You have just stepped inside our parish church. If you are free to walk around you can have a look at everything. But perhaps you are here when the service is going on. So there are two moments when you come into this church. You can either look at the building without the worship. Or you are in the middle of the worship, and you can only hear what we are singing but cannot see much. You can either hear the sounds or you can see the sights. Whichever way, the church itself, and everything in it, is a message to you from all previous generations of Christians in this town.
Let us start by saying what you see first.
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So Jesus also goes into Jerusalem as into the storm. Starting this coming week we watch him enter this narrow defile which becomes darker until there seems no way out. On the third day we see him crash through and emerge out of the other side, and riding on through all his creation, imperturbable victor. The Lord takes us with him through it all, so though this is always a victory procession, for us, in this present, this victory takes the form of this very public confrontation.
For at this moment, for our sake, and for own people’s sake we are heading right into this most almighty confrontation with all those frightened and arrogant disordered powers and institutions that have grabbed what is not theirs to control. We have to take their battering. The extent of the opposition coming our way in this country in the coming years will show just how long we have been neglecting own people. We have not told them what they need to hear; we have not even told one another.
A strong healthy community of any sort, whether a business or a nation, has to hear the truth about itself, repent and abandon whatever policies are not working, and start again. Repenting, praying, thanksgiving: Sorry, Please, Thank you – these three instruments are required to keep any community together. Everything needs regular maintenance. An inspection brings malfunctions to light. Everything needs the caustic of truth, won through the discipline of good self-judgment. But our nation has avoided for this for so long, that it and we are now thrashing around to avoid the one thing we most urgently need. We were born within a vast covenant of civilisation and of civility, utterly precarious, but also fragile, and now despised and vulnerable. Seventy, maybe even fifty, years ago just enough of the virtues that support that civility was passed on through family and public culture. Now no longer.
In this covenant, God undertakes to maintain creation for us. Everything needs maintenance. Every machine works as long as it receives its occasional oil change. If its filter is not taken out, and cleaned or replaced, any mechanism will clog and stop working. Everything needs to be exposed to daylight or to receive the caustic of public truth. But the poor old British – no home truths have been told them for such a long time. Everything needs a service. And every church service is that service. Christian worship tells us what is missing, and supplies it to us, so that the Church can provide the maintenance that the nation requires.
In the first two talks we said that the Gospel brings the reconciliation that allows a national communion to develop. Without Christianity, there is no covenant between rich and poor, or between one tribe and another, and so there is no nation, and no basis for an international community of nations. The law makes us secular: secularity is the achievement of Christianity, not an escape from it. The Ten Commandments are our call to liberty and to communion. They call out of the savage all-against-all isolation of pagan society, and into civil life together. They give us such confidence that we are able to live with those who we do not know or do not like, so this confidence gives us this civility and this civilisation. Only Christian discipleship enables us to grow up towards the vast definition of humanity set out by the Gospel, towards maturity and holiness, made fit by God for life with him and with each other.
We are under the covenant and so we settled. We are members of a robust and confident society, culture and nation. And we are on the move, following Abraham, who is following Christ. We alternate between being settled, and being nomads. In Lent and Passion week we are on the move, in file behind our Lord, and he is taking us with him through the very darkest places. Noah and Abraham, obedient to God’s call, stood up, left their communities and cultures and walked out into unknown, and so became the founders of a new society, Israel. We are amongst their heirs; we worship their God.
But why should we worship God? Or rather, why should we worship this God rather than some other?
Out of the house of slavery I called you. This commandment, to worship this and not some other God, is the basis of all British history. The British were once in the house of slavery, of war and revenge. The gospel came to British tribes, and was nearly lost again as they were driven out by pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, who then made their home here and were converted by British missionaries; and were later nearly overcome by further pagan Viking invaders, who settled were also converted by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. The arrival of Christianity reconciles warring tribes and creates a single unified nation; it teaches us not to idolise our kings or state power, and so no totalitarian state has taken hold here. This process is never over. The gospel is not Britain’s in perpetuity. The justice and peace that make possible the existence of a nation are the gift of God, not the achievement of this nation or its permanent possession.