SONGS OF PRAISE
Luke 13, 31-35
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I had a message from our hard working churchwarden, Mr Nick Sanders to tell me that he was organising a special evening service in April, a Songs of Praise. An opportunity to get together and belt out a collection of our favourite hymns - rousing tunes to stir the soul and it got me thinking about favourite hymns. I was trying to do a sacred Desert Island Discs and decide which 6 hymns I would choose to hear or sing of I could only choose that limited number.
You might like to do it for yourselves - it could pass the next few minutes for you while you have to sit there and listen to me!
So what did I come up with? Well there are one or two that pick themselves - and perhaps to Walter's surprise, they are not all modern. I'd have to have Meekness and Majesty, which I think is a wonderful hymn with great poetry - definitely Graham Kendrick's greatest. I would have to include my favourite Wesley - And Can it Be.
The imagery of spirituality at work is breathtaking. You can almost imagine Wesley sitting there reflecting on the emptiness of his life before he recognised God's power working in him. He grapples with the enormity of God's love - "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour's blood. Died he for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued".
Then in Verse 4, that great moment when he acknowledges the Spirit working in his life; "Thine eye diffused a quickening ray - I woke dungeon filled with light. My chains flew off, my heart was free, I woke, rose up and followed Thee". Wow - who couldn't include that?
How about John Newton's classic - another 'Road to Damascus' declaration, Amazing Grace? Maybe you would want to include classics such as Thine be the Glory or The 23rd Psalm. Perhaps you have an odd taste and would insist on "The Old Rugged Cross" , or for modernists with poor taste, "Bind us Together" or even our erstwhile Bishop's contribution to the hymnal, "Christ Triumphant". One man's meat is another man's poison.
Whatever your individual taste, I would guess that there is one hymn that is so enduring, so much a part of the fabric of our church and even our society that it gets sung in churches, in meeting halls, at sporting events and, of course at WI meetings that it probably makes the list as the most popular hymn amongst the general population, even if might not make the churchgoers list and that is, of course, William Blake's classic poem, Jerusalem given musical resonance by Parry's great melody.
The words have been used and abused for generations. One of the most successful British films ever made took one of it's lines as its title. It is a hymn of triumph and of hope. It contains the great line, "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."
Blake wrote his epic poem in 1803, 204 years ago as part of the prelude to his epic poem, Milton. We have come to think of it as being a rousingly patriotic poem. In reality, it was anything but. It was written at the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars and Blake was very anti establishment, a great supporter of Napoleon and very anti the war. Were he alive today, I'm sure he would be leading the anti Iraq war rhetoric and damning Tony Blair at every opportunity.
His reference to dark satanic mills is thought to refer to the industrialised production of armaments that was rife at the time and his constant analogy through the poem is to arm ourselves not with physical weapons of war but with the spiritual weapons that will allow us to defeat Satan and build the new Jerusalem here in England. It is a poem of despair for the Godless times in which Blake was living as well as a poem of hope that God's Spirit may yet triumph if we as Christians fight for change.
So how have we got on in the intervening 204 years since Blake wrote Jerusalem? Well, we've already drawn one disturbing comparison that suggests that we've not made too much progress. We're still fighting wars, albeit the enemy has changed. We may have an Entente Cordiale with the descendents of Napoleon but the same can't be said for the descendents of Mohammed.
Human conflict remains a constant presence. It reached it's peak in 1939 when the whole world was consumed by war and the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald saw some of the greatest evils ever witnessed. Not much sign of the new Jerusalem there.
What about our domestic society? Are we closer to a new Jerusalem in the England of 2007? I noticed on the front page of Friday's Telegraph and article entitled "Blame TV for moral decline, says Synod". Interested, I read further.
Popular television shows ranging from Celebrity Big Brother to Little Britain were blamed by members of the Church of England's General Synod yesterday for eroding moral standards. Even Celebrity Come Dancing was criticised for focusing unduly on the elimination of participants rather than on their talents during a wide ranging debate on the impact of the media on society.
After a two hour discussion, the Synod praised many aspects of the media while denouncing trends in broadcasting that "exploit the humiliation of human beings for public entertainment"
So - we may be more civilised now in that we don't attend public hangings or watch gladiators fighting to the death in the nearest amphitheatre but we still want to get our kicks from watching other people being humiliated.
We constantly hear about the secularisation of society and it is hard to find fault with that view. Every where we look there are signs of moral decline, not just at an individual level, but at a societal level. The media is one part of that but round the clock drinking, freely available pornography and the building of mega casinos throughout the country suggest that this moral decline is institutional not individual.
So - are we closer to a new Jerusalem than we were in 1803? I think not. Don't get me wrong there are many things that have improved. We've abolished the heinous practice of slavery and the discriminations on the grounds of race, sexuality, age and gender that make ours a more egalitarian society than that of 200 years ago. But have we built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land?
In our gospel reading some friendly Pharisees tried to warn Jesus that Herod was out to get him to warn him away from Jerusalem but Jesus knows that he will fulfil his destiny and must go ahead. He laments for Jerusalem, the city that had so often over the centuries rejected the prophets whom God had sent. The death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod would have been fresh in Jesus' mind - the latest in that fated line.
Jesus is moved by the plight of Jerusalem. He longs to gather her children together as a hen gathers her chicks. His offer of protection is unconditional, full of love and full of hope. He knows that Jerusalem will reject him just as it has rejected all of the prophets that have gone before, just as it rejected John the Baptist but still he makes his offer.
The ultimate offer of love, the gift of His life, for the lives of the people of Jerusalem. He has told them about the new Jerusalem. The perfect kingdom that awaits the redeemed and the repentant but His plea falls on deaf ears. They reject the new Jerusalem for the old Jerusalem. As Paul says in today's extract from his letter to the Philippians, "Their end is destruction, their god is the belly and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things."
So let's think of Jesus here today - it shouldn't be that hard - He is here, His presence is everywhere. What does Jesus think of England in 2007? Does he look on it any differently to the way that he looked at Jerusalem 200 years ago? Or does he see, as Paul saw, a people focused on earthly things. Fighting their wars, gathering their possessions and tramping over the sensibilities of others.
Does he see young people drinking themselves to insensibility in our cities on a Saturday night> Does he see people glued to their television sets watching other people being ritually humiliated. Does he see cars queuing up to get into car boot sales or DIY shops on a Sunday morning instead of driving to church?
It is a bit depressing when you think how little we seem to have learnt, how little we seem to have progressed and how little we have listened to the message of Jesus over the last 2000 years. We're not so different from the people of Jerusalem then and we're not so different to the people of England 200 years ago when Blake write his poem.
But let's not get too depressed. Because there is some good news in all of this. We may not have changed but neither has God's love nor His offer of salvation. Jesus promised the people of Jerusalem that they needed to turn to Him and repent and they would be saved. Turn to Him and they will join Him in the new Jerusalem. That message remains the same for us today.
In spite of the fact that we continue to reject God in this secular society, Jesus' offer remains the same. If we turn to Him we will be saved. If we turn to Him then we will join Him in the new Jerusalem. The choice is ours - we can continue to dwell amongst the dark satanic mills or we can recognise that the Holy Lamb of God has been on England's pleasant pastures seen.