Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 1 May 2011
1 May 2011 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Dr Peter Doll, Canon Librarian, Norwich Cathedral
There was a young man named Daniel. He was a faithful Jew but with others of his people he lived in exile in Babylon. Despite being a member of a subject nation, Daniel, through native ability and God’s favour, rises to a position of great power and influence in the royal court of Babylon. There are others in the court, however, jealous of his success, who plot his downfall and death. They trick King Darius into making a law they know Daniel will break, because even in exile Daniel is utterly faithful to his God and the traditions of his people. He continues to pray to his God despite the new law. The King had no choice other than to sentence him to certain death in the den of lions. Nevertheless, the King himself trusts the faithfulness of Daniel’s God. As Daniel is put into the lion’s den, King Darius says, ‘The God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee.’ And the den is sealed with a large stone.
Over the past weeks Christians have been remembering a remarkably similar story about another young Jewish man, Jesus. He lived in Palestine, then under the domination of foreign rulers. Like Daniel, this other young man performs great signs and wonders, such that the crowds of Jerusalem adore him and hail him as a king. He thus earns the jealousy and enmity of the religious leaders of his people. They plot to kill him and bring a trumped-up charge against him to the foreign ruler. Like Darius, the Roman governor does not want to kill the young man but feels he has no choice. So the man once hailed by the crowd as a king is now reviled by them and handed over for execution. When he has died he is put into a tomb that is also sealed with a large stone.
Daniel emerges unscathed from the lions’ den, we are told, because his God sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths, so they do him no harm. God protected him because Daniel was innocent and trusted in God. If Daniel thus avoided his own death, then the journey of Jesus, the Son of God, through death, for Christians the central event in world history, is altogether more comprehensive. Scripture and tradition indicate that he descended to the realm of death, to free the souls imprisoned there. The first letter of Peter says that Jesus ‘went and preached unto the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3.18-19). He destroyed the power of death by entering its domain and raising the dead to new life with himself. The sealed tomb could not contain him. The Orthodox icon of the resurrection portrays this event with high drama: Christ tramples down the gates of hell and grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, pulling them up and thus symbolically raising the whole of fallen humanity into the new life of the Resurrection. Jesus, like Daniel, faced death utterly faithful to the will of his heavenly Father. In raising Jesus from the dead, God fulfils his purpose for all of humankind, restoring to them through Jesus the fullness of life and light.
If the stories of Daniel and Jesus speak powerfully to one another, they resonate no less strongly with the great public event of this week, enacted so powerfully in this Abbey church. The last time Prince William was so much in the public eye, the world mourned with him as it saw him making the journey to the funeral of his mother, to the tomb. This week the world has rejoiced with him as it has seen him make the journey to new life as we celebrated his wedding to his Catherine. But even if few others were thinking of it this week, William will be conscious of how fickle the affections of the crowd are. For the crowds acclaimed his parents marriage with as great joy, but when that marriage broke down, then great was the wrath of public opinion. We had invested our hopes and affections in a fairy tale, but then the prince and princess failed to live happily ever after. William and Catherine too will have to live their lives in the full glare of the lions’ den. The lions’ mouths may be shut now, but how long will they remain so?
The survival of the British monarchy is a mystery to many people, both in our own and in other nations. Perhaps one reason it has survived is that a family at the centre of national life gives history a personal context with which all can identify, gives a unifying rhythm to the passing of the generations. The royal family gives continuity of a kind only a long-reigning monarch like Queen Elizabeth can provide. Events like this marriage and the birth of children give fresh impetus and hope: William and Catherine are an important sign of our future, and they help make that future look decidedly attractive.
There is, however, a crucial proviso in the nation’s relationship with the royal family. As a nation we have become much more relaxed about divorce and the breaking up of our own marriages, but royal marriages cannot afford to fail. If the nation cannot have confidence in the marriage that is a symbol of the nation, then it will lose faith in the monarchy itself. It’s no accident that crises in royal marriage have coincided with crises for the monarchy and the nation. The movie The King’s Speech has reminded us all how closely entwined were the fates of Edward VIII, George VI, and Britain facing the challenge of the Nazis. Even more than the speech therapy of Lionel Logue, it was the strength of the marriage between George VI and Queen Elizabeth, their faithfulness to one another, that enabled him to conquer his speech impediment and address the nation with strength and confidence.
It was faithfulness to God that saved Daniel from the lions, that raised Jesus from the dead, and it will be their faithfulness to one another that will enable William and Catherine to emerge unscathed from the very public lions’ den in which so much of their life will be led. If we want to understand what is the power that raised Christ from the dead, we can do no better than look to the strength of a faithful and loving marriage. Throughout the Scriptures, the relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. The Song of Solomon likens the love of God for his people to the erotic passion of a lover for his beloved. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and Hosea speak of the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage. Even when Israel turns to other gods and is a faithless wife, God is always a faithful husband to her, will always seek to redeem her from her faithlessness. The life of Jesus shows us just how far God is prepared to take his faithfulness: even to the point of emptying himself of his divinity, uniting himself with our human flesh, living as one of us, and dying the death of the cross, faithful unto death. The marriage service reminds us that in marriage a man and a woman also lay aside independence and become one flesh, one body, till death do them part. A faithful and committed marriage reveals to us the mind of God and gives us our best insight into the nature of God’s love for us. It is commitment and faithfulness that will bring William and Catherine, will bring us all, through the lions’ den, through the tomb, to new life in the power of Christ’s Resurrection.