Sunday, 16 September 2007

Battle of Britain service 2007


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.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Mark 9:2-13

Mark 9:2-13

There are moments, often extremely rare, when the scales fall away and we see reality as it is.

It is a bit like looking through a microscope or telescope. What we thought was a blob suddenly appears transformed into something wonderful.

Well, in a sort of way, that is what happens here.

Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of reality, of ultimate reality.

Most commentators agree that Jesus, in Mark's gospel, is trying to get over two key points about himself:

1. He is the messiah, the Son of God.
2. He is not a wonder working messiah, but a messiah who has come to save people, and that he will save people through his death on the cross

Mark 8:31, and this may have been pointed out last week, is a turning point in Mark's gospel. Peter has suddenly realised it: his eyes have been opened. He is able to confess that Jesus is the Messiah (v29). But Jesus commands the disciples not to tell people because they've still only got half of the message. And so in verse 31, we are told, "Jesus then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things .."

The transfiguration, which happens 6 days after, is God writing those two messages large. The disciples have been slowly beginning to understand who Jesus is. It has been a bit like driving through thick fog: they've been able to see enough to edge their way forward. Now God strips the veil away from their eyes and they see clearly.


It shows us who Jesus is.

The Son of God: the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son"

The one who is bigger than space and time:

I mean here are Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. Moses lived 2000 years before Jesus and Elijah about 700 years before Jesus.

It is significant that both Moses and Elijah had significant encounters with God on the same mountain. Moses on Mt Sinai (Exodus 33), when he asked to see God's glory; Elijah on Mt Horeb (which is another name for Mt Sinai) when he met with God in the absolute silence. Now they meet with the glory of God again - but this time together and on a different mountain.

For Peter and the others it was terrifying. "He did not know what to say; they were so frightened".

When a person begins to encounter the glory of God, of the God who created this universe, of the God who is bigger than space and time, of the God who is absolute holiness and love, then of course there will be an element of what people have called 'holy fear'. For the disciples there were many times when we are told that they were frightened: when Jesus walked on water; when he calmed the storm; when he appeared to them after the resurrection. And that is inevitable. We are encountering the one who is beyond everything we know and understand. Paul tells us to 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling'. Of course, we try to domesticate God - to logically explain him; to restrict him to speaking to us in certain ways; and meeting with us at certain times and places. But we are only kidding ourselves. We cannot tame him; and we cannot have a real relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, without having moments when we at the same time are really really scared and yet also still long for more of him.

The transfiguration tells us of Jesus Christ, the one who transcends space and time.

The pre-eminent one:
Moses was the law giver. Elijah was the great prophet. Both of them appear not to have died, but to have been quite literally taken. They were the great ones of the Old Testament.

But it is not Moses and Elijah who are transfigured. It is not Moses or Elijah who are dazzling white. It is Jesus who shines. In the icon of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah do shine, but the source of their light is Jesus.

And the voice from heaven tells Peter, James and John not to listen to Elijah or Moses. It tells them that they are to listen to Jesus. That doesn't mean that they are to reject Moses or Elijah; rather they are to listen first to Jesus, and that we are to listen to Moses and Elijah through Jesus.

The transfiguration points us to Jesus the Son of God, and it tells us that it really is all about Jesus.

I'm sure you know the story of the Sunday school teacher who was asking her class: "What climbs trees, eats nuts, is furry, has a long snout, sticky up ears and a very bushy tail?" And a little boy said to his neighbour. "It sounds like a squirrel, but I bet the answer is Jesus".

It is not about the church, the community of the people of God; it is not about my inner voice or feelings; and it is not about the bible. Quite simply the reason that we listen to the church and that we listen to the bible is because we first of all choose to obey this voice and listen to Jesus: to the Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, to the Jesus who lives in his church and to the Jesus who is reigning in transfigured glory today.


If these verses point us to the glory of Jesus, they also point us to the cross.

Jesus (v9) tells Peter, James and John not to tell anyone of the transfiguration until after the resurrection. It is a familiar instruction, especially after Jesus has just done something wonderful. The problem is that if they told everyone of Jesus encounter on the mountain with Elijah and Moses, people would become even more convinced that Jesus was the wonder working messiah who they were hoping for.

And so, instead, as they come down off the mountain, Jesus again tells them that he will suffer and die and then be raised.

These are quite complicated verses and I'm not sure that I really understand them.

The background is this. The religious teachers of the time put together some Old Testament prophesies and said that before the messiah comes, Elijah will return and 'restore all things'.

Jesus makes it pretty clear that he sees John the Baptist as that person. John the Baptist wore the same kind of clothes (or non-clothes) that Elijah wore and came to prepare the way for Jesus, by bringing people to repentance. "But", Jesus says, (v13), "Look what they did to him. They rejected him; they arrested him and they executed him. And in the same way so must I suffer and be rejected".

Jesus did not come to be the wonder working Messiah. He could have been. The glory that Peter, James and John see at the transfiguration is the glory that Jesus possesses by right. But this was the glory that Jesus chose to put aside when he came to earth and was conceived in Mary's womb. He came in order to give his life as a ransom for many. And Jesus gave up his glory and he gave up his life, and he died on the cross, so that, with Elijah and Moses
· we can stand in his presence,
· we can talk with Him (we call it prayer)
· whatever we experience now - even if it seems to be total desolation - we can and we will share his glory.


There are times when prayer is easy. God feels close, and our prayers are answered. But I have to say those times are the exception. Much of the time, prayer can seem extremely hard work and God can feel very distant. We long for him and yet he is absent.

It might be because we are being disobedient, but that is not the only reason.

It could be circumstances. Life has done the dirty on us. I was speaking to someone who lost one of her children, had a severe stroke and has now lost her husband of 50 or so years. She was struggling: "Why are these things happening to me. I don't know how I am going to hold on to my faith. God seems absent"

It could simply be that God is moving us on, growing our faith. Taking us deeper; taking us into what St John of the Cross called, "The dark night of the soul". I understand that some of Mr Theresa's letters have been published, and it seems that much of the time she wrestled with God about his seeming absence. That, I have to say, is part of the experience of many men and women of God.

And it is no different to the experience of men and women of God in the past. The psalmist wrote (Psalm 42): "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"

And yet I think that the transfiguration can give us some reassurance, because it gives us a glimpse of the reality that is behind prayer.

When we pray, when we bring to Jesus all our questions, struggles, doubts, convictions, hopes, fears and longings, we are doing nothing more and nothing less than Moses and Elijah were, when they stood and talked with the glorified, transfigured Jesus. And like them, even if we are not aware of it, as we stand in his presence so we too begin to reflect his glory.

Paul writes, "And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17)

So even if it feels pointless, it is worth persisting in prayer. Something is happening. And there are moments here and now when we see the glory of God - but it is, as Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 13:12), 'a poor reflection as in a mirror'. But there and then, he says, like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, "we shall see face to face".