Thursday, 15 September 2011

Battle of Britain service 2011

2 Kings 6:14-23; Mark 8:22-30

Today we honour the men and women who fought in the Battle of Britain: those who were up in the air, the ground crews, observer corps, those who defended the airfields, those who provided practical and logistical support, the families and many others, military and civilian. We give thanks for their commitment, courage and hard work.

The fact that our celebrations still include a church service means that we have not forgotten that this was not simply about we have done. We recognise that behind the reality of human history there is another reality, an eternal reality - and we give thanks to God for his merciful act of deliverance.

Our reading from the OT today speaks of a moment when a man who could only see the physical reality, had his eyes opened and he saw the eternal reality.

There are elements in the story that are familiar.
  • An enemy intent on invasion and occupation.
  • An enemy with a strategic objective. Israel has a secret weapon. It had a code name ELISHA. Elisha was a prophet. And we are told that God revealed to him the plans of the king of Syria, and Elisha then passed that intelligence on to the king of Israel. So when the Syrians sent out a raiding party, someone was waiting for them. And Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, got angry. He said, ‘’Who is telling the king of Israel our battle plans?”. And his advisers said, ‘Nobody. The problem is Elisha’. So the Syrians realise that they are going to have to neutralise Elisha before they can attempt to occupy Israel. So they send a ‘great army’ to get him.
  • An enemy who had the overwhelming odds on their side: they have everything going for them: numbers, initiative and technology. I mean, they don’t only have horses, they have chariots.
  • And there is, in this story, as there was 71 years ago, a miraculous delivery
Our reading from the Old Testament reminds us that there is another way to look at the world - it is not just about what we can see physically.
It reminds us that behind the ebb and flow of human affairs, of history, there is a bigger picture, a deeper reality, and a greater purpose.

The fact that we do not usually see it does not mean it is not there. It means that we are blind.

Elisha’s servant was blind. He sees the Syrian ‘great army’ surrounding the city. Humanly speaking the situation is hopeless. But there is another dimension; there is a bigger picture. And so Elisha prays that God will open the eyes of his servant. And the servant begins to see: not the physical reality but the eternal reality. Yes, the city is surrounded by Syrian horses and chariots. But they are surrounded by the divine horses and chariots of fire.

There are moments in our lives when we occasionally glimpse that there is something more, more than what we can see, feel, hear, touch or smell. We often dismiss those moments - put it down to something we have eaten. But sometimes they are so real (a vision, a dream that comes true, an audible voice when no-one is there, the sense of a presence with us) that we cannot dismiss them. That is because ‘God’ as the writer to the Ecclesiastes says, ‘has put eternity into the heart of man’.

And our reading from the NT is also about vision. It tells how a blind man receives his physical sight, but then goes on to tell us how another person, Peter, receives his spiritual sight. One man begins to see physical reality; the other man begins to see the eternal reality.

People could see with their physical sight that Jesus was remarkable. He did astonishing things. So much so that they said that he must have been one of the prophets of old reborn, or John the Baptist come back from the dead. But when Jesus says, ‘Who do you say I am?’, Peter suddenly sees. Not the physical reality, but the spiritual reality. Jesus was not Dave, God’s repeat channel. Jesus was the one who the prophets and John the Baptist looked forward to. He is the Christ, the one who God sent into the world to be the ruler of the world and ruler of the affairs of men and women. He is the one whom history is all about. It is not about our kingdom, but his kingdom - a kingdom of worship and joy, of rightness, of mercy, of justice, of love and of peace.

And although we may not have the same vision that was granted to Elisha’s servant, by faith in this Jesus we can begin to see.

So when our enemies surround us, when our problems are overwhelming, when it seems hopeless - look out: we are not on our own. I suspect that it was not insignificant that at a time of national crisis as the Luftwaffe threatened to annihilate the Royal Air Force, our leaders and our people turned to God.

And when we suffer defeat, we do not despair because it is not the end. His kingdom will come.

And when we face evil - we do not need to meet evil with evil. It is very easy to do that. Someone loses it and you lose it. The whole thing escalates. There are times, of course, when because we love we have confront evil with force. World War 2 and the Battle of Britain seem to me to be one of those occasions when there was no other option. Not to have resisted evil would have been an evil. But there are also times when, because we see that there is a bigger picture, we can afford to do the counter-intuitive thing and meet evil with love.

And when death approaches: if what we see with our physical eyes is the only reality, then it is the end. That is what makes the self-sacrifice of people with no faith so astonishing. It really is the ultimate sacrifice. But if we begin to see the bigger picture, what is death? Jesus died, but he rose again. Because of him it is simply the stepping out of the frame from one picture into the much bigger picture.

And when we are victorious or triumphant, we can afford a reticent humility. Why? Because we know that we have not done it in our own strength. We know that there is a bigger picture. And that means that like Elisha with the captive Syrians, we can be gracious in victory.

And when we meet to worship God: how many people are there here? 300/400? There are far more than that. Look up. Those angels represent the countless thousands who are here with us: of angels and beings more wonderful than we can conceivably imagine; of saints, of men and women made perfect. ‘We are surrounded by a great host of witnesses’. In fact they do not join us when we worship, but we join in their worship.

A couple of weeks ago a few of us were shown round the former ops room in the Guildhall. Rooms like that around the country were critical to the Battle of Britain. You could have the most advanced planes and the most gifted, courageous and committed pilots, but if you didn’t know where to send them when they went up, you were lost. The Battle of Britain was won partly because we had a right vision.

And if our society is going to be genuinely transformed, if we are going to learn to live by trust and not by regulation, if we are to realise that there is far more to live for than money and as big a pension as we can get, if families and communities are going to come alive, if we are really going to do something about the 30% of people in this world who will not have a decent meal today, if we are not going to give into fear and retreat behind our barricades, or if we are going to love our neighbour even if it means that we have to pay a price, then we need a right vision. We need to see the bigger picture. We need to see the world in the light of eternity and in the light of God.

There are times when I fear that that as individuals and as a society we are losing sight of God; we are becoming blind.

And if that happens, we will continue to go through the motions and send up the metaphorical planes, but if we don’t have the vision we won’t win the war.

It is a great gift when God opens our eyes and allows us to see: not just physical reality, but eternal reality. It is also a gift which he longs to give. All we need to do is to ask him, because we need vision.

We’re about to sing some great words by Blake.
The first verse is based on a legend that Jesus, after his resurrection, came to England. And the literal answer to the question of the first verse, ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green’ is no!

But this is a vision. Blake, possibly with the help of the legend, sees something else. He sees with his physical eyes ‘the pleasant pastures’ and the ‘dark satanic mills’. But he sees it in the light of Jesus Christ, ‘the countenance divine’. He sees the crucified and risen Lord Jesus standing over and above and around all of this. He sees Jesus reigning and Jerusalem, the city of God, where there is life, light, joy, harmony, beauty and love, established even here.
This hymn has established itself deep within our national psyche. But I wonder if we are really aware of what we are singing. Because the second verse is an invitation to full-bodied Christian commitment. It is an invitation to make a commitment to be led by this vision of ultimate reality, to give our everything, and with God’s help - the bow, arrows, spear and chariot of fire - to live and work for the fulfilment of this vision: that Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, may be all in all.