I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN SERVICE 2009
We gather today to honour those who fought in the Battle of Britain, and to give thanks for what was achieved. We do not honour victory in itself: victory writes the history books and is quite capable of blowing its own trumpet; but we do honour the love, courage, service and the self-sacrifice of those who made victory possible, and we celebrate the freedom and peace that victory won for us.
At times the world and life can seem very dark. 70 years ago, almost to the day, it must have seemed incredibly dark.
It was Christmas 1939 that King George VI echoed words of Minnie Louise Haskins, which many of us will know:
“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’ So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.”
It was a call to trust God. The way ahead was incredibly dark. No one knew where it would lead. But those words speak of one who walks with us, of one who leads us through the night.
And today, when things are less dark, but when we still live under the shadow of Afghanistan, recession and some of us are facing particularly dark periods – I would like to focus for a few minutes on our Psalm we had read today.
Like ‘The man at the gate of the year’, Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in God.
O Israel, trust in the Lord
O house of Aaron (the priests), trust in the Lord
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!
It is a call to trust in God because
1. God is ultimately in control of history.
Those great opening words: ‘Not to us O Lord, Not to us but to your name be glory’ are words which shatter our self delusions of grandeur and put everything into perspective.
They were words that were spoken after the battle of Agincourt, when Henry V (quote from Holinshed) “commanded every man to kneel down on the ground at this verse: ’Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam’”, an incident which Shakespeare also picks up.
God is in control of history. ‘He does whatever pleases him’.
Yes, strategists may have wondered whether they could provoke Hitler from turning from bombing the airfields to bombing the cities, but in the end it was out of their control. They had no say over weather conditions. And they were as subject to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ as anybody was.
We give God the glory because he is in control of history.
But that is only half the story.
2. We trust God, even when things go badly wrong, because he is a God of love and faithfulness.
The people of Israel saw that love and faithfulness in their national history. God had taken them to be his special people. He warned them that if they rebelled they would suffer. He promised that if they turned to him, he would have mercy and he would bless them. We see that conviction in the last few verses of this Psalm. And he also promised that one day, through one of their children, his love would be extended to all peoples on earth.
Christians believe that person was Jesus Christ. He is the mark of God’s love and faithfulness. Everything God promised reached its fulfilment in Jesus. He is the ‘Yes’ to all God’s promises. And as he dies on the cross, he defeats sin and death, and he invites all people to come to him. He says, ‘I love you. I am not just your God. I would be your friend and your father’.
So Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in God.
It is also a warning: it is a warning not to dethrone God. Not to worship false gods: not to put our trust in specifically idols of ‘silver and gold formed by human hands’.
We don’t have the physical idols. But we still bow down to silver and gold
I recall one of those awful moments of parenthood, when we had been to see a magic show, and at the end of the performance, the magician had invited children to go on to the stage where he was selling some stuff. And one of our children, who will remain nameless, and was about 3 at the time, ran up on to the stage. But we called up and said, ‘No. You’ve spent your money. You can’t have any more.’ And so he stood there on the stage in front of about 60 people, turned red with rage, stamped his feet, and bellowed at the top of his voice, ‘I WANT SOME MONEY’.
As 33 year olds or 63 year olds we are not much different: just a bit more sophisticated. We don’t scream, I WANT MONEY, but we are prepared to sell our communities, our families, our friendships, our bodies and our souls for money.
And the warning in this psalm is that if we become like the thing that we put our trust in.
And the warning is that if we make money our god, if the pursuit of financial wealth becomes our overriding aim, if profit really is the bottom line, we will become like our god: hard, cold, calculating and dead.
So Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in the living God – because he is ultimately in control of history, and because he is loving and faithful.
I’m not saying that if we put our trust in him life will go well for us. At times the road we are walking will be very very dark. Some of us went to Tanzania to visit the new bishop of the diocese we support. We had an amazing time with them. They serve God with great joy and tremendous sacrifice. On Thursday we received this email from the bishop: the last two weeks have been very busy weeks. This week is the saddest week. I lost my uncle yesterday, Pastor Michael Samuel lost his daughter today and one of our catechist who had come for retreat for ordination this coming Sunday his son died last night. We are sad and our eyes are flooding tears.
To trust God means recognising that there will be times when it is dark and we walk in the night and we do not understand. But it also means that there is someone beside us as we go on our journey
I recognise that some people wrestle with the idea of faith or trust all their lives. We find it hard to put our trust in one who is visible, let alone one who is invisible.
I was reading an article about Gillespie Magee, the WW2 pilot who was killed on active service in 1940 and who wrote the poem, ‘Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth’, and which ends with the line, ‘Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.’ He wrote elsewhere: “My soul is a soul at war with itself and certainly not at peace with God”.
I think the main problem for most of us is that faith, trust in God involves a willingness to let go of our other gods – of money or whatever. It involves surrender and submission to the one who is beyond our understanding, who ‘does all that he pleases’ and yet who has said that he loves us and longs to know us.
It begins when proud men and women are willing to get down on their knees and say sorry, and seek his guidance and strength. It is about saying to God that we will live life his way and not our way, in obedience to him and to his word, and in friendship with him. It is about going on trusting God, obeying God, listening to God, serving God even in the darkness.
I like the story of the man who falls off the cliff. He catches a small branch hanging out of the rocks and clings on for dear life. Below, far below, the waves smash against rocks. He looks up and calls out, ‘Is there anyone up there who can help me?’ A voice replies, ‘Yes. Let go and trust me’. The man is quiet for a minute. He looks down at the waves and the rocks, and then he looks up again. ‘Is there anyone else up there?’
The poem quoted by King George hints at that difficulty. It talks about being led into the unknown in order that we may begin to discover the one loves us, who never leaves us, who is faithful - even in the dark places.
King George VI spoke those words in Christmas 1939. The nation was to go through incredibly dark days. The first glimmers of light began to be seen after the completely unexpected and almost miraculous victory of the Battle of Britain.
61 years later, at the turn of the millennium, the daughter of George VI said in her Christmas address: "To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life."
And perhaps, more poignantly, in 2002 (a year in which both her mother and sister died), she said: "I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God."