Friday, 25 September 2009

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year

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."

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Asking Jesus to help us to see

Mark 8:22-26

This is the story of a man who was blind who was healed. It is a unique story, because it is the only story where Jesus does not heal the person in one go. There are two stages to the healing. After the first time the man looks up, sees people, but they look like trees. After the second time, he opens his eyes and he sees everything clearly.

So what is going on here?

Obviously, we are being told that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God to be King in his world. He does the things of the Messiah. He is the one who fulfils Isaiah 35:5, ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped’. In Mark 7:31-37 he has just healed a deaf person in very similar circumstances.

And we are also being told that Jesus heals. The friends bring someone who is blind to him, and Jesus heals him.

That is what we do when we pray: bring someone to Jesus. And although he does not always heal as we wish, he does heal.

[One of the very interesting things in Mark’s gospel is that in the first half of the gospel, Jesus does amazing things, but he commands people that they are not to tell anyone. He heals a leper (Mark 1:44) and says, ‘See you say nothing to anyone’. He commands the unclean spirits who are saying, ‘You are the Son of God’ (Mark 3:12) ‘not to make him known’. He raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and charges them ‘that no one should know this’ (Mark 5:43). He heals the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:31-35) and ‘charged them to tell no one’. And in the next few verses Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ: ‘And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him’ (Mark 8:30).

And in our passage, the man is told to go straight home, and not return into the village where he has been brought.

The secret to this secrecy is revealed in Mark 9:9. Jesus has gone up a mountain and been transfigured – he has shone like a lighthouse. And it says, ‘And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead’.

That is the last time that Jesus commands secrecy. The point is that who he is, and what he does (the casting out of evil, the healing of sick people, the raising of the dead) only makes sense after the resurrection. Before the resurrection they are simple wonderful acts – but we want to ask why didn’t he do more? There were many blind people. Why was this one alone healed? Why are some people wonderfully healed today and others not?

Without the resurrection, Jesus is an amazing wonder worker, but nothing more. But with the resurrection, these healings and raisings make sense. They are not normative but representative. They give us glimpses of a Kingdom that is present, but not fully present. They are a preview of the big film that is still to come. They show us what Jesus is going to do for all who turn to him in the resurrection, in the Kingdom of God.]

So please do pray for people – even for people when you think that they are beyond medical help. Bring them to Jesus. Jesus can heal. Jesus does heal. He loves us. He really does want the best for us in the long run, in the resurrection. And if the person is not healed, we don’t give up on God; we don’t accuse them of being at fault. We trust God that he knows best. We surrender to his good will, and we are patient, even if we don’t understand, and we continue to trust ourselves and the person for whom we are praying into his hands.

But we need to look deeper at this healing of the blind man. Something more is going on.

And the obvious thing is that Jesus is using the restoring of this man’s physical vision to show us how God restores spiritual vision.

In the last few verses Jesus has challenged the disciples: ‘Do you not yet perceive or understand? Having eyes do you not see?’ And now he goes on to restore sight to a blind man.

1. It is all of God

The man does nothing. He is blind. He is brought to Jesus.

We are spiritually blind. We have been blinded by sin, by our rebellion against God, by our desire to live independent God-denying lives. We are blinded by our self-centredness, our self-focus. Sin is spelt sIn. The I is in the middle. And we are blinded by our pride, envy, bitterness, fear, anxiety, need to impress, prejudice. We just can’t see.

That is why prayer is so hard. God seems unobvious. And it so much easier to do something, rather than to stop and pray about something. And when we pray, we don’t know what to pray for.

Isaiah 59:2 says: “It is not God who is helpless. It is not God who is deaf. The reason that he doesn’t hear you is because your rebellion against him has hidden his face from you; your sin has put up a massive barrier between God and yourself”.

And we are so blind that we do not even realise that we are blind. Most of us are walking about with our eyes closed, in a two dimensional universe, unaware that there is so much more.

In John 9, when Jesus has healed a blind man, he says to the religious leaders: ‘I came in order to help people see’. They challenge him, ‘Are you telling us that we are blind?’ Jesus says, ‘Because you say that you can see, you are in fact blind. Spiritually blind’. It is uncompromising stuff.

We are blind. We cannot open our own eyes. But it is Jesus who opens eyes.

So please pray. Pray that he will open our eyes. Love other people enough to pray for them. Pray that he will open their eyes. Be like the companions of this blind man – who brought him to Jesus. He couldn’t get to Jesus on his own. He was blind. But they cared enough for him to take a risk.

And because it is all of Jesus, if we do begin to see, there is no place for pride or a sense of superiority. If God is less unobvious than he was before, if prayer does begin to make sense, if you have a hunger to know him more, if his words in the bible start to speak to you, give great thanks – it is his work.

And equally please do not despair if nothing seems to be happening. Don’t assume that it will be a blinding light, and that if you haven’t had a blinding light, God is refusing to work with you. The very fact that you know that there is this thing called ‘faith’ and that you do not have ‘faith’, means that he is working in you. To be aware that we are spiritually blind is the beginning of Jesus’ opening of our eyes.

