At St Weonard’s Church, Herefordshire, Sunday 18th October
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I find the words we have just heard from Revelation incredibly moving. They come from the very end of the Bible, a sneak peek for us if you like of the end of the story, and tell us that however hard and grim life can be, all shall be well. Heaven and earth, all that is, will be made new, and every tear will be wiped away, and death will be no more.
That of course is our prayer for our late Queen and her family, and all who mourn at this present time.
When I was here last week for a wonderful service combining the baptism of young George Thornley with prayers for the Queen, I shared the moving little picture that’s doing the rounds on the internet of three figures walking away from us, Her Majesty, Paddington Bear, and a Corgi. “Where are we going, ma’am? asks Paddington. “Home, Paddington,” replies the Queen, “We’re going home.” It brought a tear to my eye as I thought how much the Queen deserved to be at home and at rest after a life so lived in public and so full of duties.
Our faith gives real and deep meaning to that word “home”: not just wishful thinking but the enfolding love of the living God in whom the Queen had so clearly put her trust, and I thank God with all my heart for that hope and that truth. Without it I personally would really struggle with my mental health; with it I can find enough hope and enough strength to play my part and see the journey through.
Our faith and indeed the words from the Bible that I’ve taken as the basis for this sermon offer us, though, even more than that,
Just as the Queen’s life of service was not only admirable in her individually as a person, but a powerful way of building up our nation and its communities together, so God promises us not just the making new of heaven, but the making new of the earth. Christianity from the beginning, and Judaism before it, has not been a religion as some are that simply offered an escape route from the earthly realities. It has been committed to sharing with God in the work of building his kingdom of peace, justice, and love “here on earth as it is in heaven”, as we pray every day in the Lord’s Prayer.
Our first reading spelled out for us the scale of that challenge:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
That was the challenge Queen Elizabeth accepted when she was anointed as our Sovereign, and which she lived out so faithfully through all her days.
Is that a call and a challenge just for monarchs then? The answer of course is no. When I baptised George, I anointed him too, with the sign of the Cross; and when I confirm and ordain people they are anointed again. All God’s people are called to be active citizens of his coming kingdom, not just trying their best to keep its commandments, but seeking to be like salt, yeast and light as Jesus put it, raising agents if you like bringing the new resurrection life of Christ into the sticky doughiness of everyday living and giving it a beautiful aroma and taste just as in fresh-baked bread.
There are some things we don’t fully know and understand here. St John in the Book of Revelation is using poetic language and it can be hard to be sure just what a new or renewed heaven and earth will look like and mean, or just how in the end evil and corruption and death will be wiped away. But that’s not a surprise really. We are very clever, and our science is very powerful, but we just don’t have the tools to look beyond the ordinary material world and answer the question of what lies there.
We need to make an act of faith. Either to believe that there is nothing there – and that all this talk of meaning and purpose and good and evil is just invented by us and will die with us. Or to believe as I do that from the beginning God’s Spirit has been at work in the world, breathing more into it than what we call matter, loving it, teaching it to love too, calling us to be beings which share his life of love, and calling us beyond this life that we know to share in love with him for ever. And in the meantime, to not just pray “your kingdom come” but join in making it happen.
At the moment we are like the characters in the Lord of the Rings, part way through a perilous journey, faced with evil that seems beyond us to defeat, and unsure that our quest will ever be complete; but we can, if we choose, be gripped by the faith that the good is real and will in the end prevail, and be the people who find the strength and the courage to see our quest through to the end.
Today we remember and give thanks for one such life, for one such person, a person who placed her faith in God, who received the anointing of God, and lived her life his way, for him and for her people. We pray that Charles too will live such a life, but since this is not something just for monarchs, for the great and good who have gathered for the funeral and hold the reins of power, we pray too for ourselves.
There is a radical democracy and inclusion built into God’s plan and God’s coming kingdom.
Everyone matters; you matter.
Everyone is called into active service; you are called into active service.
Everyone is to be anointed with the Spirit, you are to be anointed with the Spirit.
Everyone can and must play their part, you can and must play your part, in seeing the new heaven and new earth come.
We may not know how it will come, or when it will come. But in the faith of God and in the name of all that us good, surely it will come. And life will be proved to have been not in vain; not just ashes in the wind but a song in the air, building the harmony of heaven, and a world of beauty and peace.
Once when change was sorely needed in South Africa, the police entered a church where Desmond Tutu was preaching. The congregation held their breath as, risking arrest, he did not tone down his sermon but faced the police directly.
“You are powerful,” he said. “You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
With that the congregation erupted in dance and song. The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time.
A matter of time. And now perhaps is the time, as we remember the life so well lived of our late Sovereign Elizabeth, to follow her example and join the winning side too, getting ready for the time that will surely come, when the earth will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.