with which people fought the Battle of Britain. And we honour those things whether they seem to lead to apparent human victory, or apparent human failure and defeat.

At the very heart of the Christian story is an apparent failure: a man hanging on a cross.

People had such dreams for Jesus. With his charisma, he could have been the one who united the people of Israel and drove out the Roman occupying force. It might not have even stopped there. With the power that he seemed to have at his hands: the power to calm storms or heal people or even raise people from the dead, he could have established an empire that would have taken on and defeated the Roman empire. Rome would have bowed to Jerusalem. And the law of God could have become the law of the empire. The Kingdom of God could have been established. He could have had power and wealth and fame beyond imagination. What greater success could there have been?

But it all seemed to go so wrong. He seemed to have a death wish. He avoided the crowds who wanted to make him king. When he was given the opportunity to save himself by doing a miracle in front of King Herod, he refused. When he could have summoned 5000 angels as he was about to be crucified, he allowed them to take his hands and drive nails through them. And he ended up a corpse, executed as a criminal, hanging in between two criminals.

And yet, if by the world's standards this was failure, by God's standards this was victory beyond all victory. Here was a man who gave himself totally for others. And because he chose to die, because he chose to love others so much, death has been defeated, we are offered forgiveness, friendship with God, membership in his family and the power to begin to change so that we can live as God means us to live, to love as God means us to love. Because he died, death is defeated. It is not the final enemy; it is not the end.

I am so grateful that at the heart of the heritage of our nation there has been not a story of a God who - like the Greek gods - defeated their enemies by strength, by wealth, by deception or by wisdom. Of course there are many times when we have tried to turn God into that kind of God. But the God who is revealed fully in the New Testament is the God who conquers by self sacrificial love. And we need to do all that we can to ensure that the story of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains at the centre of our nation's life, communities life and our own personal lives.

As far as God is concerned, it is not the size of an empire that makes a nation great; it is not the size of an army that makes a nation great: it is that nation or people's willingness to sacrificially serve others, to engage with others – even at its own cost - that makes it great.

There is much talk about whether there will be or won’t be victory for the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not really sure what that means. With the next man or woman I am praying that stable governments can be established in these nations, which will allow peace and freedom and justice for all to flourish. And in my cynical moments, I suspect that those who want it to fail will find failure, and those who want it to succeed will find success.

And whatever the outcome on the ground, I guess that the story of the real victories in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be told this side of heaven. It certainly will not be the story of people like me who pontificate on the sidelines. Instead it will be the story of men and women who got involved, who went to serve in a far off place –in a military or civil capacity, who offered their lives and sometimes paid the full price, not for family and friends and country, but for unknown others who long to live life in peace and freedom. It will be the story of countless acts of mercy done on behalf of others. It will be the story of families who gave up a husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother so that families in another land, who they have not met and never will meet, can begin to live. It will be the story of politicians who have the courage to go against the opinion polls and choose to engage rather than disengage, whether that involves military or other kinds of intervention: love does not close its eyes to the suffering of others. It will be the story of men and women who gave themselves for others - in small and big ways; who humbled themselves before each other; who had the courage to say sorry to God and to others when they messed up; who allowed God to forgive them and who forgave; who stood up for what is right and true even though it cost them; who crossed the barriers to break down the barriers; who laid down their life for their friends and even their enemies.

Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes in our civic and national events and services we manage to honour service and love and not just success. Often we do not get it right.

But, in Revelation 5, we read of a lamb who was slain, who is worthy to receive and to open a scroll. It is a picture of Jesus who was crucified, who rose from the dead and who now reigns in heaven. And the scroll: it is the historian’s dream document: hidden history – the history that God sees, even if no-one else has seen it. It is the story of the deeds and thoughts of nations, families and individuals. And the scroll will read: ‘This one humbled himself/herself before God. This one received the love and the forgiveness and the power to live that God offers. And having received love, they chose to obey and to love. This one was a true great one’

And in Revelation 5, heaven sings and earth responds in praise to Jesus. It is the praise of the one who, because he chose to give up all power and wealth and wisdom to hang on a cross out of love for us, has been given for all time and eternity all power, wealth, wisdom and praise. To Him be honour and glory. Amen.

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