2. Jesus uses spit to heal the man’s eyes

This is very strange! Why, of all things, spit? Especially when in other places Jesus heals with a word, or with a word and a touch.

I don’t wish to make too much of this: but it does imply that although Jesus can heal with a word, often he chooses to work with stuff.

I have read in some places that spit was considered to have healing powers. I have read in other places, and we know that to spit on someone is a way of shaming them. What is clear is that Jesus uses spit to heal the man.

And Jesus will often use something to restore our spiritual vision. It might be something that we think has healing properties. It might be something that we despise.

He has commanded us to use water in baptism; bread and wine in communion; oil in healing.

And I guess that is also one way of understanding medicine and tablets. At the moment I am taking anti-malarial tablets. I could see them as a symbol of our human attempt to live without God – to rely on ourselves, so that we do not need God – or I can say that they are like Jesus’ spit. They are what he chooses to use to bring healing.

3. Restoration of spiritual vision is a process

There is a two stage healing here. The man begins to see, and then he fully sees.

There is a parallel with what happens to the disciples. Up to chapter 8 of Mark they are getting the first sight: they are beginning to understand who Jesus is. And then, having understood, they need the second sight, that Jesus Christ is the one who will die to save people – that the Christian way is not the way of the sword, but the way of the cross.

And actually that is how it works for us. The restoration of our spiritual vision is gradual.

Stage one: God works in us and we begin to become aware that we are blind. We come to Jesus and we begin to see – but only dimly. We look at other people and they are like trees. Now at least we notice them, but they are things.

Stage two (and three and four and five): as we continue to look at Jesus, our vision becomes clearer. We see him clearer; we see other people clearer.

Of course, this side of death, it will be like looking through frosted glass. But of the resurrection, Paul writes, ‘Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

So as we come to communion, we come to receive from the one who is our Messiah, our ruler. We will use bread and wine, ‘stuff’ – because he has said that this ‘stuff’ is what he chooses to work with. And we ask him to open our eyes so that we can see him and see other people.

Monday, 7 September 2009


A talk given at a service to mark the handover of the stewardship of the Regimental chapel from the Suffolk Regiment to the Royal Anglians, 1st September 2009

Thank you Brigadier Calder for your words;
And a big thank you to the members of the Suffolk Regiment for the way that you have helped and supported us to maintain this chapel (especially in the last few months as we have reroofed the building. And I look forward to continue working with you and now with the Royal Anglians.

We have just said, ‘We will remember them’

And we say that because we want to say: you mattered and you still matter; what you did mattered; the sacrifice you made mattered.

And yet it is hard to remember. There are some memories we would love to remember, and we just can’t get them.
There are some memories that we would far rather forget. (Some of us will have watched Wuthering Heights last night: Heathcliffe could not forget Cathy, and as a result he ended up destroying other people and himself) There are times when we say, ‘We will remember’, and we forget. People sometimes say to me after they have been bereaved: ‘I didn’t think of them today, and I feel so guilty’.

And even if we do remember - with all the prompts that we have: the colours, the memorials, the grave stones, the names on chairs, the records, the photographs – death, tide and time will erode those memories, and they will be lost.

I remember hearing one person tell of how he found himself in a village on the South Coast. There was a memorial to some Norwegian commandos who had died in the First World War. The memorial said, ‘We will always remember what you have done’. Intrigued, he asked around, ‘What did they do?’ Nobody remembered.

And so it is good to have a place where we can bring memories – individual memories, collective memories - and place them. And that is one of the roles of this chapel: a bank for memories. We place our memories in one of the most permanent and stable buildings that we can think of.

But even these buildings will one day crumble and fall. (I trust not under my watch!)

But in choosing to place their memories in a chapel, our forefathers and mothers were not simply looking for a permanent building. They were also symbolically placing their memories in the hands of a person – the person on whom this building depends.

We are saying as we come here, not actually ‘We will remember them’, because that is both impossible and a burden that none of us could carry, but ‘He will remember them’.

Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died and rose again; because he is the Son of God – he is bigger than time and bigger than death. And because he knows all things, and because he cares: ‘Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge’, he can remember

He remembers them: they matter; who they were, what they did.
He remembers you: you matter and what you do

But it is more than entrusting their memory into his hands. Just as today is about a mini death and resurrection, and just as this building is established on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so our reading talks about the future resurrection: it talks about that day – which is beyond our imagination – of the death of the universe as we know it, and the establishing of a new universe, a new heaven and earth – when Jesus will bring with him all who in this world are prepared to trust in God, all who are prepared to love him and humble themselves before him and receive his love and forgiveness, who are God-dependent, who seek with his help to become good and noble and true and peace-loving, and to grow in love.

So thank you so much for your support and love and care of this building, but may I urge us all – Royal Anglians, Suffolks – to seek not only the welfare of a building, but to seek the one to whose glory this building was established – the one into whose hands we can ultimately entrust our memories, our loved ones and our own future and destiny.