Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Advent (18 November 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean reflects on the need for confidence that God is with us in all things.
What do you think about where the UK has got to with Brexit? It seems that there are almost as many views on it as there are MPs in the House of
Commons. I was talking a few days ago to two business leaders in the City of London, and asked them for their view: and they said that what
business needs is confidence, to know what the outcome of Brexit is going to be, whatever it is, because until people in business could be
confident about the direction of travel, they didn’t know what to invest in and how to go forward.
That question of confidence is crucial. As Theresa May knows only too well, prime ministers stand or fall on the question of whether or not they command the confidence of their party. The value of the pound as a currency went up a week ago when the draft Brexit deal was published, and went down again the next day when the extent of opposition to it became clear, according to whether the news encouraged confidence, or not. The value of shares and currencies, or whether people will buy businesses’ goods or services, depends on whether we have confidence, or not, in the politics of the country or the honesty of a company and the quality of what it offers.
Every year the new Lord Mayor in the City of London chooses a theme to talk about and encourage people to engage with. And it’s no coincidence that last year’s Lord Mayor was working with the theme of trust: are you a company or a person that others can trust, and how do you win that trust? How do you help people be confident in you? Trust and confidence are crucial to the working of any society.
And confidence is also crucial to our own lives. Over-confidence or lack of personal confidence can be damaging to our relationships and our job prospects, and undermine our mental health. But what do you do if you don’t have confidence in yourself, or in anyone else, or in anything?
The word ‘confidence’ appears in our Bible reading this morning from the letter to the Hebrews. It’s in the context of the writer of the letter encouraging persecuted Christians to hold onto their faith in Jesus, Christians who had grown up in the Jewish faith and were in danger of losing their confidence in the Christian gospel.
The writer takes the ritual of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and re-interprets it in a startling way. In the Temple, God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the innermost part, curtained off from unholy human beings. And because we human beings keep on sinning, because we do unholy things which separate us from God and one another, priests in the Temple had to make continual sacrifices to cover our sins and allow God still to be near his people.
So there was an ongoing cycle of sin and sacrifice, played out year after year in the Temple; and human beings could never be completely confident about approaching God, because our sins, our un-holiness, might get in the way.
But, says the letter to the Hebrews, that lack of confidence is finished and over. The cycle of sacrifices year after year has been broken. Jesus has come to be the one perfect sacrifice which makes all other sacrifices redundant. We’re in a new age, a time when the curtain which hides God from humanity has been torn apart, when in Jesus we can be confident that God loves us, and that we can turn from sin and come to him, any time and all the time.
Although we are indeed sinners who get things wrong, our confidence isn’t in ourselves but in God’s love for us, the God who wants us to live for Him, to come to Him to accept forgiveness, and to have our lives changed by His love, and changed into His love. The underlying question in all that is: who or what is our confidence in? Where do we place our confidence?
And how does that relate to what I was talking about at the beginning, about Brexit and business and confidence...?
The Jerusalem Temple where sacrifices took place was being newly rebuilt by Herod during the lifetime of Jesus. It was huge, monumental, an amazing investment, a statement of confidence in the future of the Jewish people. Our Gospel reading this morning tells us that the disciples of Jesus were awe-struck by it. It would have made this cathedral look small.
But Jesus demolishes the confidence of his disciples, as the Romans would demolish the Temple itself some 40 years after the cross and resurrection. ‘Of these great buildings, not one stone will be left upon another’ says Jesus. What looks so certain and secure and confident will not last.
I was talking with someone this week about current political uncertainties in Britain and abroad, and they said: you have to remember that in the last 80 years only four countries in Europe have had an unbroken history of democratic government. So we shouldn’t be confident about things just turning out all right in the end. Because sometimes they don’t.
We have deep-seated divisions in this country as in other countries, which Brexit has again brought into awareness: we haven’t yet seen such strong populism as in some other countries, but we have seen hate crimes and the murder of MP Jo Cox and death threats against MPs and others.
We must do all we can to pray for our country and our politicians, and to bring together our divided communities. But the confidence with which we pray and work shouldn’t be founded on confidence in any individual or party, or confidence in the underlying sensibleness of British people, or confidence that, as I’ve heard it expressed, ‘someone’ will sort it out.
Whether or not there are grounds for confidence regarding Brexit, whatever will happen in the coming weeks, there is every ground for confidence in God, and in God’s commitment to us – not as an other-worldly retreat from the issues and dangers we face, but a confidence in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ through anything and everything that will happen: and we should go out to pray and listen and serve everyone in the name of Jesus Christ, and have confidence in God to hold us through it all.
Six days ago at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the Prime Minister made a speech in which among many other things she reaffirmed her commitment that Brexit means Brexit, and that she would give the British people what they had voted for. At the end of the speech there was polite applause, because many there disagreed with her view. But when she was introduced before her speech, and when she was thanked afterwards, the applause was loud and long: because people recognised her sincere commitment to do her best for the country.
Mrs May is a Christian: it doesn’t mean that she’s always right, but I hope it does mean that she has confidence that, through everything she faces, God is with her too: and that at the end of all things, when Brexit is an irrelevance, and all our great buildings have been thrown down, and all our dreams and accomplishments have turned to ashes, the confident love of God in Jesus Christ will raise us and make all things new.